Rabbis’ Daughters: A Literary Affair


Bloomsbury in London has long been a magnet for book lovers. The neighborhood is dotted with blue plaques marking the former homes of those literary heroes collectively known as the Bloomsbury Set, while successive generations of writers practiced their craft under the stately dome of the British Museum’s Reading Room before the British Library moved into its own premises 10 years ago.

By contrast, the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury is curiously reminiscent of a drab Russian hotel from the Soviet era, catering mostly to coach loads of economy tourists, but for Jewish bookworms it has become something of a shrine. Jews of every affiliation—and of none—flock here each spring for Jewish Book Week, a temporary ceasefire from the religious and political conflicts that threaten our shaky sense of community.

Tables of books are laid out according to publishers and themes: religion, Holocaust, art, politics, fiction. Browsing the titles I reflect on the compulsion to write: how it leads beyond the boundaries of our own experiences; and how it is only by looking at the edges of our identity that we define who we are.

On sale are a number of books by non-Jewish authors taking part in the program of readings, lectures and master classes. George Alagiah, a household name as presenter of BBC’s Six O’Clock News who comes from Sri Lanka, will be talking about immigration and the dangers facing multicultural Britain. Novelist Martin Amis has star billing “in conversation” with Christopher Hitchens, though Amis’ chief interest in matters Jewish is through marriage. Samir el-Youssef was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon.

I’ve come to hear Vivien Goldman, adjunct professor of Punk and Reggae at New York University. Flamboyant in a cherry red suit that matches both her lipstick and hair, Viv grew up as an Orthodox Jew in North West London and her sheitl-wearing sister kvells with pride in the front row. Now a fabled music journalist, Viv is here to read from The Book of Exodus about Bob Marley and the making of his 1976 masterpiece, Exodus, cited by Time magazine as the album of the century. As she examines the connection between Jews and Rastas, Viv draws together both a profound respect for her Jewish heritage and her more instinctive empathy for all things Jamaican.

I confess that Viv is a founding member of my tribe of soul sisters. I’m sitting next to another who’s flown in from Jerusalem to discuss the publication later this year of her memoir, The Rabbi’s Daughter. Written under her nom-de-plume, Reva Mann, it’s a candid account of her rebellion—infinitely more scandalous than mine—and about her struggle to come to terms with her faith. We have much in common, what with both our late fathers having been rabbis in Marble Arch, their respective synagogues just two blocks apart. We even went to the same high school, but there we never spoke to each other, not just because we were in different years, but because of the inane and insane hostilities between orthodox and progressive Jews.

I would like to tell you that the hall is packed, but it’s not. Reggae is too culturally remote for Anglo-Jewry, so parochial in its preoccupations that the Jewish Chronicle, a weekly newspaper read by the mainstream community, hires columnists such as Geoffrey Alderman, father of novelist Naomi Alderman, who wastes print griping that there’s too much food at Jewish weddings. However, no one appreciates Viv’s insights more than the two white Rastas who arrive late but linger long after everyone else has moved on to the next session, dreadlocks swinging as they discover in Viv a natural kinship.

Reva and I are both back at the Royal National two days later for the launch of Take Off Your Party Dress by Dina Rabinovitch, a journalist at The Guardian. Dina’s father, an Orthodox rabbi, is head of a yeshiva in Israel. Like Reva, she has survived a divorce and battled with breast cancer. Dina and I first met when I interviewed her last year for a video archive collating the stories of Jewish women in Britain. As she opened her door, we instantly bonded; it was as if my hand had reached out to its mirror reflection.

Dina reads excerpts from her new book, about losing her breast and interviewing Madonna between scans and experimental treatments with the latest wonder drug, and about the impact of having a life-threatening illness on her postmodern family—three children from her first marriage, four from husband’s, and lastly, Elon, with whom she was pregnant when she became aware of her lump. Vivacious and perfectly composed, Dina makes us all laugh, even as she describes how her Jewish practice had not included being fitted for a sheitl, or wig, until she was about to lose her hair to chemotherapy.

Everyone who follows Dina’s blog knows that recently she’s heard that the cancer has spread and, as the mostly female audience discusses the prevalence of breast cancer amongst Ashkenazi Jews, I have to bite back my tears and decide to write this essay in the present tense.

Tomorrow night I’ll be back to hear yet another rabbi’s daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, talking about the spiritual legacy of her late father, Abraham, whose writings still guide my manoeuvres between space and time, just as Susannah’s groundbreaking collection of essays, On Being a Jewish Feminist, made it seem possible to be both a Jew and a woman in the modern world.

As we search for similarities and stumble over our differences, we find a narrative for our complex, misshapen, miraculous lives. Rabbis’ daughters see close up the petty hypocrisies of communal life, and though taught from birth about a woman’s proverbial valor, we too sometimes covet rubies and pearls. Raised to understand the power of words, maybe what turns so many of us into writers is this dichotomy between the earthly and divine.