The Rabbi’s Daughter

A Memoir
Trade Paperback

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In this honest, daring, and compulsively readable memoir, Reva Mann paints a portrait of herself as a young woman on the edge—of either revelation or self-destruction. The daughter of a highly respected London rabbi, Reva was a wild child, spiralling into a whirlwind of sex and drugs by the time she reached adolescence. But as a young woman, Reva had a startling mystical epiphany that led her to a women’s yeshivah in Israel, and eventually to marriage to the devoutly religious Torah scholar she thought would take her to ever greater heights of spirituality. But can the path to spiritual fulfillment ever be compatible with the ecstasies of the flesh or with the everyday joys of intimacy and pleasure to which she is also strongly drawn? With unflinching candor, Reva shares her struggle to carve out a life that encompasses all the impulses at war within herself. An eye-opening glimpse into the world of the ultra-Orthodox and their elaborately coded rituals for eating, sleeping, bathing, and lovemaking, as well as a deeply personal rumination on identity, faith, and self-acceptance, The Rabbi’s Daughter is at its heart a universal story, a journey toward redemption that is an unforgettable read.


“Sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes very funny, Reva Mann’s story is a fascinating glimpse into a hidden world.”—Elle

“Mann tells her story with genuine humor and self-deprecating wit, winning the sympathy of even disapproving readers. Mann’s coming-of-age story speaks directly to young people struggling with questions of family, faith and identity.”—Booklist

“A gripping book, harrowing and devastatingly honest, as well as an important book.”—Naomi Alderman, author of Disobedience, winner of the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers



How do you know if you have succeeded in repenting fully? You find yourself
in a similar situation where you sinned in the past but now you do not sin.
­the Rambam, Hilchot Tshuva (Laws of Repentance)
I stare through the library window at golden sunlight reflecting off white
Jerusalem stone and long to be outdoors soaking up a tan. I want to head
down to Tel Aviv Beach, strip off my baggy clothes, stretch out on the
sands, and take a break from the rigid daily practice of soul-searching,
prayer, and study required of us at the seminary. It is scorching hot and I
imagine how cooling the Mediterranean waves would feel against my skin, how
they would wash away the perspiration that is gathering on my scalp and
dripping down my neck. But I know that sunning at the seaside is a pleasure
from my old life, the carefree secular existence that I have willingly
exchanged for the absolutes of ultra-Orthodox Jewish doctrine. Now I must
keep strictly to the modesty laws and not reveal my body in public. Yet even
though I pray and perform the mitzvot daily, I still find myself longing to
wear blue jeans or worse, a bikini.
The bikini I brought with me when I moved to Israel is now stuffed into the
back of my wardrobe, but I doubt it would still fit me anyway. I have put on
weight gorging on the kugel served at every Shabbes meal and the plates of
cakes and sweets at all the engagement parties and weddings which are part
of my new life. My slim body is now encased in a layer of blubber, and I
hardly recognize myself when I stand naked in front of the mirror. My once
flat stomach is protruding over formerly shapely legs that now melt into one
another at the thigh, and chubby pads of flesh conceal what used to be high
cheekbones. I have lost my looks. In the two years since I moved here from
London, I have changed from a skinny, sexy girl to a dowdy matron. Luckily,
the extra pounds are well hidden under the religious uniform­long, shapeless
skirt, high-necked, long-sleeved shirt, and thick stockings­that I wear even
in this August heat. I know I am comfort-eating, substituting food for sex,
chewing and swallowing for kissing and caressing. I feel a constant need for
the solace of foods, even forbidden foods like succulent pink lobster flesh,
for which I still have a craving.
My gaze wanders to the far side of the library, past the lines of shelves
housing the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Talmud, the Midrash, and
other scholarly texts to where Mrs. Hillman, my idol, role model of the holy
Jewish woman, is sitting reading the Zohar. Nicknamed “Hilly” by us girls of
the Light of Zion yeshiva, married by an arranged match and the mother of
fourteen children, she is unbothered by outward appearances, never notices
the cornflakes stuck to her wig or her mismatched clothes, and devotes her
life to teaching Torah. There is an ethereal quality about her that makes
her seem disconnected from the material world. I imagine she lives in the
world of Yetzirah or even Malchut, the higher worlds she has taught us
about. Rumor has it among the girls here that she is a lamed vavnick, one of
the thirty-six righteous people on whose merit the world exists. I want to
be just like her and become a holy Jewish woman, but I doubt that I will
ever be spiritually advanced enough to see beyond the externals to a realm
where only beauty of the soul matters.
Hilly looks peaceful as she turns the pages of the sacred book. Watching her
makes me forget the oppressive midsummer heat and my desire for the
forbidden and inspires me to return to my own study. I pick up the heavy
text in front of me, the Laws of Repentance written by the Rambam, and read
the medieval philosopher’s advice with care because here, at the Light of
Zion, I am repenting.

The Rambam encourages a repentant to veer to the opposite extreme in order
to fix himself. He gives the example of a greedy man who in order to repent
should give lavishly to charity. When his weakness is under control, he can
return to the golden middle path of balance.
The more I read, the more I feel the Rambam’s treatise has been written
especially for me, Reva Mann, atoning for a multitude of sins, yearning to
change my past ways and live according to Jewish law. I have learned that
once I rid myself of my weaknesses, God will place me in a situation similar
to one where I have sinned in the past. If I withstand the test and do not
give way to temptation, I will have conquered my bad traits.
I have been celibate for nine months now, and I am determined that the next
time I engage in relations with a man it will be with my husband, God
willing a Torah scholar, on my wedding night. But today, even though I try
to concentrate on study, the pages blur in front of my eyes and memories
force their way into my consciousness. My longing for a breath of freedom
has brought Chris, my old London boyfriend, into the forefront of my mind,
and I can see his tall body with its elongated limbs and long piano fingers,
hyacinth blue eyes, thin rosy lips, cheeks unshaven with a week’s worth of
beard. His head is bare and he is wearing the fisherman’s sweater bought on
holiday in Ireland. He is carrying his pinhole camera, the one that filters
light in through an angle to give a distorted effect. He used it often to
photograph me in the nude so he could enlarge my breasts and buttocks and
play with my shape.
I shake my head trying to rid myself of these images and bring myself back
into the present. I look around at the other girls here, who all seem to be
engrossed in their work. Our common desire for repentance binds us together
even if we come from different walks of life and have little else in common.
There is Dvorah, my study partner, christened Jane, born into a Catholic
Welsh family. She has told me how she was drawn by the stories in the Old
Testament, and claims to have heard Moses, Abraham, and Isaac calling out to
her. In the final stage of her conversion to Judaism, she dunked in the
mikveh waters and surfaced reborn as a Jewess. Then she declared her Hebrew
name as Dvorah after the prophetess. She is engaged to Yonatan, also a
convert and follower of the Toldos Aaron Hassidic sect. Once she is married,
she will shave off her long blonde tresses, don a wig and on top of that a
pillbox hat to ensure that the synthetic mop will not be mistaken for her
own hair.
Even though I am on a similar quest, I am different from her and these other
girls from secular families, who traveling in the Middle East found
themselves at the Western Wall face-to-face with a yeshiva student offering
them a free Shabbat meal or a lecture on “Proofs of God,” who got turned on
to the buzz of love and esoteric teaching and ended up studying here. I am
the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, the granddaughter of a Chief Rabbi of
Israel. This religious world is familiar to me. I already know that only an
animal that chews the cud and has cloven hoofs is kosher and that’s why pork
is forbidden. I know Jews can only eat fish that have both fins and scales.
I know how to read Hebrew and recite the prayers by heart. Yet I am also
learning that there is far more to this world than I was aware of. I
certainly never imagined the intensity of the spiritual pursuit of holiness
or the extent to which keeping one’s minds on the godly requires shunning
modern thought and culture. I always thought that my father’s approach of
straddling both the secular and religious worlds and integrating
contemporary concepts with ancient customs was the Jewish way. But here at
the yeshiva this kind of synthesis is frowned upon, as the ultra-Orthodox
believe any outside influences will contaminate their carefully
circumscribed and protected world.
Even though most of the girls studying here have a past, I would not want
them to know about the memories of Chris that are flooding my mind. I have
never told them that I had a non-Jewish boyfriend or that he was someone I
met at the backstage bar of the Hammersmith Odeon when he was taking photos
for Melody Maker magazine and I was tagging along with a groupie who had
backstage passes. And I would certainly never let on that he picked me up
that night and cut crystal lines of cocaine on a mirror and offered them to
me and that I sniffed one up each nostril and pulled him off the bar stool
and led him to the ladies’ toilet, where he entered me from behind. I
shudder at the memory and breathe a sigh of relief that I have found this
cocoon of purity in which to let go of the past.
My father often preached from his pulpit about the dangers of intermarriage.
He used to say that it only takes a lovers’ tiff to provoke the words “dirty
Jew” to slip from a gentile lover’s mouth. But I knew I could never marry a
member of my father’s community, an empty-headed London Jewish boy who
worked in Daddy’s business and blow-dried his hair. Chris was independent
and deep thinking and I felt sure my parents would have liked him if only
he’d been Jewish. But when they found out that I was seeing a gentile, they
didn’t issue any ultimatums or beg me to give Chris up. Instead they threw
me out of the house and threatened to sit shiva, the seven-day mourning
period, for me as if I had died. I had never believed they would cast me
out, no matter how serious my transgression. But my father erected an icy,
impenetrable wall around himself the night he informed me that I had
twenty-four hours to leave, to pack my possessions and never return. There
was no way I could get through to him. I felt completely abandoned and
feared that I really would be dead to my parents forever.

Reader's Guide

1. Discuss the narrative approach used in The Rabbi's Daughter. What is it like to watch the events in Reva’s life unfold in the present tense, with occasional flashbacks to the past? Why do you think she chose to write in the present tense? Is this approach effective?

2. The Rabbi's Daughter explores many levels of intolerance. For example, Reva’s father, who is a religious man, has contempt for what he sees as the overly extreme religiosity of her husband, while the ultra-Orthodox look down on everyone who does not share their beliefs or their rigid adherence to the elaborate rituals and codes of behavior that govern their every act. Discuss how Reva reacts to these forms of intolerance, and how they shape the life she eventually chooses to lead.

3. Do you think being pregnant and becoming a mother changes Reva? How so? How does it affect her relationship with her own mother?

4. What do you think are the most important lessons that Reva carries over from her ultra-Orthodox life into the quite different way of life she has created for herself by the end of the book?

5. Men play a prominent role in Reva’s life. Discuss Reva’s romantic/sexual relationships with Chris, Simcha, and Sam. How do these relationships differ from one another and what does each bring her? Does Reva change through her encounters with each man? How so?

6. Why is Reva’s relationship with her father so strained? Why was it easier for her to relate to her grandfather, despite the fact that he was even more pious than her father?

7. Why is Reva drawn to Simcha? Do you think her initial doubts about him are well-founded? What role does Simcha play toward the end of the book? Do your initial impressions of him change?

8. When her mother dies, Reva decides to visit the sister she had not seen in twenty years. Why? Do you think her mother’s death played a role in that difficult decision? How did Reva feel about the visit?

9. During the course of the years described in this book, Reva must come to terms with the illness and death of both parents, and must face up to her own mortality as well. How do you think these experiences change her?

10. Describe your thoughts on the following passage that opens the third chapter (p. 58): “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helpmate for him (Genesis 2:18).” How does it illustrate the woman’s role in society according to the Old Testament? How does Reva feel about being a “helpmate?”

11. Do you think the chapter titles are appropriate? Do the Scripture and Talmudic writings present each chapter effectively?

12. Reva says, “I am jealous of his ability to study the holy books into the night while I have been trashing the very values written there” (page 234). Is this inner conflict ever resolved? Does Reva find a balance between her spiritual self and her sensual self?

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