[I originally posted this review on another blog in May 2019.]
The author of Yeshiva Girl, Rachel Mankowitz, navigates several delicate lines, and she does that well.
Most prominently, Ms. Mankowitz captures the emotional chaos that results when an adult (here, the father) persistently and aggressively manipulates his child, his spouse, people at his work, and his religious community. In the novel, that manipulation coexists with additional sexual abuse and threatening physical behavior, but Ms. Mankowitz does not dwell on graphic details of these events. Rather, it is the resulting fragmented thoughts and perceptions of his victim and the distorted reality experienced by other adults that is the dominant, and important, storyline. Graciously, the author rescues us from overwhelming despair of such a disturbing topic by including characters who are genuinely caring and good, despite also being human.
Additionally, Ms. Mankowitz explores religious questions that surface when people interact with sacred texts. Because her main character, Isabel, is a teenager, it is natural for her to challenge conventional accepted scriptural stories in a way that seeks for God to make sense and to be approachable. Isabel both demands this possibility and desperately needs it to be validated. These explorations of thought give the novel an added thread of interest to follow, especially for those who have experienced their own faith crises and have, themselves, demanded more of religion than what has been presented for their acceptance and obedience.
Finally, because Ms. Mankowitz expertly chooses and develops characters who have varying ways of expressing their Jewishness and who are all, in their own ways, trying to understand what being Jewish means to them personally, she is able to help readers seamlessly navigate this world, even if it is not that of their own culture or belief.
Clearly, the abuse and manipulation that is the foundation of this story is a content warning for those who desire to approach such topics with awareness and care. Once that concern is acknowledged, the story is skillfully told and worth the read.
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“I was seven years old at the time and I did believe in God. I was pretty sure he looked like Grandpa and had butterflies flitting around his head, whispering secrets about all the people he needed to help.”
“I couldn’t help smiling at him [Grandpa], but he was the good kind of smile, the one that warms your belly and makes your shoulders relax out of fight mode.”
Discussing the stoning of women (but not men) for adultery in the Bible: “‘But, . . . how did they get the women to stand still and allow themselves to be stoned?’ . . . ‘Or,’ I said, ‘Maybe the society has so convinced her of her own guilt, teaching her what it means to be a good wife and teaching her how much God hates her, that she just stands there and lets them kill her.'”
One of the boys in Isabel’s class writes, “I feel like the rabbis are trying to bottle up my soul . . . and sell it back to me piecemeal because they are afraid of what I will do if I breathe God, without their guidance on how to use the resulting power.”
One of the rabbi teachers, in response to Isabel’s question about the story of Esther, “We study Torah every day, and in these stories women are used over and over again for the sake of their families’ desires, righteous or otherwise. Have you noticed that? You sit here and I wonder if you hear any of the words you read out loud. . . . My point is: these are not lessons to be followed as is. More often than not we’re reading stories about the pitfalls our forefathers, and foremothers, fell into because of their human weaknesses . They were jealous or lonely or selfish or just plain stupid. You are adults, or you will be. If something sounds wrong to you then maybe you’re the one who’s right.” [Underlining added by me.]