The Covered Wife: a book review by Jeffrey Cohen

December 13, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Over the past year or so there seems to have been a fascination in one way or another with Orthodox Judaism.

Lisa Emanuel

Most items be they in print or on-screen have concentrated more on those leaving the orthodox world. One thinks of programs such as Unorthodox which has gained a following on the ‘small screen’ even more than it did when it appeared in print some years ago. Within the Haredi community, it is even described as OTD [Off The Derekh- leaving Orthodoxy]. Actually, there has been a support group in place for over a decade for those who have decided to leave that world. A few years ago, there was a study by Nishma [The 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews] which looked at this very question.

I first heard of this novel in a discussion held in conjunction with Shalom’s Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I was unable to hear Lisa Emanuel speak but the title and description peeked my interest.

This novel starts off going the other way. First, a young man, Daniel, begins clandestinely attending services in Bondi and then he introduces his secular, highly qualified legally trained girlfriend (Sarah) into that world and they quickly become immersed in it. And of course, this leads to tensions with Daniel’s siblings partially over the eternal question of whether he and Sarah can or should eat at his non-observant family’s home.

There are many who will read this novel and quickly identify whom they believe the rabbi of the story is based on. I do have my suspicions but that is all they are for it is made clear at the beginning that all characters are fictional. That I will leave to each reader to decide for themselves.

What is clear from the first section of the novel is how easy it is to become part of this world with invitations to share Shabbat meals, both Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch. Again, many readers would assume that it alludes to a certain section of orthodoxy who are followers of a (deceased) leader. Never, in the novel, is their branch of Judaism portrayed as an ‘all or nothing’ process but rather one which is one rung at a time ladder to more observance. As I am writing this review I am also listening to Rafael (Taffy) Aaron of Melbourne’s Cult Centre on the radio. I am sure that many would feel that the description in this novel bordered on describing a cult. I remember the chair of the American Psychiatrics’ Committee of Psychiatry and Religion and himself viewed as an ‘expert’ on cults suggesting that the question is not how easy it is to become part of a cult but what barriers stop one from leaving the group.

There is a shift when the young charismatic rabbi and his American born wife speak to a group of followers about moving from the confines (and perhaps also the familiarity) of Bondi and establish a small community in the Jameson Valley in the Blue Mountains. He begins with the stipulation that they must have a critical mass of ten couples [read men to make a minyan] for the project to get off the ground. As I read this description, I thought of similar schemes in the past for northwest Melbourne and the Docklands in London.

This second part of the novel describes an extremely close-knit community where the rabbi [who prefers to be described as “The Holy One”] exerts more and more control over his followers. There are allusions to wife-beating and physical violence. There is even a death that could easily be viewed as murder.

Over time Daniel becomes more and more part of the insiders. The group even has its own Beit Din which meets out punishments. There seems nothing joyous in any of their observance- a perspective I am sure many readers would perceive of the Haredi community.

The ending left me unsatisfied. Others would not feel at all surprised- you will need to read the book as I do not wish to spoil it.

Lisa Emanuel’s style allows for easy reading. For some readers, it will reinforce their perceptions of that world. For others, they will dismiss it as a “beat-up” on that community. It is a world in which I have journeyed. It does present a particular view and each reader will need to decide if they agree, or disagree, with that picture.

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and as Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.

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