The Rabbi’s Daughter and Me

by Brian on February 15, 2008

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture

Despite the controversial subtitle “A True Story of Sex, Drugs and Orthodoxy,” Reva Mann’s new autobiography “The Rabbi’s Daughter” is neither as shocking or inflammatory as its name would suggest. Rather, Mann’s powerful memoir will seem familiar to many Jews who grew up in secular homes, crossed over to a more extreme practice of religion and ended up in a relatively moderate middle ground.

“The Rabbi’s Daughter” reads like a good blog – personal, confessional and addictive. When the book opens, Mann is studying at a religious girls seminary for the newly repentant in Jerusalem, striving to live the life of a good Jew while frequently flashing back to a more tawdry past.

That past includes doing lines of coke in her hometown of London, losing her virginity on the bima of her father (the Rabbi’s) synagogue, anonymous sex in a public restroom, getting busted for trafficking 10 kilos of hashish in Jerusalem, and becoming hospitalized after contracting hepatitis B from a junkie who shot wine into his veins. “I wasn’t addicted to a particular drug,” Mann writes. “I was addicted to the false sense of intimacy that I reached when I was stoned out of my mind.”

But worst of all, in her parent’s opinion at least, was her relationship with a non-Jewish man, a photographer who worked for a rock music magazine, that got her kicked out of her observant household as a teenager and led to even further debauchery.

Mann describes her tumultuous formative years with candor and honesty, all the while framing it from her new lifestyle as an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student. Indeed, the opening half of “The Rabbi’s Daughter” seems almost like an apologetic for her youth, presenting religious life as lovingly bathed in the warm light of enlightenment.

“The Rabbi’s Daughter” is written for a broad audience. Mann carefully explains the details of keeping kosher or her monthly immersion in the mikveh prior to having sex with her husband. But it is insiders who will ultimately get the most out of the book.

That’s because Mann’s journey mirrors the religious evolution of many modern observantly struggling Jews (albeit without the extreme use of drugs and promiscuity). My own history is telling: I grew up in a devoutly non-religious home where I nevertheless (and some will say miraculously) decided, during a spontaneous trip to Israel in 1984, to pursue a more religious lifestyle.

At first that meant taking on as much of Jewish law as I thought I understood, though never to the extent of Mann who describes in great detail a loveless haredi marriage to a husband whose true lover, Mann writes, was always God and never his attention starved wife. He was “horny only for heaven,” says Mann, adding that she ignored an early warning sign: when he asked her to marry him, he gave her a prayer book instead of an engagement ring.

3 children and a divorce later, Mann abandons her faith, slaps on a pair of skin tight jeans and returns to wanton ways, taking up first with the local handyman and eventually settling into a destructive relationship with a vulgar yet passionate man she meets in a bar. Mann’s fall from grace is as rapid as the writing is breathless.

My own subsequent descent from more stringent spiritual seeking to a place of relative moderation was certainly less flamboyant than Mann’s, but I can still relate. I know what it’s like to go to an extreme and come back down.

Mann never lets us forget that hers is a true tale, even if the names have been changed. Mann’s father was Rabbi Morris Unterman, the late spiritual leader of London’s posh modern Orthodox West End Marble Arch synagogue. Her grandfather was Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, who served for 26 years as the second Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

As I was reading “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” I at times wondered whether it would be easier to take in if it were fiction, like Naomi Ragen’s novel “Jephte’s Daughter” with which it must be compared. In Ragen’s book, as in “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” an ultra-Orthodox woman finds herself in a loveless marriage in Israel, flees, takes up with a non-observant (or non-Jewish) man and eventually returns to a more moderate path.

But the voyeuristic quality of Mann’s book is part of what provides the story its power, even more so because Mann is a neighbor (she lives in Jerusalem’s German Colony) and, though we’ve never met, I fully expect to bump into her one day sipping a Chai Latte at Aroma Café or buying bagels around the corner. At which point I’ll be privy to more intimate details than most people ever know about strangers. Will that make the meeting uncomfortable or titillating?

The Rabbi’s Daughter received a flattering six page spread in The London Sunday Times which called it “hard to put down” and a “publisher’s dream, a gripping tale of a woman searching in all the wrong places and ultimately finding herself.”

Comments on the London Times’ website were more mixed. One poster wrote “Great book, but I can’t believe it’s true.” Another commented “What an obscenity! What some people will do for a dollar!”

Mann, now 50, is more introspective. She began penning the book while recovering from breast cancer. “Writing everything down was about my beginning to be a new person. I wasn’t just getting it off my chest,” she explained in an interview with Haaretz.

Mann closes her book, surprisingly, away from Israel on a trip to India with her now teenage children where she reflects back on her life. She is no longer the outcast; her rebellious nature has been tempered. She broke off her abusive relationship with Sam six years ago, and now laments that she lives “the life of a nun and worry I am once again going to an extreme, this time of sexual abstention.” She knows that “Jewish souls can only find true closeness to God through the Torah” even while she admits having difficulties keeping the laws herself.

“The Rabbi’s Daughter” is a riveting drama of sex, drugs and Orthodoxy to be sure, but also one of acceptance and healing. For those of us who have been on Mann’s path, it’s even an affirmation. I’m happy with the middle way I’ve chosen. I’m not entirely sure by the end of Mann’s book that she is. Still, “The Rabbi’s Daughter” is a sort of comfort; a reminder that the road many of us take is not quite so lonely.

“The Rabbi’s Daughter: A True Story of Sex, Drugs and Orthodoxy,” by Reva Mann, is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K. and The Dial Press in the U.S. It’s available at local bookstores and online at Her website is

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