Between cocaine and commandments
By Dalia Karpel
Granddaughter of former chief rabbi of Israel writes a best-seller about her tempestuous life including sex on the synagogue floor
So what if she's the granddaughter of the second Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel? Maybe just for that reason she rushed to have sexual relations at the age of 15, on the floor of the synagogue in London, of all places, where her father served as the rabbi? Today, at the age of 50, Reva Mann is convinced that the reason for her journey of self-destruction was that she was lonely and miserable. Lonely and miserable enough to produce an autobiographical novel full of good and bad deeds - about doing it on your wedding night through a hole in a sheet, about the husband who runs to the rabbi with his wife's panties to receive the approval that she is indeed "kosher," and about why, in the name of God, he shouts "Gevalt!" even when he has it so good in bed.
On Sunday in the wee hours of the morning, Reva Mann flew to London from Israel on the occasion of the recent publication of her book: "The Rabbi's Daughter: Sex, Drugs and Orthodoxy" (Hodder & Stoughton). A few hours before the flight she spoke excitedly about the busy week awaiting her in London: interviews for the British editions of Time and Elle magazines, as well as The Evening Standard, Sky News, the BBC, etc.
This week the book landed on the shelves of the bookstores. "The entire edition was almost sold out after the interview I gave to the The Sunday Times (London) supplement at the end of July," said Mann excitedly. "People bought copies by phone. The publisher has started to print a second edition."
Mann, a divorced mother of three, is enjoying this PR campaign: She was photographed twice for the article in The Sunday Times supplement: once disguised as a righteous ultra-Orthodox woman, and once wearing a suggestive outfit, sitting with her legs apart on a chair, with a glass of wine in her hand. It seems that from now on there is no more need to explain anything, and the book will sell itself. First in Britain, and soon in France and the United States as well. Mann, a person who was cured of her drug addiction and has become addicted to shopping, will be happy to pack her bags.
Mann does not mention in her book the name of her famous grandfather, Isser Yehuda Unterman, because she worries that it will cause harm to her children. Her grandfather came to Israel from Liverpool and served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv before being appointed the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel in 1964. He served in that senior position for 26 years, until his death in 1973.
Unterman is described in the book as having soft blue eyes, and wearing a silk robe during prayers in the synagogue. She says he loved her unconditionally - the opposite of her strict and restrained parents. Even when she did not demonstrate expert knowledge of religious texts, he was forgiving, and spoiled her. Every summer vacation, he visited her in her apartment in Rehavia, opposite the Heichal Shlomo synagogue in Jerusalem.
From the mid-1980s Mann has been living in a house in the German Colony, purchased for her by her late father Morris Unterman, rabbi of the West End Marble Arch Synagogue in London. He also left her an inheritance on which she is living. In recent years she has been writing a kind of personal column for two Jewish newspapers: The London Jewish News and the Boston Jewish Advocate. She dreams of a literary career and is now writing her second book, a comedy on the End of Days - "fiction for a change, and not a book about myself," she says.
"The Rabbi's Daughter" took shape in her mind two months after her mother committed suicide in an old-age home in Jerusalem, in the summer of 2004. Mann contracted breast cancer at the time. "I underwent chemotherapy, it was hard, and I only wanted to return to life, but I didn't have anything to return to. Even though I had my three darling children who live with me in Jerusalem, cancer provokes the question: 'Why do I deserve this?' My oncologist told me that there is no proven reasons for cancer, but that didn't convince me, and I had to deal with the question of why I had fallen ill. I started to write my life story in order to understand what had happened. Writing was a kind of healing. Before this book I didn't write anything, and the moment I got started, writing became a challenge. I decided that I can write.
"I came to my writing teacher, Judy Labensohn, with 20 pages. I had no hair on my head and I was very weak from the radiation. Labensohn lives five minutes from my house and getting to her was like climbing the Everest. She marked all the pages in red. She simply erased almost everything. I was shocked, but I was happy because I knew that I was the outstanding pupil who had found a teacher."
A few months later Mann completed the first version of the book. She sent the draft to an agent in England who decided to represent her, and says he came back to her in two weeks with a contract from a British publisher and from Dial Press in America. For half a year she went over the manuscript with a literary editor from New York and prepared it for printing.
The result - how shall we put it? - shakes you up. The scene when she loses her virginity in the synagogue reaches its climax with a cry of pain on the royal-blue carpet, under the ner tamid (eternal light). Mann stands naked in front of the Holy Ark and shouts "Hallelujah!" She hears steps, and before she gets back into her dress, the doorman of the synagogue is standing in front of her and reprimanding her: "You'd better go home now." The doorman, a righteous person, never revealed her secret.
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