This is a coming out story. It is set in Melbourne. It does a reasonable job of covering the usual soul-searching, angst and social, sexual and emotional tensions. So, what is remarkable or interesting about it? The answer lies in its setting. The hero, 17 yr old Yossi, lives within a ghetto within a ghetto. He is a Jew living in the heart of Melbourne jewry as a member of the ultra-orthodox messianic Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivah and community.
Given the recent history of the manner in which this community has dealt with sexual abuse matters within its own school system which led to Melbourne victim Manny Waks suing Rabbi Mani Friedman who famously compared child sex abuse to diarrhoea – “It’s embarrassing but nobody’s business” and the departure of Manny’s parents to live in Israel after being sent to Coventry by the Melbourne Lubavitch community for raising the matter, this is a brave piece of ‘in your face’ writing. Since publication, the Royal Commission has done good work in putting a public face on the Waks and related matters with a wave of resignations and apologies. While publicly, appropriate things have happened, but once can only wonder about what continues to happen within this and other similar religious fundamentalist groups.
The story is frankly average interesting, with reader interest arising not so much from Yossi’s personal struggles (self-denial to eventual self evaluation). At heart he has to worry about what kind of a Jew his feelings (and actions) make of him and his gradual interest and acceptance of the glamorously rebellious and interesting ‘outsider’ jewish friend Josh. For many readers there will be sheer curiosity into the details of a way of life that is foreign, if not downright odd, to most readers. Even the notion of the men’s ritual bath is well utilised as a symbol of the centrality of purity in fundamentalism as well as a focal point for Yossi’s need for self-evaluation without a total departure from his background culture and beliefs. As such, Yossi’s tale serves as a clarion call for the need for genuine self-evaluation and change so often lacking in fundamentalists of all religious varieties. It is thus a remarkably balanced offering from someone so young and still close to burning issues.
While Yossi’s coming out to his sister and father and their initial reactions are well conceived and expressed, the same cannot be said for the book’s conclusion which is a somewhat light and rushed though Glasman does not sucker for a fairy-tale romantic end.
(Bio note… Yossi is seventeen, the same age at which author Glasman developed Crohn’s disease and decided that ‘that orthodox life wasn’t for him. He went to study creative writing at the University of Melbourne, where he completed his Honours degree’. He is now 27 and lives in Brunswick)