While much global attention has focussed on the failings of the Catholic Church in relation to child sexual abuse, one Australian case has shone a dark light on another religious community. This is the case of Malka Leifer, a teacher at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girl’s school in Melbourne, who in 2008 was accused of multiple counts of child abuse. But before anything could be done, she was assisted out of the country and found asylum of sorts in Israel, where she was protected by the ultra-Orthodox community there. In 2021, Australian authorities finally extradited Leifer and she will stand trial in 2022. It is not necessary to know all of this background in order to read Ashley Goldberg’s debut Abomination, which has a fictional version of this case running in the background and driving some of the plot, but it does help contextualise it.
Apparently, allegations of sexual abuse had been made by a student against Rabbi Hirsch earlier in the week, but unimpressed by the responsiveness of the police, the student’s family sought the attention of the media. Once the story broke, school officials acted fast, cancelling classes and announcing Rabbi Hirsch’s immediate termination. Rumour had it, though, that Hirsch was connected – an upstanding and well respected member of the community – so while some officials were working tirelessly to assure parents of their children’s safety, others harboured the frum fugitive and arranged for him to board an Israel-bound El-Al flight before the police could charge him for the alleged abuse.
The main characters of Abomination, Yonatan and Ezra, both attended the school where the offences took place, but neither knew of the abuse at the time. Ezra’s family were less strict in their religious practice, which made Ezra almost an outcast at the school, with the exception of his friendship with Yonatan, the son of a rabbi. Ezra’s parents use the incident as an excuse to move Ezra to the local public high school.
Yonatan’s parents respond by forbidding their son to talk about the incident and forbidding him from having any further connection with Ezra once he has left the fold. The main action of the novel, however, takes place 20 years after this, when Ezra and Yonatan are reunited by the campaign to extradite their old teacher.
The novel charts both Yonatan’s and Ezra’s struggles with their faith. Yonatan, deeply embedded in the ultra-Orthodox community – he is now a teacher at the school he attended and married to the rabbi’s daughter – has the furthest to fall. This fall stars when he attends the protest headed by Avraham Kliger, the brother of one of the abused boys. Due to the controversy, the whole Kliger family have been ostracised by the community:
His brother suffered, his family suffered and how did the community respond – denial, refuge for your tormentor, ostracism from the only way of life you’ve ever known.
Yonatan’s engagement with Kliger and his protest leads him to a deeper understanding of what has happened, and he starts to question his community. Meanwhile, Yonatan’s growing renewed friendship with Ezra and Ezra’s non-Jewish girlfriend, Tegan, open him up new ways of thinking. But when these connections – anathema to his community – are discovered, there are impacts on his teaching position and his standing. The fact that both his pregnant wife and her brother effectively endorse the community’s position makes the situation worse for him.
Ezra finds himself going in the other direction. Unable to really connect with Tegan, but also unable to tell her the truth about how he is feeling, at one point he turns back to his religion to see if he can find answers there:
It was months until Yom Kippur. Months until the Torah said Ezra could atone for his sins, have a clean slate, be forgiven for every bad thing he had ever done. He couldn’t wait, but did it matter? Would God have heard him anyway? The sinner, the lapsed Jew … Across the road, the iron gates of South Caufield shule, imprinted with Magen Davids, stood open … He was out of time and out of options. Prayer couldn’t possibly make things worse.
Abomination is an angry book, and there is good reason for this anger. The insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community did harbour and support a suspected child abuser and excommunicate the family of the victim. But in focussing on this case and these characters, Goldberg provides a very narrow view of a very small subset of the Jewish community and Jewish experience. And while he delves into to the many hypocrisies among the most pious, he provides little balance to explain why people continue to commit to the community.
Those who have seen the Netflix series Unorthodox will know that there are plenty of members of the ultra-Orthodox community who have fallen out with their faith. The story of Yonatan is a similar one, pushed not only by his reconnection with Ezra and a better understanding of the Hirsch case, but other life-changing realisations. While Ezra is being pushed in the other direction, his choices need not be so stark. The idea that after all these years, the only option for him is to dive back into ultra-Orthodoxy is itself a limiting one.
The Malka Leifer case is an important one to explore. Prompted by events surrounding the Catholic Church, the protection of child abusers by religious organisations has been the subject of numerous major inquiries worldwide, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse here in Australia. The Leifer case shows that any religion is susceptible to its organisations being exploited by predators.
But the details of that case, the why of the behaviour of both the abuser and her protectors, are not the drivers of this narrative. So while readers are given information that will allow them to better understand the real world situation and its context,, they do not get additional insight into the particulars of the Leifer case.
Goldberg delves into a small corner of Australian society that will be unfamiliar to many and uses two engagingly flawed characters to tackle some thorny religious and philosophical ideas. And the novel importantly has the capacity to raise awareness of the Leifer case and its ongoing impacts. But it also gives a view of the Jewish community, and of Judaism itself, that is likely to be a long way from the experience of the majority of Australian Jews. So, while it needs to be read with some caveats, Abomination is overall a brave, challenging and important debut.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.