Ezra Steinberg and Yonatan Kaplan are twelve-year-old friends who attend the ultra-Orthodox Yael Academy in Melbourne, Australia. A major scandal occurs when Rabbi Joel Hirsch is accused of being a pedophile and preying on the young students. (The situation is based on an actual Melbourne religious girls’ school incident.) In the midst of turmoil, Hirsch is spirited away to Israel to escape the negative publicity and looming punishment. Some prominent members of the community are eager to help him, while others are sickened by the secrecy and cover-up.
Equally disgusted by the events, Ezra’s more secular-leaning family places him in an unfamiliar and unfriendly public high school. Yonatan’s Orthodox family warns him to never speak about the situation, despite his questions, and to also distance himself from Ezra. These contradictory reactions transform the boys’ lives in radically different ways.
The two men meet twenty years later at a rally calling for Hirsch’s extradition. What has drawn them there from their separate worlds? They cautiously begin to rekindle a friendship at a time when both find themselves at a crossroads in their lives.
Although Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel is invested in the school scandal, at its true center are the respective journeys of Ezra and Yonatan. Ezra, now an atheist, works for the government, lives a modern life, and is in a tenuous relationship with his girlfriend. Feeling like he doesn’t quite fit in, Ezra is plagued by anxiety, self-doubt, and constant troubling thoughts. Yonatan has become a rabbi, teaches at Yahel, and is married to Rivka, an esteemed rabbi’s daughter. He devotes his life to Jewish law and traditions. He and his wife do not have children, a fact that has left him with many doubts and questions. While Ezra and Yonatan have different lifestyles, they both grapple with crises of culture, values, and secrets.
Abomination’s well-paced chapters alternately relate Yonatan’s and Ezra’s stories and perspectives. Goldberg strategically places flashbacks that help us understand their characters. With descriptive language, the story is engrossing and at times suspenseful. Goldberg employs pathos, sensitivity, and honesty as he centers narratives of friendship and relationships.
The book also illustrates the dynamics of the insular ultra-Orthodox community, and how its rules and power structures affect both the group and individual members. It explores the comforts of acceptance and tradition as well as the agony of ostracization. The many Hebrew phrases and prayers are understandable and explained within the text.
Abomination is an intense and rewarding reading experience. Important questions concerning morality, faith, and identity shape the characters’ lives as they search for their own truths.
Renita Last is a member of the Nassau Region of Hadassah’s Executive Board. She has coordinated the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Programming and Health Coordinators and as a member of the Advocacy Committee.
She has volunteered as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County teaching the all- important lessons of the Holocaust and tolerance. A retired teacher of the Gifted and Talented, she loves participating in book clubs and writing projects.