Rebekah Roberts, a runner for the New- York Tribune, is sent on assignment to report on the gruesome murder of Jane Doe, whose naked body was left lying in a scrap yard in Brooklyn. Very quickly Rebekah pieces together that Jane is actually Rivka Mendelssohn of Borough Park, home to a large Hasidic community. In her attempt to get the juicy details for her newspaper, Rebekah meets Saul Katz—a man who once knew her estranged mother, both of whom were members of this same Hasidic community. Over the next five days, he helps Rebekah delve more deeply into Rivka’s dark past, a life that oddly parallels that of Rebekah’s own mother. The closer she gets to this realization, the more she wonders if her mother’s disappearance from her life was less selfish and more involuntary. Her compulsion to learn the truth gets Rebekah into trouble, in a world where she is a stranger.
Julia Dahl’s novel reads like a guide to the dark side of Hasidic Jewry, where secrets are not safe. Throughout, Rebekah learns about her Judaism while fighting the urge to reject it:
It was about shared experience, but also about shared mythology… The fear of being a Jew. The cultural baggage, the long legacy of hate and murder and discrimination. The rootlessness, the desperate need for self-preservation, and of course, I don’t really know. I only know the baggage of being me. But part of it, I think now, is being a Jew.
Dahl keeps you guessing constantly about who may have been responsible for Rivka’s death. She also gives the reader a glimpse into how newspapers run stories about New York City murders—and which stories get conveniently left out.
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