Readers of Chaya Rochel Zimmerman’s novel may need to put aside some preconceptions. If they are not Hasidic, or members of other strictly observant Jewish communities, the world of its characters may be unfamiliar. The author is deeply rooted in that world, thanking both God and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in her acknowledgements. Yet this story of Meir, a young man struggling with mental illness as he strives to lead a life faithful to traditional teachings, is quite critical of the way those closest to him judge his challenges. Zimmerman describes his painful sense of loss as he confronts prejudice, but she also chronicles his continuing faith as he slowly forges a new identity.
When the book begins, Meir Rosen is studying in a yeshiva in Israel. Passionate about studying Torah, he had looked forward to this opportunity for years — but he failed to understand how his problems would follow him to a new environment. Meir shows symptoms of bipolar disorder, one of the many diagnoses that are profoundly stigmatized by everyone he knows. When it becomes evident that he needs help, his teachers’ response is well-meaning but ineffective at best. A referral to a professional becomes the first step towards learning about his mental illness. Still, Meir finds religious, cultural, and social obstacles constantly frustrating his journey towards health.
Zimmerman’s characters are carefully developed and convincing, rather than villains or saints introduced to make dogmatic points. Mr. Rosen owns a small store that can only marginally support their family. Meir is close with his sister, Batsheva, who is more career-oriented than their mother. She plans to make a shidduch (dating for the purpose of marriage) but also to continue working. Women in the novel accept the Orthodox premise of traditional gender roles, yet they also seek to maximize the autonomy and personal fulfillment that are available to them within those restrictions. As a result, even Batsheva deliberately isolates her brother, fearful that his illness will compromise her future.
The novel takes readers to many different settings, both in Israel and Los Angeles, as Meir encounters a series of rejections, each one forcing him to redirect his course. Although the mental health establishment and institutions of Torah study are rife with prejudice, he eventually finds a therapeutic center where he can come to terms with his future. Meir’s friendship with a young Yemeni Israeli, as well as his relationship with a professional mentor from that same community, are evidence of how openness to members of a different subculture can become a surprising source of strength.
Fidelity to traditional Jewish values is at the core of this novel, but Meir’s odyssey demonstrates how there are numerous ways to maintain that commitment. Learning to carve silver, Meir notes the metal’s flexibility: “I was fascinated by the ability of a smooth silver sheet to take on so many varied forms.” Lemons in the Fog emphasizes both the sadness of human imperfection and Meir’s resilience and creativity as he crafts a life out of the materials he’s been given.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.