Lemons in the Fog

Chaya Rochel Zimmerman

  • Review
By – May 8, 2023

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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