Who By Fire

  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

Baal teshu­va, trans­lat­ed lit­er­al­ly as one who has returned or repent­ed, is the cen­tral theme of Diana Spechler’s nov­el, Who By Fire. After thir­teen years of blam­ing him­self for the dis­ap­pear­ance of Ale­na, his baby sis­ter, Ash has found a way to repent. Leav­ing UC Boul­der in 2002 dur­ing the sec­ond Intifa­da, he moves to Jerusalem to bury his guilt and grief in learn­ing and mitzvot at an Ortho­dox yeshi­va. His old­er sis­ter Bits and his moth­er Ellie are also deal­ing with their resid­ual grief and see Ash’s return as the way in which to heal their own pain. 

After Alena’s remains are remark­ably recov­ered, self-loathing nympho­ma­ni­ac Bits scrapes and steals enough mon­ey to fly to Israel to return Ash to real­i­ty and his past: Alena’s funer­al. In the mean­time, neu­rot­ic guilt-dis­pens­ing Ellie seeks solace in a new rela­tion­ship with a cult inter­ven­tion­ist who, of course, has his own bizarre and twist­ed past. 

While the book takes the read­er into an unknown world of sec­u­lar Jews becom­ing reli­gious, it tac­it­ly sug­gests that a trou­bled fam­i­ly life and screwed up sib­lings might be the impe­tus for return­ing to the faith. And that seems far too sim­plis­tic. Also, the mother’s cult-break­ing boyfriend and anoth­er cult relat­ed char­ac­ter who befriends Ash in Israel only fur­thers the idea held by many Reform and Con­ser­v­a­tive Jews that our more frum reli­gious broth­ers and sis­ters are trapped in a cult” of Judaism. 

The most trag­ic part of this nov­el, in this reviewer’s opin­ion, is that the women in the book remain self-hat­ing through­out and rely upon men (lovers, hus­bands, broth­ers) to find hap­pi­ness where­as the broth­er Ash finds peace of mind and an appre­ci­a­tion of self through Hashem.

Mar­garet Teich is a free­lance envi­ron­men­tal writer and eco-con­sul­tant liv­ing in New York City. Check out her blog, Gspot​ting​.net.

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