Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Review: An Appalachian Family of 12 Converts to Judaism

I got the opportunity to review a new book from Artscroll! There has been a great deal of buzz around this book here in the NYC community, and I think it's justified. This is not the average "frum" story. But you may not react to it exactly how the publishers hoped.


First, here is the blurb from the Amazon page:
From the Appalachian backwoods comes a family so amazing, a true story so incredible, and a light so bright - it will illuminate our own lives as well.
When Sheryl Youngs married John Massey, she looked forward to a life based on the Biblical principles her parents, members of a small but fervently religious congregation, had instilled in her.
What she didn't expect was to be making that life in a shack on a mountain in impoverished Appalachia. [My note: without plumbing and sometimes electricity!]
And she didn't expect that she would end up living on that mountain, homeschooling her ten children.
And she most certainly didn't expect that somehow, incredibly, miraculously, she and her entire family would discover the truth of Judaism, the beauty of Torah - and the Jewish People the entire family would ultimately come to join.
This is the story of the pastor's daughter who became a Jew, mother of ten Jews, all devoted to Torah learning and mitzvah observance. It is a story of struggle and search, of searing disappointment and unlooked for hopes, of questions asked and prayers answered.
Most of all, it is the story, told in her own words, of a woman whose deep love of Torah is an inspiration to us all.
What a crazy story, right? That's a very accurate description of the story. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book with the hope that I would review it.

Short Version:
I think The Mountain Family is an excellent gift for the non-Jews and the frum-from-births in your life. These people will be rightfully awed by this surprising story and its crazy twists and turns. I don't think you could write a novel of this story because people would dismiss it as absurdly unlikely. I happened to speak with some FFB yeshivish people who had already read the book, and they were over the moon about it. I totally get why. 

Personally, I think the book should have ended about 100 pages earlier, but that comes down to the author's choice of whether this book is about the conversion story alone or a memoir of the author. They chose to make this more of a memoir, but I think it would be more powerful if it stopped earlier.

Many of us love hearing about the story of other converts, so I think many converts and candidates will want to read this book for that reason alone. However, there is very little about the actual process and learning, if that is your primary interest in reading conversion stories.

And because truth is stranger than fiction, last week another Southern family of 12 converted:
Original story in Vos iz Neias
You can even contribute to the McJunkin Virtual Wedding Shower!

Both the McJunkin and Massey families lived in rural GA and began their Jewish lives in the community of Chattanooga, TN. Like the Masseys, they are allegedly considering moving to Baltimore. Why Baltimore? Why not, I suppose. Actually, the question of why the Masseys moved to Baltimore has stuck with me. No reason was given other than "finish the conversion" (my paraphrasing). I don't understand why Atlanta wasn't suitable. That's my main lingering question.

Have you read The Mountain Family? Do you plan to? If you liked reading about Appalachia, you might also like reading the totally-not-Jewish All Over But the Shoutin' by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Rick Bragg.

Long Version:
I found this book to be much more complicated than the average reader will. In fact, I've had to wait several weeks to let my dust of my feelings and opinions settle so that I could bring more objectivity to this review. Honestly, this review has been incredibly difficult to write.

Let's do some more disclaimers! (I'm a lawyer, right?) I also affiliate as an Appalachian. Granted, I grew up in suburbia in the foothills, but Appalachian culture and history was a very real presence in my life and remains important to me today. For instance, my children will also be indoctrinated by The Heartland Series. However, my dad actually lives up in the mountains now, so it has been my "home" officially for almost 10 years.

While I grew up as "the city cousin" (HA!), most of my family still lives in the rural South, some in conditions similar to The Mountain Family even today. My dad grew up those kinds of surroundings, and I experienced some of them myself when my grandparents were alive. Of course, in my family (unlike the Massey family), there were further issues of drug addiction, alcoholism, and abuse. I'm honestly shocked that the Massey family managed to avoid those all-to-common problems in Appalachia. 

In other words, I am not coming to this book as an outsider would. I packed all my emotional baggage for this trip. 

The author mentions the idea of "thinking poor" when she moves to Appalachia, and it really influenced how I read the book. I have seen "thinking poor" in action all my life. I even have some struggles with it myself. Here is a good description of the problem from a Washington Post interview with some behavioral economists: Being Poor Changes Your Way of Thinking About Everything.
The scarcity trap captures this notion we see again and again in many domains. When people have very little, they undertake behaviors that maintain or reinforce their future disadvantage. If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you'll have little in the future.
I couldn't find it, but I read an article several years ago that perfectly summed up this idea on an everyday basis: when you are forced into this scarcity mentality, money begins to seem like something out of your control. So you spend it as soon as you get it "before it goes away." This idea was brought home to me by a family member who buys worthless things in the checkout lanes at Walmart during every shopping trip. Keychain flashlights, knick knacks, whatever. The money is there, better use it before it goes away, and you get this strong psychological reward that wears off about 30 minutes later. Before you know it, all that money is magically gone without having any idea where it all went, thus reinforcing the idea that your money just "goes away."  

One common result of this mentality is learned helplessness. I hate hearing about the animal studies that confirmed the idea of learned helplessness, but it is such a clear visual of this psychological idea. In one of the many depressing studies involving dogs, researchers trapped dogs in a small place with an electrified floor that prevented escaping. Even when the electrified floor was removed, the dogs didn't try to escape. They just laid down and gave up. It is nearly impossible to renew their faith in personal autonomy, which you can see in abused animals all the time.

Why do I talk about all this psychological mumbo jumbo? It's why I don't find The Mountain Family to be particularly inspirational. Who am I to judge, when I was not there and I don't know all the facts? I agree. But with all my familial baggage, I can't help but second-guess the choices made throughout the book. What the author portrays (and many readers will see) as deep bitachon, I'm more likely to see as learned helplessness leading to passivity or avoidance. The frequent moves alone really triggered this idea for me. I am also always looking for the next step; am I running from my past and even the present? Perhaps. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

You know one thing this book did really right? The author was brutally honest about her struggles with depression after the death of a family member (trying not to spoil anything). I'm very thankful for that chipping away at the stigma of mental health issues. 

Then my enthusiasm gets undermined by the nearly constant emphasis on the evils of the secular world and how the Massey family were inadvertently raised with "frum standards" because of their strict Christian faith. I think this is part of the deep yeshivish love of the book (as I said above, I only spoke with yeshivish people who had read it). As converts and baalei teshuva know, FFBs can often be suspicious or downright dismissive of our past as full of drugs and orgies and tank tops. The Mountain Family shows that a convert can come without that "baggage," and I think certain communities find that less threatening. In the book, the statements about being raised without contamination from the secular world reaches the point of "I think thou dost protest too much." It became grating, and I believe it shows this family has the same knee-jerk reaction to a "secular" upbringing, which does not have to involve any sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I think it will reinforce current stereotypes about converts and BTs while this family protests, "Oh, that's not true about me! How sad for those other guys." Personally, I feel like my secular background is thrown under the bus as depraved and valueless, which is an idea Artscroll often promotes. Heck, promotes isn't even the right word. Perhaps "portrays as the Truth with a capital T"? 
Likewise, I think the book missed an opportunity to deal with a very real problem for converts: shidduchim. As you may have guessed since the author's last name is no longer Massey, she remarries later in life. She is (thankfully) very successfully matched with a man who has had a lifelong medical issues (despite the detailed descriptions of his condition, it is never named - this was surprisingly annoying to me, and I'm not sure why). To her credit, she mentions (I can't find it now) that some people would view it as a natural match to put together two "undesireable" singles (my word, not hers). In only one sentence, she hits a very real worry of converts and disabled Jews. But instead of taking the time to unpack it and make a "teachable moment," she writes it off along the lines of "but we were really well suited to each other" (again, my paraphrasing from memory). This could have been a real Kiddush Hashem to point out how wrong that perspective is and how harmful it is to klal Yisrael and how it violates the mitzvah of not oppressing the ger. Neither the first nor last time a good opportunity will be wasted for convert awareness.

So there's my honest reaction to the book. Goodbye any possible future review books from Artscroll? Rabbi Artscroll and I already have a complicated relationship, since I see value in the secular world and secular knowledge, and I believe that insularity is dangerous to individuals and to Judaism as a whole. But this book was a step in the right direction, small though it may be. I'm glad I read it, despite all the baggage it unearthed for me.

6 comments:

  1. I so appreciate your candor, and the additional layer of depth that your background gives the review. I do hope that you get a chance to do more reviews. I'd certainly like to hear your perspective again.

    ReplyDelete
  2. http://popchassid.com/converting-judaism-saddened-guest-post/

    ReplyDelete
  3. how many messianic jews and jews for jesus are there? i heard there are over a hundred thousand.

    for this reason, i find all "inspiring" stories of finding the "truth" in a particular religion kind of nuts. i feel like the real story is a lot more buried than the triumphant discovery-of-the-truth story they blast into the world.

    everybody lies.

    Tuvia

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and honest opinion, Kochava. I really appreciate what you are doing.have done in writing this blog.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for looking at this with honesty and logic. So many conversion stories (Jew-Christian/ Christian-Jew) are met with either unquestioning acceptance or complete rejection without seeing it from their point of view.
    I am a relative of Sheryl Massey, and I appreciate you taking an honest and unbiased look at the story.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is a great review. Makes a lot of sense. Of course, I'm a little biased, as I also find "secular knowledge" to be worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete