Ashley Goldberg, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘Abomination’ by Ashley Goldberg

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 280 pages; 2022.

Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel Abomination is a wonderful examination of orthodox religion in a modern setting and how its rules, conventions and traditions can be used to protect people who do wrong.

Set in Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it tells the tale of two friends who go to school together in the late 1990s but drift apart as adults.

Childhood friends

Ezra is the working class Jewish boy who gets a scholarship to the Jewish Yahel Academy, while Yonatan comes from a devout Jewish family and is expected to follow in the footsteps of his rabbi father.

When the book opens we meet the men as adults who have gone their separate ways. Ezra is a bored public servant with a lacklustre love life who is no longer a practising Jew, while Yonatan is still deeply embedded in the ultra-Orthodox community, is happily married with a child on the way and has become a respected rabbi who teaches at the school at which he and Ezra were both educated.

The story contrasts their two strikingly different worlds — secular versus religious — but brings them both together again when they attend a rally demanding that an Israeli-based teacher from their past be extradited to Australia to stand trial. That teacher had been accused of sexually abusing students at the Jewish Yahel Academy in 1999.

But while neither Ezra or Yonatan were direct victims, they recall the scandal that erupted at the time and hold strong beliefs that the accused must be brought to justice.

Closing ranks

Like the Catholic Church which has protected its priests from accusations of committing child sexual abuse, Goldberg’s novel shows how the Jewish faith has followed suit.

The author claims the story is a work of fiction but that he drew inspiration from the 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Reading the novel, I could clearly see parallels with the Malka Leifer case in which the headmistress of Melbourne’s Adass Israel School between 2001 and 2008 fled to Israel when she was accused of child sexual abuse.

That said, Abomination is not really a book about sexual abuse — there are no lurid descriptions, for instance, and it doesn’t feature any victims. Instead, it looks at abuse of power and the ways in which the Jewish community closed ranks and protected the teacher in order to protect themselves. It’s a fascinating account of how faith and religion are not immune to moral failings or errors of judgement.

It’s also a brilliant portrayal of male friendship, loyalty and faith, of two men coming to terms with their own frailities, memories and values while trying to figure out what makes a meaningful life.

The novel’s glimpse into a rarely seen world — that of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Melbourne — is riveting, while the careful pacing and intertwined storylines that switch between past and present gives the book a compelling, page-turning quality.

I ate it up in the space of a weekend and highly recommend it.

Abomination was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award 2020. The striking cover design is by Alex Ross at Penguin Random House Australia.

13 thoughts on “‘Abomination’ by Ashley Goldberg”

    1. Excellent! I read this back in May but have only just found the time to write my thoughts about it now and I was amazed that the story did stick because I raced through the novel so quickly I didn’t take a single note!

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        1. LOL. My poor brain is fizzing with info overload. At work I swing between writing about property development to renewable energy to health tech investments to beef supply chains and back again, sometimes in the space of an afternoon! Not complaining though. It is very INTERESTING.

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  1. I was offered an ARC of this one and turned it down (as I have with most ARCs this year – too much of a backlog to accept more!) and now, after reading your review, I’m cross with myself!

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    1. LOL. I’ve stopped accepting ARCs too and am making use of my local library, which I LOVE, but I did purchase this one as a bit of a treat because I spent a lot of time in Balaclava in the mid-1990s and remember being totally fascinated by the ultra-Orthodox Jews who lived there. You probably know about the “eruv”, an area around St Kilda/North Caulfield, in which they are allowed to go on the sabbath. There’s a great article about it here: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/cable-loop-lets-melbournes-orthodox-jews-feel-at-home-20111120-1npdn.html#:~:text=Melbourne's%20eruv%2C%20one%20of%20the,include%20Bentleigh%2C%20Carnegie%20and%20Moorabbin.

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    1. What I liked about it is that it presented the ultra-Orthodox world as just something that was there… no explanations… you just have to figure it out for yourself. I knew a lot already from having spent a lot of time in that area of Melbourne in the mid-1990s, so I knew about their traditional rules that apply on the sabbath about not using electricity, going on trams, using phones etc but really good to read about it in a novel.

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  2. I probably won’t read it. Orthodox religious of all faiths seem to get away with a fair bit we wouldn’t tolerate in ‘open’ society. So I’m pleased Goldberg felt strongly enough to put the Jewish, in this instance, under scrutiny.
    I notice the Pope apologised recently, in Canada, for the cultural genocide (separation from people and language) of Indigenous children in Residential Schools but not as far as I could see for the systemic abuse they suffered under Catholic clergy.

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    1. I found it fascinating to read this book about Australian Jews and then to read a novel about Australian Muslims (Son of Sin). Their conventions / traditions are more similar than followers of those religions might realise!

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