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.
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.
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.