Murder mystery follows a young reporter into Ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s closed world

Invisible City, by Julia Dahl. Minotaur. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

Rebekah Roberts, about three years out of journalism school, is a stringer for a New York tabloid, the Tribune. She hustles around on various assignments trying to please her bosses and build a career. Her social life is built around other University of Central Florida grads who’ve made it to the big city. It’s deep winter in the New York when on one freezing day Rebekah is asked to check out a gruesome story – a woman has been found naked in a Brooklyn scrap metal yard.  InvisibleCity

As Rebekah attempts to question neighborhood people and find possible witnesses, we see how unskilled she still is in framing questions and taking notes. No, she’s not a basket case, but she has a long way to go. In fact, she’s learning on the job, making her mistakes and striving to overcome them. She is also learning about herself in expected and unexpected ways.

The deceased is identified as the thirty year old wife of a prominent member of the Hasidic community – the very man who owns the scrap metal yard. The police investigation seems compromised, and – as one expects in this Orthodox Jewish community – there is no autopsy planned. Rather, a time-honored rush to burial. Moreover, the investigation seems to have been taken over by the Shomrim, the community’s own quasi-police force. This group of guardians not only protects lives and oversees observance of Jewish religious laws and proprieties, but it also protects reputations.

Rebeka feels that the activities of the Shomrim and the seeming inactivity of the police force are both inexcusable. Where is the search for truth and justice? The fact the Aron Mendelssohn, widow of the murdered woman, bankrolls the Shomrim, suggests a compromised investigation.

At the beginning of this assignment, Becky’s curiosity seems as numb as her fingers and toes. Only slowly and cautiously does she engage. Perhaps this is because she’s afraid of coming too close to the world her mother was raised in – a mother who abandoned her soon after giving birth. More and more, her reporter instinct and her need to explore her personal history charge her curiosity and push her forward.

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Rebekah, who was raised in Florida by her non-Jewish father and gets along with him fairly well, never gets quite enough information out of him. She doesn’t know whether her mother is living or dead. Filled with questions about why she was abandoned and just who her mother is, Rebekah accepts her inherited Jewishness though she has almost no knowledge of its traditions.

Her quest, now connected to unraveling the murder mystery, is aided by several other people. One is a social worker named Sara Wyman who helps “questioning” Orthodox women find support and direction. Another is Malka Grossman, connected to the Jewish funeral home that prepared the body for burial. She allows Rebekah (whom she calls Rivka) to inspect the body in the presence of the Orthodox policeman, Saul Katz. They discover blunt force trauma as the probable cause of death.

And yet Malka, who has important information, is another person not interviewed by the police. She is courageous enough to go on the record with Rebekah, offering as well the information that Mrs. Mendelsson’s infant daughter was also a victim of blunt force trauma.

Saul is instrumental to several other discoveries that Rebekah makes in the course of her fact-finding. Among these is the existence of a “safe house” in Coney Island for the same “questioning” women who are helped by Sara. Rebekah finds this place and learns much from those who seek shelter and companionship there. Saul is the only person, besides Rebekah’s father, who knew her mother, Aviva. He had met her at that safe house.

Eventually, Rebekah’s reporting and her persistence moves the case forward, with suspenseful twists and turns, to a surprising conclusion.

Among the many intriguing aspects of Invisible City is Julia Dahl’s authoritative (she’s been there) portrait of the newspaper stringer’s world. The crisp telephone exchanges between Rebekah, her colleagues, and superiors involved in covering the story make this world come alive, and with it Rebekah’s anxieties, determination, and the texture of her daily life.

Dahl’s portrait of the Ultra-Orthodox community is on balance unsympathetic, though not excessively so. She explores with sufficient nuance the benefits and disadvantages of being raised in a closed world. However, the book’s heart is the young, fumbling reporter indirectly searching for her lost mother. I’m smitten by her striving to deepen her professional savvy. Rebekah’s assignment takes her into a world at once foreign and yet, ironically, the home of the secrets she must pierce.

This review appears in the May 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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