The Primrose Path

by Carol Matas,
152 pages,
ISBN: 0921368550

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Children`s Books
by Olga Stein

The Primrose Path is not a story about the usual afflictions of adolescence: crippling insecurity, alcohol or drug addiction, and sexual peer pressure. Debbie Mazer's life is marred by something far more disturbing and sinister, something that even the author of this book refrains from naming outright. I shall name it for her: it is sexual abuse and pedophilia. Admittedly, this is not something new. We are no longer shocked, or should I say surprised, by stories of sexual molestation of children. And yet I was shocked. Carol Matas has managed to be very original by creating a setting for this tale of sexual aberrance that is unlike any I have ever encountered. It is this context which lends the story the strength to keep its reader captive-repelled and at the same time fascinated. It is this same context that ultimately weakens the story and may alienate many readers from what is essentially a well-written and thoughtful book.

The Primrose Path is about a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl (beautifully brought to life by Carol Matas) who, along with her parents and baby brother, moves to a new city and finds herself unexpectedly part of a small Orthodox community. The founder, mover, and shaker of this community is Rabbi Werner. He is both the principal of the Orthodox school that his synagogue houses, and Debbie's teacher. He is also a practised sexual molester, who touches and strokes his students' bodies under pretext of tickling them and being otherwise physically demonstrative. Needless to say, this backdrop of Jewish Orthodoxy is what makes this story so different.

Carol Matas is unquestionably a very capable writer. Debbie Mazer is a living breathing adolescent whose preoccupations and concerns-about school, friends, and her parents' troubled marriage-elicit genuine empathy from the reader. Matas's writing is generally effective by virtue of its simplicity and directness. It is the premise of this book, not her skills as a writer, that I would like to take issue with.

Her objective is, I believe, to reinforce the message that sexual abuse and molestation can happen in the most unexpected places; the perpetrator may be an accomplished and respected individual. Our refusal to believe that such a person is guilty can be almost as damaging to a child as the abuse itself. Stressing this point is certainly worthwhile. However, Matas's decision to use an Orthodox rabbi to convey her message has unfortunate ramifications. To a large extent this is due to the fact that Rabbi Werner is the focal point of Matas's Orthodox setting; and it is Werner who spearheads Debbie's and her mother's conversion to Orthodoxy. Another strong character representing Orthodoxy might have served Matas well by counteracting some of the negative associations with Orthodoxy that Werner's centrality evokes.

Matas does attempt to demonstrate that Rabbi Werner's conduct is not an aspect of Orthodoxy. For example, the reader learns from one of the minor characters that physical contact between an Orthodox man and a girl over the age of three is not permitted. Similarly, Debbie's father insists that we are dealing here with "two different issues. Orthodoxy and the Rabbi. After all, Orthodox rabbis don't behave this way." I would argue, however, that Matas's efforts to protect the image of Orthodoxy do not go far enough. What we hear, when all is taken into account, are a few weak and scattered denials that simply do not amount to much in the face of the insidious and overwhelming ugliness of Werner's behaviour, his abnormal predilection for young girls, and his manipulativeness and hypocrisy. Moreover, Matas undermines her own effort to isolate Werner from both Orthodoxy and Judaism in general, by allowing Debbie's mother (who is also victimized by Werner) to lose all interest in observance. "Mom won't set foot in any synagogue," Debbie Mazer tells us. In other words, however faulty her logic, Debbie's mother has made a connection between religion and Werner's reprehensible conduct, a connection that Matas should not have allowed her to make. Everything she has learned about Orthodox Judaism-rules relating to the observance of the Sabbath, the kosher preparation of food, etc. (there is truly so much beauty and wisdom in Judaism)-loses its appeal (and, perhaps, its validity) because it was Werner who instructed her. This is what I find so objectionable about this book. By assigning Rabbi Werner the dual role of charismatic mentor (the source of this newly acquired knowledge about Judaism) and despicable villain, Matas has unwittingly permitted Orthodoxy to sustain considerable damage.

Debbie's aunt's assertion that Rabbi Werner's congregation is a cult supports this conclusion. This is an interesting statement, one that may prompt the reader to wonder whether there is any real difference between a cult and a congregation whose members are governed by a strict set of rules that have a far-reaching effect on their everyday lives. Here I would like to say that any religious congregation distinguishes itself from a cult by virtue of the voluntary nature of its members' association. Rabbis have traditionally assumed the role of teachers and counsellors, when it was asked of them, but their role in Jewish communities, though a highly respected one, has been of a limited nature.

I am acquainted with a Lubaviche (Orthodox) rabbi who never forgets a face or the name of its owner. He is also one of the most tolerant people I know. Whenever we meet he asks good-naturedly when my family and I will at last move to the vicinity of a Lubaviche school so that my children can attend it. I am certain he realizes that this might never happen, but the question itself (and his manner of asking) is a gentle effort to give us direction; by no means does it constitute coercion or any other attempt at bullying. As for Carol Matas's book, the premise-a rabbi who can't keep his hands off young girls, and who gets away with it in public-strikes me as highly improbable. I have never seen an Orthodox man touch a woman other than his wife; rules forbidding such contact are very strict and are strictly observed. Can I say with absolute certainty that what Matas describes in her book is impossible? I cannot, and that may be the exact point Matas is trying to make. l


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