Off the Shelf: Family and religion

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

An author once commented that she enjoyed seeing her book “in conversation” with another in one of my reviews. I’d never thought about my work in those terms, but I often try to pair books with similar themes because the reviews are more interesting to write and (I hope) more interesting to read. However, sometimes I make a mistake about a book’s subject matter. Take, for example, “Acts of Atonement” by S. W. Leicher (Twisted Road Publication), which I planned to review with “The Deadly Scrolls: The Jerusalem Mysteries, Book One” by Ellen Frankel (Wicked Son) because I thought they were both mysteries. While the PR material about Leicher’s book mentioned a murder, there is no mystery. However, both novels do discuss family and religion as related to larger social issues. 

Leicher’s work focuses on two characters: Latina Paloma Rodriguez and her partner, Serach Gottesman, whose strictly observant Jewish family cut all ties with her when she came out as a lesbian. Their life is first upset when Serach learns her mother has died: Knowing she won’t be welcome to attend, Serach and Paloma watch the funeral from a distance. But when Serach’s beloved brother, Shmuel, refuses to offer even a sign of recognition after she catches his eye, Serach finds herself in a deep depression. When Serach’s still Orthodox friend, Frayda, arrives to help, Paloma feels uncomfortable in her own home. Looking for an outlet, she accepts an invitation to attend a gala for Adelantamos – El Bronx! (Onward – The Bronx!) that helps Latina girls find a better life. However, there is more to the invitation than expected.

Paloma’s current life has blinded her to some of the discrimination many Latinos still face in New York City and, at first, she’s unsure now much she personally wants to get involved in a community she’s left behind. She’s also dealing with her own brother, Manny, who is upset with what he sees as her interference concerning his middle son, who has dropped out of school because of disabilities that Manny refuses to address. His refusal not only creates problems for his son, but for Paloma. 

The plot pivots between several of these characters, although it feels as if Paloma is the novel’s main focus. Shmuel and his wife, Batya, have a few chapters dedicated to their story, although there is enough of a gap between those sections that readers are left wondering if they will discover what happens to them. Serach, who at first seems a major character, has less of a storyline than readers might have expected. However, the novel ties all the plot lines together with a positive – and perhaps not completely realistic – ending. Fortunately, the characters are appealing, perhaps because Leicher does a good job portraying their good points and their weaknesses.

“Acts of Atonement” includes a list of characters, something readers might have appreciated in “The Deadly Scrolls,” although it really didn’t take long to recognize the different characters featured in its many chapters. When a professor is murdered at an archeological conference in Jerusalem, both the Israeli police and the Israeli intelligence service are interested in what occurred. Was the murder due to jealousy, since the dead professor was supposed to announce a major find about the Dead Sea Scrolls, or is there something more sinister at work? Readers quickly learn the latter is true when an unnamed man imprisons a hacker until she can decipher some encrypted files from the late professor’s computer. Since the files have to do with lost treasure from the Second Temple, the question becomes whether the unnamed man is simply interested in the monetary value of the treasure or seeks to trigger the Apocalypse. 

Although the police and the intelligence service discount the idea of an extremist group being involved, that’s not true of intelligence officer Maya Rimon. Maya believes that some radical Christian churches in Jerusalem are hoping to cause the Apocalypse and don’t care how many die as a result. Maya’s work is not only hindered by her supervisor, who is vocal about his dislike of her: her ex-husband is threatening to ask for sole custody of their young daughter and her mother frequently harangues Maya, telling her she is a horrible mother for putting her job ahead of her child.

Part of the fun of “The Deadly Scrolls” is seeing if you can discover who the two unnamed men are before Frankel reveals their identities. (I guessed one.) Maya is an interesting character, although she is reckless and too often acts on her own. As for her parenting, the novel makes the case that men and women are held to different expectations without explicitly noting that. The novel will appeal mostly to those who enjoy a combination of mystery and thriller, especially one with a touch of religious fanaticism.