SNAP BOOK REVIEW: 'When We were Bad' by Charlotte Mendelson
By alicebg, Nov 9 2017 08:19PM
Since I started reading When We Were Bad I have been wracking my brains trying to come up with examples of celebrity rabbis. I can only manage two: Julia Neuberger, who used to turn up on the news occasionally, and Lionel Blue, who contributed some of the more inane episodes of Thought for the Day (which is saying something). Oh, and there was that weird old guy who used to be on The Moral Maze. Other than that, zilch. Which gives you a good idea of how ferociously niche this novel is, since a celebrity rabbi is its focal point.
Claudia Rubin, said rabbi and evident media darling, is on the cusp of unleashing a new book dedicated to the joys of family, using her own clan as a model. Naturally, this is precisely the point where her family begins to unravel. When supposedly dependable older son Leo jilts his ordained bride at the altar to run off with a fellow rabbi's wife, it is but stage one in a colossal meltdown that will see various family members contemplating such perversions as extra-marital affairs, lesbianism and - horrors! - publishing biographies.
When We Were Bad is a tough book to categorise. Despite a few genuinely funny moments it is far too poker-faced to serve as satire; by contrast there is nowhere near enough anguish to make it compelling family drama (the worst that happens here is that adult offspring disobey their parents - not exactly shocking). The only real way to approach the book is as an odd kind of anthropological study, in which context it is both entertaining and slightly unsettling.
The picture that emerges of the Jewish community of North London (of which my only first-hand image is boys and girls dressed like extras from Bugsy Malone, presumably en route to temple), is not at all flattering. Absurd parochialism (a few Boroughs constitute the entire universe); bizarre inverted racism (anyone acceptable is a closet Jew); and rampant paranoia (Claudia's dogged husband Norman, on meeting the woman with whom he may or may not be contemplating a fling, automatically suspects her of anti-semitic leanings). The hermetic insularity of the Rubin clan, in spite of its public profile, takes a bit of swallowing, as do some of the contrivances necessary to move the plot (such as it is) forwards.
On the other hand, the book is slickly written and the characters well drawn (in particular tortured elder daughter Frances and Helen, Leo's remarkably equable paramour). the only real blind spot is the tearaway youngest Rubin, Simeon, who comes across as nothing more than a self-absorbed dick.
The overriding question then becomes "who is this book actually for?" Can it really be voyeuristic fodder for the extended families of celebrity rabbis living in North London? 'Cause if so, that's a pretty narrow remit.