J.S.Margot’s Mazel Tov is a unique exploration into the world of the pre-9/11 Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Antwerp through the eyes of a white atheist, mini-skirt-clad, sexually-active, Muslim-dating-in-a-long-term-live-in-situation college student hired to tutor their children. Of course, there are a lot of qualifiers in my opening sentence there, but these elements of the memoir’s protagonist are no less important to the story as the quirks and laws of the strict Ultra-Orthodox family she becomes a member of in this engaging story of acceptance, tolerance, mutual respect, and candid awakening.
Many of the tropes and laws outlined by the Ultra-Orthodox family in this book are intimately familiar to me, as is the shadow of the holocaust, global antisemitism, the need to preserve one’s heritage at all costs, where to fit into modern society and which rules are meant to be held steadfast and which bent, and so much more. But one difficulty that arises from reading about Judaism in such a manner is that I am looking at many of the traditions in the book from the point of view of an insider. There are two main strengths to this memoir in this fashion: one, it is written by someone whose fish out of water story is not an adventure she was ever expecting to embark upon, and the other is the true-to-life frankness in which she interacts with the family rather than fetishizing what makes the community so starkly different than the world at large in the late twentieth century. The result is a portrait of a woman that allows me to Interact with the characters and situations genuinely rather than under the Annie Hall dinner scene type magnifying glass that I am all too familiar with. The main stakes of her journey and relationship with the family and the men in her life are simply observations that eventually become true, steadfast, strong, and necessary relationships in her life – relationships that raise the stakes of losing them and change her outlook on everything from her own feminimity to her political outlook to how she views her career and prospects for her own family.
The reason I originally picked up this memoir wasn’t for some awakening or to learn about my own culture, but simply because it was release by Pushkin Press. Like a good Criterion release, I know that what I was about to read was going to be great. What I got was a beautiful story of how a woman’s relationships and ability to learn and navigate something she wasn’t expecting shaped her into the strong, independent, and conscious writer she became. It was a good read, fast to get through and told through a series of three parts and 68 or so brief vignette-chapters. Expertly translated from the Dutch by Jane Hedley-Prole, it is not a memoir to miss if you enjoy lifting the veil on an unfamiliar culture – and like I said, even if you know the material already, I still found great enjoyment from Margot’s story.
Image of Antwerp Synogogue, Creative Commons CCBY2.0, Fred Romero, Flickr