Review of a fictionalized biography about cult "rabbis" from a victim’s point of view. It could never happen in our family, right? Op-ed.

Dr. Harold Goldmeier ,

Members of the Falun Gong cult demonstrate in NYC
Members of the Falun Gong cult demonstrate in NYC

Measure Your Mind By The Shade It Casts

Cults are frightening, fearsome, and loathsome. We do not understand what motivates seemingly normal people to join and stay in a cult. We intuitively tag a toxic connotation to the word. Dispel the notion that this could ever happen in our family.

Author Rachel Saginsky, in "Give Me A Second Chance" (Gefen Publishing House, 2021), has written a fictionalized biography of a normal husband and wife. Her novel is in the best traditions of solid social anthropology. This is insightful storytelling about one young family’s journey from rollicking bliss to its demolition. The couple wants security, love, and to spiritually grow together. They want to fulfill God’s commandments. Their metamorphosis is an exhausting read.

Pale Ink Is Better Than Memories Unwanted

The husband searches out teachers to lead them to a higher plane. They find matches with extremist rabbis who later press their cult-conforming demands on these new ardent followers. to be there for mother and children. Readers experience the interactions between husband and wife questioning what is right and wrong, good for the family, and pleasing in the eyes of God. After all, the husband proclaims, “We’re living in the times of Moshiach.”

Saginsky makes the reader the fly on the wall. The book ought to be required reading for psychology students. The strains and cracks in the family foundation begin to show as the guileless husband becomes more emotionally attached and devoted to the words of the cult "rabbis". The wife wants to keep her husband “and the whole family happy.”

She gets sucked into the manifestations of their lunatics’ imagination. The wife describes her early encounter with one cult "rabbi" who is “sitting at the head of the table. The lapels of his black, shiny frock were perfectly pressed, like the closed wings of a beetle… He didn’t look at me. It was the impurity on my hands. I was sure of it… I could see the gold flecks in his eyes flashing. My heart beat faster… Sheets of fire flickered over his eyes. He was in a different place. Seeing things, we could not see. How lucky I was to be a part of his greatness.”

Eventually, the marriage unravels. The husband grows distant and is seldom helping at home. He is constantly on a quest for a holier rabbi. They transfer their love for one another to the cult rabbis who emanate a magnetic pull like bees to blossoms and demand more conformity. The family must perform more religious observances.

Her husband reinforces his wife’s self-doubts by cajoling her to grow. Her old behavior, for example the way she dresses in modern Orthodox style, represents the evil in the world. “Hashem wants people to be modest.” He breaks her down saying, “Don’t you want Hashem to love you?” He cannot if you go to lectures and are not good.

Power and control in the hands of ruthless and shrewd men can be effective.

The cult rabbis are pushing utter devotion. The couple isolates from family and friends. “Just stay home with the kids.” Parental alienation, physical, and sexual abuse become part of the new social pattern in the tenacious web spun by the cult rabbis. In the end, the wife-mother realizes that the man to whom she kowtowed, is nothing. She and her husband “made him who he was. We had built our own destruction."

Is the God Of Cult Leaders Winning?

A cult can be small or have millions of followers. There is the innocuous cult of celebrity. The top six celebrities each have over 200 million enthusiastic to fanatical followers on Instagram. Manson had 50 devotees. Preacher Jim Jones had thousands. 918 in Jonesville committed murder-suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. The 76 religious Branch Davidians set themselves and 25 children on fire rather than surrender to U. S. government officers.

The Hasidic Lev Tahor cult shlepped to three continents to avoid authorities. Kidnapping children, abusing them, forcing females to be child brides and money theft charges follow them. Breslov Rabbi Berland, charismatic leader of the cult Shuvu Banim, is a convicted rapist. He reportedly engaged single and married women whom he counseled. He professed to have healing powers for payment. His hundreds of supporters and political contacts helped him flee from country to country to avoid arrest and prosecution.

Daniel Ambash is a convicted of sadist. He is serving 26 year’s sentence for keeping women and children in slavery conditions, rape, administering electric shock punishments and beatings. Meantime, four of his 28 wives founded a pro-polygamy party that ran in a recent Israeli election. These are well-educated, seemingly normal women.

The Takeaway

Several issues in the 320 pages novel are worth Saginsky elaborating. First, I want the author to tell us more about the wider community that sanctions aberrational behavior. They ignore, tolerate, and collaborate with evil ones. How and why did they give cover to the cult rabbi in the book and then victimize the wife-mother?

Second, sex is often at the core of cult behavior. Saginsky is a writer whose deft craftsmanship would not have let this subject stumble and tumble into anything salacious. For instance, another rabbi her first husband attaches to turns out to want to marry the family’s eight-year-old daughter? Also, what kind of life did the wife-mother have living as the second wife of the "great tzaddik"?

Another issue deserving further attention is how unarmed families and friends are to intervene. They feel the marital tension, witness the growing isolation of the couple, and are exasperated by the couple’s insufferable idolization of the "rabbis". There is nothing to do until crimes are committed. “Maybe if I had listened, it would have been different. Too late for maybes.”

Aberrations can not only happen in normal families, but they invariably begin with good intentions, with tiny footsteps, like erasing pictures of women from publications, demanding females cover all exposed skin in burka dress, having children learn religious texts to the exclusion of all other educational materials.

Saginsky keeps the extended family on stage throughout the novel. They cannot legally intervene, but they never give-up their musing. Her family and friends never slam the door shut.

My conclusion: Do not enable or excuse strange and bad behavior of cult members, but do not shame them. They might one day own up to their guilt. Then they will be ready for a second chance. I give Second Chance a nine out of ten rating.

Dr. Harold Goldmeier is co-manager of an investment fund, retired CEO and adj. professor. Today Goldmeier writes for premium financial investment companies. His social and political commentaries appear on numerous web sites and in print.