If you’ve been wondering what to read this Shavuos, perhaps you should try the Mountain Family. The subtitle is “An Appalachian Family of Twelve – and their fascinating journey to Judaism.” Yes, that’s right. A family of twelve. That’s ten kids, and they all converted to Judaism.
Can you imagine? To say that’s not typical, is, well, you know. Obvious.
Why read this book over Shavuos? Well, since this holiday is when we’ll be reading the story of Ruth, one of the most famous converts, it just seems fitting to read about another Ruth, the author, Tzirel Rus (Rus is the Ashkenazi way of writing Ruth in Hebrew – well, not in Hebrew letters, but in Romanized Hebrew. Oh, you know what I mean), and her own spiritual and physical journey.
Any convert’s story is bound to be somewhat interesting, as a person’s decision to up and change their entire life to adhere to the laws of the Torah and to adapt to frum society is, well, kind of a big thing. The story of an entire family changing their lives to become Jews strongly piqued my interest.
The book is a collaboration between the subject of the story and her neighbor and friend, Penina Neiman. It’s put out by Artscroll, and definitely has the feel of an Artscroll biography, though I think being able to collaborate with Tzirel Rus adds an extra dimension of detail and familiarity that might otherwise be missing.
The book begins with a couple memories, in a prologue and then an italicized flashback before giving some background on Tzirel Rus’ parents. The double-flashback feels a little disjointed, but the book soon smoothes out into a more linear recounting of her life history.
Tzirel Rus, then known as Sheryl, grew up in Southern California. Whatever stereotypes of SoCal you might have (I think beaches, bikinis, surfing, etc.), that wasn’t her experience. Her family belonged to a small and unique Christian community. Her childhood was full of seriousness, piety, simplicity, but also goats and horses and trips to Tijuana. Again, not so typical!
There were some similarities, and, of course, some differences between this part of Tzirel Rus’ life and the one she would eventually lead, and it was interesting to see where things dovetailed and where they diverged. Her family certainly strived to raise her in a morally upright environment, and being in Southern California (cough cough Hollywood), that had to be a challenge.
After her marriage to John Massey, Sheryl was whisked away to the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, where her husband’s family still lived. Remember how her childhood had been simple? Well, this was a whole new ball of wax.
Here, on a mountain top with no indoor plumbing (That’s right. No. Indoor. Plumbing), Sheryl would have her children, homeschool them, and find her and her husband’s desire to search for spiritual fulfillment grow, despite their challenging physical circumstances.
It seems that a common thread in the book is Sheryl feeling different from her surrounding, in public school in Southern California, even within her small Christian community, as her family had different standards than those around them, and now in this new and alien Georgian environment.
Eventually, she would also feel different once she entered the Orthodox world, but it was a different kind of different. More of a homecoming, and so in addition to the feeling of otherness, there was now a desire to assimilate, to become less different, to become part of the fabric of Jewish life.
It was interesting to read about how her children took to their parents’ interest in Judaism, what was, really, a completely foreign culture. It’s not like there were any Jews on the Georgia mountain top where they were raised.
My only criticism is that by covering so much ground, the book would sometimes feel more like a collection of anecdotes than a detailed profile. Though it was certainly interesting to read about all the various events of her life, I would have liked to have dwelled more on some crucial points in Tzirel Rus’ journey, exploring the complexity of the emotional and physical challenges she faced.
Overall I enjoyed reading this book, and am grateful to Tzirel Rus for sharing the story of her remarkable life, and to Penina Neiman for helping the book become a reality. So, head on over to your local Jewish bookstore (or go here for online options), and pick up a copy. I’d love to hear what your impressions are!
Have a great Yom Tov!
Disclaimer: I have to mention that I did receive a free copy of the book for review, and exchanged some nice emails with Penina, but my opinions and review are as free of bias as possible.