in Jerusalem by Naomi Ragen is
an intense thriller. It explores the horrific issue of abuse,
both emotional and physical, inflicted onto cult followers.
Based upon a true event from the documents of a well-known
Israeli court case, Ragen fictionalizes it to add depth to
the plot. Although this story centers around an ultra-Orthodox
self-proclaimed religious leader and his acolytes, they can
easily be replaced by other religious psychopaths with Jim
Jones and David Koresh coming to mind.
The author noted, “ This is not about
the Ultra-Orthodox community. It is about psychopaths who
happen to be a part of the Jewish world. They use religion
to manipulate people’s vulnerability when seeking spirituality.
It is more a book about cults where the leader is looked up
to and can do no wrong in the eyes of their followers. I hope
I brought out in the book the difference between a cult and
a true religious experience. The cult leaders twist and turn,
using religion for their own personal benefit. I am trying
to save people’s lives. These predators use people who
are seeking holiness and make them victims.”
From the very first page readers are drawn
to the conditions of two young children brought to Hadassah
Hospital with horrific injuries, one with a severe head trauma
and the other with extensive burns. It is here that the author
introduces the main character, Daniella Goodman, the children’s
mother. She refuses to speak to the authorities brought in
to investigate this obvious child abuse, and instead just
prays from the Book of Psalms.
In order to understand how any mother can let something so
terrible happen to her children, Ragen does a good job of
delving into Daniella’s backstory. During her college
years she is an idealistic intelligent person who decides
to drop out of school, marry for love, become the best mother
she can be, and eventually makes Aliya, immigrating to Israel,
hoping to find spiritual fulfillment. Instead, the family
struggles financially and is overwhelmed after having seven
children in a very short period of time. Abandoned by her
husband emotionally, she falls prey to this psychopathic cult
leader, becoming a victim of his mind games. She loses all
control as he takes away her ability to think and resist.
The author wants “want people to become aware of the
dangers. Anyone can become a cult member, especially those
who are highly intelligent, idealistic, and search for something.
They are usually vulnerable at that time in their life. This
is based upon a true crime where this supposed mystical holy
man preyed on an American family. The mother involved was
a young, intelligent woman. I call this book a work of fiction
inspired by true events.”
Ragen brilliantly takes the reader on a number of transformations
about their feelings toward Daniella. They go from dislike
in the beginning of the book, to rooting for her during the
backstory, to intense hatred, wondering how she could allow
her children to be tortured and herself manipulated. Yet,
by the end of the book people feel sympathy for her, understanding
that she became helpless and brainwashed. The readers’
transformation is intertwined with the changing emotions of
the protagonist, Detective Bina Tzedek, also an Orthodox mother.
Her feelings for Daniella begin with hatred and eventually
end up with an understanding that Daniella became powerless
over her own life.
A word of warning, the abuse scenes are described
in graphic detail. The descriptions are horrific to read,
with the abuse perpetrated on these young innocent victims
without anyone intervening for a long period. If the author
set out to jolt and horrify the reader, she has achieved her
goal through making people aware of the mistreatment by those
who hijack a religion.
The Devil in Jerusalem is a terrifying
thriller, but even more upsetting is that this story was based
on a true event. Readers will be kept riveted to their seat
with this gripping narrative.