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Thursday, February 21, 2008
High on God, and high on drugs

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

In her new memoir, Reva Mann tackles her tough childhood as the rabbi's daughter and how it led her down the path to drugs and promiscuity.

Reva Mann is off stimulants. She has sworn off coffee and she avoids tea -- indeed, she won't let caffeine of any kind pass her lips.

The new mantra stands in stark contrast to her former lifestyle as the granddaughter of a chief rabbi of Israel (and the daughter of a London rabbi) who spent her adolescence on chemical uppers and downers, and who then sought the "ecstasy" and fervor of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

"I was never brave enough to face life," she says, when I meet her for breakfast at Sarabeth's on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Mann, 50, sits demurely in a booth, and sips water. She is chic, dressed in black and wearing red boots. In addition to promoting her recently published memoir, The Rabbi's Daughter, Mann, who lives in Israel, is eager to experience New York City shopping, and she begs for direction to the city's most fashionable neighborhoods.

Several months before we meet, Mann posed for a photographer from The Sunday Times Magazine. A flurry of press had responded to The Rabbi's Daughter, the provocative, and raw memoir that she started to write years ago, after a bout with breast cancer and the death of her mother. Visiting London (from Israel) for the photo shoot, Mann brought two changes of clothing to the set: one that consisted of a modest black skirt, and another that included jeans and a lively orange top that showed off deep cleavage. The outfits were meant to represent her alter egos, but Mann said she felt equally comfortable in both outfits.

"They both feel like me, but now I'm a new me," she says. "I'm a third me. I'm trying to integrate both."

It strikes me, though, that if one likened Mann to a pendulum, she has not quite reached a balance, although the wild swinging has waned. (There is that zero-tolerance policy for caffeine, for example.) To be sure, Mann once embraced radically opposite lifestyles: as a drug taking, sex-crazed teenager in London, and as an ultra-Orthodox (if repressed) wife and mother in Jerusalem.

Among her earliest exploits, any one of them would make her late father's congregants blush: As a teenager, she took drugs, got arrested for possessing hashish, and had promiscuous sex. (In fact, she lost her virginity in the sanctuary of her father's synagogue.) In yeshiva, she had a lesbian fling with a classmate, and later, she engaged in an extramarital affair with the contractor who remodeled her kitchen, and then had a rather sordid sexual relationship with a lover whom she met in a bar after she left her husband.

Asked to identify her lowest point, Mann responds: "As a child doing drugs, that was pretty low. I think catching hepatitis from a junkie is pretty bad, and being arrested and going to jail in Jerusalem." Then she adds a final item that offers an unobstructed view that any therapist would love: "I think the lowest point was my mother's death. I didn't think I ever would recover from that pain -- it was so terrible."

Mann spares no one's feelings when she tells me she acted out of pain borne from the "trauma" of her childhood. She describes her father, the rabbi of a London synagogue, as demanding and intensely anxious; her mother, she says, was "not well," and suffered from severe depression. (She ultimately committed suicide.) Both of her parents were emotional wrecks concerning her older sister, Michelle, who was left handicapped after being deprived of oxygen at birth.

"I was just propelled from pain and trauma into self-medicating," she says. Of the drugs, she adds: "I was in a chemical haze, just trying to survive." Sexually, she sought intimacy to fill an emotional void that lasted into adulthood. Even when she moved to Jerusalem and found religion, it was an extreme and radical position. "I was as high on God as I was on dope," she says.

These days, Mann is performing in a delicate ballet that is choreographed around a desire to find her rightful place in the world. But despite her positive spin, there is something sad about the path Mann has taken.

"The chagim," or holidays, "are very, very hard for me. I'm alone," she says, acknowledging her divorce and past failed relationships. She notes that Judaism is built around the concept of family. "It's a time of shleimut, wholeness. And I'm not. I know I'm in exile."

Yet, things are certainly better than they were and she hopes her story will offer hope to others. She says she is "passionately Jewish" now, a more balanced position than ever before: "I feel so removed from that person who was running away from pain."

--Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by the Yael and Dafna Studio

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
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