“The Devil 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.
“This is not about the Ultra-Orthodox community. It is about psychopaths who happen to be a part of the Jewish world,” the author said. “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.