Book Review: Rebel With a Cause: One Woman’s Desperate Search for Meaning and Truth by Shira Yehudit Djalilmand
Reviewed by Deborah L. Gordon
At this time of year, the time of miracles, it is fitting that I had the pleasure to read Shira Yehudit Djalilmand’s new memoir, Rebel With a Cause. Her story is one of miraculous transformation, founded on an equally miraculous series of events that led her to become who she is today.
For those as yet unfamiliar with her name, Shira Yehudit Djalilmand is a well-known author and writer for Mishpacha Magazine, here she writes with candor about her journey of conversion to Judaism. Although in the small town of Tzfat, Israel, where she converted and “everyone knows everyone” there was no choice but for her status to be public, Djalilmand takes the brave leap here to publish her story, a journey of which she writes, “I am proud of my status as a convert—not proud that I found my to the truth of the Torah, but proud that HaKadosh Baruch Hu saw fit to pull me up out of the darkness into which I had fallen, proud that He thought it worthwhile to bring my soul back to where it belongs.”
Raised in the small English town of Mirfield, Djalilmand was a fiery, independent child and teen. Her parents did their best to protect her, setting down rules and the like, but Djalilmand had her own mind and rebellious nature, which didn’t go over so well at home. By age 16, complete with a punk look, she went out on her own, exploring the “dirty, cheap, and nasty playground” of Blackpool.
Her tumultuous teens and young adulthood took Shira Yehudit to various locales in England, to Europe, and finally to Manchester, where she got a decent job, apartment and became engaged. But her questioning self got the best of her, as she was disgusted at the idea of this conformist life: “I wanted to run…far from the materialism and superficiality that corrupted everything and everyone.” Djalilmand writes how she didn’t know what she wanted but knew this was not it.
Although her fiancé was devastated, and her parents thought she was crazy, she left the life she had created. Djalilmand explored Morocco for a significant amount of time, searching for “some truth in the world,” only to return to England broken and suicidal. In painful detail, Djalilmand writes of her stay in the psychiatric ward of South Manchester Hospital, after her attempted suicide, and the slow road back to deciding (after several failed attempts) that she “owed it to myself to try living…the first and most important step that I took on my way up out of the abyss.”
From this point forward, from her days exploring various Eastern religions, taking odd jobs, and finally getting her teaching certificate, the reader is hopeful, rooting for Shira Yehudit as she winds her way slowly to the Holy Land. Once there, life at the kibbutz is not easy, but Djalilmand perseveres, as usual, and finds her place at a neighboring kibbutz while being introduced, for the first time in her life, to Jews.
Although they are Jewish, the kibbutzniks are far from religious, as Djalilmand happened to be on one of most fanatically antireligious kibbutzim in the country which was part of the Shomer HaTzair movement. But Hashem had His plan; what little she does see of observance that appears at her boyfriend’s house is so nonsensical that Shira Yehudit is forced to explore Judaism further to make sense of what she sees.
Disillusioned, yet again, this time by her expectations of what kibbutz life was supposed to be like, however Djalilmand is heartened by Israelis and “a feeling that these were my people and this was my land.” She is thrilled when accepted as a member of a neighboring kibbutz, but the fact that, as a non-Jew she can’t become an Israeli citizen, is devastating.
This leads Djalilmand to the arduous process of conversion, facing many hurdles along the way, including traveling back to England and trying her best to keep mitzvos back at home while dealing with the ba’atei din of both London and Manchester. Finally, she returns to Israel and to her beloved Tzfat, where her conversion is finalized. Soon thereafter, Djalilmand writes of her shidduch, marriage, and becoming a mother; the reader is awed at her transformation, that this young Jewish mother was once the same defiant teen and troubled young adult.
While Djalilmand’s story is unique, as is everyone’s, her deep feelings of emptiness, her search for truth, and her bliss at finally “coming home,” will likely resonate with most converts and ba’alei teshuvah. But every reader will be touched by Djalilmand’s openness and perseverance every step of the way until, by nothing less than a miracle, she found herself.