In 1987, J.S. Margot, then a student at Antwerp University, got a job as a tutor for the four children of a family of devout Jews, and remained in contact with the family even after her six-year-long tutoring stint came to an end. Margot draws on this encounter in her award-winning memoir Mazel Tov: The Story of My Extraordinary Friendship with an Orthodox Jewish Family, which has recently been translated into English, and several other languages. Liam Hoare finds the book “artfully” written, but lacking in the “empathy” for which it has praised:
This is a book that is neither about a friendship in any real sense of the word nor demonstrative of the author having learned much from the Schneider family at all. Rather, Mazel Tov is a memoir about Margot’s ignorance of the Modern Orthodox world—which very occasionally manifests as low-level anti-Semitism—and ultimate failure to comprehend it.
She takes in the whats and wherefores of Judaism but is never quite able to grasp the why: why someone would wish to be Modern Orthodox and live a life according to the strictures of traditional Jewish law. To be “empathetic” . . . would be to come to terms with those things about Orthodoxy with which she disagrees. Instead, her tendency is to fight against the possibility of comprehension, each new piece of information provoking a cacophony of objections, often phrased as rhetorical questions.
[Such questions include], “Who, apart from the whites in South Africa, sought to protect their identity by isolating themselves? How self-righteous—or fearful—would you have to be for that?” [And:] “It wasn’t so long ago that Germany and its cohorts had viewed this tight-knit people as public enemy number one. Yet now, not 50 years later, they still wanted to isolate themselves?”
Margot also has a habit of bringing up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in contexts where it doesn’t quite belong, using it as a cudgel with which to beat the Schneiders as if they bear responsibility for Palestinian statelessness. It would not have been [the fault of Elzira, the daughter with whom Margot becomes closest], for example, that while she was studying in Jerusalem, her rights differed from those of a Palestinian living in the same city, or indeed, in the West Bank. Yet Margot—who had been corresponding with her—wonders if she was being “tactful or hypocritical” not to point out that Elzira had “overlooked the Palestinian population” in her letters.