The Mountain Family: An Appalachian Family of 12 – and their Fascinating Journey to Judaism; By Tzirel Rus Berger, with Penina Neiman; Shaar Press/Mesorah Publications
Tzirel Rus Berger is a woman who is in love with her Judaism. But she wasn’t always Tzirel Rus Berger and she wasn’t always a Jew. In fact she began life as Sheryl Youngs, the daughter of a devout Christian pastor in Southern California, before marrying John Massey and following him to the Appalachian backwoods. There she raised their ten children, living a life so impoverished that she didn’t even have indoor plumbing.
For all those who have been awestruck upon meeting a righteous convert, and wondered incredulously just how and why someone would choose to become a Jew – this book is for you. And this isn’t only about one Jew. Sheryl Massey converted along with all ten of her children.
The Mountain Family offers readers an authentic window into the hillbilly culture of the southern United States. Y’all are invited to partake of Granny’s southern hospitality in her rustic little house deep in the woods. John and Sheryl and their ten kids will keep y’all entertained with both their many adventures and misadventures as they homeschool their growing family, leave Christianity behind, and set out to find God’s people. Just be sure to keep your shotgun and a box of tissues handy. And watch out for rattlesnakes!
Written in the first person, The Mountain Family provides us with a glimpse into a culture that few Jews are familiar with:
My sons recall the years we spent on Husky Farm as some of the best years of their childhood. Not only did we have electricity, but we also had acres upon acres of land for them to run about and explore. After they spent their mornings learning, they were free to care for our animals, cut logs for firewood, pick huckleberries and gooseberries, swing on muscadine vines back in the woods, whittle whistles out of hickory, make nests for bluebirds, dig up sassafras root for tea, or just play baseball. In the dead of winter they whittled piles of shavings around the wood stove or played hours of chess. There weren’t any other kids on the mountain for them to play with, so their games were adapted to accommodate all their siblings.
I remember my children enthusiastically telling Rabbi Katz [their first contact in the world of Torah] that we had a red heifer of our own back on the mountain. Yet the good rabbi insisted that our heifer wasn’t completely red. “I want you to go back home and check the hairs on its neck. If you look carefully, you’ll be sure to find a few different colors of hair.” As soon as we got home … my kids jumped out of the car and raced over to inspect our red heifer. Sure enough, they found some black and white hairs on its neck! My older sons worked on a ranch and thought they knew a lot about cattle, and yet the rabbi was right! We were amazed that a rabbi learning in the city knew more about cows than we did.
The Mountain Family is both a poignant first-person account of one woman’s self- discovery and subsequent rebirth as a Jew, and the fascinating tale of a family’s journey through different cultures and communities. The Masseys travel through many of the southern states, and eventually clear across the world to Israel – the land they finally call home.
It is in Israel that Tzirel Rus begins to share with us her tremendous appreciation for the opportunity to become a Jew. Once you’ve seen it through the eyes of this righteous convert, Judaism will never quite look the same again:
Though every Yom Tov brings its own thrill, nothing quite compares to the pulsating joy during the celebration for a new Torah scroll at a hachnasas sefer Torah. Each time I stumble upon one of these most beautiful events, my heart catches in my throat…
…Finally, I spot the chuppah. The velvet canopy is danced down the streets, supported by exuberant men dancing on air, giving honor to the brand-new Torah scroll cradled lovingly in the arms of the rabbi dancing beneath. I don’t attempt to stop the tears filling my eyes and trickling down my cheeks as I wordlessly thank God for bringing me close and giving me a share in the everlasting union that exists between Hashem, the Jewish people, and the holy Torah.