Writing with style and wit, Klinghoffer describes his secular Jewish parents; his '70s Southern California upbringing, complete with professional disco dancers at his bar mitzvah; and his first serious girlfriend, a committed Catholic. Behind all these experiences are nagging questions: Why do some Jews persist in observing Torah commandments that to the uninitiated seem impossibly esoteric? After three millennia, why is the Jewish tradition still so puzzling and disturbing, to Jews no less than to non-Jews?
Slowly, at first clumsily, young David explores traditional Judaism. Wanting to do the right thing, he tries to ceremonially re-circumcise himself in a bathtub at home -- at the age of 12. By adulthood he feels that God is guiding him in some particular direction. An adoptee, he often thinks of the line from Psalm 27, "Should my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will gather me in." Yet even after two more conversions, he doesn't understand the heart of Judaism until after he has set out to find his Swedish birth mother, a non-Jew, who reveals to him a family secret that sends David on a research mission to Stockholm. There, among 200-year-old birth and death records from a Swedish church, he discovers what it means to be a Jew.
|Product dimensions:||0.62(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)|
Anders Franzén, an underwater archaeologist, found her in 1956, largely intact, and Sweden resolved to raise her up from the mud and clay. The blackened oak pierced the surface of the waters in 1961. Thereafter the Vasa was preserved in a sort of aluminum greenhouse, floating on a pontoon, where she could be sprayed daily with polyethylene glycol to keep the wood from drying out.
With other tourists, my parents and I clambered along walkways opposite the Vasa's double gun decks, enveloped by the rainforest-and-furniture-polish smell of the damp oak and preservative chemicals. We marveled at the giant, fearsome lion figurehead and the staring lion-head masks used to shield the gun ports. I imagine myself as I gazed wide-eyed at the towering black aftercastle, a little blond boy whose blood ancestors lived in Sweden at the time the Vasa sank. I brought home with me a cartoon picture book, The Vasa Saga, which portrayed the ship with a sleeping human face as it waited to be discovered by Anders Franzén, then an excited, curious expression as two giants from Swedish folklore lifted her up from the seabed on huge ropes, and a happy face as tourists gathered to admire her. It was my favorite book when I was a little boy, and I paged through it again and again. It entranced me.
We read in Genesis that at the start of Creation the Presence of God hovered upon the face of the waters. About that verse the medieval scholar Rashi comments that it was the Throne of Glory itself that was over the water. Similarly, in Psalm 29 King David imagines the Lord thundering across vast waters. But in our time, not least among modern secular Jews, it often seems that God's presence is submerged, sunk in mud and clay at the bottom of an ocean. Yet in individual lives He can frequently be observed rising through fathoms of dark water.
For much of my own life I had the sense of something hidden and secret, great and ancient and marvelous, approaching the daylight from below. The surface may have been broken, as if by the tip of the mast of a long-sunken ship, quite early on, maybe the night that I sought to ensure for myself that I really was a Jew, entering a bathroom in my parents' home with an old prayer book and a soap-cleansed razor blade to perform a do-it-yourself version of an ancient conversion rite. But the superstructure did not begin to emerge until later. At times it seemed that the thing that was rising might not hold together; its old timbers might split apart and fall back where they had come from. Always there was more to be revealed. There was more to come after each of my several conversions to Judaism. There was more to come after I waited, by the telephone in a Manhattan apartment, through the twenty-five hours of a Jewish Sabbath. I hoped that any moment the phone would ring and for the first time I would hear the voice of the Swedish woman my parents had told me about the year we saw the Vasa God was not done rising in me then, either.
When I was a boy, an assumption prevailed about the future of American Jewry. My family belonged to the Reform movement, whose ideology rejects the millennia-old belief that Jews must observe the commandments in God's Torah. Secular, liberal, freed of the dogma and superstition my parents' generation associated with traditional Judaism, we all knew that Orthodoxy was dying and that we would bury it. Orthodoxy was for senior citizens and Reform for the young.
Today I am myself Orthodox. So are tens of thousands of other Jews in their twenties and thirties who grew up Reform, Conservative, or nothing at all. I live on New York City's Upper West Side, a neighborhood once associated with liberal, secular Jewishness in its most radical, alienated forms. From my window above West End Avenue I see religious Jews in skullcaps walking by at all hours. Young Jews. The vast prewar apartment buildings that line the avenue like the walls of a canyon form a vertical shtetl.
One Friday night before my thirtieth birthday I sought to attend the service for the Sabbath eve at a lovely weathered Romanesque synagogue on West 95th Street. It wasn't a holiday or a special Shabbat at all, but the crowd was so dense that I could barely squeeze in the front door. When prayers were through and the mass of Jews streamed out onto the street, I felt suddenly antique. Everyone seemed to be twenty-one years old.
I was struck not only by the average age of the group, but by the spiritual distance I knew many in the crowd had traveled. Often, at a Sabbath dinner or lunch at a friend's apartment on the West Side, I have looked around and realized that no one at the table grew up Orthodox. Several may not have been born Jewish at all. I have been at tables where everybody was a convert: a person born gentile who has accepted traditional Judaism.
The return of secular Jews to Orthodoxy has been called the ba'al teshuvah movement. In rabbinic literature a ba'al teshuvah is literally a "master of return" or "master of repentance." At Yom Kippur each year, every Jew is expected to give up his past year's sins and become a ba'al teshuvah. Another rabbinic term, tinok sh'nishbah, means a Jewish child who was stolen by bandits and raised by non-Jews in ignorance of his Jewish soul and his Jewish responsibilities, who therefore is considered innocent despite his failure to carry out those responsibilities. Though Jewish children are no longer stolen by bandits, that expression is sometimes applied to Jews who grew up bereft of any acquaintance with Judaism. But really there is no precise term for a person raised "secular" by Jews, who never knew he had been commanded by God to observe the teachings of the Torah, but who nevertheless comes to realize that God cares about what he does with his life, and reorders his commitments accordingly. So neither ba'al teshuvah nor tinok sh'nishbah gets across the astonishing newness of this development in Jewish history. But one must make do with the language available.
This is the story of one ba'al teshuvah, who is also a convert, and how he returned to Judaism though for twenty-six years he wasn't a Jew at all. What, from the secular liberal Jewish perspective, went wrong? Or if you prefer, what went right?
Copyright © 1998 by David Klinghoffer