Souls On Fire
11/27/1998
Jewish Week Book Critic
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The road less traveled is getting crowded. Not only are large numbers of Jews embarking on spiritual journeys, but many are writing about them, in full candor. The inner adventure story might be the Jewish book of the moment.

While bookstores are overflowing with memoirs of every stripe — the musings of people from all backgrounds, reflecting on remarkable families, abuse and dysfunction, divorce, relationships — Jewish writers seem to be revealing the details of their spiritual lives: The relationship frequently examined is that with God.

Over the centuries, many Jews have reported on their mystical experiences, from Maimonides to the Vilna Gaon to the Baal Shem Tov (these accounts are collected in “Jewish Mystical Testimonies” edited by Louis Jacobs). But in contemporary times, the abundance of Jewish spiritual memoirs is a new trend. These books signal the emergence of a new vocabulary, where talk about God’s presence is natural, and words like sacred, redemption and transcendence, and compounds like Godtalk and Godwrestling, are used with ease.

It’s a time of Big Questions, and Jewish writers are finding many answers.

“Each path, each book, is so different. I want to know where the authors came from,” says Carolyn Starman Hessel, executive director of the Jewish Book Council. “What was the spark? What lit the match?”

For some writers, the direction of their path is an upward spiral, returning to the place they began in Jewish life, but at a higher level. Others make their way to an altogether different spot on the Jewish spectrum, while some discover it anew. Among the most recent titles, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (“With Roots in Heaven”) becomes the rabbi of a Jewish Renewal congregation, David Klinghoffer (“The Lord Will Gather Me In”) journeys to Orthodoxy, Lee Meyerhoff Hendler (“The Year Mom Got Religion”) embraces a Conservative way of life with increasing observance and Roberta Israeloff (“Kindling the Flame”) finds a home in Reconstructionism. And Steven Dubner (“Turbulent Souls”), who was raised Catholic by parents who had converted from Judaism, chooses Judaism and explores its diversity. These traveler’s tales are brave books. For each writer, the quest continues.

Why so many books? And why now? Publishing executives point to the confluence of several trends: the boom in memoirs, growing interest in things spiritual and a continued interest in Judaism. “The baby boomers are getting older and worrying about their souls,” says Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights. He explains that it’s only recently that they’ve received dozens of proposals for spiritual memoirs. “I think that more people are in touch with the spiritual struggle in their own lives, more willing to talk about it now that they realize they’re not alone.”

“Our generation seems to be rediscovering Judaism, like miners digging for sources,” says Arthur Kurzweil, vice president of Jason Aronson. He believes the challenge is how to integrate materials like newly translated texts into “our lives in a creative and nourishing way. People are looking to memoirs to find examples of others who have worked through that kind of integration.”

Claire Wachtel, executive editor of Morrow, who is Dubner’s editor, points to the coming of the millennium as a possible reason for the rush to write these books. In 1996, Wachtel brought back into print Paul Cowan’s highly praised 1982 memoir about his return to Judaism, “An Orphan in History,” which was one of the first books in this category. Cowan, a journalist, died in 1988. His wife, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Jewish life program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, says that she still gets mail from people saying that Paul told their story.

Rabbi Cowan says that when Paul traveled and spoke about his book, the response was tremendous and helped many people “realize the value of their own stories.” She relates the current growing interest in spiritual memoirs to the tradition of storytelling. For many years, the classic stories Jews told were about the world of their grandparents, the rags-to-riches tales of immigrants filled with funny and contentious characters, then Holocaust stories and suburban stories. Now, people are telling compelling stories of their interior journeys. “People need stories,” she says, referring to the tellers and the listeners.

For Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, writing “With Roots in Heaven” (Dutton) — a passionate account in which she details her rejection of her Orthodox upbringing, her search for meaning among Eastern religions and New Age philosophies, her marriage to a Christian minister, her discovery of the “vast and compassionate” quality of Judaism and her decision to study with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi to become a rabbi — was a response to a deep-felt calling to tell her story, as she explains to The Jewish Week. Now divorced and engaged to be married to a Jewish man, she speaks of feeling “a fire inside her soul,” to share “her adventures as well as mistakes.” On her book tour during Jewish Book Month, she has been speaking frequently about the book and finds that people react strongly, sharing their own personal stories.

Rabbi Firestone’s energy and warmth infuse the text. A psychotherapist, she says writing so personally is much more of a “life-giving process” than writing more distantly about the wisdom she has distilled from Judaism. “This is not just teaching from a mountain top.” For the rabbi, who heads a Jewish renewal congregation in Boulder, Colo., it’s essential that writers of memoirs combine storytelling with teaching. “There should be guidance, a piece of Torah to help people on their own. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

David Klinghoffer, a senior editor at National Review, also has a mission to teach. “I have an evangelist zeal to explain Judaism to people and why I think that Judaism is true,” he tells The Jewish Week. In “The Lord Will Gather Me In” (Free Press), the 33-year-old resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan portrays with sensitivity the world of seekers from different backgrounds who choose to live their lives according to Orthodoxy. “I felt the absence of Orthodoxy from literate literature with some pain. It’s important that Orthodox Jews begin to think about explaining ourselves to the world.”

He acknowledges that he’s “not just an evangelist. I also wanted to tell a story.” And he has a fascinating story to tell. The author was adopted and raised as a Reform Jew, undergoing three conversions, the last according to Orthodoxy. In the text, he wrestles with Jewish philosophy and discusses the thinkers who have had impact on him, and notes that it’s through connections with several Christian women who take God seriously that he comes to feel the lack of a relationship with God in his life. And falling in love and considering marrying a non-Jew ultimately brings him to Orthodoxy. His tale becomes further textured when he seeks out his birth mother, learns a family secret and travels to her birthplace, Sweden.

Like the other spiritual memoirists, Klinghoffer reveals extraordinarily personal details, like his experience of attempting to circumcise himself in the bathtub as a 12-year-old. “I feel much more comfortable writing about these things than talking about them,” he explains.

But whereas the other writers would agree that there are many paths to God, many ways to be an authentic Jew and find meaning, Klinghoffer speaks about one truth. Although he says he identifies very much with Conservative and Reform Jews since he grew up in that world, he feels that they’ve been “misinformed by liberal rabbis” about the meaning of Judaism. “I don’t expect anyone to become religious by reading this book. I just want to put an idea into people’s minds an idea that gets lost, the idea that there’s a singular truth.”

Lee Meyerhoff Hendler grounds her search in community. “I’m really not interested in solo journeys,” she tells The Jewish Week. “None of us forms our identity in isolation.” At age 40, when her quest begins, she is already very involved in the Jewish community. The daughter of a distinguished Baltimore family, she quite naturally takes her place on federation committees and plays a key role in the family’s philanthropic activities. But although she feels committed, she realizes that there’s a great void in her knowledge and spiritual connection. She begins to attend synagogue regularly, studies and tries to infuse her home with Jewish ritual. Through much of her story, her husband and children are not yet convinced. One chapter is titled “It’s Fine For You, But What About the Rest of Us?” Now 46, she says, there has been “a slow progression on everybody’s part toward a more meaningful embrace of Judaism.”

Her down-to-earth memoir is tempered with humor; the title “The Year Mom Got Religion” (Jewish Lights) is a direct quote from her son. “Humor is a leveler,” she says, “a way of not talking myself too seriously. It’s very Jewish.” She adds: “I was going through this great transformation. If you can’t laugh at it, you can be insufferable.”

Now president of her synagogue, she says she is troubled by the kind of spiritual books that are “self-celebratory, my pain, my transformation. I couldn’t have done this without community.” For Hendler, the fact that much talk about spiritual journeys is triggered by crisis is also problematic. “Sometimes it’s just human growth, not tragedy. Most of us just stumble along.”

When asked how she feels about revealing so many private details, she laughs, “You don’t know what I didn’t put in. There’s a very fine line between a confessional and a memoir that hopes to use your own experience illustratively.” She tried to find a way to share what she had been through but “didn’t want readers in my dressing room.”

Like Rabbi Firestone and Hendler, Roberta Israeloff is a woman in her 40s when she embarks on her journey. The only one of this group of writers to have written previous books, she is the author of other works of autobiographical non-fiction, including a book on her psychotherapy. “The way I figure things out is to write about them,” she tells The Jewish Week.

Israeloff, who lives in East Northport, L.I., frames “Kindling the Flames” (Simon & Schuster) in the preparations for her son’s bar mitzvah. Shifting gracefully back and forth between the present and stories of her parents and grandparents and the role of Judaism in their lives, she explains her skepticism and then her growing interest in religion, and how those two threads coexist. “I still have no answers,” she says. “I’m more comfortable with my level of doubt, and it doesn’t disqualify me from conversations.” She adds, “There are a lot of ways in.” About going to services, she says “just being there is a kind of spirituality in itself.”

Over the course of her story, the author, to her surprise, becomes increasingly active and committed to her Reconstructionist synagogue. Although she’s the initiator, her husband and two sons follow her lead, and they too are move involved in Judaism than before. “A lot of spiritual journey books are about being by yourself. This really felt like a family rite of passage.”

Often, identifying a trend signals its end. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with books like these. “There’s much more to come. No question,” says Jane Roseman, executive editor at Scribner.

Next year, Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a program officer at the Jewish Life Network, is publishing a book with a slightly different twist. “God at the Edge” is about the darker side of spirituality. It’s a personal book, although he asserts it’s a book of self-knowledge book, not self-help. “In today’s culture of warm and fuzzy spirituality, the experiences that are darker are being ignored, but are vital to the spiritual quest. We can find God everywhere, even in the uncomfortable.”

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