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Masters of Return

ISSUE:  Summer 2009
A man, seen from behind, wearing a broad-brimmed black fedora-style hat and a black suit, standing directly in front of a beige, textured wall. Though his face cannot be seen, a curl of hair can be seen behind one ear, as can the long hairs of his beard.
Premasagar Rose / CC BY-NC 2.0

One Sabbath afternoon in Jerusalem, amidst a heat wave that caused even the locals to complain, my wife and I happened upon a friend looking for water. He planned to use a fountain just inside a nearby building, but it was locked. His face had turned an odd color and he moved sluggishly; the heat clearly affected him. Glumly he tried the door again then said he would get some water from one of the few restaurants open on the Sabbath, none of which were located nearby. After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would go for him. As I left him on a shady bench, I heard him tell my wife I was a good man.

According to traditional Judaism, on the Sabbath—the period that extends from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday—a Jew must refrain from thirty-nine categories of forbidden labor, derived from the building of the Tabernacle. These restrictions include spending money and conducting business, except in rare cases: for instance, those that involve a potential loss of life. For this reason, the great majority of businesses close in Jerusalem. My friend said that some that remain open make provisions for those who face my predicament: Jews who do not want to break the Sabbath laws but lack a necessity such as water.

An American-style burger diner offered the best option. When I entered it, all the customers looked up at me, quizzically. I was dressed for the synagogue I attended that morning, in the casual style that certain Israelis favor: a white shirt and khakis. Unlike the men there, I wore a yarmulke. I explained my situation to the waiter behind the counter, asking if I could take a bottle of water and pay him back the next day. He firmly said no. Outside of Jerusalem and a few other Orthodox Jewish communities, my request would sound bizarre, if not inscrutable, but he knew why I asked, an understanding that made his denial more pointed. His hardened expression matched that of the customers’; everyone watched me with unmistakable hostility. The glass-box restaurant grew claustrophobic. I had entered a moment with a considerable history behind it.

The Jews eating non-kosher burgers on a Sabbath afternoon saw my request as a test of wills between secular and religious societies. As Jerusalem turns into an increasingly observant city, with estimates classifying nearly one-third of the local Jewish population as “ultraorthodox” and high birthrates doubling that population every twenty years, Jews outside these groups face more restrictions on how they can live and act: what they can eat and when, how they might worship, marry, and raise their children. Pressured within the city, they form a majority nationwide. As a recent study confirmed, many Israeli Jews do not follow the Sabbath laws. A quarter kept them according to their classical interpretation, a fifth “to a certain degree,” and just more than half—53 percent—do not observe the holiday.1 My nationality increased their resentment; an American makes a vivid symbol. Facing a situation that called for more creativity than I could muster, I took a bottle from the refrigerator, paid for it, and quickly left.

In Jerusalem, a Jew’s identity as a Jew can change within a block. So many communities live in near proximity, each with different forms of dress, social and religious customs, aspirations, and grievances that a few steps recast a rabbi into a heretic, and a casually observant Jew into a fanatic. Even so, I was an unlikely candidate to symbolize piety, especially in Judaism’s holiest city. I carried money, a violation of the Sabbath laws, and addressed the waiter in English, not Hebrew or Yiddish. My goal was not to rebuke the workers or persuade them to close the restaurant for Sabbath. I sought their help. Better language skills or more familiarity with the challenges of Sabbath observance would have suggested a different strategy. I might have knocked on a door, explained the situation, and asked for some water. Instead, on that hot summer day, Jerusalem’s peculiar disorientation of identities found me.

In a shrewd insight, Freud once noted how neighboring peoples assert their differences through “constant feuds and in ridiculing each other.” The perceived differences may puzzle outsiders, a fact that makes the groups reassert them more forcefully. More imagined than real, the distinctions form the basis of identity, a shared psychic grounding. In examples of “the narcissism of minor differences,” Freud names the North and South Germans, Spaniards and Portuguese, and English and Scotch, describing the process as a “relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression.” Jews, though, play a special role, with distinctive results. Wryly Freud notes that Jews “rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts,” allowing them the opportunity to define themselves against their Jewish neighbors, the outsiders within. Freud sees this development as an unavoidable, given Christianity’s development. Once Paul preached “universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it become the inevitable consequence.”2 In short, massacres follow declarations of universal love.

In Israel, a primarily Jewish country, Jews perform more than their usual role; they act as the agents of the differentiation, as well as serving as its object. The presence of so many Jews fashions subtle intrareligious details into conspicuous, emblematic markers. A peculiar demographic inflects this process with a nervous urgency. Many Jews who travel to Jerusalem for extended periods do so with their identities in flux. Dramatic examples abound, especially in certain districts. One day a waiter from Santa Barbara suddenly quits his job; a week later, he walks the Old City, wearing tefillin all day, bellowing transliterated prayers. College graduates who grew up without any Jewish education search for a rabbi to guide them through the bar mitzvah ceremony and beyond. In chance meetings, casual conversations turn unsettlingly intense, too raw and searching for the conventions that help strangers to chat.

Even those who pursue less idiosyncratic routes know their experiences will change them, but do not know how. When Modern Orthodox parents in the US send their children for a year of study between high school and college, they want the time to “solidify” their children’s “Jewishness,” the teenagers’ sense of themselves as unalterably Jewish. Many of these parents want their children to reproduce the particular form of Judaism they practice; the impossibility of this hope inspires a peculiar anxiety lightened with pride. When the students return to America, some will insist that they be called by their Hebrew names. Others decide not to attend the universities where they deferred admission, opting instead to remain in Israel, studying in a yeshiva or seminary, and finding spouses through arranged marriages.

The most common term for newly observant Jews is baalei teshuva, usually translated as “masters of return” or “masters of repentance.” The metaphor of “return” remains evocatively inexact. It presents a process abstracted from lived reality, the “return” to an “origin,” not a witnessed past. Born Jewish, a baal teshuva differs in this respect from a convert, but also leaves the culture he knows. He finds a community more than he reclaims particular familial traditions-or, to be more precise, he enters communities with different traditions and customs. In Jerusalem I heard several Jewish students from abroad quote Rabbi Nehorai’s famous injunction, often with a sense of its ironic relevance, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah.” Following his advice, they left their homes to study, recasting the sage’s terms. Born in the Jewish Diaspora, they exiled themselves to Israel, their ancestral homeland.

As these examples suggest, a baal teshuva faces a difficult challenge: to retain a sense of the self even as he recreates it, to recognize what he believes and feels, not just what he ought to feel or believe. Only in retrospect does this process seem orderly. With their lives in transition, Jews find themselves in Jerusalem for reasons they cannot completely articulate. To understand their situation, I will draw from their memoirs and my own observations, attending to the various motivations that guide complex actions. Accurate figures are hard to find for the newly observant, as well as for Jews who no longer practice the Orthodoxy of their upbringing3. Baala teshuva, though, enjoy a greater prominence. Encouraged by Orthodox culture and its growing publishing industry, the most vital authors also write for the most personal of reasons, describing their experiences to make sense of them. Because of its limitations, not in spite of them, the metaphor of baal teshuva marks the subject quite well. It helps these Jews to explain themselves, to organize incongruous jagged details into a coherent narrative. More subtly, it suggests how deeply spiritual desire remains incommunicable, how private this yearning stays.

Critics of traditional observance often charge that it attracts those who seek the certainty of fixed beliefs, a clear blueprint for how to act and think. This motivation may inspire some. If so, in Jerusalem they quickly discover that they must decide among competing authorities, including representatives from legitimate organizations and charlatans ready to exploit them. Instead of avoiding decisions, they must confront an exhausting number of choices. Describing this process, a prominent faculty member at Ohr Somayach, a major yeshiva that educates the newly observant, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb observes that many

become bewildered by the wide variety of styles of traditional observance. In addition to broad differences of philosophy and priorities (Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, etc.) there are endless geographic variations. Having no personal tradition to fall back on, they must decide for themselves, without waiting for a comprehensive investigation of all options. In fact, at the beginning of his exploration, the baal teshuvah is usually introduced only to a very small sample of the alternatives—often only one. Still, one cannot postpone having a single, consistent organizing style to his observance (I’ve seen the mixed up results of trying to form one’s own supposed “synthesis.”) The solution is to adopt a style temporarily, and to explore alternatives as time and circumstances allow. In the meantime, one remains committed and open to change.

Rabbi Gottleib speaks from personal experience. According to his account, he found the Reform Judaism that he experienced as a boy shallow and uninspiring. At college, he attended lectures by Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, the dean of Modern Orthodoxy in America, and spent Sabbath with the Bostoner Rebbe, the head of a Hassidic court that influenced many college students. After graduation, Gottlieb studied at Yeshivas Mercaz HaRav Kook, a Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem, before earning a Ph.D. in mathematical logic from Brandeis University. As a professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, he published Ontological Economy: Substitutional Quantification and Mathematics under the name of Dale Gottlieb. Gradually, though, he questioned the Modern Orthodox positions he held. “Step-by-step,” he remembers, “I began to adopt the Bostoner Rebbe’s customs, eventually making a complete transition to the life of a Bostoner Chassid.”4

Rabbi Gottleib’s story belongs to a substantial body of similar narratives, with characteristic structural elements, major themes, subgenres, and variations. Many narratives describe childhoods in Reform or Conservative families, portraying the religious environment as lacking in rigor. An inchoate interest in Orthodoxy follows, encouraged by mentor figures (in Gottleib’s case, Rav Soloveitchik and the Bostoner Rebbe). Many stress the authors’ professional accomplishments; they eagerly contest the assumption that religion attracts the unbalanced or the unaccomplished. Gottlieb’s procedures underscore this point. Trained as a philosopher, he offers philosophical justifications for his increasing religiosity. “Those who think that religion necessarily requires an irrational leap of faith,” he asserts, “are simply applying non-Jewish ideas to Judaism.” Employing his discipline’s terms, he describes his Jewish development as a quest marked by “the desire not to miss, the rejection of arbitrary limits to investigation, and the desire for an integrated world-view.”5 According to his account, he remains a truer philosopher than his former colleagues.

After renouncing their past behavior, many baalei teshuva similarly report a surprising continuity with the lifestyles they leave, an oddly shared logic, though the behavior they inspire sharply differs. In a sub-genre particularly common during the 1970s, participants in the era’s drug culture turned to Orthodox Judaism as an alternative form of transcendence. “I’ve never given much thought to the existence of God,” one yeshiva student remembered. Naming the experience that inspired his spiritual intuitions, he mentioned that “my LSD experiences … left me with the idea there was ‘something’ there, but I never thought it knowable or explainable.”6 In his case, Orthodox Judaism provided a vocabulary to understand the sensations that LSD introduced.

Decades later, as members of this generation educate the next, the baal teshuva phenomenon has lost its novelty. Responding to this development, the second-generation literature achieves a greater self-consciousness, as authors play with its conventions, extend and parody them. In Foreskin’s Lament, Shalom Auslander describes how, after his arrest for shoplifting, he avoided community service by attending an Israeli yeshiva, staffed with baala teshuva rabbis, that “prided itself in bringing troubled Jewish teens back into the fold.”7 To establish rapport with the students, the teachers detail their previous drug expertise. “I could roll a joint with one hand while riding a bicycle” confides a rabbi who “had picked up God” “on an acid trip”. Auslander knows he also plays a type: a rebel then, briefly, a baal teshuva:

I bought a black hat and let my sideburns grow long. I spent all day in the study hall. I was moved into the advanced Talmud class, where I was welcomed like a son by the school’s most respected scholar.

In a reflection worth quoting at length, Auslander explains his motivation, shuttling between understatement and hyperbole:

Over the next few months and into the following year, I became the most extraordinarily devout Jew for the most extraordinarily ordinary of reasons: I was loved. My rabbis welcomed me into their families. There were rules, of course, but I understood those rules, and when I didn’t, there was a rule book I could consult. I ate meals at their dinner tables, came to know their wives and children, and felt for the first time what it was like to be accepted. There was even the suggestion of Malkie, the head rabbi’s chaste and attractive daughter, in marriage. In exchange all I had to do was wear a yarmulke, and a black hat, and phylacteries, and tztizis; grow a beard and long peyis, cut my hair short, study Talmud, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Book of Psalms; keep the Sabbath, and keep kosher, and keep from cursing; and stop reading English books, and stop speaking to my old friends, and stop talking to girls; and promise to move to Jerusalem.

It seemed like a good deal at the time.

Foreskin’s Lament belongs to the sub-genre of failed baalei teshuva narratives. As in other examples, the speaker momentarily envies but ultimately rejects a traditionally observant religious life. In Rabbi’s Daughter, a memoir published under the penname Reva Mann, Reva Unterman describes how her ex-husband, a Hasid, attends the funeral of her boyfriend’s brother, an Israeli killed in a terrorist bombing. Moved by the Hasid’s gentle manner, her uncompromisingly irreligious boyfriend asks him to eulogize his brother, “Out of his mouth dance the graceful words of Torah, of solace and comfort, about a man he never met, would probably not have liked, and who would not have liked him.”8 As in this brief graveside scene that eases familial and religious differences, Auslander’s droll one-sentence paragraph presents a reconciliation that cannot last, “It seemed like a good deal at the time.” When Auslander presents his younger self as the fleeting image of piety, he balances two superlatives in one sentence, setting aside his usual irony in order to acknowledge a weightier aspiration, “Over the next few months and into the following year, I became the most extraordinarily devout Jew for the most extraordinarily ordinary of reasons: I was loved.” Charmed by its syntax, the sentence overlooks the first lesson that a baal teshuva learns in Israel, a country where so many devote their lives to Torah study and observance: no matter how determined, he will never be “the most extraordinarily devout Jew.”

Auslander’s fantasy, though, uncovers an underlying truth. A baal teshuva approaches religion with a particular set of questions. Since he encounters a lifestyle as well as a spiritual practice, he imagines the future that a commitment will affect. He does not observe Judaism abstractly; he calculates whether it offers a practical daily existence. For this reason, the sub-genre of failed baalei teshuva narratives attracts many writers who struggle with Orthodox Judaism’s gender roles. In Houses of Study: A Jewish Women among Books, Ilana M. Blumberg describes the year she spent at a Jerusalem seminary, where, as in Auslander’s account of the yeshiva he attended, the most persuasive lessons took place in her teachers’ homes. “It was in the homes of these two women that I began to breathe again,” Blumberg remembers:

Their lives promised me that there would be friends, that there would be a home and a mate, that there existed synagogues where women prayed instead of talked, where women would not look up from their prayer books to examine a newcomer’s dress whenever the door opened, where women arrived early because they believed that was what God wanted of them, because that was what they wanted of themselves.9

Blumberg’s language registers the intensity of her need. Fervently she describes what her teachers’ “lives promised me,” but they offer hopeful suggestions, more models than assurances. A teacher’s happiness does not guarantee her student’s. As if to concede the point, Blumberg remains clearest about what she does not want, bitingly describing bored women killing time during services. In an irony repeated in other baalat teshuva memoirs, she seeks a more stringently observant life than she finds in Orthodox culture. When Auslander daydreams about Jerusalem, he entertains a sentimental fancy, a respite from his problems. At such moments he avoids the difficulties that a baal teshuva must confront. In contrast, Blumberg desperately seeks pragmatic solutions. In her frantic metaphor, the air outside her teachers’ homes will not let her breathe.

As old and new lives adjust to each other, many baala teshuva struggle to forge a balance. They grapple with the limits of their knowledge, learning the customs of a lifestyle while they commit to it. Their appearances reveal the most visible signs of this internal struggle. A recent college graduate I met wore a long skirt that reached her ankles, a turban-like headdress, and a tank top. Elsewhere this outfit might seem slightly eccentric, perhaps fashionably so. In Jerusalem it signaled a confusion of identity. Misled by the clothes, a new acquaintance said she didn’t know that she was married. When she replied she wasn’t, both looked puzzled.

Traditionally observant women wear skirts that extend to at least just below the knee and not pants, classified as male attire. When married, they cover their hair with scarves, hats, or wigs, each of which suggests a certain subgroup allegiance. The woman’s head covering signaled that she was married when she remained single. Her other clothes evoked contradictory meanings as her long skirt strictly adhered to a modest standard of dress that her tank top dramatically violated. Gottblieb would see her choices as “the mixed up results of trying to form one’s own supposed ‘synthesis,” but, as he acknowledges, the solution he offers also raises difficulties. A Jew new to Orthodoxy does not know enough to pick which form he wishes to practice; he knows the culture he leaves but not the one he wishes to enter. He must pick at least temporarily or face an exhausting number of choices, each interpreted beyond his control.

At such times, a baal teshuva achieves his odd status; he has turned into a symbol ready for interpretation. Balancing welcome and wariness, Orthodoxy celebrates the phenomena of the baala teshuva, if not the actual individuals. Lacking the family connections of those born to Orthodox parents, they face the suspicion that their religiosity forms a passing interest, not a firm commitment. If single, they may encounter difficulties when they seek to marry within a religious community. An initiate’s intensity also marks them, inspiring stereotypes that resemble classic anti-Semitic images: the baal teshuva as needy and over-eager, in a phrase, annoyingly uncool. While the numbers of the newly observant continued to grow, their presence called for a counter-term, a reassertion of identity against them. Cobbling together Yiddish and English, “frum from birth” (sometimes abbreviated to FFB) differentiates those it names from others who grew “frum,” meaning devout, later in life.

Even in the light of such condescension, the baala teshuva’s symbolic value remains great. Denominational rivalries motivate some of the enthusiasm. In his 2006 commencement address at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the retiring chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, decried “[t]he malaise of Conservative Judaism today,” observing, “A grievous failure of nerve affects Conservative Judaism.” With similarly blunt language, other Conservative and Reform leaders debate how to address the philosophical, theological, and organizational problems that trouble their movements. “We have become intellectually and morally stagnant,” Debra Reed Blank, a professor at the seminary, charged in a recent symposium.10 Another Conservative rabbi lamented the situation, acknowledging a widespread perception, “Everyone seems to be talking these days about the poor state of Conservative Judaism with the movement’s decreasing membership numbers and some Conservative synagogues being forced to merge or close up completely.”11 These demographic trends confound previous forecasts. For several decades Reform and Conservative Judaism loudly claimed the religion’s future in America, presenting Orthodoxy as a dying ghetto remnant. A representative anecdote from the 1950s suggests the era’s assumptions. Introduced to “the new Orthodox Rabbi in town,” a local resident incredulously asked, “You’re Orthodox-and so young?” “Sir, Orthodoxy is not a gerontological disease,” the newly ordained rabbi, Norman Lamm, replied. This stale retort-which Lamm repeated over the years as he ascended from his first pulpit to the Presidency of Yeshiva University-only underscored Orthodoxy’s vulnerability, its apparent brittleness and frailty.12 A few decades later, celebrating different assessments, Orthodox Judaism strikes a triumphant tone. As the children of Conservative and Reform families “return,” Orthodox Judaism dismisses those other movements as passing aberrations.

A grander narrative than vindication also stands behind Orthodox Jewry’s increasing confidence, the self-assertive stances it strikes. A handbook for the newly observant describes how individuals’ growing religious observance advances humankind’s ultimate destiny:

From a religious perspective the teshuvah movement must be seen in the context of other unusual events of this century which indicate that we are entering a unique phrase of Jewish (and world) history. They include the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the recovery of religious Jewry after the Holocaust. These events are unexpected and unexplained. We are at the beginning of an accelerating curve of Jewish return and re-identification which, if we rise to the challenge, could trigger world redemption!”13

Instead of historicizing religion, Rabbis Mordechai Becher and Moshe Newman understand contemporary events according to a religious narrative, in which history culminates with Messianic redemption. Accordingly, they emphasize a collective experience, not the details of particular lives. For instance, “the recovery of religious Jewry after the Holocaust” does not refer to the number of traditionally observant Jews who survived the Holocaust. It celebrates a resurgent way of life, a cultural-religious pattern, as the grandchildren of those who fled Europe practice more stringent versions of Judaism than their parents or grandparents ever did. Joined to this collective effort, what Becher and Newman call “an accelerating curve of Jewish return and re-identification,” an individual’s actions carry enormous power. With an exclamation point that conveys their excitement, the authors urge that Jews engage in more religious practice because they have the power to hasten the Messiah’s appearance.

This belief inspires arresting juxtapositions. Strolling in the Old City, I saw two Hasidim in their early twenties trailing a slightly younger man, talking animatedly. Nothing aside from the location identified the teenager as Jewish. Clean-shaven, he wore shorts and a fashionable tee-shirt and his head was uncovered. Instead of Abercrombie & Finch, the Hasidim were dressed in clothes more typical of the Old City: black pants, white shirts, and black velvet yarmulkes. Their thick beards contrasted with their otherwise boyish faces, making them look either uncannily young or prematurely old. Whatever they asked for, he refused, but their conversation had a certain jocularity, as if all involved were sharing a joke. Several times they repeated their request. As he broke away from them, one shouted in place of a farewell, “You are a Jew! You are holy!”

A man has tefillin wrapped on his arm. (Dario J Laganà / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Those familiar with contemporary Jewish culture will recognize this street theater. The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson passionately urged his followers to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. “[S]upernatural revelation depends on our human efforts,” he maintained, “The Messianic Age will be brought about by our acts of worship and service of G-d.”14 While many Jews hope that their ritual observance encourages redemption, no group pursues this imperative as conspicuously as the Lubavitchers. Their efforts take distinctive forms. Ever since the Sixth Day War, Lubavitchers have approached fellow Jews, urging the men to put on tefillin and the women to light the Sabbath candles. With practiced skill, they teach the strangers how to say the blessings and wrap the leather straps properly. To confirm my suspicions, I asked the Hasidim I observed if they were Lubavitch. They nodded then quickly asked if I had put on teffilin that day. When I said I had, they shook my hand and wished me a good day. There was nothing left to say.

American Jewry typically keeps their religious life private and unobtrusive, a division of identity that the Lubavitchers do not accept. To increase observance, they focus on those who are not observant; they are more likely to approach a man wearing a baseball hat than a yarmulke. This strategy carries considerable psychological force. It shows the assimilated Jew that he remains identifiable as a Jew, even when seen on a neutral setting, for instance, a college campus or city street. The Hasidim’s appearance adds an implicit contrast. With their flowing beards and eager manner, they resemble interlocutors lifted from a family daguerreotype, inquiring, often repeatedly, if he is a Jew. In many cases, they represent the first Hasidim he has met. In an encounter that spans a few minutes, he must acknowledge, at least to himself, that he is both visibly Jewish and ritually unobservant, and experience the various emotions that the paradox arouses.

Again Jerusalem intensifies these sensations. Especially toward the end of his life, Schneerson insisted that the current generation would witness both exile and redemption. His death in 1994 split his followers into two groups: those who saw him as the Messiah and those who did not. The loosely organized Lubavtichers do not lend themselves to accurate polling, especially for a subject as sensitive as their Rebbe’s status. (When asked about demographics, several gently mocked my question’s premise with the same phrase. “Do you mean card-carrying?”) My impression is that the majority of Lubavitchers worldwide do not view Schneerson as the Messiah, but the second faction has grown particularly strong in Israel. As part of their “Moshiach campaign,” they stick their Rebbe’s picture to buildings, signs, mailboxes, overpasses, and seemingly unreachable walls, with captions that bluntly proclaim his Messianic status. Schneerson never visited Israel, a fact that makes his prominence there seem odd only if one does not understand the geography of religious belief. A Lubavitcher baal teshuva explains:

I believe we’re in store for some astonishing events on the imminent horizon. I honestly believe the Rebbe is Moshiach and I honestly believe I’m going to see the Rebbe back at 770 [Lubavitch headquarters] alive. The Rebbe is the one who will take us out of this exile and bring us back to Jerusalem.15

A stand is piled high with apples, plastic grocery bags hang overhead. Behind is a wall, high on which is a poster of a glowering, bearded face.
A poster of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hangs over a produce stand in a market in Petah Tikva. (Anna Levinzon / CC BY 2.0)

Israel’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 brought this hope tangibly close. Jerusalem represents not only a spiritual destination but a city where a Jew can make his home, praying next to the Western Wall, the geographic term replacing the lachrymose designation, the Wailing Wall. He may kiss the stones where the divine in-dwelling in the world is said to rest. The ideal’s nearness magnifies the enduring separation. A baal teshuva who refashioned his life, a self-described former “spiritual cripple” anticipates this final transformation as the last of a series of “astonishing events,” all of which he witnessed except for the one remaining stage.

One Sabbath morning, I returned to the Old City, heading to the Lubavticher Kollel, an institute for married men, because I had been told that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the foremost living Talmudic scholars, received visitors there after morning services. A handwritten sign on the door welcomed all, relaying the prayer times in English and Hebrew. The air-conditioned sanctuary was small and chaotic, with men praying, reading, and socializing on long wooden benches. Once all the seats were taken, a small hallway at the back of the synagogue grew densely packed. Partially obscured by arches and blocked by the men, the wall behind them featured a latticed opening behind which a few women prayed.

I did not notice when Rabbi Steinsaltz arrived, since his appearance caused little notice. He sat at the bench at the back of the synagogue. Midway through the service he peacefully dozed. (I heard various stories of how little sleep he regularly gets, devoting long hours to study and writing.) When asked to say a blessing over the Torah, he waved off the honor. Toward the end of the service a friend signaled that it was a good time to approach Steinsaltz-not too early but before the others who wished to speak with him.

I shook his hand, receiving the soft handshake of a scholar, as we exchanged Sabbath pleasantries. When, in accented English, he asked me what I do for a living, I replied that I am a professor of American literature. He gestured for me to sit down. We talked for far longer than I expected, nearly two hours, until I excused myself in order to meet a friend for lunch. Faced with this role reversal-Steinsaltz’s visitors, I suspect, take as much of his time as he is willing to give-he looked more amused than offended.

Short, stocky, bespectacled with a long white beard split at the bottom, Steinsaltz presents a rabbi out of central casting, full of opinions delivered with bemused expressions and punctuating gestures. With little prompting, he informed me that American academia is “low on the evolutionary chain, just above the boneless fish,” that, instead of seeking to make my discipline relevant to my students, I should present myself to the class as “a scholar,” announcing, “I am a giraffe; stretch your neck.” Whatever objections I raised, he waved off, often wordlessly. Inevitably for a prolific author (his resumé mentions some 60 books and over 600 articles), he repeated aphorisms previously committed to print. Even when I recognized the opening line, what followed developed unpredictably. Disappointed that I had not read much science fiction, he mentioned several titles he particularly admired, happily summarizing their plots. The discussion turned to contemporary philosophy. “We are all post-post-modern now,” he observed, an insight that the setting enlivened. Asked about Emmanuel Levinas, Steinsaltz answered with pithy candor. Levinas, he said, was a friend: “a good philosopher, not great.”

During our conversation Steinsaltz was repeatedly approached by visitors who needed advice on Jewish law. Standing above him, trying to catch his eye, eventually they realized they had no choice but to interrupt the conversation whenever possible. A father asked if he could attach a sunshield to his baby’s carriage for the walk home. Steinsaltz said that he could not, that the act violated the Sabbath laws as it constitutes an act of construction akin to the building of an ohel or “tent.” The visitor probed gently until Steinsaltz bellowed, “Ohel! Ohel!” Catching himself, he looked a little abashed-the man simply wanted to protect his infant from the sun. To shift the conversation, Steinsaltz observed that a similar question had been asked about certain oversized hats. Again he risked offering more criticism. As if hold off that possibility, he gestured to a wall of black fedoras, saying that the hats posed no problem. “What about mine?” I asked. He said it was also fine, without needing me to identify the lone tan sunhat as mine.

Politely Steinsaltz answered the posed questions then promptly returned to the subjects of literature and academia, swiveling on the bench to face me again. It did not take me long to realize why: he hardly lacks company to discuss Jewish matters. I presented more of a rarity. Few “frum from birth” Jews attend nonreligious universities. The minority that do typically view them as trade schools, pursuing professional tracks, instead of studying less utilitarian and potentially objectionable fields such as English literature. As Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s example suggests, baalei teshuvah are more likely to earn college degrees in the humanities, the academic subjects that attract students interested in exploring issues of identity. However, pitting “secular” and “religious” education against each other, many baalei teshuvah subsequently belittle their university schooling. In the kollel, the relative oddity of my profession made me interesting.

Drawn to a stringently observant culture, many newcomers try to prove their religiosity, to establish their insider’s knowledge and piety. To avoid embarrassment, they inadvertently add to it, mispronouncing terms learned from books. A different strategy, though, offers a significant advantage. Because they exist in a transitory state, baala teshuva enjoy the freedom to move between groups that view each other suspiciously, if not antagonistically. They benefit from an unfixed identity.

One Sabbath my wife and I visited a self-described Haredi family living in a Haredi community, who had invited us solely because of a brief, chance meeting in a crowded cafeteria. Their eldest son greeted me by asking my preference, “Litvkak, Chassidus, Ashkenaz?” A West Bank city close to Jerusalem, Beitar Illit features 150 synagogues; he wanted to know which kind I favored. Surprised by the question, I only later realized its political implications, when my host introduced me to the city’s mayor, a Litvak who faced a Chassidus opponent in the upcoming election (which, despite my host’s predication, he lost). Again my dress clearly set me apart. The white shirt and khakis that established me as “religious” on Emek Refaim cast me as “secular” in Beitar Illit, unique among its 37,000 residents, none dressed like me. Instead of scorn, my difference attracted hospitality. Following custom, I was given the honor of dressing the Torah, of fastening its sash and slipping on its velvet covering. Once the services ended, several residents sought me out to welcome me, inquiring if I was set for meals, quick with invitations simply because I was a fellow Jew. Of course this hospitality extends only so far. A fenced perimeter separated the city from its Arab neighbors. Several times I was asked if we planned to move to the development, a question not wholly innocent of the surrounding political realities. A more straightforward concern inspired our hosts: we were their “Shabbat guests.” Because I preferred to see different kinds of synagogues, we visited some whose regulars vote in blocks against each other. My dress and manner placed me outside these rivalries, the need to decide which mayoral candidate to vote for and which rabbi to follow. Instead, I represented potential.

Of course this state cannot last for long before it dissolves or hardens. During the three weeks that separate the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, many observant Jews do not cut their hair, shave, or listen to music as they grieve the Temple’s destruction. Jewish tradition holds that Roman soldiers first breached Jerusalem’s walls on the 17th of Tammuz, setting fire to the Temple on the 9th of Av. On the anniversary, crowds gather at the Western Wall. Following customs gleaned from the Book of Job, friends do not greet each other. They sit on the ground and pray, mourning a loss intimate and shared. Like them, I did not to shave for the three weeks. Unlike them, I grew a beard for the first time, scratchy and with a patch of my grandfather’s red hair.

It is easy to mistake piety’s outward signs for its essence, but anyone growing in observance eventually must consider the identify he wishes to claim. External factors complicate this decision; he does not control the meaning others attach to his actions, the offence a friend might take when he declines to eat in his home, the arrogance and hypocrisy read into the initial awkward attempts at religious commitment. In a famous parable, the Baal Shem Tov describes how a child learns to walk. First, his father stands close, but after the child reaches him, the father moves back, training him to walk a greater distance. God, the Baal Shem Tov relates, employs a similar technique. He removes himself to increase our longing, to inspire a deeper union, a greater spiritual strength. 16 A baal teshuva adds his own perspective to the parable. An adult, not a child, he views himself with a double-consciousness, seeing how others see his gestures. Each step, each stringency he accepts, marks a conscious effort, a readjustment of expectations, a strangeness that he hopes will soon feel natural.


  1. Sharon Wrobel, “Poll: Public would give up Shabbat shopping for transport,” Jerusalem Post, June 25, 2007.
  2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey, trans. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1961) 72-73.
  3. See Faranak Margolese, Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism (New York: Devora, 2005) 21-26, 382-392, which offers a brief literature review of the subject, as well as the author’s internet survey results.
  4. Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, “Coming Home.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ellen Willis, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” Rolling Stone, April 1977.
  7. Shalom Auslander, Foreskin’s Lament (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007) 204; hereafter cited in the text as FL.
  8. Reva Mann, The Rabbi’s Daughter: A Memoir (New York: Dial Press, 2007) 313.
  9. Ilana M. Blumberg, Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Books, 2007) 12.
  10. Debra Reed Blank, “A Conservative Cri de Coeur.” Judaism, Summer/Fall 2005, Vol. 54, Issue 3-4.
  11. Rabbi Jason Miller, “The Future of Conservative Judasim (sic),” Friday, November 30, 2007.
  12. George Kalinsky, ed., Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism (New York: Universe Publishing, 2002) unnumbered.
  13. Mordechai Becher and Moshe Newman, After the Return (New York: Feldheim, 1994) 3.
  14. Menachem M. Schneerson, adapted by Jonathan Sacks, Torah Studies, second printing (Brooklyn, N.Y. Kehot Publication Society, 2000), 176.
  15. Richard H. Greenberg, Pathways: Jews Who Return (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc, 1997) 274.
  16. See Yitzhak Buxbaum, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov (New York: Continuum, 2005) 118.


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