Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chasing the Dream

It’s been an up-and-down sort of week, and that’s not even starting in with the Supreme Court ruling about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll write about that on another occasion when I’ve had more of a chance to digest the implications of the court’s ruling.)

On the down side, a German court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of boys brings them “grievous bodily harm” and that, therefore, anyone who circumcises an infant risks arrest for assault. (More on this in weeks to come. The Jewish and Muslim communities did not take the news kindly) The Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, apparently acting with the approval of his Ashkenazi counterpart, publicly referred to me and my colleagues as “destroyers and saboteurs of Judaism” whose sole wish in life—or at least whose sole professional wish—is to “uproot the fundamental principles of the Torah” and thus actively to be working to “destroy the vineyards of the Lord of Hosts.” (He was responding to the decision by the Israeli government actually to pay the salaries of some few non-Orthodox rabbis who serve in remote, rabbinically underserved regions of the country, just as it pays the salaries of countless Orthodox rabbis who serve in every imaginable capacity throughout Israel. The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, led by my colleague Rabbi Mauricio Balter, responded by filing a police complaint against Rabbi Amar accusing him—not at all unreasonably, in my opinion, given the shrill, angry tenor of the rabbi’s call for activism in the face of incipient pluralism—of inciting others to violence against him, and his and my colleagues in Israel.) The first vice-president of Iran, Mohammed Reza Rahimi, formally blamed the entire international drug trade on Jews and Zionists, whom he also noted, just a bit disconnectedly, were also responsible for the Russian Revolution of 1917. A man wearing a giant Elmo suit spent a few days in Times Square and Central Park delivering rabidly anti-Semitic speeches to the passers-by in which, among other things, he suggested they immerse themselves in the four volumes of Henry Ford’s viciously anti-Jewish pamphlets published together as “The International Jew.” (The police finally stepped in not to arrest faux Elmo, but merely to prevent him from polluting public space with his hate-filled venom. Elmo, for those of you too old to have watched Sesame Street as children and who haven’t watched with your own children or grandchildren, is the monster with red fur known for his famous disinclination ever to refer to himself in the first person. The actual Elmo is cranky, but not at all bigoted.) It’s been that kind of week!

On the up side of things, Joan and I bought a refrigerator. We also bought a washing machine and a dryer. Under normal circumstances, this would hardly be newsworthy. (The purchase was made without reference to circumcision, the Russian Revolution, the international drug trade, Henry Ford, the president’s health care initiative, or the Israeli chief rabbinate. Nor was I wearing an Elmo suit at the time of the purchase.) Nonetheless, it was a big moment for Joan and for me. And I thought I would wrap up this year of letter-writing to you all by telling you why.

One of the secrets of happy marriages that I always try to remember to share with my brides and grooms when we meet before their weddings is the concept of the shared dream. All sorts of compatibility issues sink marriages all the time, but the one area that seems to me the most essential to future happiness is the ability of a couple to project their commonly held hopes into the future, then to agree to travel together to the emerald city…and to subjugate less important projects to the sense of productive movement towards a great common goal. That lends marriage a sense of purpose, as well as a dynamic sense of motion forward…and that, in my opinion, is what differentiates marriage from even the finest and most satisfying friendships.

Somewhere along the way, Joan and I began to wonder what, if anything, we were going someday to leave to our children. Clearly, it is not going to be a fortune of money. And, yes, we talked and still do talk about one day composing a kind of ethical will stating clearly what we’ve learned of life and what we’ve come to value above all else, and what lessons we therefore wish to bequeath to our descendants as our moral legacy to them. But we also developed the idea of wanting to tie our family to Israel in a way that would transcend mere allegiance to the Zionist ideal, and which would constitute a kind of physically real link between our family and the Land of Israel (and the people of Israel and the State of Israel) that would say by its very existence how we view the world and our place in it. For a long time, this idea percolated around, taking on different guises and permutations as we moved forward through the years of our married life together. And then, about a decade ago, we finally concluded that what we want to leave our children—aside from a huge amount of what I heard someone refer to the other day as “non-electronic books” and some more and less valuable tchotchkes we’ve acquired or inherited along the way—was a home in Israel, and specifically one in Jerusalem.

We talked about it forever, unable to decide if we should wait until everybody’s out of college before attempting this or whether it made more sense to dive in right then and there before we lost our nerve all together. We stumbled down different paths as we tested our resolve to see if we really meant it and then, in 2005, as Israel was withdrawing from Gaza while we were actually present in Israel, it struck us that the moment had come. How did we know? I have no idea. Prices were low. We didn’t have anything else to do that week. We found ourselves standing next to the local RE/MAX office on Herzl Street in downtown Jerusalem. We went in. Tentatively, we started talking. We got cold feet repeatedly as we shlepped along after our agent, a nice woman originally from Holland, from apartment to apartment. And then, once all the flats we were seeing started looking alike, we just chose the one that appealed to us the most and made an offer. To our shock, it was accepted. (Who would have made that offer if we really thought it was going to be accepted? It was really just to keep the agent from thinking we were wasting her time! Or was it?) And so, reluctantly but also very proudly, we became property owners in Israel.

In Israel, apartments are sold without appliances. That didn’t matter, because the tenants who have lived there ever since we bought have all had their own appliances. But now the time has come for us to set foot into our own apartment a mere eight years after last being there. And that’s why, after diligently saving up for this move forward towards our shared dream, we bought a fridge the other day, and a washing machine and a dryer. We were shopping in Israel via internet and phone. Joan did an excellent job on the phone with the salesman when we finally made contact. I hovered in the background trying to think of a way to express the concept of a “self-defrosting freezer” in Hebrew. I came up with an idea, but it proved unnecessary: by the time I was ready to express myself, she was all done. This was all probably for the best. And the salesman’s English, it turned out, was fine. And he surely knew more about freezers, self-defrosting and otherwise, than I do!

And so that’s where we’re going this July: to our apartment in Jerusalem. So far, we own no furniture. The place has no bookcases. (This won’t be much of an issue—there are also no books.) But, at least so far, we do own a fridge, a washing machine, and a dryer. The rest will come too. (There’s an IKEA in Netanya we expect to get to know well.) And eventually we will have a flat to call our own that we can actually spend time in. And that will begin, we both hope, the beginning of a chapter in our family’s life that will eventually become permanent and provide a living, breathing link to Israel for us and for our descendants.

We endlessly reference the inviolate bond between the people of Israel, the God of Israel, and the land of Israel in our prayers. Some of the phrases that express that idea are so familiar that we almost have to force ourselves to consider them carefully and to ask ourselves what they imply regarding the future of the Jewish people. I’d like to explore some of these questions in more detail with you in the future, but this summer is turning out to be a season of practical things for Joan and me. We’re thinking of buying a television. We’re definitely going to buy a couch. (What good is a TV without a couch?) We’ve been saving up for a long time and now we’re going to take a leap forward in making real, even just a little bit, this dream that Joan and I have come to share. If you’re in Jerusalem in July, come by! We have a fridge. We’ll have a couch. We have a very nice balcony. We’ll make coffee!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rethinking Same-Sex Marriage

A few weeks ago I mentioned from the bimah that I wanted to re-open the discussion of same-sex marriage at Shelter Rock. Partially, I’m only being practical: now that same-sex marriage is legal in New York State, it is only a matter of time before we are approached by a gay couple interested in making their wedding in our sanctuary and it is only prudent for the community to develop its stance on the issue before we are confronted with specific people who ask a simple question and would like a simple answer in response. But I am also responding to recent developments within our Conservative Movement, and specifically to the approval on May 31 by the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of a responsum by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram I. Reisner that suggests various ways in which same-sex unions could be solemnized in a way in keeping both with spirit and the letter of the halakhah.

It’s a complicated issue and I find myself impatient with people who insist otherwise: no matter where anyone stands on the issue, it seems—to say the very least—naïve to describe the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner responsum as anything but revolutionary. And, as should be the case with all dramatic steps forward any given society or group within society takes, the revolutionary nature of the proposal demands that we move forward warily and cautiously, carefully considering the implications and possible ramifications inherent in taking any of the paths that suddenly lie open before us.
Many Shelter Rockers have expressed themselves to me on the topic already, including people who feel very strongly on both sides of the issue. And, of course, they are not alone: the question of the reasonableness and legality of same-sex unions is already a major policy issue in the presidential campaign and will no doubt continue to engage all sorts of people, gay and straight, for the foreseeable future. It even seems likely that the Supreme Court will eventually become involved as well. So we’re not alone at Shelter Rock in feeling challenged to formulate an opinion on the matter in general, and a formal policy for our congregation in specific.

Before I express myself in more detail on the issues that I consider worthy of debate in this regard, I would like to suggest we abandon several lines of discussion that regularly, at least in my opinion, distract people from considering the actual issue that rests at the heart of the matter.

Of these, the least productive is basing the discussion on the question of whether there should be gay people in the world. To my way of thinking, one of the givens of the conversation has to be that there are gay people in the world and that the issue at hand is therefore whether they should or should not be entitled to marry, not whether the world would be a better or a less good place if people had less varied tastes in sexual matters. What kind of a discussion would that be to have anyway? More to the point, I think it is reasonable to suppose that there has always been a percentage of the population that, constrained from self-defining openly or not, has always been homosexual. And I think that even despite the confusing fact that the word “homosexuality” itself was only devised in the nineteenth century and that no classical language, including ancient Hebrew, has a word to denote the concept of what moderns call “homosexuality” or a name to label people moderns would reference as “homosexuals.” I’ve read a few books about the history of human sexuality that have attempted to explain why a feature of human society that strikes moderns as so self-evident and obvious somehow resisted categorization for centuries, but I haven’t found any of what I’ve read to be especially convincing. Still, the question before us cannot be whether it was wise or unwise for God to have made different varieties of human sexual orientation, but merely whether or not we wish to offer the possibility of long-term, faithful relationships respected in law and by society to people for whom heterosexual marriage is not an option.

The next red herring I think we should abandon is the ever-popular argument that we should endorse same-sex marriage because homosexuality is not a life-style choice that gay people make, but something hard-wired that can be resisted and repressed, but not materially altered through the sheer force of active decision-making. That surely is true, I’m sure, but it isn’t relevant because there are all sorts of behavioral patterns that people clearly do not choose, but that we as a society specifically do choose not to legitimize or endorse. So to say that gay people should be allowed to marry because they didn’t choose to be gay seems to be a pointless argument, something that would only make sense if it were part of a larger argument justifying all behavior to which those who engage in it are honestly drawn. The legitimacy of same-sex marriage cannot therefore be allowed to rise or fall on the question of whether people can choose their sexual orientation.

And, finally, I think we should agree not to allow the discussion to center on the famous verse from Leviticus that prohibits a man from lying with another man “in the manner of men lying with women.” Over the years, there have been many efforts to explicate those words along many different avenues of interpretation, but the simplest explanation is simply to take them to prohibit the kind of intercourse between men that is the most obviously analogous to the most common form of sexual intimacy between men and women. Discussing whether the Torah chose wisely in forbidding that single act also seems to me a pointless discussion: observant gay men will observe the law and others will not, just as observant heterosexual couples obey laws delimiting their own intimate lives even though other couples do not. But to take that thought and argue that that prohibition of Leviticus ipso facto makes ridiculous the question of same-sex marriage being legitimate seems a dramatic overstatement of the situation. One could, after all, argue just to the contrary: that by including in its list of sexual prohibitions one single one that affects male-male couples the Torah is in effect saying to gay couples, or at least to male ones, that they too are invited to find a path forward to spiritual communion with the God of Israel through fidelity to the laws of the Torah.

By omitting all the above-mentioned lines of argumentation from the discussion, we are, I think, left with two relatively simple questions before us.

The first—whether we do or do not wish to endorse the rights of Jewish gay people to enter into permanent, monogamous relationships in synagogue ceremonies that will bind them together as loyal partners and loving spouses—is the easier of the two to answer. Since I myself grew up wanting very much one day to marry, to have children, to live in a dignified, loving home, and to be a respected member of our Jewish community, it doesn’t seem at all odd to me that other people, and specifically other Jewish people, would want those same things in their lives. If anything, actually, it seems peculiar for me to imagine people wanting anything less from life. Nor does the fact that a specific individual might be gay seem relevant in any meaningful way in this context: what could sexual orientation have to do, really, with the desire to live in a dignified relationship characterized by loyalty and respected by the community as binding and real?

The second question—how exactly gay people can marry without the concept of marriage itself being altered in the process beyond recognition—is the more vexing. And it is this specific question that the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner responsum addressed. It is a complicated piece of writing. (If you are reading the electronic version of this letter, you can access the responsum in its entirety by clicking here.) But the broad strokes, at least to me, are as compelling as the details: the authors have come up with a way formally and respectfully to solemnize the commitment of same-sex couples to each other by sidestepping entirely the issue of whether the Torah’s concept of kiddushin between a man and a woman can be expanded to include same non-heterosexual couples. It sounds so simple when put in those terms. But, in my opinion, the responsum displays courage and originality most of all because of that specific aspect of its authors’ efforts.

In our American Jewish culture, we informally refer to kiddushin, the sanctification of a couple’s relationship through formal ritual, as marriage and the ceremony that establishes it as a wedding. For example, we call a couple’s rings “wedding bands,” or “wedding rings,” not kiddushin bands or rings. We refer to the k’tubbah as a marriage certificate, even though it has to do only with kiddushin and not with the “real” marriage that follows. We refer to the chuppah as a wedding canopy, although what takes place beneath it is kiddushin, not marriage per se. But it was the clever insight of Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner to realize that kiddushin is merely the Torah’s way of preparing the path for couples on their way to nissu’in, to marriage, by requiring them to renounce other partners, to pledge their troth to each other absolutely and unconditionally, and by requiring them publicly to announce their intention to live together as married spouses. And, therefore, that—and here is the truly innovative part—it should be possible to consider other paths forward for other couples to follow on their way to marriage as loving, committed spouses. Wasting time worrying about whether the definition of kiddushin can reasonably be expanded to include same-sex couples is a debate from which no definitive answer seems likely ever to emerge. The authors of the responsum, therefore, had the idea of simply leaving the question unanswered, then of making the whole issue an irrelevancy by proposing alternate kinds of arrangements that can just as reasonably and reliably lead forward to marriage. The responsum then moves on specifically to suggest a number of such paths.

In another posting, I hope to describe those paths to you in detail. None is perfect. All have things to recommend them and not to recommend them. Basically, though, they are all variations on the same theme and what they all do have in common is the desire to create an unassailably legal context in which same-sex couples may formalize their commitment to each other against a background of fidelity, dignity, mutuality, and reciprocity—the same foundation stones upon which any successful heterosexual marriage will also be based. None requires the officiant or the participant to violate any principle of halakhah or to ignore any of the foundational principles of our Jewish faith. None requires any halakhic doubletalk or any complicated rationalization to sound cogent. And, more to the point, none has at its core anything other than the simple desire to deliver to same-sex couples a simple series of messages. We accept you as you are. We respect you for your commitment to each other. We find nothing peculiar in your desire to live out your lives in dignified, loving relationships. And we welcome you unambiguously and warmly as members of our community. When it comes down to it, which of us would not want all of our children, gay and straight, to hear that message reverberating in their ears loud and clear as the chart their course forward through life?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fathers and Sons

I’ve never been a huge fan of Father’s Day, a sentiment I believe I inherited (not inappropriately) from my own father. Maybe it feels like a wan add-on to our extensive American list of sort-of-holidays because its history is so brief: Father’s Day only received its “official” status in 1972 when President Nixon granted it federal recognition more than sixty years after it was first proposed to the world by (of all people in all places) the leadership of the YMCA in Spokane, Washington. So I myself am older than Father’s Day! (Mother’s Day is a whole different thing, by the way, and a lot older: it was proclaimed as a holiday by President Wilson in 1914 after first having been conceived of as a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” by Julia Ward Howe, the activist author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in 1872 and then unofficially promoted by, of all ancient institutions, Wannamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia.) But when I think more carefully about the whole thing, I realize that my disinclination to embrace Father’s Day too vigorously or enthusiastically (or, to continue the thought, to impose any specific obligations on my children to embrace it with vigor or enthusiasm) has to do not with the history of the day or with its relationship to Mother’s Day (or to Richard Nixon), but with the complexity of the father/child relationship and the inherent peculiarity of using pre-written greeting cards to suggest sentiments that are hard even to formulate at all, let alone to sum up in a few italicized lines of third-rate doggerel. Also, I have more than enough neckties as it is.

Or maybe I’m being unduly harsh here. I had a father. I am a father. Why shouldn’t I get a card once a year from my various offspring acknowledging my shared, yet indispensable, responsibility for their existence? So what if it’s a bit perfunctory? Better perfunct than defunct! And yet…I still find the whole father/child thing mysterious and complicated, something that resists summing up with a phone call and, although this part has blissfully fallen away, a bottle of Old Spice.

Just lately, although not specifically in preparation to write to you this week, I’ve been reading a surprising number of books about fathers and sons. The mother (so to speak) of such books, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, I read in college and recall as being essentially about the way fathers and sons are both incapable of stepping far enough away from their biological relationship to accept each other “just” as men. (The book, if I recall correctly, opens with a young man returning home to discover that his father has undertaken a tawdry affair with one of his housekeepers, a young woman with whom he has already produced a child, a “new” baby brother for his already-grown-up son, Arkady.) I don’t recall liking the book that much, although I liked other books by Turgenev, especially Asya and The Nest of the Gentry, and even went so far during one of my trips to the former Soviet Union to make a kind of literary pilgrimage to Spasskoye Lutavinovo, Turgenev’s great estate in southern Russia. (I also made a similar trip to Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, very faithfully reproduced in the 2009 movie The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, which I found far more stirring and interesting than Spasskoye. But, then again, I find Tolstoy’s books themselves far more stirring and interesting than Turgenev’s!)

Far more to the point, however, are the three books I’ve just completed reading. About Bernd Wollschläger’s book, A German Life, I wrote last week. Detailing his own complicated journey to Judaism against the background of his even more complicated relationship to his father, a decorated Wehrmacht officer, the book is really as much about fathers and sons as it is about Germans and Jews. As I wrote then, I liked the book very much and recommend it to people interested in both topics. (What’s the word for the convergence of several totally distinct events in a context related in some specific yet peripheral way to each of them? For what it’s worth, Bernd Wollschläger’s father received his Iron Cross—which medal Hitler himself pinned on his chest—for his personal bravery on the Eastern Front in the 1943 Battle for Oryol, which Russian city was both the city of Turgenev’s birth in 1818 and the city in which I personally spent a long month in 1990 enrolled in the Intourist Russian Language Institute there.)

But I wish to write today more about the other two books I’ve just recently completed: Noah Hawley’s The Good Father and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. I found both books engaging to the point of being engrossing. They’re similar in some ways, but distinct in others. But they will both appeal both to readers who have or had parents, or who are parents…but men will read this book differently, I think, than will women.

Hawley’s book is essentially about a man who loves his son intensely without knowing much about him. Is that the story of all fathers, the authors appears to be asking subtly: are all men who father sons doomed to loving them without really understanding them once they grow past childhood or even being able to fathom who they are or what they have become? Are we all that blind when it comes to those we love? Or is there something specific in the relationship of fathers and sons that makes it impossible for either to see the other party clearly? (Is it the same for mother and daughters? Hawley doesn’t go there and neither will I. But the question of whether the issue here is the same-genderedness of fathers and son or whether it is their specific maleness that is in play is key.) The book, at any rate, begins with a scene that we all know from our worst nightmares: we are having the most normal of days when suddenly a policeman comes to the door with the information that a child of ours has been arrested and charged with a horrific crime. I won’t say more because the book is too good for me to risk ruining it for you by giving too much away. But I will say that the book operates on two levels: the narrative one following the storyline along to its shocking conclusion (and inviting you time and time again to think you see what’s coming next only to be completely wrong), and the psychological level on which the book is not about the tale being told but about the author’s understanding of what it means to be a father, what it means to be a son. The father in question has an ex-wife, the mother of the son in question, and a second wife, the mother of that older son’s two much younger twin brothers. And within the warp and woof of that slightly complicated, but ultimately ordinary, family structure lies the lion’s share of what the book has ultimately to offer its readers, particularly regarding the nature of the relationship between fathers and sons. I was very taken by the book. Despite one single plot twist that I found irritatingly improbable, the book was satisfying and sobering: the former because it’s a very good story about the intertwined impossibilities of holding on and letting go, and the latter because it left me uncomfortably focused on the part of the emotional iceberg of family life that no one ever sees and most prefer simply to ignore. The short version is that I liked the book and I think my readers will too.

The second book, William Landay’s Defending Jacob, is also about a father and his son. To be fair, the son has a mother who plays a key role in much of the book. So this is not a book almost solely about fathers and sons in the same way Noah Hawley’s book is. But at the heart of Landay’s book too is the perplexing image of a father who loves his son, yet who turns out to know almost nothing about him. The books have their nightmarish premise in common as well: life is normal until it’s not, until the cop comes to the door with the news that the boy you thought you knew has been accused of doing something unimaginably bad. You leap to the boy’s defense, obviously. Both dads do, in fact, in both books. And the back story behind the narrative line in both books is about the degree to which fathers know their sons well and also don’t know them at all. The twist in Defending Jacob is that the father himself works as a public prosecutor, therefore as a legal professional who is supposed to be good at seeing things as they are, who is paid by the state (or rather the commonwealth, the story being set in Massachusetts) to know guilty parties when he sees them and adequately to demonstrate their guilt to juries beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, slowly, as the policemen and the lawyers do their jobs, the truth does emerge, or some version of it does. (This is true in both books.) I won’t give the plot away here either so as not to ruin the story for you, but the experience of watching these two fathers, the doctor in The Good Father and the lawyer in Defending Jacob, slowly realize how impossible it is to know another person truly well and eventually come to understand that that thought applies, if anything, even more meaningfully when the other person in the equation is someone you love wholly and absolutely in the manner of parents loving their children—that experience is what makes both these books worth your time to read and to savor. The final plot twist is unexpected to the point, I thought, of being unbelievable. But the book itself is great and I recommend it without reservation.

I have no specific plans for Father’s Day. I suppose I’ll hear from my kids. I might even get a meal out of it, or a necktie. Or just the meal. Maybe some cards. I’ll let you know. What I’d really like, though, is a few quiet hours to read…and then a nice meal with my descendants. Maybe I’ll give Turgenev another chance!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A German Life

In the unlikely event that Shelter Rock ever runs a contest to see which of us has made the acquaintance of the most German converts to Judaism, I think I’ll probably win. In fact, I’m sure I will. For one thing, most of us find the idea itself that a citizen of the nation Daniel Jonah Goldhagen famously damned as “Hitler’s willing executioners” could willingly embrace Judaism as a ger tzedek—that is, as a righteous proselyte eager to seek his or her spiritual destiny as a lately-arrived but nonetheless bona fide member of the House of Israel—that idea will strike most as beyond peculiar. For another, one doesn’t find these people just anywhere. You have to know where to look!

A good place to look, actually, is Heidelberg, where I spent two years teaching in the Institute of Jewish Studies in the mid-1980s. Most of my students were “regular” Gentiles—mostly Lutheran types either headed into the ministry and interested in Judaism as part of their spiritual education as faithful Christians or else more secular souls drawn to Jewish study as a way of coming to terms with the legacy of the Shoah, a legacy that weighs (at least for some) no less heavily on the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators than it does on the descendants of the victims. And some were “regular” Jewish people: the children of Jewish parents, raised in Jewish homes, studying something else in Heidelberg (usually medicine or law) and interested in taking advantage of the existence of the Hochschule (and the presence in town of people such as myself) to take some courses in Jewish history or Jewish literature. But there were also present a small number of people enrolled at the Institute as part of their studies towards conversion to Judaism as well as some who had already completed their conversions and were simply eager to learn more. We had students from all over Europe in the school, but the converts, future and present, were all Germans who had gone far beyond being “interested” in Judaism and who either had chosen or were hoping to choose Judaism as their spiritual path in life. It seems unlikely in the extreme that any of them will ever read this, but I won’t identify them by name anyway lest I contravene our custom of never singling out converts in public.

They were, to say the least, an odd lot. P., for example, was not only a German, but (this was before the reunification of Germany in 1990) an East German of what he himself labelled as “ancient peasant stock” who had fled across the border and sought asylum in West Germany, then found his way into a synagogue and had eventually adopted a religious lifestyle, willingly undergoing b’rit milah and adopting a strict regimen of religious observance. L. was the daughter of not one but two Lutheran pastors, both of them prominent in the church hierarchy and neither even slightly connected to Jews or to Judaism. Certainly neither was descended from Jews. But L. found her way to Israel as a teenager, spoke openly (at least to me, but I think also to others) about the way she could feel destiny drawing her forward for the first time when she made her first visit to Jerusalem and particularly to the Western Wall, and easily about the way adopting Judaism made it tolerable for her to think of herself as a German. M. was the grandson of a guard who served at Maidanek, the death camp near Lublin. He knew his grandfather well, I recall him saying—of the 1,037 SS officers who perpetrated their unspeakable crimes there, a grand total of 170 were prosecuted after the war—but only learned what Maidanek was when he was a teenager, which experience led him too to Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz for six months. As a result of that experience, he came home intent on embracing Judaism…and certain, so he said, that he was not merely doing so as a way vicariously of atoning for his grandfather’s sins but, in a more positive vein, as a way of responding constructively to the horrors of the past by doing his part to preserve the religion of the murdered. (I remembering not feeling at all sure that that was a very good reason actually to convert to Judaism. But he seemed intent and clear-minded regarding the reasonableness of what had become his life mission. I lost track of him after we left Germany, so cannot say whether he reached his goal. A little bit, I hope he did.)

All of this sounds odder in the telling than it was in the hearing. I’ve lost touch with all of these people, actually, although I find myself from time to time wondering what happened to them. Perhaps they’re on Facebook! But I write about them today not to announce my intention to hunt for them, but as a way of introducing to you all a book I’ve just read, something that I think you would all find interesting and inspiring.

The book is called A German Life: Against All Odds, Change Is Possible, and it was written by Dr. Bernd Wollschläger, today a family physician in Miami, but formerly a medic in the IDF, and before that the troubled German son of a Wehrmacht general on whose chest Hitler himself pinned the Knight’s Cross on January 12, 1942 for bravery in battle on the Eastern Front. (Since the public display of Nazi symbols is forbidden by Germany law, the author’s father could only wear his medal at home once the war ended. What it meant for the young Bernd to have to spend every Christmas Eve at home with his father wearing a medal awarded to him personally by Hitler with a tiny swastika where the arms of the cross meet is one of the most personal, deeply introspective passages in the book, one you will not quickly forget.) It is an odd book in many ways, and in some ways a flawed one. (It seems odd, for instance, for a man as involved in contemporary Germany history as the author to confuse Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Nor does it behoove a married man, and a religious Jew at that, to describe his pre-marital affairs in quite as much detail as he does.) Still, the book is moving and very interesting. I recommend it to you all wholeheartedly.

I read the book almost accidentally: Si Seidel, a long-time Shelter Rocker, shared with me an on-line clip he came across featuring the author speaking in a Boca Raton synagogue on Yom Hashoah. (If you are reading this electronically, you can access the clip by clicking here.) Just sitting and listening to the man speak was a riveting experience that led me to do just a bit more research. When I found his book for sale—the book is available on and all the other on-line sites—I resolved to read it and, if it was as powerful as his remarks were, to recommend it to you.

In the past, it’s been the rare book by a post-war German grappling with his or her nation’s past that I’ve found totally successful. (I’ve generally found such books to teeter back and forth between self-serving and self-righteous, neither of which attitudes I find especially appealing.) But Bernd Wollschläger’s book is different. (If you look for it on-line, spell his last name Wollschlaeger and it will pop right up on your screen.) For one thing, the author writes totally guilelessly and openly, describing his relationship with his parents, but particularly with his father, painfully and very movingly. That the author himself clearly seems to understand his relationship with his father to constitute the background for his decision to embrace Judaism as a ger tzedek is itself unusually insightful, but that he trusts his readers to understand nuances that are generally glossed over in this kind of book—and particularly books written in English for non-Germans—is even more impressive. Wollschläger’s father, for example, was not a member of the Nazi party. Nor does the author hold back from describing the contempt in which his father held the S.S.—whom he looked down on as less than “real” soldiers assigned to foul clean-up work that no true German soldier would undertake after the Wehrmacht, the “real” army, had successfully secured some new territory for the ever-expanding Reich. Nor does he hold back from describing his father as a principled man brought low in life not by his regrets regarding his wartime record but by something as prosaic as alcoholism. What emerges is a complicated portrait of a complicated man and his long-suffering wife. You won’t like his father. But, even despite yourself, you will feel for him…and for his predicament in life and for his inability successfully to break with his own past and for his ultimately failed relationship with his only son.

Throughout the book, the author drops hints regarding the possibility of his mother being of Jewish ancestry. He himself clearly does not know if her dark, guarded comments in that direction were true. Nor does he even know if he understood her properly when she made occasional vague comments that could have meant what he himself obviously hopes they did mean. Yet the author appears specifically to have chosen not to pursue that line of ancestral research, although it seems odd—at least a little—that he hasn’t. But, as noted above, it is precisely in the author’s guilelessness that the books’ power, and also its charm, lie. Wollschläger seems unwilling to dissemble, clearly aware that the book’s power has to rest in his willingness to write openly even about things that most people in his situation would hide or at least prefer to omit. The chapters covering his initial trip to Israel, in the course of which he was shown around not only by an appealing Jewish girl doing her army service on Kibbutz Yahel, about sixty miles north of Eilat, but also by an angry Palestinian young man from Abu Ghosh, an Arab town just west of Jerusalem on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, are very successful. Most moving of all is his description—also unguarded and very openly written—of his encounter with an old man at the Wall who seems just for a fleeting moment to be able to peer into the author’s soul and who tells him something that, for once to mean the words literally, changes his life.

Jews born into the faith tend to find the whole concept of conversion slightly mysterious, as though embracing Judaism were the equivalent of signing up for a lifetime of obsessive insecurity about the present and worry about the future. That being the case, it would do readers so-mystified to read this book, which is as stirring and encouraging as it is frankly written. The traditional High Holiday liturgy never seems to tire of reiterating that the gates of repentance are never closed, that t’shuvah, return, is always possible. We say it. And mostly, even, we mean it. But to read Bernd Wollschläger’s story is to be reminded that that truth is not only applicable to specific instances of wrongdoing or moral miscalculation, but to life itself: the ability to chart one’s destiny in life specifically along the lines of one’s own moral consciousness and to pursue a path forward in life that, for all it may constitute a total break with one’s own past, is solely and absolutely a path of one’s own making, and to do with specifically without reference to one’s own past or one’s family’s history—that is the deepest of all lessons readers will take from this book. I enjoyed it immensely and I think my readers will too!