By the Book
At what point does one decide between one’s family and one’s beliefs?
Readers, this is my final Searcher in the City column. When I started this project two years ago it was with a personal, maybe even selfish, aim: I hoped that by talking to other ordinary people about what they believed inor didn’tI would find some answers for myself. As a kid I was raised by parents who weren’t religious, but I always had hope that there was something bigger and more meaningful than what my five senses exposed me to. I was also always painfully aware of mortality, and have never stopped wringing my hands over the fact of death. (I got in trouble once when I was about eight for telling a playmate that she was going to die someday.) Going into this project, I assumed that everybody was as angst-ridden as I was about death and that there were infinite ways of thinking about God.
After doing about twenty interviews, which resulted in fifteen columns, I’m somewhat embarrassed to tell you that I was wrong on both counts. Pretty much everybody I talked to, including the eleven-year-old, has made more satisfactory peace with the Grim Reaper than I have. Also, there aren’t that many different things to believe when it comes to God: Either you believe God exists or you don’t. If there is a God, you may believe that God has some kind of form, is an entity. Or you believe that God is a metaphor for an energy that we cannot see; you just have faith that it is there. What is different is how people develop their belief systems.
Looking back, I see that before having these conversations I always thought of people’s faith as something that happened to them. But I started to get the sense that people choose faith according to their needs. I started to think that faith (even sincere faith that there is no God) grows from inside people and serves to grant them a sense of meaning and dimension in their lives. Some people need ritual and lore and written guides and scheduled worship with a group. Others don’t want to be hemmed in; they prefer to form their own rituals, conscious or unconscious, to connect with the ineffable. For others, there is no ineffable: It’s of utmost importance for them to believe that they determine the course of their lives, as if their choices are the things that hold most meaning.
The fourteen particular people whose conversations with me became columns had one thing in common: From the Orthodox notary to the little bat-mitzvah-to-be, they’ve all been pretty flexible folksopen-minded, reflective, and understanding of those whose beliefs are different from their own. Even the atheists were not dismissive of people who believe in God. I know that not everybody in the world is so forgiving.
As a daily reader of Nextbook, I’ve noticed that a lot of people who comment on articles here seem to be coming from a different ideological place from many of my fellow contributors and the subjects of my column. Some commenters are consistently offended by the interpretive, elastic approaches often taken to Judaism; they feel compelled to point out where rules are broken, or where the image of Judaism and idea of Jewishness are stretched too far. These are not gratuitously snarky Gawker commenters, but people who want to show others what they see as the right way to think, to behave, to be Jewish, and to read Judaism.
For my final column, I wanted to talk to someone who was less flexible. I wanted to talk to someone for whom dogma was a focal point of his life, and was of urgent and undeniable importance. (There’s nothing implicitly negative about the word dogma, by the way. The first definition that my Random House dictionary gives is, “A system of principles or tenets, as of a church.” Organized religions cannot exist without rules and tenets.)
For the past eleven years, Albert E. Bernstein, an accountant, has been doing my taxes. Albert is known among freelance writers and artists for making house calls, charging fair rates, and cheerfully wading through the tremendous piles of tax-related documents we collect. Albert and I had never really discussed personal matters, but the last time we saw each other he made a couple of comments that led me to believe he might be the missing piece in this series.
Albert is sixty-two. He grew up in Beacon, New York, and now lives in Rockland County. His father, a haberdasher, became ill at age forty, and Albert’s mother had to go to work to support the family; at the time, of course, working mothers were not the norm. Albert’s sister, Sheila, took over much of their mother’s role and looked after her two younger brothers. Albert went to community college, then Bridgeport University. He finished his education at Baruch College, where he took advanced accounting courses. He got married in 1968 and has three children.
Albert, you once told me that you make people angry when the subject of religion comes up. Why?
Well, I feel as if I’m at a point in my life in which I’m questioning my own actions over the course of my lifetime, and I’m confused over the actions of others. I’m also thinking about the reconciliation of what I believe in with the long-range forecast for religion. I feel it’s very possible that the Jewish religion as we know it will no longer be here tomorrow. With the exception of, perhaps, the Hasidic movement. And I’m frightened. And it’s gotten me into trouble within my own family.
Why has it gotten you in trouble with your family?
Because I have indicated to them that family members do not have freedom of choice if they want to remain in the family. With my three children I have always let them know where I stood. They’re free to do whatever they would like, but they are not going to be allowed back in my house if there is a deviation from where I stand. My oldest son, no problems, everything was perfecthe had choices to make and made the right choice. My second son is not married. He has some mental problems, so I don’t perceive that he will be married in the future. And my daughter has caused some hectic times for me. But I have indicated to her exactly where I stand, and she has come back to the house.
What exactly do you mean by making the right choices?
My eldest son married a Jewish girl. And it was a religious marriage.
And does it go beyond that?
Nope. I consider myself a very liberal individual, but the definition has changed since I was young. From other people’s points of view, I’m probably now conservative. People have their freedom of choice, but as far as religion is concerned, there is no choice.
My sister is a very devoted, religious individualin fact, she and her husband have both been presidents of their synagogue in Pittsburgh. They have four children, and they all went to religious camps in the summertime. They had extended education in Judaism. And now their two daughters have married interfaith. So I do not talk to them anymore. And that has gotten me into trouble with my sister.
I can imagine it has. Why don’t you talk to them?
Because I don’t believe they’re part of my family anymore.
So when you say that it’s so important to preserve Judaism, are you expressing a desire for the religion to remain alive? Or does it have something to do with Jewish ethnicity and identity?
Certainly, religion has a lot to do with it. But my thought process has been, “Wow, five thousand years, we’ve never had a problem. And the last fifty years, all sorts of problems are going on in Judaism.” And why? What has changed?
What are these new problems that we didn’t have for the previous five thousand years?
The problem is that our society, meaning the Jewish society, accepts intermarriage.
Judaism does have a matrilineal tradition. Your nieces’ children would be Jewish.
My sister uses that argument. It’s just rationalization, as far as I’m concerned.
What if one of your nieces married a guy who had been raised, say, Catholic and converted to Judaism before they got married?
I have no problem with that, as long as it’s an Orthodox conversion.
Do you feel that there is a God who’s watching this, and that Jews are failing him in some way?
I do believe in God. Do I feel that we are offending him? I don’t know. Everybody has their own particular relationship with GodI can’t speak for other people. I just have to live with myself; I feel what it is to me. It’s me and my relationship with God that I have to take care of.
How do you experience your relationship with God?
I observe the holidays. I observe my day off on Saturdays. I read Torah, I study Torah. I visit Israel as many times as I can. My relationship to God is that the things that happen to me or my immediate family are destined by him. They’re beshert. There’s a master plan, and I just pray that the master plan would make me happy.
When you pray, do you feel a presence?
I feel his presence all the time. It makes me feel comfortable and makes me feel provided for.
And is that because you feel that everything that happens has been destined by him?
Well, that and the fact that I’m doing the right thing. Part of being religious, in my eyes, is doing the right thing. Not being unfaithful to your wife or your children, and providing a living, and doing the right thing.
You said that recently you have been questioning some of your own actions of the past. Which ones?
I don’t believe I would have joined the Conservative movement if I could do it all over. A schism in the 1970s allowed Egalitarianism into the movement. Most synagogues went along with the changes, which includedfor examplemaking the women’s role equal to the men’s. The Torah specifically prohibits individuals from acting and dressing as if they were of the other sex. And the Torah defines the roles of both men and women in prayers, holiday responsibilities, and moral activity. I would’ve raised my children differently, in the Orthodox movement, if I had known all the things that were going to happen in the Conservative movement. And who knows, I might not have married a wife who was Conservative. Maybe I would’ve married a wife who was Orthodox.
How did you decide to join the Conservative movement?
When I was a child my parents were not religious at all. Never went to synagogue; religion was not a big deal. When I was about nine or ten, though, I started to go to synagogue every Saturday. My best friend was the rabbi’s son who lived next door. I learned a lot during those years, and although I didn’t go to a yeshiva, it was almost like going to yeshiva. The rabbi, my friend’s father, was a gentle man; he was a teacher in the true sense. I think he was liberal in his attitude. He would pick up a newspaper walking home from synagogue. And he would say that it’s okay, because he didn’t have to pay for it; it was on an account. He taught us a lot of different things: He taught us charity, he taught us how to spend the rest of the Saturday. In the morning we would stay in the synagogue after services and sit around and play games. In the afternoon, as a group we went to visit the homes of sick people and the elderly. The only time that I didn’t go to synagogue was from when I went to college in 1968 until I got married and our first child went to Hebrew School in 1982. And then I came back to it.
Have you thought about becoming Orthodox now?
I’m seriously thinking about it. But I don’t know if I really would.
What’s holding you back?
Well, it’s not my family. My family is not Orthodox. So I would be…not alienated, but different. And I still want to be me, I don’t want to feel that I’m doing something that I don’t believe in.
When you were a kid, did you feel the constant presence of God and faith that everything is destined by himas you do now?
I don’t know if I really had the deep religious thoughts at that age. I just did it.
Do you think that deep religious experience can come out of ritual that’s performed just as gesture?
If people just do things by rote, they get tired of it over time. I think there has to be some type of meaning attached to their actions. If not at the beginning, somewhere later on.
Why does the idea of losing the Jewish religion as we know it frighten you so much? Enough for you to stop speaking to family members, I mean?
Because I believe that there are a lot of good things for this religion. It preaches good things, healthy things for the soul, for the body. A good Jewish background means that you’re going to be a good person. It stresses teaching, education, charity. That’s not to say that if you don’t follow Judaism those things can’t happen, but somehow I think your values are compromised. When you start compromising your values, it can lead to anything.
Is there something that could get you speaking to your nieces again?
They marry Jewish people.
Moving to Vienna for four months was hard. Living with a former skinhead was even harder.