A long time ago, my uncle—who was a great Talmudic scholar, but really quite a wild man—told me about something that happened in yeshiva in the early 1950s. A group of young bokhurs gathered at a coffee klatch, and someone asked the following question: What would you do if you found out you were not Jewish?
A number of the men immediately said if they had found out that they were gentiles—say, they discovered they had been adopted as infants—they would run, run to the nearest mohel and convene a rabbinical tribunal at the mikveh and immediately convert. They wouldn’t spend an unnecessary second in goy-hood. To think, a Jew being a gentile!
My uncle, a man of Paul Bunyan size (it was said that he had a try-out as an outfielder for the Yankees in the early 1940s), was not as quick to shun the lusty pleasures his friends had so quickly disavowed. “Not so fast,” he said. “First I would go into a restaurant—a fancy one—maybe the Russian Tea Room or the Four Seasons. I would order shrimp and taste lobster and look around and see what other pleasures might be offered to a man.”
His point wasn’t that he actually desired to be a gentile, to leave his studies and his religion behind. Quite the contrary: The fact that he understood the appeal of such forbidden pleasures and was aware of what his life might have looked like—but didn’t—meant that he was even more committed to his Judaism. He knew what he was missing and he chose, in his actual lived life, to miss it every day.
His simple, powerful story ignited in me the question of the unlived life—the alternate life each of us might have lived, if only circumstances had been different, or different choices made. Suddenly, what never happened or could have happened or should have happened seemed terribly important. The woman or man one didn’t marry was as important as the one you did marry; the road not taken as illuminating as the one taken. I remember a young man in my own yeshiva who was accepted to Harvard Law and rejected it to devote himself to Torah study. He was forever known not for his Talmudic scholarship, but as the man who rejected Harvard; the path he didn’t take underscored his resolve as a Torah scholar.
I’m not the only one who ponders what might have been—and some go even further. The fascination with what alternate lives we might have lived is, I believe, part of the reason for the recent popularity of ex-Orthodox “apostate” memoirs, such as Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return. When today’s equivalent of my uncle’s yeshiva boys conclude that fantasy is insufficient, they decide to actually live their alternate lives and leave their community behind. Readers are fascinated because the genre calls us into the ring of a bout between two evenly matched heavyweights: In this corner we have passionate religion, which demands conformity; and on the other we have the individual human spirit’s refusal to be subjugated.
But for many of us, we don’t need to leave our religious lives behind to experience these other lives; knowing what paths we have not taken can strengthen our resolve to remain on the ones we have chosen. The lives we did not lead, for whatever reasons, do not get neatly put away in some tightly shut drawer. Instead, these unlived lives rumble loudly underneath us every day, shaking us up like a Manhattan subway. Sometimes my thoughts about what might have been can border on the regretful. Other times, though, they strengthen my belief that I have chosen the right path: I did this, I chose this because I am a Jew, or because I am who I am, and (to quote the Bible,) “I will be what I will be.”
As a young man, I was tormented by the lives that I rejected as well as those I had not lived due to reasons beyond my control. For example, had I been a foot taller, or even half a foot, I might have been able to play basketball and been the object of the adoring attention of my junior high school’s cheerleaders. Unfortunately, my lack of height and early lack of athletic prowess left me sidelined. I longed for a different life than that of a rabbi’s son, but I wasn’t going to find it on the basketball court.
Alas, my short stature and marginalization on the court lent me to the role of longing observer. I did not know quite what to do with myself for a time, but I was fascinated by the lives around me, absorbing and recording everything I saw and heard, and over time I began to record and absorb some of what I didn’t hear. This has only increased with age.
In choosing the life I did, I passed up on several others. When I was in my 20s, my roommate and I on a whim decided to take acting classes. One day, partially from a sense of loneliness, but more so from my unquenchable thirst for adventure, I sidled over to a gaggle of beautiful women and declared that I was going to a Yankees game the following Monday night and they were all invited to join me. A number of them said they would, but only one actually called me and told me where to meet her. Her name was Amanda and she was from an exotic (to me) state far from New York that contained a large slice of Appalachia. We traveled together on the D train up to the Bronx, and she stood closer to me than most of the women I knew did. I thought it odd that a New York Jew should be speeding through the digestive tract of the city inhaling the fragrance of this gentile young woman. But I was living a fantasy. As it turned out, so was she. I overheard her payphone conversation with her mother at the stadium: “Can you believe I am at Yankee stadium—with a Jewish guy!”
Later in the evening after the game, I accompanied her home to the Village, where she invited up to her apartment. For a moment it all flashed in my mind: Perhaps it would all have been a harmless indulgence, but she didn’t know the torture she was in for. She could not have known that I was already married—to my father and my tribe; I might have divorced them in my fantasies, but it would be bloody, too bloody for it to be worth it. I would never have been able to separate. I decided to spare this wonderful gentile girl the pain. I bade her good night, never to see her again.
It was probably my unflagging curiosity about the unlived life that led me to my vocation of psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis one’s ear is always cocked to what is not being said as much as to what is being said. Psychoanalytic thinker Adam Phillips writes that we are susceptible not just to our own unlived lives, but to those of our parents and spouses, too.
My father, for example, seriously identified with the Tevye character in Fiddler on the Roof. I could never fully understand why. To me Sholem Aleichem was a purveyor of kitsch and sentimental mush. But my father went to countless productions in both Yiddish and English. He loved it and quoted (and misquoted) Sholem Aleichem’s masterful creature of balance, the einfacher mentsch, Tevye—an everyman who is a fantastic amalgam of ignorance and crude erudition, piety and irreverence, jester and truth-teller—somehow both an uncultivated boor and a wise man. If I were a rich man. What a life he would have had. How different and how much better than the one that he had.
Often in synagogue and elsewhere, meanwhile, I saw how the amei haaretz, the non-rabbis, even the rich ones with seemingly the world in their hands, would fawn over my father. “Rabbi, how do you understand this or that verse?” “Does the Torah permit this or that? “Is it OK for a man to eat such-and-such?” Gradually, I came to the understanding that they—garment-factory supervisors, carpet kings, tsars of the fruit business—had secret, unlived lives, where they traded their riches for a more pious occupation. I remember one man, the sultan of the supermarket trade whose business did in those days $600 million a year, and yet he wanted to be like my father, an “important” man. All the while, they didn’t know that my father, too, secretly in some other non-lived life of his, longed for the Cadillac of the supermarket mogul rather than his rabbinical Chevy.
Modern man struggles with the unlived life more so than our forebears did. For my uncle, a man of his time, he could expect to remain exactly as he was throughout his life. Fantasies could be had, but they would remain just fantasy, not more. Not so for us; all would seem to be in our grasp: a secular life, a religious life, and everything in between.
We all have a life and a potential life, and sometimes it feels as if nothing, not marriage, nor religion, feels sacred enough to get in the way of one’s potential, as-yet unlived life. But of course it is exclusiveness and total commitment that in part make religious groups (and marriage) attractive in the first place.
I think now that my uncle the scholar had it right. The holy life called for a full-throated fantasy of what for him was the un-holy one—otherwise his Judaism would not have been real. After all, even the most pious among us is deeply aware that save for a few accidental strokes or tiny flaps of the wings of fate, we might have been someone else, somewhere else or perhaps never been at all.
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