When I was a young man and my family suddenly could no longer afford the life we had been living or our house or to send me off to Boston for college, I decided more school would have been a fool’s errand anyway—I’d put in my time. But if I wasn’t going to college I still felt the need to go somewhere. With inflated pride, I left that small New Jersey town and what would become increasingly distant memories of privileged comforts, the summer swim clubs, the crisp new shoes for each school year, the hot chocolate vendor and his $3 paper cups steaming from mittened hands along the Christmas parade on Main Street. Goodbye to all that, I said with shaky conviction. I was freewheelin’ and unencumbered, a young man with a badly drawn map of the world in his head, ready to go wherever the compass took me, and God help those I’d encounter on the way.
I would eventually swallow some of that pride, or rather exchange some at favorable rates for the grants I realized I could earn if I set my sights on lesser-known liberal arts institutions with generous financial aid packages. Up and down the eastern seaboard I enrolled and occasionally finished a semester or two, accommodating my peculiar need to never be beholden while finding some solace in directly deposited university funds and the occasional thrill of putting my nose up to the glass of the academic communities that resembled homes for those who thought ambitiously and shared ideas as if such undertakings were of any actual value to society. Technically part of eight separate undergraduate classes, I maintained a stubborn and steadfast ambivalence toward the normative American path I had for so long assumed to be the only way forward, that well-worn path of college followed by career followed by retirement, leisure, and light travel. I told myself I was lucky to have seen it for what it had been, a prefabricated existence, designed for those who departed from towns like the one in which I had grown up and requiring no more than adequate speech, good cheer, a firm handshake, and reciprocal behavior. I boasted and grimaced at how sure I was I didn’t want it, at how sure I was I wanted to go about it in such an ad hoc and scrambled way, with moving boxes, sets of keys, the succession of student ID cards, a cyclical process of accumulation and disposal. Propelled forward by an aversion to stability, my movements were dictated by fear and impulse as much as reason.
To prepare for each of the new roles I planned to perform on various campuses or in the many odd professional job opportunities that supported this way of living, which included small business technology specialist, aspiring screenwriter, county newspaper reporter, healthcare consumer products marketer, and brand strategist for a wholesale organic bedding outfit, I developed the habit of reading as if it were essential to my survival. This was not a thoughtful kind of reading. It was binge consumption. I was at my most attentive when practicing lines for the debut of my newest version. Rummaging through the archives of message boards, posted up on dusty stools in poorly insulated used book stores, seated in the always vacant cracked leather armchairs in the U.S. History section of Border’s Books & Music, I attempted to absorb (without having to make a purchase) the pages that contained what seemed to me like keys to the locked chests that contained my next iteration. Trade rags, magazine articles, memoir chapters, and the strange language of how-to books filled my mind, until most of it spilled over. So little of it stayed with me over time—it often felt like pouring an ocean into the shot glass of my permanent memory—but for a least a little while after I was able to maintain appearances and speak in a way that resembled native fluency.
Exhausted after one nine-month stretch of building, crashing, and burning a startup company in Massachusetts, I returned to a New Jersey I didn’t exactly recognize to work and pay back the friends and family who gave money to the failed startup. I took stock of the moment and realized that all those who could afford to risk a contribution to my ventures had walked the path of college and stable career I’d originally spurned. I thought it might be prudent to finally finish the education I was once so sure I never needed, in the English Department at Rutgers. I studied in a way I hadn’t before. I would put on the costumed graduation robe and shake hands with the dean. I took the job with benefits, sank into the vinyl dentist’s chair, got new glasses. I lived with roommates in an air-conditioned house and spent free time in an armchair bought for a song from a furniture store going out of business. Although I maintained the reading habit I was now reading for a different purpose. I looked back on the time that was a kind of surface shuffle and concluded I no longer had the energy. I took a long breath, and I realized I liked breathing.
We descended into the stairwell of Clydz, a martini bar playing LCD Soundsystem to a crowd of grad students happy to exchange $10 for strong cocktails and ambiance. The bartenders wore slim ties and crisp white shirts. Behind them dim lights fell upon tanks of exotic tropical fish. We’d known each other about a year but had only been dating for a few months. We sat on stools against the brick wall, steeped in the glow of our affection for the thing we had started to create together. The conversation I can’t exactly recall, but I remember vividly the conviction that looped loudly in my head. I must have not been the only one entertaining such possibilities. Twenty minutes after she excused herself to the restroom, I found her outside the doors crying. I wondered if perhaps I had made the mistake to not have read along the way some protocol handbook for falling in love.
Back on our stools quickly returned to us I ordered us stiff drinks as the tea lights flickered and listened carefully to the story of how she shouldn’t be here. Not in the sense of the early days of what might be the rest of a life spent together but rather in the twin strokes of luck that allowed for her, a first-generation American, to be alive at all. By way of the gun and other repugnant means both sides of her Eastern European family tree were all but erased from the page by the Third Reich for being Jews. The burden for her family’s surviving members included the duty to ensure the family’s Jewish lineage along its remaining branches. For her parents that duty manifested itself in the necessity that their own children perpetuate the Jewish home in which they were raised, with parents both of the faith. Socially liberal and culturally open-minded her parents nonetheless made clear that this was not a family matter up for interpretation. She did not insist or impinge on any subsequent course of action, she emphasized that these were only the facts of her situation. But I could see the great weight upon her and how its consistent application informed her steady gaze.
Two addresses in the same college town became one there and one in Brooklyn. I’d moved to the city for a writing program. I was there to do fully what I had been doing partially since I’d left home as a teenager, creating characters and building narratives within which they could exist comfortably. Perhaps now I could live just as one person and keep the acts of invention to the page. Writing offered the possibility to set down in a fixed time and space the experience of being subjected to otherwise difficult to articulate forces. This, anyway, was the possibility writing held out in front of me, there on the pages written by others but always elusive when I put my own pen to paper.
Brooklyn became the Bronx when she came to New York for a residency year to finish her doctorate. We merged our furniture, I put up my bookshelves, and we bought house plants. Our keys opened the same door and our things filled the closets. The No. 1 train took me downtown where for the first time I was on the other side of the glass. After class I’d pick up book money fact-checking pages for New York magazine and then go see writers at Housing Works readings. The entirety of the writing program took place on the seventh floor of a wide building that shared the block with what was left of the Village Voice newspaper. We were there to study and train in an art form with a name for which no one could agree. Longform journalism, literary reportage, narrative nonfiction. At the bar we joked about the practicality of suspending one’s life for two years to pursue a career in a field so amorphous as to lack a consensual identity.
But we knew this art form, like jazz, was an enduring American creation, with a history of practitioners that passed down its values and structural forms in the work itself, like secrets left out in the open. I found studying this form of art particularly appealing, in part, because it promoted the borrowing and reappropriation of all literature as a way to tell a factually grounded narrative, which felt comfortable in significant ways after years of doing something not entirely dissimilar. In its short history literary journalism soon became itself a mirror of the fractured American experience, in which generations of writers had made sense in their own ways of living in a nation built upon both myths and firm realities. The working journalists who taught us seemed to say here is how we ourselves manipulate these tools, do as you wish with them. On their own time outside of the program the writers we studied from and the others we read and admired were occupied with the interpretation of the craft as it had been refined and remade by their predecessors and contemporaries. By Joseph Mitchell’s profiles of city dwellers, careful studies of human behavior infused with his own existential sadness. By Janet Malcolm’s investigations into the psychology of competing minds through narrative. By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc creating an unseen New York City out of pointillist reportage. Our job was to figure out how to meaningfully carry the tradition forward.
We moved on a hot and muggy day in July, the sweat hanging on the tips of our noses while we hustled to pack the last of our things for Philadelphia. It was our second address together. An agreement about the definition of goodness, to one’s self and to others. A space to protect a set of ideas and beliefs and shepherd them along. All fragile concepts that I nonetheless preferred to believe to be true, out of desire and necessity both. We put the plants from the Bronx under a large window and watched them stretch and bend toward the light. She’d taken a job at a university, and I, although still clumsy with the heavy tools I’d brought down with me from New York, slowly found freelance gigs writing and editing. We bought a couch, and I put the plants that had outgrown their pots into separate containers. The following winter I found a local Reform temple and asked about meeting with a rabbi.
Behind the rabbi’s house in a neighborhood still flirting with gentrification he pointed out the thin track of land that he and his neighbors tended to as a shared summer garden. Inside he offered beer he had brewed himself and pickles he’d fermented as we discussed the logistics of my potential conversion. For some it takes about a year of study, he said, for others it can be a matter of decades. In either case, you’ll know when you’re ready and I’ll know when you’re ready. Only once had his student thought himself prepared when he, the rabbi, disagreed. Otherwise the sense is always mutual, he said.
She and I ate crackers and discussed the meaning of our Jewish home as defined by what would be our shared and individual Jewish identities. Unexpectedly I then began to float above myself, up toward the ceiling, and looked down to watch us sitting there casually on the rabbi’s couch. I hovered for a long moment above the scene, vibrating with possibility, before I fell back down slowly, inhabiting the familiar shell as I had left it. But it did not quite feel like the same fit. It seemed to constrain me, to limit the fresh intention to give myself over to something that was more than temporary.
Over months and many meetings I sat with my rabbi to talk about the succession of readings he or I selected to address the question I prepared as the focus of my studies, of what it meant to be a good person throughout Jewish literature, from the earliest texts to the rabbinical writings up to the modern era. In his office at the temple, at the beer hall, in the black vinyl booth of a loud restaurant we discussed the stories of Moses and Abraham, the Mishna and the Talmud, the writings of Buber and Maimonides. The question of goodness was quickly and consistently answered, imbued as it was with the core Jewish belief of every person made equally and the duty then for each thought and action to uphold and adhere to this universal equality. More elusive during my studies was the definition of what it meant to be a Jew—and for my particular inquiry, what would it mean for me to become Jewish? The answers to this secondary set of questions did not shake itself out as easily as the notion of a good person fell from light rattlings of essays and philosophical treatises. The only thing I could hold onto was the difficulty of the inquiry.
She and I went to services and I took a class at the temple on the rituals, holidays, and prayers. Over the course of a year I accumulated a small store of knowledge on Judaism that was largely overshadowed by the vast sum of things I had yet to learn and could spend lifetimes accumulating. On Rosh Hashanah we dressed up and joined hundreds of others in the temple’s sanctuary. It was a large space, with huge walls that peaked into a domed ceiling far above the street level. The orchestra played from a balcony up above the pews and a sweet mood mingled with the bright sound of the flute and violin. During his sermon the temple’s head rabbi spoke directly to me, asking rhetorically, “What is it about Judaism that is worth preserving and passing on to the next generation? What makes us Jews?” It was values, certainly, he said, but there would be nothing without the “words written on a scroll of parchment.” The study of this one thing, the reapplication and refinement of its meaning generation after generation—this, he said, is what has kept “the Jewish people together for 4,000 years.” After the sermon and a few prayers a thin man with black-rimmed glasses stood and puffed his cheeks to again blow a massive sound from the shofar horn. Soon we walked out of the temple and headed home, to prepare for the guests who would join us that afternoon for New Year’s dinner.
The weeks that followed the New Year were marked by the sound of pages turned in defiance of the rabbi’s sermon. I was not yet ready to confront the plain simplicity of his statement. That the responsibility conferred upon anyone who stands up and says, yes, I’m Jewish, is the ownership of the book and the notion that within its stories there is truth to be found. I needed more time before I took this responsibility on. I was not yet prepared. There was still too much to know about the history, the rituals, the ways in which the Jewish people have practiced, in public and in secret, for thousands of years. I needed at least a better understanding of each of these things before I fully squared up to the rabbi’s task.
It was no use. Or, at least, the path I followed through historian’s accounts and modern day writers all led me back to the same destination. Published at the turn of last century the pieces collected in Ahad Ha’am’s Selected Essays were the final rigorous reinforcement of what I’d already known but had been avoiding. In “Sacred and Profane,” one of the collection’s shorter pieces but no less significant because of it, Ha’am differentiates between profane objects and sacred objects by defining the profane, at least in the case of books, as “nothing but instruments for imparting knowledge,” like those written by Newton or Copernicus, whose ideas have been passed down to students who learn from lectures or teachers without ever consulting the original book in which the ideas first appeared. This is not the case with a sacred book. Because the book itself has been sanctified by its own sacred content, Ha’am says, “the book becomes the essential … [and] remains unchanged forever.” Throughout the centuries, the people have returned to the book to find something that was true, and “all found that which they sought.”
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.