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Vision of Unity

An activist poet explores the religious side of social justice

Nelly Reifler
March 06, 2008

In 2002, my mother’s dear friend Barbara Krauthammer died, at the age of fifty-eight. Though her death felt sudden and premature, it didn’t come as a surprise. For years Barbara had known that she had a congenital disorder, arteriovenous malformation, and that her tangled blood vessels could cause a fatal stroke or hemorrhage at any time. At the funeral, I met Barbara’s sister, Elisa, and Elisa’s grown children. All the nieces and nephews were dazed and shocked—but still, each managed to speak about their aunt. Later, at the graveside, Elisa’s second oldest, Sarah Horowitz, led the Kaddish.

Sarah is a poet who majored in creative writing at San Francisco State, then went on to get her MFA from the University of San Francisco. She recently completed her credential in early childhood education and works with autistic children. She’s also a human rights advocate, working with organizations devoted to such issues as AIDS in Africa and universal access to education. Sarah grew up in a typically lefty family in (as she calls it) “The People’s Republic of Berkeley.” When Sarah was in junior high her parents split up. Sarah says her father had always been “devoutly Marxist,” and her use of a word usually associated with faith is no accident. When Sarah was a teenager, her father had an epiphany, went through a conversion, and became a zealous Republican. Having observed her father and his radical swings, Sarah grew up to be wary of ideology and dogma.

And yet, when she was in her midthirties, Sarah herself went through a dramatic change. She found herself drawn to Judaism, and finally, inspired by a friend’s conversion, began attending Friday night services at a Reform synagogue in San Francisco. She discovered, though, that she wanted an experience that was more connected to the past, to tradition. She met the Conservative rabbi Alan Lew, who would become her mentor. Now, at forty-four, religious observance is at the center of her life. She moved to be within walking distance of the synagogue, and goes to morning and evening minyan throughout the week.

Sarah is a striking personage. She’s diminutive (shorter than my own five feet), clearly brilliant, and a little ferocious. Severely hearing impaired and suffering from arthritis in her hips, she fights against these impediments with intensity.

Postscript, March 10, 2008: Sarah died the day before this interview was posted. None of us knew until the day after. My conversation with Sarah had started with a discussion of how to deal with sudden, shocking loss spiritually and psychologically; I know that the people who knew and loved Sarah are working to do just that right now. I’m glad that some have used the comments section following the interview to talk about Sarah, and I hope that those who didn’t know her will read the words of those who did.

You and your aunt Barbara were very close. I’m wondering if your religious practice helped you in the aftermath of her death.

I think it did. I’m very comfortable with the fact that Judaism doesn’t have this highly developed idea of what happens after you die, like Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity. I pursued Judaism very much to find meaning, and I think at the heart of that pursuit is the fact that we all walk around with the knowledge that we’re going to die. After my aunt died I discussed it with my rabbi. He was talking about how there are some things that are gone—I’m not going to smell her or have back-and-forth conversations anymore. But he also said, “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.” Initially I think that the first part made much more sense to me than the second part. But as time went on, I did come to feel that she’s still with me in some way. I can feel her presence sometimes.

What do you understand the Jewish idea of the afterlife to be?

Some of the ideas contradict each other. There’s Olam habah, which means “the world to come.” This one is closest to the Christian idea of heaven, but I think the notion of heaven is a metaphor for communion with God, and hell is basically separation from God. Then there’s the idea that when the Messiah comes the dead will be resurrected. I say the prayer, “Blessed are you, God, you resurrect the dead,” every morning over my coffee. Gilgul hanefesh, the transmigration of souls, makes the most sense to me. It’s basically reincarnation. There is also a belief that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or are destroyed at death, ceasing to exist. I very much like the idea of the wicked being tormented by demons of their own creation.

You grew up in a pretty unreligious family and yet you were sent to Hebrew school. How did that come about?

My brother, Jonathan, became of bar mitzvah age. My grandfather was never a religious man, but as he was dying he got more religious—or he started to feel that it was important—and he wanted Jonathan to have a bar mitzvah. And my mom had been feeling like we were not going know what being Jewish was because we were living in Berkeley and not New York. So she sent us to Hebrew school. I got a kind of Judaism 101 out of it. But more than that, when I studied for my bat mitzvah, I got a sense of how Jews study text. I think that really stayed with me. I learned that we have stories about the stories. I learned that sometimes the stories interpret things in ways that are different from the texts themselves; it was like this ongoing conversation. I think that experience had a lot to do with why I started practicing Judaism later.

What do you mean by stories about stories?

Well, my bat mitzvah portion was about the Jews crossing the Sea of Reeds, and having this very celebratory kind of song—which in some ways is a little bit disturbing. They escaped and are about to go into the Promised Land, so it’s very joyous, but at the same time there are all these Egyptians that have died. And there’s a Talmudic story that is often told about how the angels started singing and celebrating with the Israelites and God got very angry with them. He said, you know, my people just died, you shouldn’t be celebrating. So the rabbis were disturbed by the same things that we might be disturbed by.

Do you think the understanding you gained about Judaism as a kid was an intellectual one or a religious one? Or maybe those aren’t separate things at all.

When I was a kid I had a very sort of intuitive connection with God, or whatever language you want to use. And as I got older, it’s not that I lost it, but my idea of what religion was became very overlaid with more fundamentalist ideas that didn’t resonate with me.

You mentioned that you pursued Judaism in order to find meaning. Were there questions that always haunted you?

How do we live an ethical life? How do we live a meaningful life?

Then how, in your search for meaning, did you wind up back with religion? For a lot of people, living ethically and being religious aren’t necessarily tied up with each other.

Judaism is really great for literature geeks because it is like living inside a metaphor. Like on Shabbat, you literally create this stillness before the lights go on, and you have this creation after the stillness. And on Pesach we live out the story of going from constriction to freedom. First, we do this compulsive cleaning, which puts us in a very narrow mind-set. Then we sit down to the Seder with our friends and family, and all this good food—and there’s this sense of liberation. Of course, the Seder itself is a reenactment of the Exodus story: we’re asked to tell the story as if we ourselves were brought out of Egypt.

I’d been living in the Mission [District, in San Francisco], writing poetry and reading it at open mics, really trying to find meaning through literature and sort of living the boho life. And I was writing a lot of letters for Amnesty International, specifically on the death penalty. I got very good at giving the secular explanation of why we shouldn’t have the death penalty. But I started to realize that what I really wanted to say is that it’s bad for the soul of the nation. And there’s no real traditional political language for that, the collective soul. At some point, I read this amazing sermon by Martin Luther King; he wrote it right after the Montgomery bus boycott. Basically he said don’t get on the bus full of braggadocio, because you still have to live with these people. And I kind of realized that that was the sort of political action that I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to recognize the dignity of living. I started exploring synagogues, and then I was very lucky to connect with a rabbi who had things to say that really resonated with me. This was seven or eight years ago.

Three years ago you went to Africa. What took you there?

During my aunt’s last years she lived with the knowledge that her life would probably be shortened. She took up pottery, traveled to Italy—just did all the things she’d always wanted to do, so I took that lesson from her. So now when I have an idea, like “I want to go to Africa,” I don’t put it off until “someday.”

There’s a group called Kulanu, and their mission is finding and supporting Jews in odd places. I went to Africa with American Jewish World Service, and Kulanu funded me. I had gone on shorter trips to El Salvador and India with the AJWS. In El Salvador, which was just a weeklong trip, we helped rebuild houses that had been destroyed in a hurricane. In India, we met with women who were doing amazing things like working on domestic violence and getting children off the silk looms. I knew I wanted to do a longer trip. AJWS has this kind of Peace Corps-like program, and I met someone who had been working with a group called the Abayudayah—which in the Luganda language means “the Jews.”

They’re in a little village outside Mbale in Uganda. They’ve been practicing Judaism since the 1920s. When Idi Amin was in power, they had to practice in secret, so they’re still in some sense rebuilding their community. It’s really inspiring to see, and it was wonderful to be part of it. Africans have this very highly developed sense of hospitality. They’re just really wonderful to be around. When I left, I told them that I hope that they come to America and help us develop hospitality and stronger families and community and vibrant religious life because they’re so rich in those things. I mean, their synagogue rocks. They’ve written African-flavored music to the traditional Jewish liturgy, and it’s awesome.

The ’20s seems fairly recent for a group of Africans to convert. How did that come about?

Initially Semei Kakungulu was the leader of the tribe. I think he was really annoyed with the Christian missionaries. The story is he holed himself up, and he read the Bible very carefully. And he said, “I don’t know about this Christian stuff, but these Israelites, they had the right idea.” So he came out and said, “We’re Jews,” and started practicing. It was kind of a biblical Judaism at first. Over time they met Jews from outside who sort of taught them more Rabbinic Judaism, so they now know what Hanukkah and Purim and things like that are. Recently some Conservative rabbis came and did a formal conversion ceremony. I think we’d actually call it a commitment ceremony because there was a little bit of discomfort with the idea that they had to convert—because they felt like they were born into the religion.

Have they met with any resistance from other Jews?

Yes, in parts of the Orthodox world. The liberal Jewish community has very much embraced them.

Did you find yourself having any resistance to them? Was there something that you think of as being Jewish that they didn’t possess?

It did make me question how much of what I consider Jewish culture is really Ashkenazi culture. A lot of the sort of clichéd things that we say about Jews are not necessarily true about these people. A lot of those cultural things we assume about Jews are really from a particular Eastern European kind of sensibility. I tend to assume that, you know, every Jew has this great library and that they’re voracious readers, but the Abayudayah are subsistence farmers, living a rural, village life. And there wasn’t the love of argument that you find among Jews here. There’s more of that veneer of African politeness.

It seems like you’ve found a religious structure for doing political work.

I think there’s a really fine line, and that a lot of what is going on now in our country around combining religion and politics is actually very dangerous. So it’s not about, you know, “God wants you to vote for the Green Party.” In my mind, it’s more about the way in which you fight the battle. Also at the heart of Judaism is Abraham’s vision of oneness, the idea that we’re all deeply connected. I think that is at the heart of things for those of us who pursue social justice. We feel that we’re not isolated, that what we do affects people across the globe. And as the world changes, that’s truer and truer.

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