In the fall of 1951 the late philosopher Richard L. Rubenstein took my father down from the uptown Jewish Theological Seminary to the bowels of Brownsville, Brooklyn, to visit the iconic Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the emergent head of Yeshiva Rabbenu Chaim Berlin.
My father felt as though he were the high priest given permission to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur—a room filled with smoke and frankincense. But instead of finding the Holy Ark and cherubim, he found the rabbi, shrouded like the Wizard of Oz in smoky mist, with a silver-knobbed cane, saying a shiur with so much fervor that two young men were deployed on either side with towels to cool him down like a prizefighter between rounds at a boxing match.
In short, my father, just 21 years old and a few months shy of ordination (which he ultimately received) at JTS, was converted. It was his Mount Sinai moment. The venerable Rav Hutner, a denizen of the streets of Warsaw, was a disciple of the Rav Noson Zvi Finkel, der alter fun Slabodka. There was smoke (from the cigarettes), there was fire and passion; the rabbi’s body shook as he spoke in a fantastical Polish Yiddish.
This was the real thing. No Madison Avenue American rabbinate here, with none of the grand bargains American rabbinical seminaries had to offer Yiddish-speaking immigrants with their emerging breed of spiritual leaders—neither for the rabble of the Second Avenue theater crowd nor for the “promising” new watered-down religion for the suburbs—but the genuine article.
For my young father, at that moment with the rabbi, everything that had been until then true was now false. Conservative Judaism was kefira (heresy) and the Torah taught at Chaim Berlin was emes (truth). My father’s beautiful forehead beamed back at the sage and the utterances, words, deeds, and writings of Rav Hutner became imprinted on my father’s brain for decades and decades to come, informing on how to live as a Jew, as a rabbi, as a man; how to think, how to be a human being.
“Conversion” in the most common parlance refers to changing religion, but there are many kinds of conversions, moments where a new set of beliefs or behaviors, a new identity, or a new way of life replace what came before. In my father’s case, it was a conversion within Judaism. People are skeptical of conversions—especially the sudden kind. We are quick to say that conversions are counterfeit—that we always somehow remain what we were before. For the extreme cynic, conversion is seen as some kind of trick, or perhaps a magical escape from the “torture” of normal human doubt and ambivalence. (Somehow, we think that slow is better; gradual realizations and changes seem more plausible, more trustable.)
Nevertheless, conversions abound.
My own profession, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, promises all kinds of conversions. We therapists make a living because human beings are the only animals that can and want to be other than what they are. We will convert symptoms of misery into “acceptance” and even happiness. You want to lose weight? Find love? Relax. We will “convert” you to have a happy life, dammit!
Religion even commands us to “convert” in the form of repentance at Rosh Hashanah time. You will be better and if your penance is sincere and accepted—even your sins will be converted into merits. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “If your sins be like scarlet, I will turn them white as the driven snow …”
In truth, good therapies and good religion promise that we can convert you to a better material or spiritual world—and we, the high priests, will show you how.
What is all this conversion about? Are all conversions the same? Does it work? How does it work? Who does the converting? This time of year with the High Holidays and season of repentance, these questions become ever more urgent.
When I was a young boy of 7, I looked down at my legs in shul when we bowed on Yom Kippur and I thought how wonderful it would be to have strong athletic legs that could climb up trees and run the bases. But alas, I was a short dumpling who couldn’t run, climb, or see the ball—never mind catch it.
I knew I wasn’t cool, but like many people, I longed to be. My father had enrolled me at the school where he was principal: a Hebrew day school—Jewish, traditional, and Zionistic, to be sure, but with a frosty feeling toward the thick culture of Talmud and the like. In second grade, there was a guy named Jay Tuch. He was a handsome, cool boy who could punch the hell out of the ball at recess. The girls liked him, too. I wanted to be like him. Instead, I was stuck with a lot of adult ideas in my head—things my father told me about his rebbe, Rav Hutner.
By the time I was 12, I knew that my attempts to convert to the religion of “cool” wouldn’t bear fruit. Well, if I couldn’t be cool, with all the Talmud my father taught me and the gospel of gloom he fed me about the “corrupt” men at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at least I could be “converted” to become a yeshiva bochur—a young man immersed in the world of Talmudic learning. And I succeeded. I can even tell you the exact date of my conversion: Aug. 28, 1975. I was 12 years old and that was the first day of my life that I entered the world of serious study of the holy books. And, just like my father, I was “converted” by a charismatic rebbe.
The first zman, semester of that year, we learned Tractate Kesuvos and in short order, we had a farher, an exam, from Reb Chaim Segal, the resh mesivta, the dean. I studied hard and really knew the Gemara well. In Reb Chaim’s austere and spare office with windows that looked out over Coney Island Avenue, I stood in front of a heavy steel desk with thick telephone lines that ran across the top and gave over an interpretation from Reb Elchonon Wasserman, the martyred Lithuanian sage from Baranovitch. Reb Elchonon had deftly resolved a contradiction in two rulings by Maimonides on the halachic parameters of a damsel in distress and the meaning in Jewish law of conversion by coercion. For this I received the grade metzuyan bakol—excellence in everything.
I was so intoxicated by Reb Chaim’s praise, approval, and pride in my limited mastery, from that day on, I wanted to “convert” my thoughts to his thoughts, his ideas to become my ideas. Of course, I could not mimic him. He was in a different galaxy as a human being.
He wore the big hat of a “great” rabbi. He was the most charismatic, greatest man that I had encountered to that point in my 12 years. He was the real deal, an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust, whose father had a hardware store in Ostrow, Poland, before the war, who had survived incarceration in Siberia and knew in his bones the whole Torah—and the chassidus of the sfas emes, the Rebbe of Ger, to boot. He also had a connection to my own patrimony: the rebbe of Novominsk of Warsaw.
Reb Chaim was handsome, too, and like his rebbe, the great man, Rav Hutner, he spoke a rich Yiddish. He, too, thought of a yeshiva as a mini-Mount Sinai and a rebbe as a miniature Moses. When he explained the Gemara in baba metzia about a geborgene ki, a borrowed cow, it was straight from the bais medrash of Ger and Kotzk and Baranovitch. He was intimate with these places and knew their ways and their melodies from before the war.
My “conversion” to yeshiva bochur “worked.” I wore a black hat (Rav Segal referred to the hat as the “crown of the yeshiva bochur”) and took Talmud study arayn in beyner, in my bones. Nevertheless, my conversion was incomplete, insofar as most conversions made at the age of 12 cannot be completely relied on. It would be no surprise that at around the age of 16, a certain kind of doubt crept in. Maybe it was not a doubt, really, but a restlessness that mimicked a doubt, or perhaps a doubt that mimicked restlessness.
If it was a doubt, then it was most certainly a doubt about love. The biology boiled up in me; the sap rose high into the tree, sending me into a lustful fever. I still idolized the men from Baranovitch, but I tuned out a bit. In conflict and great fear, even as I was still in yeshiva for several more years, I began to put down God’s books, at least for a while, and began to read some others.
And on my way to discovering my own mind, I became interested in Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus, the French films of Jean-Luc Godard. Suddenly I found “truth” in the works of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth—bad boy Jewish men. Things and ideas that my father and most people I knew disavowed or repudiated, I now saw as hip.
Did that render my conversion invalid? I thought so at the time. I felt impure, at odds with my culture and in some kind of spiritual trouble.
In short, I was ripe for another conversion. But a convert often needs a converter. I found such a person.
A friend of mine recommended a certain psychoanalyst. He was charismatic and Park Avenue beautiful with expensive suits and high tastes. He had come from a religiously observant family but he made a living and a life without God. He wasn’t a terribly good person but neither was he terribly bad. He was reverent not in a religious sense, but in a different way than I had known. He also knew how to talk to women so that they would listen to him, yet he didn’t take advantage. He revered and celebrated life—both his life and life in general.
He saw everything—love, lust, religion—as merely a means to get something or to get somewhere in this world. He didn’t believe in an afterlife. There was something so vital about his approach; he seemed brave with his use of words. He told the truth and it felt as though his courage came from his ability to defy his father and his god.
I tried to convert to “him” and his “religion” of psychoanalysis—I loved and admired him—but although I tried, that conversion did not work. It was a terrible idea that skipped over the messy work of having to know myself. In any case, I could not be him because I did not have his abilities. Also, he hated his father. I mostly loved mine. This would have made my conversion more difficult, yet psychoanalysis, with its rigor and discipline, became for me a sword of wisdom—a powerful way to reach emotional but not ontological or theological truth, so that my “conversation” with psychoanalysis could continue without a conversion. Instead, the analysis helped me to retrace the steps of my youth, my father’s conversion, mine.
I realized that my conversion was sustained throughout my life by conversation with all the forces that brought me to yeshiva in my youth—the never-ending back and forth of the rabbis and their song of disputations. I noticed that a real conversion doesn’t just change you but continues to speak to you—to all of you. I imagined my father speaking and the rosh hayeshiva speaking back—something inside both of them boomeranging like in romantic love. When my father was in the Air Force, they corresponded. I have a shoebox full of those letters between Rav Hutner and my father. They are filled with both love and law.
From Moses at the burning bush to Ruth the Moabite in Bethlehem, the Emperor Nero to Oskar Schindler, conversions may have a dramatic moment of focus, but they are sustained in conversation. Schindler was converted in a blessed moment by the sight of a gorgeous little girl in a red coat, from lifelong scoundrel and yearslong stooge for the Abwehr and the SS to saint and savior, but he was in continual dialogue with evil (Goeth) and good (the people he saved) to sustain it.
I may have converted in a moment when I was 12, but the conversion was actually a long and complicated conversation. The love and other feelings I had for my father when I was a boy got converted into a love of Talmud and eventually a love of my profession and life itself as I grew to become a mature man.
The pieces in us that are stiff-necked, remorseless get converted in love, in religion, in therapy, spurred perhaps by a lightning-bolt moment of pain, punishment, or betrayal but the conversation continues. Freud once suggested that we are never so much cured (converted) as we are distracted by pleasure, by intense pain, by love until we arrive at a different place.
By tradition, during the Days of Repentance, we go to the cemetery to visit the dead—a September ritual. Near me, the northern New Jersey trees give more light than shadow on a late Sunday afternoon this time of year. Our dead, our precious dead, a few feet below the frost line, green grass above, we place a rock on the tombstone. There is a mingling here of certainties and uncertainties. The sterile certainty of death mingles with the fertile doubt and confusion of love and life.
Tradition impels us to lie down among the dead to remind us that our lives will one day end and we will be brought to account, so repent! But lying down among the dead may not be enough. Lying on the therapist’s couch may not be enough. We might hear something inside us or outside of us, something friendly, something loving hopefully: We can convert to something different, something better.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.