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Living With Uncertainty

How a mistaken cancer diagnosis led me to engage with Judaism in a new way

Jonathan Silin
August 28, 2020
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman

Growing up, I enjoyed celebrating Jewish holidays with my family and attending Hebrew school at our Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan. But when I left home for college in 1961, I also left behind any interest in Judaism. This rejection reflected both a late adolescent rebelliousness and the tenor of 1960s activism in which I engaged. Moreover, coming out before Stonewall, I knew that there was no place in midcentury Jewish life for a gay man. In an unrelievedly heterosexual and family-centered world, anyone nonconforming in any way, whether by choice or circumstance, was the object of pity or scorn. I wanted neither.

As an adult, my life has been consumed with issues of the here and now. An early childhood educator, AIDS advocate, and caregiver to my elderly parents, I have written frequently about the practical and emotional challenges of coping with loss and helping others through difficult times. Questions of a spiritual nature, of what follows life as we know it, didn’t feel salient.

Then, with a possible diagnosis, at age 70, of multiple myeloma—a cancer of the bone marrow that has debilitating if manageable impacts on the body—questions about the quality of life and larger meaning took on a new urgency.

As much as I am tempted to tell a story about how this confrontation with mortality led to a return to my Jewish roots, a messier narrative is closer to the truth. Messier because a curiosity and connection to Judaism had simmered within me long before the diagnosis, and the religion with which I reengaged was vastly different from the one I had left behind at age 17. The medical scare was a turning point that led me to a new understanding of the rich tradition to which I was heir and helped to quell my anxiety about what may lie beyond the current moment. But the ground had been prepared by my own efforts and a history over which I had little control.

While it’s true that during my 20s and 30s I seldom set foot inside a synagogue, in my 40s and 50s, years that coincided with the worst of the AIDS epidemic for American gay men, I became a High Holiday Jew, the kind my idealistic adolescent self would have disdained, while I struggled to reconcile my Jewish history with the need to mourn the searing personal losses of that pandemic.

Then in my early 60s while coping with the death of my first life partner followed in quick succession by both my parents, I began to attend a small congregation near my house on the East End of Long Island. I liked the balance between traditional prayers and innovative ritual, and was drawn to the rabbi whose intellect, spirituality, and canny ability to animate arcane Torah portions with contemporary relevance compelled me to return with increasing frequency. This was sufficient—until the possibility of multiple myeloma prompted me to ask more of myself and of my religion.

The morning after receiving the putative diagnosis, I found myself cycling to the park that follows the shore of Lake Ontario, a short distance from my Toronto home. Call it what you will—the need for affirmation, a meditation, an escape—I have ridden through every major crisis in my life and this one was no different. Then, stopping at a red light, just before the lakeshore and directly in front of the monumental beaux-arts Princes’ Gates of the Canadian National Exhibition Place, the future flashed before me: I am going to die soon and the world will go on without me.

It wasn’t that I imagined myself indispensable to the world but something equally narcissistic: How could I go on without knowing about the world? Of course, that was just the point: I wouldn’t be going on, at least not in the body that seemed to be failing me. A gay man in my 70s, I knew the toll that the disappearance of others can take and the way that they can linger inside of us. But I didn’t know how to think about my own end and found little consolation in Freud’s normalizing wisdom: Our rational, reasonable selves can admit that death is the inevitable outcome of life but “in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”

Although weeks of tests and scans proved the diagnosis incorrect, it had a lasting impact. At first I obsessed over the changes that I wanted to make in the paperwork of death and dying—living wills, medical powers of attorney, ordinary wills. The questions about what happens after life in this world persisted unabated.

In truth this was not a new concern but one that resurfaced from childhood. Then, I frequently pestered my father with questions about what happens when we die, part of an ongoing quest to understand how Jews differed from others. He offered little in response except to say that Jews did not believe in heaven and hell. When it’s over, it’s over.

My father’s matter-of-fact response seemed at odds with the deeply observant side of him I saw when we attended synagogue together. There, swaying back and forth, wrapped in his faded white and blue tallit, he conscientiously recited every word of each prayer in the book, most especially those that the rabbi chose to skip. In my childhood mind, my father’s pronouncement undercut the deep vein of spirituality that I witnessed in synagogue and that seemed to point toward something more enduring.

In contrast to my father’s personal, dare I say conversational relationship with his patriarchal God, my mother gave no evidence of being a believer. In a stereotypical 1950s way, her religious commitments were focused on the domestic world—keeping a kosher kitchen, lighting the Shabbat candles, and making family holidays. Wise about all matters psychological, she appeared no more interested in questions of what was to follow this life than my father.

As for my formal Jewish education at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, death was everywhere and nowhere. We were haunted by the Holocaust, the threat of war in Israel, our Israeli-born teachers whispering anxiously about sons and daughters in the army, and the annual Yizkor service when our parents discreetly directed us to leave the synagogue so as not to find ourselves awkwardly witnessing adults in tears.

These childhood memories only churned up resentment—all those decades later—at the unhelpful, often evasive responses of my parents’ generation. Was there something else in the tradition that would speak to my heightened anxieties about mortality? David, my partner, encouraged me to talk with the rabbi who led the services I enjoyed, and she eventually suggested creating a study group to explore key Jewish texts. That is how every Thursday afternoon for several summers, a half-dozen congregation members from diverse Jewish backgrounds came to sit on the back deck of the synagogue’s rented house and parse out two, at most three, sentences of Pirkei Avot.

Although the group was not designed to address my specific concerns about mortality, it marked a turning point in strengthening my connection to the tradition. Despite my questions about the texts, or perhaps because I felt free to ask them, the wisdom of the fathers finally began to get under my skin.

During the intervening winters, bits and pieces of Jewish learning started to appear in my secular writing, side by side with the postmodern scholarly apparatus that had been my grounding for decades. Reading conference papers about lifespan development while standing in hotel ballrooms or university lecture halls, I experienced a rush of adrenaline when referencing Hebrew words and Torah stories. I felt vulnerable in exposing my tenuous hold on these traditions in front of secular audiences and satisfaction at knitting together seemingly divergent aspects of my life.

While working on a paper about concepts of legacy, I also discovered Hillel Halkin’s After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition. I recognized Halkin’s name from my West End Avenue childhood. He grew up in the building next door to mine, and our mothers had been friends. When I was very young, we both attended services at the Jewish Theological Seminary with our families.

A scholar, translator, and prolific author, Halkin interweaves a compelling personal exploration of mortality with a history of evolving Jewish practices and beliefs regarding death. Where my father’s words had closed down conversation, Halkin’s chapters opened up a complicated Jewish past in which, more often than not, ideas and behaviors reflected local community practices. Life in the diaspora was far more permeable than I had imagined. Halkin helped me to see what I had assumed to be givens as socially constructed traditions, evolving over time, our future responses to death yet to be written.

Reading Halkin and participating in the summer study group, helped to quiet my anxiety about death. In addition, regular Shabbat services awakened something more intangible, dare I say spiritual, within me. There was at least one moment—putting on a tallit in the morning, reciting the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah, walking through the synagogue carrying the scrolls, listening to a dvar Torah—when I found myself preternaturally calm, my head free of thought, my heart engulfed by unarticulated emotion.

I began to appreciate how this container of Jewish practices could hold my need to reach beyond the present, to touch both the past and the future. I thought frequently about my parents and extended family. It was less the specificity of these memories, however, and more a sense of submergence in the flow of human experience that I welcomed. Letting go of the demands of distinction and specialness that were my familial inheritance was a relief from a burden that I hadn’t known I was carrying. At these times, striving to make a mark on this world seemed less important, and stepping into the river of life newly satisfying.

At the same time as the services fostered a letting go of self—we were encouraged to peruse the prayer book at will and follow our bliss—they were also structured by the traditional liturgy. Praying in a minyan, I learned, reminds us that we are social individuals, but does not mean that everyone is equally moved by every service. Some days we come to synagogue with joy and thankfulness, others with sadness and reproach. We show up, participate, and let the experience take us where it might with no demand that we adhere to a particular set of beliefs, nor any guarantee that the practices will lead to insight or transcendent moments.

Living between doubt and belief, without certainty and continually searching, is a challenge I had not anticipated when I began to reengage with Judaism, but one that may be at its core. According to several interpretations, next to the worship of the Golden Calf, the second greatest sin of the Jewish people was intellectual laziness. This is one lesson of the recent Torah portion Sh’lakh Lekha.

Here we are told that after wandering in the desert for two years, the Jews sent out scouts to report on the land they were nearing. While the scouts came back with a report of a promising land of milk and honey, 10 of the 12 advised against entering because the cities were fortified and people unwelcoming. Eschewing the challenge that the land presented, the people accepted a one-dimensional understanding of the moment, and rejected going forward as too dangerous. This rejection of a complicated opportunity then destined them to another 38 years of wandering, and Moses himself never to enter the Promised Land.

I am drawn now to a tradition that looks askance at a simplified view of the world. The land is dangerous and holds complexity and contradiction, the land is glorious and challenges us to live with others in a new way. I would suggest that the intellectual labor of holding disparate points of view in mind also requires emotional labor. Learning to live with conflicting truths means living with ambivalence, a challenge as much to our feelings as to our intellect. Hope and despair, belief and skepticism, courage and fear, reside within us and between us. We attend to them with the heart as well as the mind, memories of the past as well as our hopes for the future.

My confrontation with death while cycling to the Toronto lakeshore didn’t end with the relief of a misdiagnosis or with a few certainties from the Jewish tradition of my childhood. Rather, it led me to a radically transformed appreciation of a Judaism built on paradoxes and unanswerable questions.

I find reassurance in being asked to live with uncertainty. I can subscribe to a faith that bids me to question and debate, and to find strength in acknowledging my vulnerability and connectedness to others. I am comforted by ritual practices that embrace the limits of rational understanding, loss of agency, and anxious questions about mortality threading their way through my aging body and mind. After all, denying our mortality may be the greatest sin of all.

Jonathan Silin is the author of four books including Early Childhood, Aging and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground. He is a fellow at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto, and was the life partner of the American photographer Robert Giard. He lives in Toronto and Amagansett, New York, with his partner, David Townsend.