Lately, I’ve realized that experiential non-fiction books can be divided into two categories: in the first, a writer sets out to experience something in order to write about it. And in the second, a writer has always wanted to experience something, but is frightened/resistant/anxious/doesn’t feel she has any right (or all of the above) and so goes out, gets a book contract, and no longer has any choice in the matter. This is the category into which my new book falls. I have been on some version or another of a spiritual quest since the day I fled my Orthodox Jewish upbringing. But these quests of mine always stopped short. Or rather, I stopped them short. Given the pure, undiluted dose of religion that governed my whole childhood, anything that smacked of organized religion made me wary. And anything that didn’t (yoga, meditation, chanting, twelve step programs, you name it) struck me as not my territory. I couldn’t be Orthodox, and I couldn’t be otherwise. Which left me exactly nowhere.
Ever since I’ve embarked on this internal journey, I find that I recognize my teachers when I meet them. I also find that I stumble across potential teachers more frequently, because I’m on the lookout. Stephen Cope, Sylvia Boorstein, Burt Visotzky. These extraordinary thinkers and teachers have crossed my path because I have allowed myself to be on a path where I might meet them. And in my openness to them, they have been open to me. An extraordinary piece of luck on my part. Would I ever have had the nerve to get to know these people? Would I ever have felt that I had the right? Would I have been willing or able to accept their grace and generosity towards me–without the handy excuse of a book I’m writing? I would like to think that I might have. But I know better. This book, much like the New Yorker piece I wrote years ago about my father’s secret past, is something I have been desperate to do, but too afraid to find out what would happen if I opened myself up to the possibilities.
At the beginning of the summer, I joined Rabbi Burt Visotzky for coffee on the Upper West Side. We met at Cafe Edgar, one of my favorite haunts and the place where, many years ago, I used sit for hours and hours talking about writing with one of the people who saved my life, the novelist Jerome Badanes. Jerry died suddenly and tragically of a heart attack in his mid-50’s, and every time I am in Cafe Edgar I think of him and his profound influence on my life. So there I was with my new Rabbi friend, and he was asking me about Devotion. It felt like layers of my life were in that room.
Devotion is part-memoir, part-journey, I said. A bit like a puzzle, or a quilt. I’m writing about where I come from, and how my Orthodox childhood impacted my life and coming to terms with a relevant, realistic, meaningful way of incorporating all the complicated bits. For instance, I just wrote a short chapter, a childhood memory about watching my father lay tefillin each weekday morning before he said his prayers.
Do you still have your father’s tefillin? Burt asked.
Yes, I said. Picturing a midnight-blue velvet pouch somewhere in my basement.
Have you ever put them on?
I felt like Burt had suggested something heretic. Something boundary-crossing and impossible. Put on my father’s tefillin?
But I’m a woman, I said. Stating the obvious.
Women have worn tefillin throughout history, Burt said. It’s written in the Talmud that Michal, wife of King David, put on tefillin and the sages did not rebuke her.
And so Burt made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
If you want, I will teach you, he said. And so, a few weeks later, in his small, book-lined office in the Jewish Theological Seminary, the brilliant Rabbi took a couple of hours out of his day to teach a spiritually yearning, still-grieving daughter to wear her father’s tallit and tefillin. I wrapped myself in the shawl of my father and said the blessings I had heard him say every morning of my childhood. I cried as I breathed in the musty scent of the fabric not worn in over twenty years. And though I knew that my father would be slightly horrified at a woman wearing a tallit and tefillin, I wondered if maybe he might also be just a tiny bit proud of his daughter, trying to find her way.