1. How an Apostate Was Made
Out of some closet or other to create not a barbaric yawp but a titanic yawn. “Oh God, not one of Ken’s obsessions again!”
Yes. That again. So get over it. Or, as my mother would have said, “Geh kahkt auf in Yahm.” Here is my journey’s end. I hope.
Back in 1997 a number of strange and terrible things happened to me. First, my marriage ended, albeit informally and initially for the time being. My wife and I recognized that we’d been living inside a lie. Or I did. And I did not want to be the kind of man I’d become. Most of you know the overly-revealed details. Why redisplay them now?
Anyway, I moved into my own place after a peculiarly tense week in mid-April 1997. I was so unaccustomed to fending for myself that women in the ShopRite near my house had to help the helpless waif (me) negotiate my way around the market. I would not dignify it with the label PTSD. I’d simply say to myself, “What the fuck am I doing?” But God bless those ladies who assisted me.
Then came Monday, and back to work I went after spending a week on “vacation” moving 13 miles back and forth repeatedly between Wayne and Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Presumably, I drank myself comatose on Sunday night. This is news?
For whatever reason, when I got to work on Monday, I remembered something I’d forgotten, and that suddenly loomed as critical. That would be the night of the first Passover Seder: like most Jewish holidays, a time for family companionship. And suddenly I had no family. (“General Lee, I have no Division!”) I had cordially been not invited to sit with my wife and my kids. If my mother or mother-in-law had been alive, I would have been cordially disinvited from sitting with them, too.
Reconnecting with a faith I’d cast aside after my mother died in 1992 suddenly acquired the emotional level of a Class A Crisis. I wanted to rejoin in time for Pesach. But there was no place for me to go. The logical step seemed to be to call Jewish Federations in north Jersey and New York City. Whoever heard of a Federation without some communal outreach?
When I made some calls, I was informed that nobody had community Seders for the solitary Jew with no home inside his own tradition. I was frozen out.
I got crazy-desperate. I’d tried to keep personal business off the Internet, but this time to hell with propriety. I posted a cry for help to a mailing list called Opera-L. Lots of Jews, with even more opinions about everything from Marcella Sembrich and Emma Eames to Roberto Alagna and Placido Domingo. Right, a list for discussions of opera, an art of which I’ve been particularly fond since I was 14 years old. Is there a vacant seat…is there a table…is there anything for a solitary Jew on one of the most critical nights of the year, and at one of the critical turning points of his life? And the answer was always the same: lots of sympathy but no seat. It wasn’t a “fuck off” message, but the impact was the same.
At Morgan Stanley, where I worked at the time, we had to put a slug into our email with our contact information. So around two PM, the phone rang. It was a true gentleman named Rabbi Mark Loeb, Z”L, who led a congregation in Pikesville, Maryland, in the Baltimore suburbs. He said, “No Jew should be alone on the first night of Pesach. There’s a prepaid Metroliner ticket waiting for you at Penn Station. Take the 4 PM train to Baltimore, take a cab to my address, call when you get there, I’ll take care of that when you get here. You’ll be at my Seder, you’ll stay over, and I’ll drive you back to the Amtrak station in the morning.”
I couldn’t believe it. People don’t do things like that for total strangers. Do they? But I remembered God’s direction to the Jews about to enter their own land after their enslavement in Egypt: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.” My boss told me to get my stuff and go. I rushed to 33rd Street, picked up my ticket, and went to Rabbi Mark’s Seder. And I had a wonderful, haimische time. The food was catered; we sang the old songs I remembered from my misspent childhood. Mark sat up with me until 2 AM and simply listened to me unload. I was two days out of my marriage and I was very much in shock. He told me about his opera trips to Vienna and London, including one funny-horrible tale of a man who said that one of the greatest conductors he ever heard at the Vienna Staatsoper was “Der Jude”: Leonard Bernstein. Oy. And in the morning, again good to his word, Mark drove me to the Baltimore Amtrak station.
But then I had to confront my Jewish future. And I discovered that I had none.
I’d been at what amounted to the world’s greatest mustering-out party, and the idea of going back into congregational Judaism where everything is politicized, seemed not just alien but even repellent. Yet I had Cleopatra’s “immortal longings in me,” and a need for the House of Faith. My complacency was gone. All that was left was a wound, a trench in which I was the only occupant, and which was crying for some form of belief to fill it.
Well, God is One, but there are different ways of expressing and reaching that Divine Presence. And I found one that was one in three, and that had been dormant beneath the surface for years. It was called Christianity. And it long had been seductive and calling to me. I didn’t want to do this. I figured I was mad and courting total dispossession. But the pull was there. It would not go away. I read a website called Leaflets of Faith (I think it still exists, though perhaps under a diiferent name), and it had simple instructions for someone drawn to–in my case–Catholicism. Talk to a priest. Pray. Recite “Jesus, Lord, lead me where you want me to go, and I will try to follow.” I finally forced myself to say the words out loud at about 4 PM on June 15, 1997. It was as though a stone sitting on me for years had been lifted. The air in the room began to move again. “Oh my God, I think I’m a Christian.”
Just like that. Catholics call it the Baptism of Desire.
I’d had lots of desire in my life, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced desire on the spiritual level.
In any case, I began to receive Catholic instruction at a parish a few blocks from my house. It was heady stuff and I found it glorious. I even stopped off at daily Mass in the early evenings on the way home from work. I could have faked it and received the Sacrament, but I treated myself like a Victorian bride approaching her wedding night. “Not until we’re married.” And I married the Church on April 11, 1998. No, I will not follow that metaphor any further, except that by the end I’d become like Irene Forsyte married to Soames.
I was “adopted” by a priest who made me feel dirty because I was involved with a woman without benefit of clergy, even if we both were civilly divorced. In my insane state of mind, I felt encumbered and horribly guilty for everything.
2. Enter the Episcopal Church
If you fool me twice, shame on me. And I was fooled a lot. The priest who became my confessor was tearing me apart. Call it Masochism 101. Eventually I “defected” to the Episcopal Church. Many Catholics call it “Catholic Lite,” but it’s not. Same difference with Lutheranism, another spin-off from Rome. In any blessed event, I’d had enough of the beatings that would continue until morale improved. My morale improved when I got out.
Of course, it was not a straight line. Few things in anyone’s life are. I went back and forth for years. Catholic, Episcopal, Episcopal, Catholic, etc., etc, ad my nauseum. Everything but B’ahai. I even went to Quaker meetings here and there. I was the Hamlet of religious affiliation. I could not make up my mind. When I did, in 2007, because of a wonderful Episcopal priest in Rumson, NJ, I became a lot happier and less filled with tensions. I’d quit drinking some time before, I was taking medication for my mental issues, and I wasn’t quite that prone to guilt anymore. Anyone’s guilt, including my own. And I didn’t have to fight the Catechism of the Catholic Church anymore.
I’ll spare you repeats of the story of homelessness, of utter ruin. If you want to read that, be prepared to pay me. (I accept PayPal. If you think I’m kidding, toss some money into my account as a tip. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org.) When I was rescued from homelessness at the end of 2013, even though I’d been going to Catholic Masses because the parish was near the shelter where I lived, I finally found an Episcopal parish near my new home. It was low-keyed and not at all stressful. No pressure, no drama. That’s novel just by itself.
Finally, there was a phone conversation with a friend. I’ve known her for years. She paid for me to have my cat checked over by a local vet after the beast ran away and returned through the window like the Demon Lover after four horrible days of fear. I said to her, “You know what I did, don’t you?” Guilt, thy name is Wolman. She informed me that yes, she knew, but that I never stopped being a Jew. An apostate, perhaps, a meshummed, marching under a borrowed flag: but the door was always open for return, no questions asked. And if the questions were asked, I was under no obligation to answer them. From Christian or Jew.
Amazingly, in North Adams, Massachusetts, the last place I’d have expected to find a Jewish community outside Boston, there I found one. A synagogue. A rabbi. A whole set of practices forgotten, or so different from what I thought I knew that I could scarcely believe the world into which I re-entered.
4. “Who Is a Jew?”
That was a real popular question to ask, one Jew to another. It was generally asked by ultra-Orthodox (either Chassidic, Mitnaged, or Haredi, and look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s) to attack Jews who either entered the faith by a non-Orthodox path, or who observed it differently. It led to ugly confrontations, especially on Bitnet and Usenet message boards like soc.culture.jewish where, even in the 1980s, I was one of several compulsive posters who was treated like the goy I later became. It may have been good for honing argumentation skills, but it was a lousy way to practice one’s beliefs. And, apart from any other factors, it may have given me the last push toward the egress.
Well, I fit the classic formula: I was born of a Jewish mother. Actually, that may be a pretty lousy definition. Retrospective history has by now become offensive. The matrilineal model is one that Hitler used. This is a valid test? There are even some groups, especially among the Sephardim, who will not recognize as valid even the classic Orthodox conversion of a non-Jew. A man, for instance, undergoes instruction, followed by adult circumcision, so he can be treated like a piece of Hormel pepperoni? So the question arises: who cares what you say? Who are you to define who is a Jew? If Catholics have Baptisms of Desire, what stops Jews from having Yiddishkeit by Love and Need? In the old conversion method, if a person went to a rabbi and asked to convert, the rabbi was supposed to try three times to talk the prospective convert out of it. “Do you understand you are asking to throw in your lot with a despised people?” If the prospective convert persisted those three times, the actual process could begin.
I went through a far more informal version of this examen when I gravitated toward the Church in 1997. One priest, a friar at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 32nd Street, told me that the best man he ever knew was his father, a lapsed Baptist. It was his mother’s influence that put him on the path to ordination as a priest of the Franciscan order, and to the Guardianship of this vital inner city parish that actually took seriously the Corporal Works of Mercy, specifically feeding the hungry. I was told to search my motives. I didn’t know what they were except that I was answering a call of some kind. I moved inertially. In the town where I lived, there was one stumbling Episcopal church where there wasn’t even a regular priest. There was one Missouri Synod Lutheran church. And there were four Catholic parishes. For a goy-in-training, this became a no-brainer.
And there was no synagogue between Rutherford to the north and Irvington to the south. Nothing. In nearby Kearny, a former synagogue had been turned into a Portuguese-language Pentecostal church. If I’d wanted to remain Jewish, I’d picked the wrong place to live: the Ridge Road and Kearny Avenue band known as Cancer Alley that extended from Rutherford to Newark.
When I moved after I determined that Western Massachusetts was the right spot at the only possible time (was life in a mens’ shelter better?), I accepted home where I found it. The late Russell Edson put it this way in one of his prose poems: “This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s the only one that showed up.” But some form of providence got me here. Followed by the seemingly casual phone conversation that set the chain of my being back in motion.
Yes, I am compulsive joiner. Yes, I need to belong to something with a name. Yes, I need a framework that helps me express who I am at this late stage of my life. You don’t need to approve it. You don’t need to label me an apostate again. I am. I have been. I might even be a double-agent! You don’t have to ask me what I will be next week. All I know is that I have followed the promptings as they’ve come to me. I’ve picked up the Day-Glo bread crumbs where they fell. And I’ve fought my way through multiple levels of doubt to where I stand now: in doubt but in awareness of what happened, and perhaps even why.
5. Along the Way….
I’m not going to spell out thanks by name, though I perhaps should. People along the way guided and sometimes (in one case) bullied me. Everyone got me to where I am now. And I am grateful for the prods from all directions at once.
The good part is that I am the accumulation of every tradition in which I’ve tried to reside. That’s not some Dorothy-in-Oz thing about there being no place like home. It’s a deepening of who I have been and in what I am.
Tonight begins the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah. This has been going on for a really long time by now as time is reckoned. It’s the year 5775. I went to my first Hebrew School class back in the Bronx in 5714, also known as 1953. Days have gone by. It’s been one hell of a trip. Is it over? I hope to God this part of it is, anyway. L’Shana Tova, folks. Happy New Year.