Author Archives: Ken Wolman

About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.

Memory of an Uncle (Isidore Propper, Capt., NYPD, d. 1986)


Uncle Izzy, ninety-five,
looked at me through blue eyes
gone the color of blood-spotted egg whites,
hands trembling, his parchment skin
loose-wrapped around his bones, ill cover
for his organs against the coming wind.
It’s Kenny! my aunt screamed at him, it’s Kenny,
your nephew, it’s Jack and Lillian’s boy!

Still the eyes stared, in search of remembrance.
I don’t know, I don’t know, he said,
not in pain for a memory lost (he remembered
bodyguarding the fighter Jack Sharkey
in `32, but could not remember
yesterday’s lunch) but to state a truth.
Whoever you are, sir, he said at last,
you are a gentleman. And I, ever the
literateur, recalled Blanche DuBois
and her dependence on the kindness of
strangers: for that is what time
and the black hole of my uncle’s dying
made of me, a stranger to all memories
but my own, in middle age now recalled
as Jack and Lillian’s boy:

who, after three hours, kissed my aunt and uncle,
fled the condo facing the Jordan-Marsh, rushed
into the July cauldron of Biscayne Boulevard;
drove my rented car north on US 1,
soundproofed, sheltered from the heat
by synthetic air. At the car rental desk
at Fort Lauderdale, I paid the bill,
and paused to flirt with Ms. Mendoza the agent,
glad for someone young, alive, and not me.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

I recently discovered a painter named Artemisia Gentileschi. She painted herself into Judith Slaying Holofernes. She’s the woman on the right, in light brown, methodically–almost surgically–decapitating Holofernes, the Babylonian army commander. The painting resembles Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject. Indeed, Judith and Holofernes was a popular subject for painters of the late Renaissance. Artemisia’s was only one among several, but it is perhaps the most arresting. It’s coldblooded and portrays an act of calculating vengeance upon a national enemy. If she’d painted nothing else, Artemisia would have had her immortality.

I never studied her even though I studied High Renaissance and Mannerist painting in my last year at Hunter College. My teacher, Janet Cox Rearick, was an authority on High Renaissance and Mannerist art, and I fell in love with the period and its paintings. (I even considered staying an extra semester to add an Art History minor or double major to English degree. That would have made me unemployable in two disciplines).

In fact, I had not heard of her until recently. There’s even a film about her early maturity, Artemisia: getting kicked out of a Roman convent school, learning to paint the male anatomy in defiance of the rules against such proceeding, her meeting with Agostino Tassi, her father’s painting collaborator, and what passed between Tassi and herself.

What did pass between them? Was it rape, as the common wisdom says? Or was it seduction that became a passionate affair that went sour when Artemisia learned about the man she’d come to love: a serial adulterer who’d even had his wife’s sister. Artemisia’s father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, had Tassi arrested and tried for rape–but even in the film, matters were not so simple. It’s an old story–Tassi may have raped her, but it was Artemisia herself who was put to torture with thumbscrews for painting naked men to study male anatomy. She lived some years of her life with a somewhat disreputable husband who spent her money as quickly as she could earn it. She migrated to England in 1638 and became Court painter to King Charles I. She died in 1652 or 1653, in her sixties–not an inconsiderable accomplishment given the longevity of the age.

Like many painters of the period, she favored Biblical subjects: not only Judith but also Susanna and the [extremely lecherous] Elders; Queen Esther with Ahasuerus; Jael and Sisera. She did several versions of Judith and Holofernes: a series of women who were disbelieved but vindicated, or who often took the law into their own hands.

Once she found out about the truth of Agostino Tassi, she never saw him again. Who could blame her?

Tassi himself died in 1644. Even though he was found guilty and was sentenced to prison, he never served a day behind bars, and continued to receive commissions. Artemisia herself kept working, but after her death she suffered a decline in her reputation. Only in the last 20+ years have her name and work enjoyed a comeback. Her works–or her personally made copies–hang in great museums around the world.


Tolstoy, You are Unforgettable

About a month ago, I was notified that Story, my orange cat, “the artist formerly known as Tolstoy,” had died in the night, curled up next to his current human.

There’s a  (no pun) story here, and it’s mine to tell.

Tolstoy was now Story. He’d become Story when his new human, Christine, adopted him from the Monmouth County SPCA. She’d driven east from Green Bay to look at him because I’d posted a plea for someone to look at him and prevent him from living out his life in the shelter.

That’s what I felt like I was doing. In early February 2013, I was about to go into a homeless shelter for men. If you’re in there, you can’t bring a pet with you.

But “pet”? Tolstoy was more than a pet. Over 11 years, he’d become my friend, my son, and my life. Giving him up was devastating. How do you reject your family?

He deserved a permanent address. Yes, the Monmouth County SPCA is no-kill. Seriously no kill. He could live out his life there, hang with the other cats, and maybe get adopted by someone who didn’t need only a kitten, i.e., someone who’d embrace a senior cat. So Chris came east, fell in love, and adopted him. He joined her two other orange cats, Wally and Shammy (now known as the King of Maine because everyone moved north over the summer).

I’d hear about him periodically. He fit right into the mischief of being part of a set of three cats. Chris took care of his health issues and Wally and Shammy took care of friendship.

Then I learned that Story, as he was known, was dying. Chris and the vet decided on palliative care because his kidneys were not going to get better.

And then he died, at Christine’s side, with one of the other cats in attendance.

I have my cat Misha here, my blessing and my answered prayer, so the pain has been alleviated. But Tolstoy was part of my days with a broken heart, and so I grieve him. G’bye, baby.



Kaddish for my cousin, Dr. Stephen Markow, d. 2/26/15

[Reposted and adapted from a Facebook posting from earlier today in response to his daughter Nina Markow Eigerman’s announcement of her father’s death.

Nina. I am so sorry. I first met your father so long ago that I have no idea exactly when. When indeed do first cousins meet each other?
Through our parents, for certain. My mother, recall, was your grandmother Betty’s “kid sister.” I remember “kidpix” of him, with your father, with Marian his sister, and with Betty when your father Eddie was stationed in Texas during WW2 as a military dentist.
Maybe I recall your father clearly for the first time when he was in his teens, in Midwood High School in Brooklyn, where you all grew up. He and I quibbled now and then about opera. He was older than me and seemed a bit intimidating, but I lived through it because he had an extraordinary sense of humor and the sometimes inconsequentiality of arguments about opera or musical theatre in general. What else, after all, do opera people do? His sense of humor was matchless, even when he was doing his work–maybe because he knew how and when to apply humor.
Nina, please let this story be part of your and your brother Greg’s best memories: One evening in December 1967 I gave up on “toughing it out” because I could not chew solid food. It was so excruciating that I was almost in tears. It was bad that even drinking soda or coffee hurt. So I called your dad’s office and then took the long subway ride from the Bronx to 50 Clark Street in Brooklyn, your father’s dental practice that he had inherited from his father, Dr. Edward Markow.
Steve always had a classic rock station piped-in, I think WNEW-FM, which made it a bit more bearable and certainly more entertaining. He looked into my mouth and said one word: “YUCK!” Then he told me all four my wisdom teeth were impacted, and had to come out. Now, all at once, or do we do it in two trips? NOW, Steve, for Godsake, please, now! Your dad shot me up with enough Novocaine to torpedo a heavy cruiser, yanked them all, said “Oh shit” a few times as he gazed upon the ruins of my mouth. He wrote me a scrip for Tetracycline which I filled in the drugstore on the way to the Clark Street IRT station, on the first floor of the Hotel St. George. Two nights later I I was able to eat red meat again. I thought I’d died and was in Paradise.
Years later,I recall your dad and Debbie entertaining me and my new wife during the shiva period for your grandfather, my uncle, in 1969. I think by making a few salacious comments to us about borrowing the bedroom, they were making us laugh and easing the pain they surely felt for my uncle.
I’m surprised today at the depth of my grief for this good man. We hadn’t seen one another in 40 years; but he carries some of the few unsullied memories I’ve retained from my childhood. Your father was a remarkable man, Nina. He was a mensch. He was that from before the night he met your mother-to-be at a performance of Don Giovanni at the Met, and bought her a drink during the intermission. You know all this. I suppose it’s family folklore. I’m really saying it to myself, for myself, from a space of sadness I didn’t know I possessed.
Please extend my condolences to your mother and brother. Please say the same to Marian, his sister and your aunt. Life will not stop or even pause, yet we must pause for a moment to regard the life of this good man who was your beloved and loving father. From one cousin to another in the name of yet a third: Be comforted.

Why I sometimes loved to teach

I taught English Comp for a couple of years at a community college in New Jersey. Right, I was an Adjunct. Mostly it was drudgery done in the name of not enough money.

But every so often a miracle occurred. Something marvelous happened.

I don’t recall why I did this, but I know I wanted to see how the students handled poetic form. I handed out two poems, two sonnets, and asked the kids to respond to one of them in one page of their own devising. Sometimes I got what I call the Duh Response. Sometimes I got one sentence (grading those was too easy). And then I might be amazed. These kids figured there had to be a right answer, but there really wasn’t…except honest reactions, even if they were confused. This was one of the poems, by Ted Berrigan:

PEARL HARBOR DAY (Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983)

Seurat and Juan Gris combine this season
to outline Central Park in geometric
trillion pointed bright red-brown and green-gold
blocks of blooming winter. Trees stand stark-
naked guarding bridal paths like Bowery
Santa Clauses keeping Christmas-safe each city block.
Thus I, red-faced and romping in the wind
Whirl through mad Manhattan dressed in books
looking for today with tail-pin. I
never place it right, never win. It
doesn’t matter, though. The cooling wind keeps blow-
ing and my poems are coming.
Except at night. Then
I walk out in the bleak village and look for you.

I didn’t expect explication. I don’t even know what the poem “means,” word by word, image by image. I wanted honest reaction. Juan Gris? Georges Seurat? Pourquoi?

One of the kids, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wrote feverishly. When I read it over…let’s say I’m sorry I had to hand it back to her. It was glorious. She wrote (I paraphrase): “I was confused by it. But I got to the last lines where he says he went out looking for a woman. I could see him. And I felt like he was looking for me.”

I was as close to tears as I’ve ever been in a classroom. She didn’t understand the poem but she got it at a visceral level, probably the level Ted Berrigan, that sacred madman, was at when he wrote it. I wrote down her grade and a comment: “He went out looking for you, and it was you who he found. And most of all, you found him.” She’d written the most beautiful and heart-perfect response I could imagine. Or could not imagine.

We put so much stock in parsing lines. We rarely weigh feeling and reader response. Response has been my obsession for years. I responded to need by learning to write poetry. And I sensed a need in this young lady, a need Berrigan met. And a need in him that she could satisfy.

That’s why I had moments when teaching was an almost physical act, a form of lovemaking. Damn, but I could love it!

Inner Space: The Final Crappiest Frontier

lThese are the voyages of the Starship Ken’s Brain. This is so far a 70-year mission, it’s ongoing, and it’s still a pain in the ass.

And now, 12:15 PM, it is a source of gratitude and hope.

Today’s Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, t’shuvah, turning and re-turning. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve hated it forever, but the required in-dwelling of the day and what it compels from us does not make me thunderously happy.

I’ve been up most of the night. I just got home from the morning service and Yizkor. Right now, I’m fried. Why was I up? Was it just because I ate last night after Kol Nidre, that plea to our common Maker for relief from our ill-considered vows? Because I sat down after I got home and ate? If that is what God requires, if he is that petty, well then I’m sorry. No, I’m not. I fed Misha, my cat too–off my plate, in fact (he loves nibbling on Daddy’s roast beef). I’ve been advised more than once from several directions that faith is about life, not killing yourself in the name of Law, or even of minhag (tradition with the force of Law). We are enjoined to do what we need to in order to preserve ourselves through the coming year. “Therefore choose Life.” To grab the Star Trek motif again, life is the Prime Directive. No, I am not copping out on myself when I say that my health just sucks and today feels precarious; and that having reached 70, I’m not the man who could fast as I did 30 years ago and float through the day on a wave of hunger fueled by fervor. I feel plain crappy, and now I know I’ve not lasted until the end of the day and the sundown that ironically isn’t coming to Western Massachusetts because it’s been raining all day. But that isn’t the point.

I need a nap. In the meantime, I needed to postpone any nap until I at least reached Yizkor, the service of prayers and reflections in which we remember our departed. Like in the madhouse movie with Jack Nicholson: Heaven holds the faithful departed. What can I say?–my parents weren’t terribly faithful to tradition, and in my father’s case, to one another. They weren’t much as parents, but that’s not the point, either. They were my parents, and they deserve to be remembered and prayed for with respect and the best wishes I have, or wish I had.

Last night, at Kol Nidre, I was damn near reduced to a pile of blubbering rubble. Reflection, indeed. I was dredging up the mistakes not only of the last year–and boy, were they stacked floor-to-ceiling–but of a whole lifetime. Of opportunities missed that I ought not to have missed. Of opportunities taken at the expense of others and of myself. I don’t like those kinds of memories. Too often, they are not about ourselves in relation to God, but about ourselves in relation to the people we may have wronged, even inadvertently. In one of the late Chaim Potok’s novels, In The Beginning, one of the protagonist’s yeshiva ravs warns him, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoa, that he may have to go to the graves of the dead and beg their forgiveness for his trespasses against them. And what will make it peculiarly difficult in the post-1945 post-Holocaust world, is that he may not even know where the dead are buried. How many of our dead ended up as ashes turned to muck at the bottom of the Vistula?

How can I expect my parents to ask me for my forgiveness? I gave it to them years ago. Often I was “more sinned against than sinning,” but: I ran up a few sins against them, of course, especially against my mother, on my own. Sins of theft, of entitlement, of payback, of arrogance, of the nastiest forms of pride. I wanted much, and often I gave too little. Okay, I played the flute at my parents’ graves years back; they were both musically-inclined (they passed it along to me, their only child), so it may have helped square accounts just a bit.

But today is the day to remember anyway. There is a liturgical poem, Eleh Ezkerah, “These I Remember,” that recounts the martyrdom of the Sages in Roman-occupied Palestine in 70 CE. It’s a gory and frightful remembrance. We get to read about how Rabbi Akiba had his skin flayed off with iron combs. That’s bad enough. But remembering extends outward into more recent history. When I heard the poem recited in 1983, at Tisha b’Av in a very Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, New Jersey, the rabbi added names of the last stops for the departed and unburied to the chanted names of the Sages: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. German killing fields running 24×7 in the conquered province of Poland. It was a horror to have to hear those names yet again.

More than that. We recall the names of our errors, of our sins (though “sin” is so out of favor anymore). We may forgive ourselves, and the souls of the dead–wherever their bodies have gone–may forgive us as God forgives us. But the names remain. So the old Yiddish motto: Schvar zu sein a Yid. Hard to be a Jew. No lie. And it could be that at some times in any of our lives, we all become Jews.

Today I prayed for my parents, and caught myself growing tears yet again. I have not prayed for them in 16 years. It’s not a question of whether they “deserved” it or could hear and feel my soul reaching toward them. The issue on the table is that I needed to do it, not only for them but also for myself, to connect the generations, as imperfect as we have been. It is a way to forgive not only them, but to remember and forgive myself. And that is a tremendous spiritual practice.

No, Yom Kippur is not a fun day. It’s not supposed to be. It’s an exercise in remembrance, forgiveness, and resolving to make blessings even in places and at times where there’d been nothing but imprecations.

L’Shana Tova

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.rh

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?

They had.

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.

3. T’shuvah?

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 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.