— Reviewed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Sometimes a book becomes a mitzvah because it’s just what you needed to better understand how to deal with a difficult situation. My spouse and I struggle greatly with relating to our family’s baal teshuvah branch — those who have chosen ultra Orthodoxy and become passionate adherents of its stringencies as their path to self-realization. Conversely, there are those who, like Yisroel Eichenstein, autobiographical author of The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, are born into ultra Orthodoxy and ultimately choose to leave that path in order to attain the freedom to be themselves. This slender, courageous volume helped us to better appreciate how to relate to our very religious children and grandchildren, and the extremely important role grandparents of all backgrounds and practices may have in such scenarios.
The full review after the jump.
Early on Eichenstein reveals to what is like to be born into a family where you don’t fit in and where you incur disgrace to your family’s good name just by being yourself. No, he isn’t gay, if you were also expecting such a turn of events. It’s just that trying as best he can, life at the thriving intersection of the Zhidachov and Novominsk Chassidic dynasties can’t work for Eichenstein’s inherent nature. We were twisting in our seats with empathy for young “Izzy”, as we read of his extreme efforts at trying to please, to accept the norms of sect stringencies while being born with the very distinct disadvantage of having a curious mind, a love of sports and a serous rebellious streak. This man, a direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, did his best to find a comfortable place in that world, but his soul was unwilling and unable to shut out the entire rest of the world around him.
The Challenge of Conformity
Reading The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, we soon began to appreciate some of the reasons why those of our family who have chosen ultra-Orthodoxy seem to go to such pains to ensure they and their children conform precisely to the behavioral norms of their segment of ultra-Orthodox society, and, to ensure that we don’t give the (grand)children any unacceptable ideas. Meaning, we such things as can’t take our grandchildren to science museums where evolution might be discussed, even as a theory, or art museums where unclothed human figures might appear in great art, and certainly no television, nor share our understanding of verse of Torah or Haggadah, etc.
Our first big ‘aha’ arose when Eichenstein spells out the methods used to ensure conformity: first the carrots of affection, praise and acceptance, and then a slap in the face or words of condemnation of a degree that creates toxic shame with the potential to endure for a lifetime. Ultimately, if as an adult one loosens one’s practice, the consequence becomes essentially shunning — being shut out of social loops and other vital aspects of communal support.
Eichenstein goes on to explain:
“The worst insult you can give someone in the Orthodox Jewish community is to call them apikoros, heretic. Many times I wonder how different my life would have been had my zaide (grandfather in Yiddish) been around during my lifetime. Tolerance, which he believed in, should not brand you an apikoros, as I have been branded: someone who won’t share in the world to come.”
The author’s conflicted spirit over being himself versus disappointing his parents shines through as he writes about his family with empathy and affection. While his father clearly tries to overlook his son’s need to push the limits of living in an ultra-Hassidic setting and not do battle on him, the whole weight of the family’s noble Hassidic lineages was pressing down on him. I’ve rarely seen kavod, intended to be expressed through the mitzvot (deeds) of bringing honor to God and one’s ancestors, more misused by a family than in Izzy’s childhood home and community, where not HaShem — God, but social norms are treated as the authority.
The Flexidox Zaide
We had yet another aha coming. Eichenstein reveals he was aware that not everyone was always so uptight and stringent in social norms and Jewish practice as in his childhood community. His father, perhaps out of love, planted the seed that would ultimately set him free when he tells Izzy about his zaide‘s (grandfather’s) relationship with a Reform rabbi.(OMG!)
The only reason I know about the bond of friendship between Zaide and the Reform rabbi is because my father’s conscience moved him to confide in me. I was already an adult when he pulled me aside and whispered, ‘Your brother or extended family would never acknowledge or believe what I’m going to tell you, but I was with your zaide when this happened.’
His urgent tone reminded me of a CIA operative delivering secret intelligence data.
‘I was twelve years old when my father took me with him to meet the Reform rabbi who had helped him in his early days in Chicago. The Reform rabbi’s daughter was getting married, and my father wished to give him a mazel tov (good luck). He was so grateful to this generous man that he wanted to make a public gesture.’
Can Love Prevail in the Face of Religious Difference?
Eichenstein also honestly relates some of his own parenting mistakes, replicas of schooling traumas his own parents visited upon him. Today he portrays himself as a happily married, successful West Coast industrial real estate magnate who belongs to a liberal Jewish congregation. His wife also left ultra-Orthodoxy with him; her parents seemed to have handled this far better than his. I appreciate how the author shows us that ultimately, sufficiently caring relationships with parents can be maintained in the face of such strong religious differences, disappointments and traumas. Ultimately, this book is a wake-up call to the importance of respecting the differing needs of children within every kind of family and religious community, the need for discernment in regard to the wishes of one’s parents, the probability of repeating parental mistakes along with the possibility of noticing and being able to catch and redirect oneself.
Most of all, The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son would have reduced our families struggles greatly because of how explicit it makes the social stakes for those entering or leaving ultra-Orthodoxy — and we realize that those intent on realizing their needs and nature will brush past us to fulfill such drives. Meanwhile, the grandchildren in the “frum — very religious” branch of the family know that their step-grandmom, yours truly, is a woman rabbi and that their zaide, my sweet hubbatzin is an irrepressible free-thinker :) that all came out somehow… ahem. Also, it has become clear that in our home we have different approaches to Judaism than some of those required in their home, for example, their family brings their own food during visits to us. And so, for whomever among these precious young ones will need it in order to survive and thrive — the seed is planted.