Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate: A Spiritual Journey, by Emily Benedek, Schocken Books, $24
A View from My Rooftop: Reflections of an Inner Life, by Renee Garfinkel, BIC Publishers, Washington, DC, $12.95
HERE ARE TWO REAL-LIFE ACCOUNTS by contemporary, professional Jewish women who find it necessary to withdraw from familiar channels to envision their lives differently, to renew connections with “the deep heart’s core”—to use Yeats’s phrase—and with their own religious traditions.
The story of Benedek, a writer in her thirties, is especially rich and intriguing. In many ways, it is a classic conversion narrative. A secular Jew whose parents assimilated and deprived her of self-defining cultural markers, like story telling, Benedek finds herself exiled in Dallas. In the process of losing her gentile lover and “good” job as a television reporter-producer, she experiences a sudden attack of blindness. Eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease (and subsequently cured), her blindness becomes a metaphor for all that Benedek isn’t “seeing” in her life.
Benedek embarks on a journey to supply the missing stories, to write herself into her interrupted family narrative. She begins by attending services at a shabby but friendly synagogue, and proceeds through a course of committed investigation and study that finally leads her to join a Conservative synagogue, while at the same time exploring more Orthodox practices. An expert storyteller, Benedek gives us a happy, if modern, ending: she finds a perfect husband (not through a matchmaker but via the Internet). They marry in an Orthodox service. The book ends with Benedek’s ecstatic visit to a mikvah whose waters—perhaps— help her conceive her first child.
Two of Benedek’s guides on this journey are gentiles: Ella Bedonie, a Navajo woman (the subject of Benedek’s two earlier books. The Wind Won’t Know Me and Beyond the Four Comers of the World) and Dr. Andresen, a remarkable psychiatrist. The paradox is that without their examples, wisdom and support, she almost certainly would not have returned to Judaism. The other guides are mostly male rabbis whose text interpretation stresses tradition as a good in itself—a need with which Benedek agrees. As a feminist, I find it troubling that Benedek accepts these strictures so readily, that she never encounters a feminist rabbi, or discovers the increasingly common use of midrash as a way to interpret texts imaginatively. Of course, this is not her intention. She wishes the past she enters to remain intact; the restrictions, for her, are part of the story.
Garfinkel is a fifty-year old psychologist who writes a journal recording her reflections on her first “sabbatical” in a thirty-year working life. As in the best journals, there are thoughtful insights here, and occasional gems. Garfinkel is especially perceptive when writing her observations about children: “America can neither educate its children nor keep them alive,” or comparing Judaism to other religions: “Buddhism deals with how people suffer, Judaism wonders why.” Unlike Benedek, Garfinkel ends as she began: a busy, happy, fulfilled woman who likes her life and only wishes for more time to think about it. For her, Judaism is the core of a belief system that also includes Thomas Merton and Buddhist insights.
Each of these books underscores the importance of connection to one’s religious tradition. Read together, they’ll stimulate the reader to reexamine her own life as well as her religious expressions and choices.
Enid Dame is a poet and midrashist