With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey Into The Heart of Her Faith

With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey Into the Heart of Her Faith
by Tirzah Firestone
Dutton, $24.95

With Roots in Heaven is Tirzah Firestone’s Jewish entry into the bestselling genre of highly personal autobiography by women. In it, Firestone recounts the story of her life from her Orthodox upbringing through involvements with kumdalini yoga, Arica, karma cleaning, tai chi, occult astrology, aura reading, EST, Holocaust hallucinations, a Hindu survivalist cult, and Jungian analysis until she discovers Renewal Judaism and is privately ordained as a rabbi in that sect. Along the way, she describes in almost lurid detail her travels, lovers, hospitalization for stress-induced uterine hemorrhaging, brother’s suicide, sister’s return to Orthodoxy, and finally her own intermarriage to a Christian minister who leaves his church to venture on his own religious quest, which includes a pilgrimage to Stonehenge and the assumption of a more Druidic-sounding name.

It’s difficult to evaluate this kind of book without making judgments on the life of its author. But it is eminently clear from this tale that Firestone believes she has been judged far too much by the Jewish community. Firestone is pleading to be accepted for who she is, no matter how strange that may seem to the mainstream Jewish world. In pursuit of acceptance, Firestone pours forth extremely intimate particulars of her life story.

People, like Firestone, who live “alternative” lives must constantly choose between their safety in an oppressive world and their personal authenticity. Safety from pubic intolerance is gained through hiding the realities of one’s life experience, a “don’t ask-don’t tell” social ethic. Firestone has instead opted for authenticity, even though such a choice inevitably has a slightly exhibitionist, Jerry Springer flavor to it.

Given this motivation, it is somewhat disturbing that at every stage of her journey Firestone is intolerant of her earlier choices, and of the choices of others. The pontificating style of some passages is particularly sad, given the unmistakable pain that Firestone has suffered from those who preached at her. Firestone’s odyssey clearly points to the profound subjectivity and relativism of spiritual experience, perhaps even of the nature of reality itself, yet Firestone persists in attempting to proclaim ultimate truth.

The book ends as Firestone becomes the charismatic leader of an alternative Renewal community in Boulder, a kind of Jewish guru. The epilogue describes her impending divorce, and I was left wondering if any community, spiritual practice, or person can give Firestone the acceptance she craves. Though humans are social creatures, and tolerance is learned from others, in the end tolerance is a gift that we must bestow upon ourselves.