Op-Ed: Book Review: One Family, Two Faiths, a Journey of Hope
At this time of year, with Rosh Hashana right around the corner and Yom Kippur following closely thereafter, the entire Jewish world – indeed, the whole world, Jewish or not – is supposed to be spending its time trying to make itself better, based on a biblical requirement to do “Teshuva” (literally “returning,” as in returning to what being a Jew is supposed to be).
The month of Elul, with daily selichot for Sephardim and (at least) daily shofar blowing for Ashkenazim, is designed as such, helping us to evaluate where we have been, where we are and where we are going.
Of course, not everyone takes the same approach to this annual spiritual examination. For some, the key question might be, “How am I treating other people?” For others, perhaps it’s all about whether they are devoting the proper level of attention to man-to-God practices, like prayer, kashrut, the Sabbath and the like.
Of course, according to our Sages, we should be trying to improve all aspects of ourselves, but that is a tall order for many of us. In fact, for many of us, successful Teshuva is measured in baby steps: “Perhaps I’ll spend less time criticizing people.” “Perhaps I’ll focus more on keeping the Sabbath properly,” etc.
But no matter the differences in our approaches to Teshuva, I like to think we all have one thing in common this time of year: We are looking for catalysts to help us in the Teshuva department. Who will be speaking in the community about Teshuva? Which videos are worth watching that may wake us up appropriately? Which classic Jewish texts may remind me of the proper way to behave?
It is in that light that I would like to recommend a new source of inspiration, one that could play a role in how you look at the world and Judaism this year. No, it’s not Yissocher Frand’s latest. Not Jonathan Sacks’. Nor Paysach Krohn’s.
Instead, it’s a book that, on the surface, seems to have nothing to do with how each of us can improve our Jewish observance. Rather, it’s a story.
The book, called Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope (2013, Longhill Press, 237 pp.), is about two people who first find each other and then find Torah Judaism.
It’s written in an easy-to-read fashion, structured as letters “sent” between Harold Berman and his now-wife Gayle Redlingshafer Berman, as their relationship developed over the course of more than 20 years. (According to Mr. Berman, while the ideas contained within each letter are all true, most of the letters themselves were made up for literary purposes.) And it’s a remarkable story, filled with twists and turns that make the reader want to flip directly to the end to see how it ends. And while the end certainly does not disappoint, it’s spending the more than 200 pages in getting there that may prove the most useful to the reader, particularly at this time of year.
The story itself is simple: non-religious Jewish man meets non-Jewish woman and wants to marry her. He doesn’t care about Jewish observance, but does feel a basic sense of Jewish identity. She, a well-respected church choir singer and soloist, has a strong Christian background, but finds herself gravitating toward some concepts and ideas that are central to Judaism.
Still, even though we’ve heard this story before, about a mixed marriage couple that becomes more religious as time goes by (even with the gentile spouse going through a proper conversion), it is the letter-centric format of Doublelife that wakes up the reader.
As Harold and Gayle ask themselves and each other key questions about Judaism and God, the reader is right with them, asking and trying to answer the same questions.
As Gayle questions the difficulties associated with Orthodox life, such as separate seating in the synagogue, the reader has no choice but to think about them as well.
And when Harold and Gayle come to the realization that Judaism is only worth it when observance is done to the fullest extent that one is able, the reader is forced to look in the mirror and ask him/herself the question that is on all of our minds this time of year.
Am I doing what I should be doing as a Jew?
If you are not looking for the intense introspective experience that this writer had while reading Doublelife, not to worry. This simple, pleasant book has a story that stands alone as strong and interesting.
But if you are looking, as written above, for a catalyst for spiritual growth during this intense time of year, Doublelife just might set your mind in the right direction.