Story of return to Judaism portrays an incomplete journey

It's the theme of countless adult bat mitzvah services. A young girl grows up with a vague connection to Judaism — usually through her European-born grandparents.

But Judaism falls by the wayside with moves to the suburbs, adolescent rebellion and career-building. Suddenly at midlife, she craves spirituality and community, and after perhaps passing through atheism and Eastern philosophy, she rediscovers Judaism.

Roberta Israeloff's story about her spiritual journey, "Kindling the Flame," follows this formula. The New York writer interweaves anecdotes about her Yiddish-speaking grandmother and her youth with adult reflections.

But as a story of a journey, the road traveled seems too short. Although the book is beautifully written, it describes a return that is more haimish than spiritual — until the very last pages. Only at the end does it achieve a feeling of completion, of coming full circle religiously.

Like many baby-boomers and their parents, Israeloff joins the synagogue so her oldest son can celebrate a bar mitzvah. But religion, introduced in the same matter-of-fact spirit as piano lessons, is an insignificant part of the equation. She becomes active in synagogue social action, but it's years before she attends a Shabbat service.

"If religion were a house," she writes, "then Vicki [her social action committee friend] and I had found our way in through the basement or a side door. We were servants, caretakers, who showed up to keep the place running, incredulous to find ourselves inside by any entrance. Tonight, though, we'd go in through the front door, through worship, a desire to pray."

Israeloff's first introduction to Judaism comes through her grandmother, a Bronx widow who grew up in Latvia. Early in life, Israeloff recognizes her grandmother's expression of holiness while lighting candles on Shabbat or on her husband's yahrzeit, but conversely, she's also given negative messages about what Jews are not allowed to do, without being told why.

Yet little of a religious nature infused her own early years in Queens, before her family's move to the suburbs. In those early years, her father seemed to "disdain…anything having to do with religion," his eyes darting impatiently when her mother lit Shabbat candles. Her mother went into an Orthodox synagogue for High Holy Day services; her father, dressed in a suit, tie and overcoat, stood outside. Israeloff herself wondered what was on the other side of the curtain.

But after a move to the suburbs, the family decides to join a Conservative synagogue and give Israeloff's younger sister the religious education she herself did not receive. And just as suddenly, her father becomes a pillar of the synagogue.

After living in Manhattan's Upper West Side as an adult, Israeloff then moves to the outlying Long Island suburbs and experiences culture shock. For the first time in her life, she recognizes that she's a member of a minority. She begins to think about joining a synagogue but can't find the right one.

"All were equally out of the question: the Orthodox too rigid and misogynist; the Reform too self-conscious and glitzy…the Conservative too stodgy…There I was, surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of contemporary Judaism, none of it remotely appetizing."

What did appeal to her was a small Reconstructionist congregation 25 minutes from home, its sanctuary in an old house in which former New York Mayor John Lindsay grew up. She was impressed by its activist agenda as well as "what it didn't have — a big, fancy building, a men's club and a sisterhood, an unctuous rabbi."

At age 39 and married, she joins, but with a certain reluctance. "All I wanted, as far as Judaism was concerned, was my son to learn about his history, his heritage, to know who he was and what stock he came from…And I wanted to be left out of it."

Why did she want to be left out? In part, because she felt like a gate-crasher in the synagogues she had experienced in her youth, where "I was an uninvited guest at my own religion, with its unrepentant sexism." Yet conversely, she writes, "I sought to reclaim my birthright through my son."

It takes Israeloff what seems an inordinate amount of time — and pages, to come to terms with her own spiritual cravings, particularly at a time when so many women have returned to Judaism, not through their spouses or children but through their own studies and involvement.

On the one hand, her "side-door" return to Judaism makes for an alternative journey. On the other hand, it's a slow, lumbering voyage.

In addition, because Israeloff came from a family in which Judaism was taken fairly seriously, her story lacks the drama of such works as "An Orphan in History" by the late Paul Cowan, who was raised in a completely secular home.

Yet there is beauty in the subtlety of Israeloff's awakening, which finally seems to achieve fulfillment through a meditation service, where she recognizes that "there are many types of prayer" and many ways to observe.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].