COVER STORY:Leap of faith

When Anne Kaplan talks to her son, Rafi, on the phone, she doesn’t envision him as he looks now. There’s no black hat, no beard, no long cloak.

“I picture him the way he was,” she admits.

For Dr. Morton Neril, when his son, Adam, grew more observant than his East Bay family, it was “like being an immigrant parent in reverse.

“Instead of my kid wanting to be more American than me,” he says with a laugh, “he wants to go back in time, say 2,000 years or so.”

Rafi Kaplan and Adam Neril, along with Frank Nazarian and Julie Flynn are relative newcomers to the “observant Jews” rubric, and they defy the stereotypes. None hails from a deeply religious background and, among the four, life experiences range from playing guitar in a cruise ship band to performing stage musicals or even working on a parrot farm in Honduras.

Yet each has found his or her way into an observant life, often at great personal expense. Friendships were broken. Old habits died hard — no more pepperoni pizza, for starters.

And, worst of all, sometimes parents just don’t understand.

Adam Neril

Adam Neril’s mother doesn’t ask him to go and shave that scraggly beard so much anymore. OK, two times a week, tops.

“It’s tough for me. My beard doesn’t grow as quickly as other people’s,” said Neril, 26, who grew up in Lafayette and now resides in Moraga. “I do look a little scruffy. But this is who I am.”

While the Neril family always celebrated Shabbat and attended Reform Temple Isaiah for decades, Adam’s religious memories are not overly rosy. He intensely disliked Hebrew school and often ditched class.

But he would find his way to Judaism, although not in a conventional manner.

Virtually every Jewish camp counselor and more than a few rabbis and cantors will whip out a guitar and belt out “If I Had a Hammer,” or some such song, but Neril’s guitar took him on a different path.

His musical talent has, quite literally, taken him around the world. He was the guitarist for a cruise ship band and wrote commercial jingles in New York City. In the late 1990s, his musical connections led to an invite from the International Center for Creative Music in Jerusalem to serve as an artist-in-residence.

Finding himself in the epicenter of the Jewish world, Neril found it easy to fulfill a whim to begin reading the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts. And he was surprised at what he found. The rhythms of the Hebrew language were familiar, but he didn’t know why. And then it dawned on him — it’s like jazz.

“We read the same text over and over again. But every time we read it, it taps into a different energy. We draw from a different energy. And every time you read it, it’s a different experience. It’s like playing a standard and improvising,” he says.

When Adam Neril’s term as an artist-in-residence was up, he opted to stay in Israel and become a citizen. Eventually the wanderlust hit him again, however, and he explored South America via his gig in the cruise ship band.

Not coincidentally, Neril’s transformation into an observant Jew (he eschews the term “Orthodox” in favor of “more observant”) began shortly after his 23-year-old brother Jonathan, a Stanford grad currently studying in Israel, became more observant as well.

Now living with his family in Moraga, Neril says his religious metamorphosis hasn’t been 100 percent harmonious — excuse the pun — with his less-observant relatives.

Neril knows his parents and siblings (in addition to Jonathan, he has a 28-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister) sometimes see him as “over the top,” demonstrating, for lack of a better term, a convert’s zeal for his newfound Judaism.

He’s noticed the slightly annoyed glances at his giant, knit yarmulke that covers his entire head. And sometimes his singing and davening can get a bit loud and passionate. And then there’s that beard-thing on his face.

But Neril’s family respects his decision, even if they don’t fully understand it.

“The question is, what is important in life? What’s important is my relationship with him,” says his dad. “The fact he chooses a path different than mine doesn’t mean I sever the relationship. I thought the meaning of life was for me to become a psychiatrist, but I found out there’s another world out there. [Adam and Jonathan] think the meaning of life is in religion, so let’s see what they come up with.”

Despite the occasional “over-the-top” davening and concern that Neril has reverted to the ways of his immigrant forefathers, his family is grateful for the energy and spirituality he’s injected into Shabbat dinners.

“I sit at the Friday night table with my kids and they bring it alive with their warmth. That wipes away any negative feelings I might have had,” says Neril.

And if Adam is praying too loudly, sister Rachel — the proud owner of a new driver’s license — notes with a chuckle that now she can at least drive away.

Though he’s lived a Gypsy lifestyle, crisscrossing the world, guitar in hand, Neril is now certain his next musical cruise will take him to Israel. He hopes to enroll in medical school there, ensuring a fourth generation of doctors in his family.

Becoming religious “has made me more conscious of my actions. I don’t do things by rote, or I try not to. I feel like my life is directed toward something greater, and I think the No. 1 change I’ve seen is finding value in everything,” says Neril, who hopes to fund his return trip to Israel via his audio archiving Web site,

“I’m trying to find value in the smallest mitzvah.”

Rafi Kaplan

Killing time in the hallways of the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, young Rafi Kaplan decided to flip a quarter 100 times and tabulate the heads and tails.

But the quarter made such a pleasant noise when he banged it on the door. And the paint on the door scratched away so effortlessly. What else could a young boy do? He carved “teacher sucks” on the door and was promptly thrown out of the temple.

“I was an irreverent child,” says Kaplan, 29, with just the slightest hint of humor in his voice.

Kaplan did make amends and celebrated his bar mitzvah. But the next time he spoke Hebrew was nine years later, when he was in Israel at age 22.

Following his escapade at the temple, religion dropped off the map for Kaplan, gone but not replaced. He went to U.C. Berkeley, where, he says, “I was very Berkeley. I was into anything. I was looking, I took meditation classes, I talked to all kinds of spiritual people.”

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa. But he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

He traveled the Caribbean, living in a hut in Guatemala and working on a parrot farm in Honduras. Finally, an old friend promised that if Kaplan met him in Israel, they’d go trekking through Uzbekistan. When he got to Jerusalem, however, his friend was nowhere to be found.

Walking through the Old City, he made a new friend, a fellow he now describes as “not quite a straight arrow.” The fellow pulled out a set of phylacteries and asked Kaplan if he wanted to lay tefillin. Kaplan didn’t know what they were.

“He put them on me and said, ‘When you put these on, think about members of your family smiling.’ And that’s something I still do.”

After applying the phylacteries and reciting the prayers, the friend diverted somewhat from traditional Jewish liturgy and handed Kaplan a cigarette (Kaplan didn’t think to ask what sort of cigarette it was). Then he marched him to the Western Wall and suggested they pray.

But Kaplan didn’t know how.

The friend told Kaplan to take it easy. Pray for someone you saw that day who looked like he or she needed help. The sights and sounds around the Kotel on one of the first nights of Pesach were overwhelming, but the Wall felt cool to Kaplan’s touch.

And when he put his head on the ancient stones, “it just exploded.”

“I couldn’t speak fast enough, it was 22 years of things I had never spoken, the things you can only say to God, that only God would understand, you know?” he recalls.

“So then I started enjoying hanging out with religious people.”

Kaplan was ready for a change in his life. He weighed staying in Israel and becoming an observant Jew or trekking back to the parrot farm. Instead, he chose option No. 3, heading back to L.A. and becoming a lawyer.

While he was a student at UCLA law school, Kaplan’s decision to become an Orthodox Jew was not music to his divorced parents’ ears. But his studies didn’t suffer, and Mom and Dad were both supportive enough to attend the Shabbat dinners he began hosting on Fridays. And, after seeing each other every week across the table for three years, his parents reconciled their differences and remarried.

Kaplan’s religion, however, remains a “distressful” point for Anne and Joel Kaplan. When his mother talks to him on the phone, she envisions the boy she raised; the young man with the beard and black hat simply doesn’t look like her son. Sometimes, she still calls him Randy, the name she gave him.

“It’s very tough. I don’t agree with his choices, I see limitation in his choices. He has a lot to offer and he’s limiting himself. I think everything done in the extreme is cultish. Life should be in balance, and I don’t see where he has a balance anymore.”

Following law school, Kaplan left the City of Angels for Israel and once again found himself at the crossroads. Not knowing what do with his life, he asked the opinion of Mordechai Eliyahu, the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel.

The rabbi listened to his story, and gave him some unusual advice. Go back to the States. Study at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J. And become a lawyer. So Kaplan is currently seeking a law job and apartment in San Francisco with his wife and baby girl. He plans on assisting Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. in his spare time.

Anne Kaplan still loves her son, but she is seriously considering starting a support group for parents whose children go frum.

“The thought of having a grandchild I won’t be able to take to a movie or have sleep over … there’s no compromise,” she says. “Everything has to go to their [Orthodox] way. That’s hard.”

But Kaplan is an adult, and a smart one at that. He even passed the bar on his first try. His mother consoles herself with the fact that Kaplan chose this life for himself.

“My son is happy and I’m glad he’s happy. It took me a long time to accept it but he made his choice,” says Anne Kaplan, noting with irony, “I taught my children to be independent thinkers, and then got upset when they didn’t think the way I did.”

Frank Nazarian

Farhad “Frank” Nazarian began beating the door. His college roommate had, once again, disappeared behind it and locked himself in, for hours on end. Enough was enough, and Nazarian wanted to know just what the hell was going on in there.

The answer: His roommate was praying. Nazarian’s response: “Oh, not cool!”

“I was very much against it. The more he started to tell me about it, the more I backed off,” recalls Nazarian, 44, who, like his old roommate, hails from Iran.

“Iranian Jews follow Iranian customs. It’s a very big no-no to become religious. You’ve got to know Persian Jews. They’re very into being Persian Jews, they’re very traditional. He wanted to keep it a secret, it’s so frowned upon.”

After all, why lock yourself in a room and pray when, as an undergraduate at Pepperdine University, you could be cruising the strip in Malibu or hanging out on the beach? It would be years before Nazarian understood the pressure of keeping religion hidden from one’s closest friends and family.

Nazarian’s blithe existence as an affluent college playboy came to an abrupt end with the Iranian revolution of 1979. His parents were forced to flee their Tehran home, and he soon was living with them in Foster City and working for his brother, installing carpets and draperies.

Viewing life from a different perspective, Nazarian found himself in need of a spiritual center. He turned to Scientology and then est, discarding both as phony. Yet when he began flipping through the Jewish Bible, it felt different.

“The more I read, the warmer I got. The problem was my friends and family were extremely against it. It was probably the biggest hurt in my life, choosing between becoming religious or staying the same way I was and staying with my family and friends,” Nazarian says in his lilting Middle Eastern accent.

“They said I was a fool and I will never get married because my business will not succeed because I cannot work on Shabbat. They told me — well, I don’t even want to say what they said. They were not happy. It was very tough; I loved my parents very much. But it wasn’t just my parents. Everybody in my family told me I am crazy.”

Nazarian’s mother, Mahin, however, remembers things a little differently.

“I enjoy Shabbat for my children to be with me. Because I don’t want my children to forget they are Jewish, I say to each of them to come to my house, but Farhad doesn’t come,” said the 80-year-old Foster City resident.

She remembers Nazarian’s now-deceased father, Rahim, telling his youngest son, “I am religious and you, I don’t want you to be more than me. Every day, I read the Torah, siddur, Mishnah, everything.”

But Nazarian didn’t listen to his father. Not inclined to be argumentative, he simply tuned everyone out. He lost friends and withdrew from his family for several years; it was an incredibly painful period for everyone involved. He focused more and more heavily on religion, but also started his own floor-covering business.

Eventually, Nazarian reconnected with his family and friends, who “warmed up” to his Orthodox Judaism. (The fact that his business succeeded helped greatly, as it proved he wasn’t dooming himself to a lifetime of religiously imposed poverty.)

“When he became more religious, he doesn’t want to see his family. Now he is OK; he wants to come and talk and see many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We are a big family,” says Mahin Nazarian.

“Farhad really has a golden heart. He is a very kind son.” And, when it comes to his Orthodox ways, “Now, I accept everything,” though, when it comes to religion, “in my idea, [he] is too much.”

Although Frank Nazarian and his family reconciled, he claims they had one final trick up their sleeves. Hoping to lure him back to a secular existence (although his mother denies this motive), they set him up with a non-religious Israeli woman, Emy. The plan worked. In a way.

The Nazarians are now the proud parents of five children, and they live within walking distance of Chabad house in Palo Alto, where they walk for Shabbat services.

But Nazarian will be the first to tell you that it hasn’t all been good times. His wife did not immediately warm to the notion of kosher food, immersion in the mikvah and proscriptions against sexual relations during part of the month.

For a decade, the couple struggled through “good days and bad days.” But both had believed from the night they met that they would be married, so they soldiered on. And, in the last few years, Emy Nazarian has adopted more components of Orthodoxy.

So, at long last, things are good for Frank Nazarian. When he has time to think about it.

“I have my own business and it is crazy, it is just crazy the way you have to work. But I can tell you that when Shabbat comes, it is like pushing the reset button on your computer. Things start to become nuts during the week, but keeping Shabbat makes a huge difference in my life, and my wife tells me exactly the same thing,” he says.

“When Shabbat comes, at least I have 25 or 26 hours I can live in peace.”

Julie Flynn

One could make the argument that both Julie Flynn and her younger sister, Kelly, are very religious.

Flynn, an actress, is an observant Jew. Her sister, also an actress, is a born-again Christian.

Kelly’s spiritual awakening led their father, Chris, to become a born-again Christian himself. But Flynn’s increased observance led their mother, Liz, to re-embrace her own Jewish roots.

Just what you’d expect from a family featuring a pair of professional actresses: drama.

“We had what we call ‘The Holy Wars’ here for a while,” says their mother. “It really got kind of crazy.”

Speaking slowly and precisely so as not to use the wrong words, 24-year-old Julie notes, “My sister and I are very different people. I love my sister.”

But who knows? Perhaps Kelly Flynn would be the observant Jew of the family if she had the experience that Julie did when she was 12.

The sisters’ maternal grandfather survived the Holocaust because he managed to leap off a moving train with two companions (one struck his head on the tracks and was instantly killed; the other was gunned down as he ran into the woods). Their maternal grandmother was a Jewish spy for the French Resistance.

The couple was never particularly religious, but Grandmother Renee began to see things differently when she suffered a sudden heart attack and stroke a dozen years ago. Unable to speak because of tubes snaking down her throat, she still managed to make an impression on preteen Julie.

“Even though she couldn’t respond back to me, we made a lot of eye contact. One of the things I promised her was I’d study Judaism, gain that back for our family,” says Flynn, a San Franciscan who relocated to Israel in February.

“At 12 years old, the other girls were starting to have their bat mitzvahs. I started Hebrew school. I had a bunch of 7-year-olds in my class.”

On her own initiative, Flynn began eating kosher, and though her parents were a bit mystified, they were supportive. Her father, who was raised Methodist, never complained when he drove hours out of the way from the family’s Kent, Ohio, home to ferry Flynn to Hebrew school.

Her mother bought a second set of dishes, but at the time, she worried that Julie was “going off the deep end” with her newfound fervor.

Julie Flynn’s religious identity was thrown yet another curve when she won an academic scholarship to a local Catholic high school. Mass was mandatory and she was compelled to attend a class entitled Hebrew Scriptures.

“The Jesuit priest would tell me what Jews believe. … He’d translate the passages, and say a word meant something, but even with my limited Hebrew, I’d know it was the wrong translation,” she remembers. “It was difficult. I don’t think I got an A in that class.”

When Flynn began spending time with Rabbi Yosef Langer in San Francisco after taking a job as Chabad’s event planner, her mother took it in stride.

“It isn’t Hare Krishna or anything like that,” Liz Flynn says with a laugh.

“I don’t know much about [Langer] except he’s really taken her in and been very good to her. And she’s happy. So I’m not about to criticize anybody who’s been that good to my child. You have to accept your kids; you either accept them or you don’t.”

Yet when Flynn’s sister became a Christian — supposedly prompted by watching a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Julie claimed — family life became more difficult. When Chris Flynn became born-again as well, things grew infinitely more complex.

“There were times when my father has been extremely supportive, and times where he’s tried to convert me,” Julie Flynn admits. “In my father’s belief, if you’re not ‘saved,’ you can’t go to heaven.”

Incidentally, Chris Flynn cooled on the local Baptist church following a sermon deriding non-Christians and urging Baptists to “yoke with their own” made him uncomfortable — and his wife apoplectic.

Julie Flynn’s chosen profession — the stage — is also not naturally accommodating to her observant ways. Most shows feature Friday night performances and two on Saturday, so Flynn has found her own way of coping with it.

“If I have to work on Shabbos, I do bring my candles, challah and wine. I make sure to fulfill those mitzvot and talk to people about it, be accessible in that way,” she says.

Flynn, who recently concluded a run as Ginger, “the sexpot character” in the musical “1940s Radio Hour” in Point Richmond, managed to make Friday night candlelighting a weekly theater ritual.

“And through this, people got more in touch with their Jewish roots. I’m getting phone calls from cast members who say, ‘I lit the chanukiah for the first time in years!'”

Flynn, who will be attending the World Union of Jewish Students Institute in Arad, Israel, for the next several months, has high hopes. She wants to become fluent in Hebrew, meet other Jewish artists and change the world. But she has worries as well.

“I had a friend say the other night that if I became more religious, I’d close my mind. So many of my friends are brilliant artists, and they’re concerned I’m going to be brainwashed, close my mind, not think for myself and start taking things on faith,” she confessed.

“And there is a certain amount I am taking on faith. That’s true. It’s hard to temper what you take on faith.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.