Naomi Wolf: touched by God and her fathers wisdom

Naomi Wolf feels her father was typical of many of his generation, the sons and daughters of immigrants who grew up in Orthodox homes but ended up rejecting religion. He became — roughly in this order — a communist, an atheist and an artist who proclaimed art as his religion.

Ultimately though, Leonard Wolf, a poet and teacher, raised his children in a Conservative Jewish environment that included a “strong mystical tweak,” says daughter Naomi in a telephone interview.

He was “a free spirit,” she continues, “a proto-bohemian trying to find a place for himself outside conventional society, yet holding on to old-fashioned values such as how important it is to work hard.”

Naomi Wolf is best known, of course, as a feminist and author of “The Beauty Myth,” “Promiscuity” and “Fire with Fire.” Her new book, “The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love and See,” is less a feminist tract than an old-fashioned paean to daddy from his little girl.

The book’s genesis came about when Wolf, now 42, began to feel a kind of listlessness in her life, a middle-age crisis. She turned to her father for help. Over the course of approximately six months, he visited her rural vacation home regularly, building a tree house for her daughter and talking about his philosophy of life.

He feels, Wolf writes, that each of us carries “unique, creative DNA inside us,” that everyone should be doing his or her “life’s passionate work” and if you are not doing it you should “come to a complete stop until you can listen deeply to your soul.”

These were not the first lessons he had ever provided. “In very conventional ways, he was a daddy like any other, but in an unusual way, he was also a mentor. He was teaching me the craft of writing even when I was little; I was his apprentice.

“First in the very natural ways that good parents are good teachers, he encouraged us to use our imaginations. He would point out the mystical qualities in every day life, the rainbow, for example. He would ask me what an apple blossom looked like and I would have to come up with metaphors.

“As I got older, he taught me the building blocks of poetry … But besides the formal lessons, he taught us how to be alive, how to live every moment.”

The family belonged to a Conservative congregation, Beth Sholom, in San Francisco. Here,

she says, “even a Conservative Jewish shul was a fairly relaxed place with plenty of room for eccentricities.”

In spite of that, and even though her father was something of a hippie, Wolf says she grew up “quite old-fashioned. It was a paradox.”

In the midst of all the social changes of the mid-’60s and early-’70s, her parents stayed married while the parents of her friends split up. Also, the family lit candles and attended services every Shabbat, “which was unusual in Haight-Asbury at the time.”

As a feminist, Wolf admits she’s had her tensions with Judaism. At a seder a rabbi once told her, “I’d rather lose women then lose one iota of tradition.”

“This was a Conservative rabbi, well regarded, famous. I remember feeling chilled to the bone, it devalued me. That unfortunately turned me away from my roots for quite a while. It took my brother to enlighten me to new writings and teachings in Judaism informed by feminism, Jewish Renewal,” she says.

But that wasn’t the only event that changed her relationship to Judaism. Wolf also believes she was touched by God.

“I had a mystical experience. I really felt the presence of God in a very direct, unmistakable, non-logical way and it completely shattered the structure of my identity,” she says.

“I was going through a crisis, a stupid crisis. I couldn’t write a book. I was having writer’s block, was meditating and,” she pauses, “it’s almost too personal to describe.

She was not given guidance on how to finish the book, but “it completely made me rethink everything.”

Whether it was this experience, the teachings she learned as a child or a combination of both, there is a large Jewish presence in her life today. For example, in what is certainly her most recent controversial pronouncement, she wrote an article in New York magazine early last year, accusing Yale University professor and fellow famous author Harold Bloom of making unwanted sexual advances towards her.

The incident reportedly happened in 1983 and it took her more than 20 years to come forward.

The article raised a storm with her as lightning rod, but she ultimately had no choice. “To me, the relationship between a teacher and a student is sacred. I think that comes directly from my Jewish heritage.”

She is a co-founder of the Woodhull Institute, which runs retreats and workshops to empower young women. Basically, she says, the institute is participating in tikkun olam, healing the world.

These are values she is passing on to her own children. She says, “To me it’s like when the kids will want to give away money to a homeless person on the street, because somehow they understand this is something God expects us to do.”

“The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love and See” by Naomi Wolf (279 pages, Simon & Schuster, $24).