Chosen by God by Joshua Hammer
Chosen by God: A Brother’s Journey
by Joshua Hammer
Hyperion. 241 pp. $22.95
In the 1992 movie A Stranger Among Us, the heroine, a police detective played by Melanie Griffith, becomes entranced by the spiritual beauty of the hasidic community in whose midst she finds herself: not only does she solve a murder mystery, she even learns a thing or two about friendship and true intimacy. Things are quite otherwise, however, in A Price Above Rubies (1998), where the character played by René Zellweger has to dodge an obstacle course of cruel, lecherous Hasidim who finally take her baby away from her when she neglects to light Sabbath candles.
As attitudes toward religion go in the world of the movies and popular culture, A Stranger Among Us would seem to be the exception, A Price Above Rubies closer to the rule—at least as far as Orthodox Judaism is concerned. Readers of the New York Times, for example, must have become inured by now to that paper’s routine depictions of Orthodox Jews as a particularly benighted segment of humanity, especially when it comes to the treatment of women. In this connection, the paper’s prejudices could only have been confirmed by the recent arrival here of a new Israeli film called Kadosh, which opened to almost unanimously gushing reviews.
Set in the right-wing Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem known as Mea Shearim, Kadosh explores the allegedly brutalized condition of women in traditional Jewish communities. One of the movie’s male protagonists, when he is not bleating out millenarian nonsense from his car, keeps busy by forcing himself on his new bride and beating her when he suspects her of infidelity. Another refuses to make love to his wife of ten years because they are childless and the Talmud, supposedly, considers a barren woman to be “dead.”
In short, this is a movie that says more about the ultrasecularist politics of its director—and his intended audience—than it does about the Orthodox Judaism that it grotesquely and quite ignorantly maligns. (The director, Amos Gitai, has characterized Kadosh as “my way of voting against the religious Right”; in an interview with the ever-obliging Times, he enlarged his target to include “the Jewish religion in general.”) And yet, perhaps because the actors speak Hebrew, it has been accepted as verisimilitude incarnate—if not, indeed, as a faithful documentary of the Orthodox way of life. The Times‘s Stephen Holden, for example, vouchsafed to his readers on the basis of this movie that Orthodox Jews have a “fear and loathing of sex” and that their women, who are viewed as “little more than baby-making machines,” are regularly required to undergo “primitive cleansing and fertility rituals.” Richard Corliss of Time has hailed Kadosh as “the best Israeli film ever,” and last spring it became the first Israeli movie in 25 years to be screened at the Cannes film festival.
And now there is this book by Joshua Hammer, the Berlin bureau chief of Newsweek. Its subject is the seemingly inexplicable transformation of the author’s younger brother, Tony, from a typical product of a 60’s-style secular upbringing into a “Torah Jew.” This development, Hammer writes, marked such a “total rejection of who our family was,” and so filled him with “rage and embarrassment,” as to cause a two-decade-long break between the two brothers. Only with the passage of time did he come to the curative conclusion that “by approaching [Tony] through the cold eyes of a journalist, . . . I could find a way to repair a rift and restore a semblance of completeness to my family.”
As this earnest declaration may suggest, Chosen by God is, emotionally, something of a mixed bag: on page after page, Hammer plays out the tension between his creditable if belated desire to understand and, as it were, reclaim Tony and his still-undigested revulsion at the path his brother has taken in life. The book’s organization reflects this emotional dividedness all too well, shuttling back and forth from past to present to past in almost random fashion.
Thus, from reading about the brothers’ childhood in New York we might next be treated to an account of Tony’s experiences in Israel in the early 80’s, only to be brought back to the spring of 1976 when the boys’ mother announces she is moving to Paris with her best friend June, then forward again to a visit the two brothers pay to a devout hasidic community outside Montreal where Joshua is thrust unceremoniously into a room smelling of “gefilte fish and unwashed bodies,” and so forth. If, at its best, this technique can create the impression of a mystery being uncovered layer by layer, sometimes it results in an awkward and confusing pastiche. (Matters are not helped by the numerous errors—of transcription and observation alike—that litter the text.)
The Hammers’ father, a correspondent for the New York Times who achieved minor celebrity in the 1970’s with a book about the American intervention in Vietnam, espoused the following philosophy concerning the religion into which he had been born: “As long as there’s anti-Semitism in the world, I’ll identify myself as Jewish, but I’m not going to force anything on my children.” What emerges from his son Joshua’s narrative is that he did quite a bit of forcing in other directions: specifically, toward left-wing politics and militant secularism, combined with an upwardly mobile stress on the need to follow “steady courses toward successful careers.”
When Joshua was thirteen and Tony nine, their parents divorced, and thereafter the two boys lived with their mother in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. (It was from this apartment that she would decamp for Paris in 1976.) Joshua writes that he missed his father and hated him for leaving, but, like a dutiful son, “marched in antiwar rallies [and] lectured my classmates on the evil of our involvement in Southeast Asia.” Within a brief period, their father had remarried, this time to a Methodist woman who declined to convert to Judaism but agreed to a wedding performed by an “antiwar rabbi.”
Joshua went on to Princeton; Tony, after graduating from the High School of Performing Arts, enrolled at Hobart College in upstate New York. When he went to Israel in 1981, it was not to find his roots as a Jew but to live the socialist ideal on a kibbutz.
In Israel, however, something happened: Tony discovered himself as a Jew, and first and foremost as a Zionist. He wrote home about what he was experiencing: “All I can say now is that Israel is remarkable. Israel is a brother, a father, a mother, and a home for me.” In short order, his brother Joshua was dispatched to investigate and report back to their father.
The report was bad: not only was Tony, who had in the meantime moved to an apartment in Jerusalem, living among dirty dishes and other signs of squalor, but wherever the two young men went in Jerusalem, Orthodox Jews were inescapable. A born skeptic, Tony had already confided to his elder brother his suspicion that Torah Jews “want[ed] to set humanity back three centuries,” and yet on the streets of Jerusalem he did not at all seem to mind their importuning ways. Joshua, however, was repelled, and never more so than by the sight of men praying publicly at the Western Wall, men who “flailed their arms and legs and furiously wagged their heads—two hundred men seized simultaneously by a shared epileptic fit.”
During his stay in Israel, Joshua saw something else that would prefigure what was about to occur within his own family. At a Jerusalem yeshiva he spotted an old acquaintance from Princeton, someone he remembered “as a budding journalist, a Frisbee player, a typically ambitious assimilated Jew.” Now this young man was “sitting alone, reading Hebrew . . . a shadow of the ebullient college student I remembered.” The encounter was “frightening”:
Seeing him transformed into a hollow-cheeked ascetic . . . suddenly made it clear to me that his religious indoctrination was a form of brainwashing. . . . I viewed his religious commitment not as a positive characteristic but as a sign of weakness, the mark of a person who lacked a strong sense of self.
Within months, alas, Tony was excitedly writing home that he, too, had been trying out life in a yeshiva, and was finding it “the most intellectually stimulating experience of my life.” So quick and so thoroughgoing was the consequent transformation of his outlook, indeed of his entire person, that, on a return visit to New York shortly thereafter, he shocked his father into revising the family’s naïve “belief that this ‘conversion’ of Tony’s had no staying power.” “It’s madness,” Hammer père commented upon discovering that Tony had sat shivering on the stoop outside their apartment building because he would not carry a key or ring the doorbell on the Sabbath. “He was throwing his life away,” adds Joshua, “abandoning his promise for a world of meaningless ritual and superstition.”
The final blow came soon enough, as Tony, who had by now changed his name to Tuvia, became engaged to a young woman named Ahuva, a student at an Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey, New York and, like him, a “returnee” to Judaism. (“ ‘They’ve got him,’ I said. ‘They’ve f—ing got him.’ ”) At their wedding, Tony seemed to his aghast family a “zombie . . . like a troll in a trance.”
And so the boys broke. For some time, Joshua refused to visit his brother or even to acknowledge the births of his children. (They now number six; Joshua, at age forty-three, is unmarried.) As for the father, he saw his son once or at most twice a year. When the young couple, attempting to initiate a reconciliation, showed up at People magazine, where Joshua had just landed a job as a staff writer, the effect was electrifying:
I froze at my desk, seized by panic. Quite simply, I was terrified by the prospect of receiving them in my office. . . . I had come to view Tony as a shameful secret that had to be concealed. I did not want my colleagues whispering about him in the hallways, speculating about what had caused my brother to retreat into his blissed-out, brainwashed state.
Indeed, why someone once so intellectually energetic and naturally skeptical as Tony/Tuvia should have taken the turn he did remains a thoroughly baffling question to his elder brother. Monsey, a community of about 40,000 observant Jews where Tony now lives a perfectly contented life, strikes Joshua Hammer as a place that has “reverted to the pre-industrial age,” while its most prestigious yeshiva reminds him of “photographs of the Una-bomber’s sanctuary in the wilds of Montana.” The sight of Tony praying in public with other men is something out of a horror movie: “he pounded his fist against his chest and began to rotate his head, his mouth first slack-jawed, then twisted into a grimace,” while the others emitted “a strange sound, a blood-curdling howl not unlike the baying of a pack of wolves.”
True, when Hammer actually began to spend time with his brother and sister-in-law for the purpose of writing this book, he did begin to consider that many of his assumptions (albeit the more trivial ones) might have been misplaced. Thus, he was surprised to find that Ahuvah was “the opposite of the stereotype of the Orthodox Jewish wife—meek, utterly subservient to the demands of her husband.” He was no less surprised at the sight of his brother playing ringtoss at a carnival: “he seemed, for a moment, like any father on an outing with his children.” And when he learned of the deep struggle his brother had to undergo in order to refashion his character according to the moral precepts of the Torah, let alone to master the vast and difficult literature of rabbinic law, it even dawned upon him that Tony’s transformation might have been “a reflection of my brother’s fortitude, not his weakness.”
Yet this epiphany, which arrives smack in the middle of Chosen by God, is buried by pages and pages yet to come on what Joshua sees as the insularity, the exclusivity, the stifling intolerance, the sheer dirt and poverty of his brother’s environment, so radically at odds with the sophisticated, option-filled life he has chosen for himself and that once seemed to lie before Tony as well. Though he is capable of admitting to a certain envy—“Tony’s sharply defined identity,” Joshua writes in one of his moments of candor, “stood against my own lack of clarity, the suspicion that my chosen profession was a shallow one”—the manifest fact that in Orthodox Judaism his brother, far from atrophying or lapsing into backwardness, has found both intellectual challenge and a true and fulfilling way of life is simply too dissonant a reality to acknowledge.
There are quite a number of Tonys these days in the Jewish world (and not just in the Jewish world). And there are even more Joshuas: more or less well-meaning relatives who cannot comprehend, or are genuinely appalled by, the attraction exercised by religion—especially their own religion!—on some of the best and brightest of their young people. But then, of course, it is not really their religion: as this book attests, their own faith has long since been invested in the rituals of a secularism fully as intolerant as their most fevered imaginings of Orthodoxy. The thought of that belief-system being exposed in all its hypocrisy must be unbearable beyond words. At least, for such people, there is always the comforting presence of the New York Times; so far, it has never let them down.