Books in brief: Facing tragedy, and embracing ‘aliveness’

Books in brief: Facing tragedy, and embracing ‘aliveness’

With an Outstretched Arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith (Ben Yehuda Press)
With an Outstretched Arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith (Ben Yehuda Press)

A memoir of faith and loss

From Shalom Auslander to Shulem Deen to Deborah Feldman, the Jewish bookshelf is beginning to groan with memoirs of fervently Orthodox Jews who leave their insular communities for the secular world. Rarer are the stories, like this one told movingly and honestly by B.J. Yudelson, of Reform or secular Jews who take on the obligations and challenges of traditional observance.

Yudelson was born in Atlanta into the kind of classical Reform family where social justice mattered more than ritual observance, and whose matriarch was a “feisty lady who had chewed out my Sunday school teacher for suggesting that we light Sabbath candles.” Yudelson is drawn to religious study, however, writing her senior thesis at Smith on Jewish community and marrying a fellow Atlantan who for the most part shares her interest in “climbing the ladder” of observance that gradually includes kashrut, keeping Shabbat, and sending their three children to Jewish day schools.

But With an Outstretched Arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith (Ben Yehuda Press) is, as the subtitle suggests, no guileless “born again” memoir; on February 18, 1981, Yudelson’s oldest daughter Ruth, weeks shy of her 14th birthday, was among three girls who were struck and killed by a drunk driver’s car while attending an NCSY retreat in upstate Utica, NY. Ruth’s death opens a wound that never fully heals, and forces Yudelson and her family to ask questions about faith and God that none can adequately answer. “Ruth died because she held fast to Torah, because she walked on Shabbat,” writes Yudelson. “While I hadn’t given up totally on Torah, I doubted that I would ever again be happy or at peace.”

The memoir is also a guide to late 20th-century American Judaism, as she takes part in the rise of gender equality in traditional synagogues, the personalization of Judaism through study groups and havurot, and the centralization of Israel and the rescue of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews. It’s also a raw story. Yudelson is unflinching about the impact of tragedy on her marriage and on her other two children, now adults with children of their own. She never fully resolves her anguished feelings about a God who would take the life of a generous, promising teenager, although she artfully articulates the view from the upper “rungs” of the ladder. “Traditional Judaism,” she writes, “especially its structure and strong sense of community, gives me the strength to face each day and even to find joy in its celebrations.”

Voices of the second generation

The traumas and identities of the children of Holocaust survivors first came to wide attention in 1979 with the publication of Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust. Since then there have been anthologies by and about the “second generation” edited by Mindy Weisel, Alan L. Berger and Naomi Berger, and Melvin Jules Bukiet. Menachem Z. Rosensaft, founding chair of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors, feels it is time to update our understanding of his peers, who, he says, “no longer need to come to terms with the imperatives of our unique identity.” Instead, for God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights), he asked dozens of contributors to describe how their family legacies shaped their identities and attitudes toward God and faith, how they carry on memory, and how, as a result of their unique upbringings, they contribute to wider society.

Among the better known contributors is Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, who reconciles belief in God with the horrors of the Holocaust by embracing his mother’s “God of consolation” — less a “master of the universe” than a God “within” who unlocks the potential for human relationships. The Princeton ethicist Peter Singer writes how the imperative “never again” led to his devotion to preventing “unnecessary suffering” — inspiring his sometimes controversial advocacy for the legalization of voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Author and therapist Esther Perel writes of her effort to “connect my family’s history of suffering and death with the erotic dimension of sex,” identifying eroticism with survivors, like her parents, who chose to defy death with a spirit of joy and “aliveness.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), whose family escaped Germany before Kristallnacht, says he honors their experiences by working for “bipartisan ways to forward the spirit of tikkun olam.”

In his introduction, Rosensaft acknowledges that there are “those who have been unable to cope with their parents’ experiences.” At the same time, he writes, “most of us look upon our parents and grandparents as role models and a source of strength.” His collection gathers the voices of that grateful cohort.

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