September 14, 2010
A rabbi’s journey, a mother’s anxious path
“This can’t be my life.”
Rabbi Naomi Levy has been hearing people speak variations of this phrase for years. Whether she met them at Nashuva, the Westside spiritual community she founded in 2004, at one of her many speaking engagements or just somewhere in her travels, Levy kept finding people who seemed to be enduring the day-to-day, waiting for something to happen so that their lives could begin.
“I found that more and more people were saying [that] to me,” said Levy, whose new book, “Hope Will Find You,” comes out later this month. “When this happens or when that happens — ‘When I fall in love, when I get married, when I get divorced, when I get this job, when I get out of debt, when I lose weight, when I have a baby’ — just a never-ending list of people coming to me saying those types of things. That this thing I’m doing right now isn’t really my life. ‘It’s not my life. It’s somebody else’s, I don’t know, it’s just not really my life — it’s just this little thing I’m doing right now.’
“And of course,” Levy said, “it so resonated for me, because it was the running theme of what I had been going through for a number of years already. ‘This can’t be my life.’ ”
From the outside, this wouldn’t seem to be true. Levy is a prominent rabbinic voice in the national Jewish community, and her first two books have earned her a broad fan base. She also frequently gets calls from members of the Christian clergy, letting her know how her writings have helped them in their work.
Levy was among the first class of women to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, in 1984. When she took the pulpit at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, she was, at 26, the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast. She is a best-selling author, has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show” and NPR, and has been named one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis by Newsweek four years running. Given all this, it’s hard to believe Levy ever felt stymied in the way she describes.
“Hope Will Find You” tells the story of a very private struggle. Levy chronicles her journey from the inside, telling her story as she lived it, ultimately showing us how her rabbinic training — and her daughter’s wisdom — helped her to make sense of her own life.
“I was petrified,” Levy said, recalling the way she felt when, in 2001, she was told that her 5-year-old daughter, Noa, had been diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a degenerative neurological disease that is fatal. “I felt a mixture of a lot of different emotions. Fear, anger, paralysis, a desire to see every possible doctor and every possible therapist — all of those things together.”
What the many doctors she subsequently visited eventually told Levy and her husband, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, about their daughter was inconclusive. They could not confirm that Noa’s condition was A-T, nor could they say whether it was degenerative. In “Hope Will Find You,” Levy offers readers a look into her inner life during those seven uncertain years between Noa’s diagnosis and her bat mitzvah.
Although the book is interspersed with material one might call rabbinic — quotes from biblical and midrashic sources, biting Yiddish proverbs, instructive stories Levy has collected from family, friends and congregants — at its heart, “Hope Will Find You” is an unflinchingly honest memoir by a parent in anguish over the fact that she may lose her child.
Levy has dealt before with a harrowing personal experience in her writing. Her first book, “To Begin Again,” drew on her recollections of her father’s murder at the hands of a mugger, and everything that followed. When she started writing “Hope Will Find You,” Levy said, “I had intended to write a book similar in tone to ‘To Begin Again.’ ”
But she quickly realized that what worked for “To Begin Again” — speaking directly to her reader with words of advice, encouragement and comfort — wasn’t appropriate for “Hope Will Find You,” in which Levy tells her own story from the inside. “I thought maybe the reader could just learn from what I’m learning,” she said.
“What I’m learning — not what I’ve learned, but what I’m learning,” Levy said, “is that teachers come in the strangest garments.” And indeed, in “Hope Will Find You,” Levy lets readers into her world, a place brimming with wisdom waiting to be discovered, with lessons coming from unexpected sources. A saleswoman at a clothing store unintentionally intuits essential traits about Levy’s character. A homeless man helps her achieve a deeper understanding of a biblical text. Levy finds much-needed encouragement in the words of a Buddha-like bald man she meets in a waiting room at one of the many clinics she visits with Noa. She even writes about a bizarre vision she had in a dream.
It seems like stuff more likely to show up in the tales of Chasidic masters than in contemporary writing. And when it comes to engaging with Jewish tradition, Levy is not hesitant. Her second book, “Talking to God,” is a collection of personal prayers for the many occasions left out of traditional prayer books. Levy offers up prayers of all sorts, from the ultra-specific (A Prayer to Say When Your Child Grows Up and Moves Out) to the general (A Prayer for Bad Days), from the ones for times of the highest joy (A Prayer of Thanks When Love Arrives) to those for moments of deep sadness (A Prayer When One’s Child Is Stillborn), to those for events that bring up mixed feelings (A Prayer When Mourning a Parent Who Was Emotionally Unavailable).
Levy’s prayers are composed in modern-day English and are approachable for readers from many different backgrounds.
“I like my davening straight-up. I’m a plain-vanilla kind of davener,” said Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, director of special projects at the Rabbinical Assembly. “And I was really surprised at how touched I was by the book [“Talking to God”]. I was really kind of amazed by it. What she writes has great appeal to people who are traditional. It is very traditional but also very inspirational.”
Levy has composed prayers in the aftermath of disasters — the Rabbinical Assembly recently commissioned from her a prayer for the Gulf of Mexico — but more than just sharing her own words with others, she has dedicated herself to helping others feel confident in their own ability to pray.
“It must have started 15 years ago,” Levy said. “Somebody asked me to say a prayer for him — [someone] who was going through an illness and about to undergo surgery, and I said, ‘Of course, I’d be honored, and I’m happy to say the traditional prayer, and we will, but tell me something: What is it you want me to say to God?’ ” Levy recalled that “the most beautiful, articulate, heartfelt, powerful words came out of this person, who felt that he didn’t have access to prayer.”
Levy wrote her first personal prayers when she was pregnant with her son, Adi, who is now 17, and today she frequently runs prayer workshops, including many for rabbis and cantors. “I think some of the most powerful workshops I do are with clergy,” Levy said.
“Her sessions are packed,” Kaufman said of Levy, who is a regular presenter at the Rabbinical Assembly. “People just flock to her.” Levy’s integration of the spiritual into daily life has served Noa well, too. At one point in “Hope Will Find You,” she describes Noa waking up with “a terrible bout of ataxia — an inability to keep her balance,” a condition from which Noa, now 14, still suffers. When Levy suggested that her daughter stay home from school that day, Noa replied, “‘If I pray for awhile I’ll be okay.’ ”
“She picked herself up, held on to the wall, made her way to her room, stood before the mirror, and started singing her morning prayers in Hebrew. She sang with great joy and purity,” Levy writes. “I was watching from a distance, not wanting to disturb her or make her feel self-conscious. A serenity started to flow through her body. I could see it. Her mood changed, her posture changed, her expression changed. When she was done singing, she walked straight up to me with strength and steadiness and said, ‘I’m ready for school now.’ And she was.”
However, Levy’s own path to prayer was more complicated. At that point in her story, she was unable to pray. “My prayers were hollow,” she writes. The book chronicles the rabbi’s return to prayer, a journey that ultimately leads her to a nuanced, fulfilling conclusion:
“I started to believe that God was listening, and that God was answering us too,” she writes. “Now I could see that God’s answer to my prayers was quite different from the answer I’d been searching for. No, God wasn’t going to get anyone the job they’d been praying for, or stop a war, or prevent a natural disaster. God’s reply came as the strength to fight on, the courage to face what I was fearing.”
Today, as the leader of Nashuva — Levy calls it a “Soulful Community of Prayer in Action” — Levy regularly leads more Jews in prayer than at any other point in her career. On the first Friday evening of every month, Nashuva — which means, “we will return” —fills up the Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Levy stands, facing the pews, with a full band, and leads a Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv service that runs from the foot-stompingly energetic to the silently meditative. “To me, Naomi is Nashuva,” said Carol Taubman, the co-chair of Nashuva’s social action committee. She “has a gift of being able to connect people to God, to prayer, to faith in a way that’s very easy, that’s very welcoming, that’s not at all intimidating.”
From its inception, Levy’s goal with Nashuva was specifically to attract unaffiliated Jews, to create a place where “somebody who started from zero could walk through the door and join in.”
“I didn’t realize it until it kind of happened, but people will tell me it’s a liberal Chabad,” she said, comparing Nashuva to the outreach efforts of the Lubavitch community. “That’s what it is. Come. Everybody’s a member. You don’t have to join. You can’t join.”
Adam R. Perlman, a 28-year-old writer who grew up in a “very, very traditional classic Conservative Jewish temple,” went to Hillel in college “very occasionally” and hasn’t been a member of a synagogue since. He recently found his way to Nashuva, and he intends to come back. “There’s ritual, there’s tradition, there’s ceremony, but beyond that it also wasn’t overly polished. It didn’t feel like I was being sold something. There was something about Rabbi Levy that felt very handmade, very natural. It felt like a local service, and like part of a community,” Perlman said.
Nashuva’s informality is palpable, even in its prayer book — a paper booklet with the Friday evening prayers printed in Hebrew. Alongside the transliteration is what Levy calls an English “interpretation” of the prayers. “I am trying to experiment with the English, to find expressions and ways of speaking to God that are intimate and don’t feel clunky,” Levy wrote in an e-mail. As a result, the beginning of every blessing looks a bit different than what most Jews might be used to. “I wanted to play with ‘Bless You, God,’ because ‘Blessed are You, God,’ sounds more formal and distant,” Levy wrote.
As for Noa, she started high school this fall. “All her doctors concur that she has a static condition,” Levy said. Noa does have physical and learning disabilities, “but none of that is progressive,” her mother said, “and in fact, she certainly has gotten stronger and is getting stronger, and is learning ways to compensate.”
Levy said she has read “Hope Will Find You” aloud to Noa “maybe five times.” “My concern was to make sure that she was comfortable with everything that I wrote in the book,” Levy said. As for Noa, her concern was different: She didn’t want to be bored, and wasn’t shy about saying so when she was, Levy said. Noa “has a very good ear for when I might be getting too lost in a thought. ... She would tell me, ‘You know, I’m starting to get bored.’ And I would know right away,” Levy said.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is a classic for people seeking healing after the loss of a loved one, has read “Hope Will Find You” — and said he intended to use part of it this year in one of his sermons on the High Holy Days. Kushner said he admired Levy’s ability to “respond not with bitterness, but with the ability to find grace” when faced with such a challenging experience. Kushner wrote his own book after his son Aaron died of a rare incurable genetic condition, and he hoped that those who read Levy’s book draw inspiration from her story. “The thousands of people who were helped by my book was very deeply gratifying. It eased the pain of the loss that inspired it,” Kushner said.
At the end of “Hope Will Find You” it’s clear that Levy herself still has more questions than answers. “The book is ultimately about living with uncertainty,” she said.
“I kept thinking that the God moment would be clarity, that I’d have perfect clarity, and it would all make sense in some perfectly clear way. But what I got was that God’s in the fog, that there’s no certainty, that that’s part of it — that God’s in the fog with us.”
A live broadcast of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s Nashuva Kol Nidre service can be viewed Friday night at jewishjournal.com/kol_nidre. (A replay will be available Saturday.)