December 2, 1999
A Newsweek correspondent's real-life quest to reconnect with an estranged brother takes him into the heart of ultra-Orthodoxy
Joshua Hammer's book is called "Chosen by God: A Brother's Journey" (Hyperion Press), and while the titular journey refers to his brother, it may very well apply to Hammer himself.
In Newsweek's Nov. 8th issue, Hammer -- a foreign correspondent who will become the magazine's Berlin bureau chief in January -- gave the nation a window into his life. In an excerpt from "Chosen" Hammer recounted his quest to reconnect with Tony, his estranged younger brother. During their time apart, while Hammer had traveled the world covering war and political unrest, Tony had become Tuvia, a "Torah Jew" with a wife and sprawling family, entrenched in an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle
"My brother became this amazingly novelistic figure to me," Hammer told the Journal. "I became mesmerized by what had happened to him."
In late 1997, after living on four continents in four years, Hammer returned to America and visited his brother and his wife of 13 years, Ahuva, at their suburban home in Monsey, New York. In rich detail, Hammer describes in "Chosen" working his way through the Orthodox-Mecca Rockland County, and seeing his brother in person for the first time in years -- a "bearded apparition" amidst the clutter of a ramshackle home. At Tuvia's suggestion, the Hammer brothers take a trip up to Tosh, a Hasidic enclave in Montreal. It is during their drive that Hammer grapples with his brother's extreme views, as Tuvia expounds Messianic beliefs; disowns acting -- his college passion -- as engaging in idol worship; claims that the galus -- the exile -- is extended for Jews hourly "anytime a goy does a favor for a yid"; and defines a Jew ("I'm not talking about the Israeli state. I'm not talking about Steven Spielberg. I'm talking about the frum Jews -- the real Jews."). The trip (and Newsweek excerpt) culminates in a frenzied tish where Hammer experiences a fleeting face-to-face with Tosh rebbe and founder Ferenz Lowy before being shoved aside by Lowy's fanatical devotees.
If the selection he chose for Newsweek comes off as a damning appraisal of Tuvia and his way of life, Hammer notes that a crucial passage detailing a dinner at Tosh was excised by Newsweek's editors. He also emphasizes that the chapter is only one part of a book that wrestles to present a balanced portrait of his fraternal relationship. Hammer not only illuminates the reader on Tuvia's world, but the factors that led the two down their divergent paths -- most significantly, the broken childhood they shared in the aftermath of their parents' divorce. As "Chosen" progresses, Hammer examines his own life as a foreign correspondent; his inability to deal with Tony's decision, which brought him much anger and embarrassment; and the ramifications of Tony's Orthodoxy on the entire Hammer family.
Hammer admits that he was put off by the intensity of Tosh's inhabitants, such as the physically-aggressive hysteria surrounding the Tosh rebbe.
"I really wasn't trying to be judgmental," says Hammer, regarding the Newsweek excerpt's ending. "I guess it was a powerful image of the anonymity, the subjection of the ego... It captured for me what a lot of Hasidism was about, getting those five seconds of connection... the majesty and the remoteness of the rabbi."
Heaping complexities onto Hammer's depiction of his sibling's world is the fact that Tuvia fell under the influence of Shlomo Helburns, a rabbi considered off-kilter even within the ultra-Orthodox community. The Helburns association eventually strained Tuvia's marriage to the point where Ahuva insisted that he address economic realities and forfeit his 12 hour days of davening for some computer courses. Hammer praises Ahuva's role as Tuvia's "reality check," and believes that Tuvia is "not representing the average Jew or even the average Orthodox Jew. He's come by an extreme influence."
Friends at Newsweek have long encouraged Hammer to commit his story to ink. However, roaming the world in the frontlines of difficult news terrain can complicate one's life.
"You don't ever have time to sit back," says Hammer, who finally spent October through April holed up at his Pacific Palisades residence writing "Chosen."
So in the aftermath of bringing their close encounter to print, just where is their relationship right now?
"It's currently suffering from a lot of damage," says Hammer. "He's really upset. He feels betrayed."
Even though Hammer was up front about documenting their reunion -- the book's vivid dialogue transcribed from taped conversations -- Tuvia felt that his older brother made him and his world look foolish. Of course, Hammer realized all along that his project risked offending his brother.
"The exploitation aspect is a troubling one," says Hammer. "The fact that my brother feels betrayed only underscores that, and I haven't found a satisfactory answer to this [issue]. It's complicated by the fact that it's my own brother."
"For a journalist," continues Hammer, "the truth is the most important [thing]. I know that sounds callous. I'm still wrestling with it."
With the distance between the Hammer brothers now reduced to some angry e-mails, Joshua is still trying to formulate a satisfactory reply to his brother's rage-filled missives. He also realizes that his readers may reduce both brothers down to a contentious metaphor for the interdenominational schism within Jewish society.
"I would say that's pretty accurate," says Hammer of such an interpretation. "I'm the assimilated, secular Jew, living in the temporal world; the world of ambition, working in the media."
At 42, Hammer remains single and rootless, led around the world by career. And whatever one says about Tuvia and his lifestyle, the ba'al teshuva is happily married, anchored by family and community. So how does Hammer respond to those who feel that his brother leads a richer personal life?
"They have a point," says Hammer. "My brother raised that point in a recent e-mail."
"A relatively happy person," Hammer admits that he has trouble committing in relationships. Yet he attributes this to his restlessness; a restlessness he suggests that both he and his brother derived from their tumultuous childhood, but express differently.
"Who's necessarily to say that one lifestyle, one approach is better than the other," concludes Hammer.
And even though a gulf still exists between Joshua and Tuvia and the future holds no guarantee of resolution, Hammer says he has gained from this experience.
"I have a lot of respect and understanding of [Judaism]. I don't run away from being Jewish. I'm really much more in tune with it," says the writer. After some more thought, he says softly, "I feel more rounded. I know my brother now."
Author Joshua Hammer will discuss "Chosen by God: A Brother's Journey" on Thurs., Dec. 9, at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 651-2930.