September 9, 2004
Wandering BackInto the Fold
"Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew" by Neal Karlen (Touchstone, $23).
Like Bob Dylan a decade before him, writer Neal Karlen turned up on Rabbi Manis Friedman's doorstep in St. Paul, Minn., in desperate search of his soul. It was three years ago that Karlen hoped the renowned Chasidic scholar might be able to provide him with some of the existential answers he'd given Dylan, when Friedman brought the pop icon back to Judaism after he'd spent a decade as an evangelical Christian. &'9;
Karlen, who had broken the Dylan story as a Rolling Stone writer in New York, had alchemized from a devout, kosher-keeping youth intent on the rabbinate into the title of his new book, a shanda, "a disgrace to Judaism." "Shanda's" subtitle tells the rest: "The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew" (Simon and Schuster).
"I'd gone to 10 years of Hebrew school four days a week, tutored hundreds of kids in Torah and haftorah reading for their bar or bat mitzvahs, studied with Rabbi Jacob Neusner at Brown [University] and was a whisper away from going to rabbinical school," Karlen said on a recent visit to Los Angeles, where part of the book takes place during the High Holidays. Instead, he was lured by Newsweek magazine to a job in Manhattan, where he discovered the world of glitzy, fast-paced journalism.
"It was a sense of erosion," Karlen explained. "It happened so gradually I was barely aware that I was losing not just the values I'd grown up with, but also my Jewish identity."
Karlen became a successful journalist -- after covering politics at Newsweek, he worked as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and wrote regularly about pop culture for slick glossies like GQ, Esquire, Spy and Vanity Fair. By his late 30s, he'd penned a rock opera with musician Prince, was on contract with The New York Times and had published five books.
What had made his last vestige of Judaism crumble, he felt, was his short-lived marriage into a Protestant family.
"When her grandfather told my father 10 minutes after the ceremony that he should have 'Jewed him down,' I had a feeling it wouldn't work," Karlen said with a grimace.
As he neared 40, Karlen felt a nagging sense of emptiness and lack of connection -- but to what, he didn't know.
"Besides the depth of his scholarship, his authenticity and humility are remarkable," Karlen said of his mentor.
Centering on Karlen's weekly meetings with Friedman, "Shanda" reads much like "Tuesdays With Morrie," but has both a wry irreverence and a seething edge.
"I felt I had to be honest," Karlen continued. If I wanted my questioning of faith to resonate with other assimilated Jews as deeply as it did with me, I couldn't gloss over what a schmuck I'd become."
Karlen's memoir is an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching spiritual adventure but, like Dylan, the writer eventually finds his way back to Judaism -- on his own terms.
As part of this journey, Karlen writes of a visit to Los Angeles during the High Holidays. To his surprise, he is both humbled and moved by his experiences in a Chasidic shul on Pico-Boulevard, and is completely underwhelmed when he checks out Madonna's Kabbalah Centre a block away. As a newcomer, Karlen was granted the honor of an aliyah, and as a Levi was sent at the proper time to wash the feet of the Kohanim.
"I didn't wash this man's feet fast enough, and he started yelling at me and demanding a new Levi," he said. "My grandfather, if he were still alive, would have been humiliated."
Yet Karlen does not turn into a Chasid, the fear of many mainstream Jewish parents. In addition to studying with Friedman, he interviews octogenarian atheist socialist Jews at a Yiddish Club where he puts on a skit in which he reads Shylock's famous "Am I not a Jew?" speech in the mamaloshen. He tutors a girl from a Reform synagogue led by a lesbian rabbi. Not only did he teach the 12-year-old how to read Torah and Haftorah, he gave her lessons in Yiddishkayt that included talk of Sandy Koufax, John Goodman's role in "The Big Lebowski" and Lenny Bruce.
Through it all, Friedman had only one requirement in order for Karlen to study with him: He had to put on tefillin. When Karlen still balked, saying he didn't want to cut open his grandfather's nearly century-old tefillin to see if they were still kosher, Friedman knew just how to convince his pupil.
"Dylan," Friedman said, like a Chasidic rapper, "wears tefillin."