A decade ago, distinguished Orthodox filmmaker Menachem Daum produced and directed the documentary “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” a restrained and loving effort to introduce the seemingly strange and alien world of Chasidism to outsiders. Several years later, he produced another film, “Hiding and Seeking,” about the non-Jewish Polish family who saved his wife’s family during the Holocaust. His task then was to introduce his own family to the deeply forbidden and contaminating non-Jewish world, which seemed so strange and alien to them, and yet which included these rescuers, who were responsible for the very existence of his own wife, children and grandchildren.
As English has become the native language of all but the most devout, access to this world is now far more open and available. ArtScroll, the most ambitious and effective of the Charedi publishing efforts in the United States, is the product of Charedim acculturation to the United States as well as an inadvertent spur to that very acculturation. The proud partnership of contemporary graphics with traditional texts translated into English recognizes that even American Charedi Jews are more fluent in English than in the sacred tongues of our people and can only really open the great texts of Judaism with the assistance of English translation and commentary.
So it is no wonder that the writings of current and former Charedi Jews, who describe the inner world of their community in anguish, in anger and even in joy, have made their way into the English language.
Among the more interesting works is Judith Brown’s “Hush” (Walker Childrens, 2012) which explores sexual abuse and coming of age among Chasidic girls, and Hella Winston’s “The Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2006), which chronicles the strange and painful journeys of those who have broken with their devoutly Orthodox past to venture forth into a world for which they are unprepared.
In this genre of work is Izzy Eichenstein’s “The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son: Finding My Soul Beyond the Tribe” (Oakstone Company Publishing, $18), the autobiography of a local real estate developer born into one of the most prominent of all Chasidic families — the paternal Zhidachov and the maternal Novominsk dynasties — who chose to leave the Chasidic world. (A note to my readers: I met Eichenstein more than a dozen years ago, when we shared an office suite and would bump into each other in the hall or on the track in La Cienega Park. I knew he had Jewish interests, but I did not know him. A couple of months ago, we met in a parking garage adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport, and he said he had a present for me, a book he had written. I accepted it as a courtesy and opened it with considerable skepticism and then read it with growing enthusiasm.)
Although Eichenstein is a rebel who clearly left the fold of his ancestors, the book is written without bitterness and with the most restrained of anger. His father, Rabbi Moses Eichenstein, began the journey, albeit unknowingly, when Chicago neighborhoods started changing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rabbi Eichenstein left his elderly and impoverished fervently Orthodox congregation, which had been weakened as more affluent and younger Jews moved away in droves to safer and more tony neighborhoods, and as the young abandoned Orthodoxy. He took a position as the rabbi of a traditional congregation in Chicago. Unlike Conservative Judaism, where rabbis were expected to accommodate and adjust to their congregation, in traditional Orthodox Midwestern congregations there was a deliberate disconnect between the rabbi and the congregants, one that was not to be bridged. Rabbi Eichenstein remained Orthodox, set apart from his congregants, and he expected his children to follow his lead and not to integrate into their environment. But Izzy could not accept the confines of the truncated world that was his inheritance. He could not adjust to yeshiva study, all-male environments long on textual knowledge with most minimal exposure to secular studies and summer camps where study rather than play was the norm and gender separation absolute. The more he rebelled, the more his father and his family disciplined him on a straight-and-narrow course.
Like many “troubled” young men, Izzy was sent to Israel to “yeshiva boot camp,” where, removed from the world he knew, living in a more remote place, he could be shaped into the Jew his family wanted him to become. But such an environment did not work. Izzy was labeled “an evil influence.” He explored different worlds. He worked as a manager for Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who is now posthumously revered, but was then also regarded as a rebel. He got to meet Bob Dylan and other musical giants.
His parents did not relent. Both of their own accord and in response to the pressure of an extended, highly observant family who looked down on Izzy’s rabbi father for his compromises, they doubled down and tried to force Izzy into a world increasingly removed from his interests. Izzy’s journey took an unusual turn when he met a woman, Rita, then a freshman at Northwestern University, who was the child of Orthodox Holocaust survivors and who also was slowly leaving the world of her parents, but while still loving and being loved by her parents. Izzy and Rita understood one another. Their families rejoiced in the yichus that each would bring to the marriage, and they rejoiced in each other: A rebellious journey is less isolating if pursued with another.
Izzy came out to Los Angeles to be a promoter and discovered the world of Hollywood, including its empty promises and charlatan promoters. He was taken, yet he remained and established another type of career for himself.
Local readers will appreciate the depiction of Los Angeles’ Jewish life in the last decades of the 20th century, when Izzy and Rita valiantly tried to meet the demands of their respective parents and fit into the world of Modern Orthodoxy but were unable to accept its premises and its restrictions. One day Izzy said to his wife, “You know the difference between us and them: They want to be here.” Implicit in that statement was that Izzy and Rita did not. Their religious practice was vicarious; they were doing it for parents, out of guilt and obligation. And Angelenos will understand how the Eichensteins could not fit in with Hillel and its Orthodox norms. The reader follows their journey to Temple Emmanuel of Beverly Hills, with its dynamic leader, Rabbi Laura Geller, an odd place for the scion of Chasidic masters to find his spiritual home, but a place where he was free to accept himself and be accepted for himself.
The epilogue of his book is the marriage of his son to a Roman Catholic woman just down the road from the great yeshivas of Lakewood, where Izzy’s cousins and nephews find their home. Izzy accepts the journey with equanimity. One imagines his relatives as saying, “See, I told you so. Once you leave the path, it is inevitable.”
We live in the first generation since the Enlightenment, where Orthodox Judaism — even the most fervent Orthodox Judaism — is not declining, but growing. But there is a hidden story, seldom spoken of and seldom told, of those who cannot follow that path.
Izzy has given an honorable and graceful description of the path he has followed. It will be an invitation for some to begin their own journey and a warning for others who are afraid of where that journey might lead.
But one wonders what might have happened if the choice placed before him was not either/or — if his parents could have accepted the fact that there was more than one way, at least for some children who cannot conform.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.