Rabbi Mark Borovitz's memoir of how prison Torah study turned an alcoholic grifter and check-kiter into a successful rehabilitator of Jewish cokeheads, gamblers and other addicts is a blustering and grandiose book, marred by clichés and solecisms. And yet, I liked "The Holy Thief: A Con Man's Journey From Darkness to Light," very much.
There have been so many bad recovery memoirs cultivating readers' cynicism that one can forget how amazing the redemption of a human soul is. Something about the blunt, anti-literary voice of Borovitz (or, more probably, his co-writer, Alan Eisenstock) perfectly conveys the hustler, the tough Jew who turns his talent for persuasion to better ends.
Borovitz's tale has a picaresque quality, taking us from the Cleveland underworld to prison and finally to the chaplaincy at Beit T'Shuvah, the Los Angeles treatment center lauded by President Bush as a faith-based initiative at its best. But what makes the book not just likable but important is how Borovitz forces his readers to confront the reality of Jewish criminals and junkies -- not just in the Meyer Lansky 1930s or the boiler rooms of Wall Street but in anonymous suburbs.
Borovitz was raised by good people. He went to shul. His older brother, Neal, in fact, was already a rabbi by the time Mark did his first prison stint.
Jewish law-abidingness was not my only preconception challenged by "The Holy Thief." One tends not to associate addiction recovery and Jewish spirituality.
Where do Jews go when they get hooked on amphetamines or alcohol? Not to shul but to places with names like Rolling Hills or Hidden Valley, where, of course, most of the residents are surely Christians. What could it mean for Torah to play a role in addiction treatment?
"The Holy Thief" does not quite get to the heart of this question; the book ends with Borovitz getting out of prison, finding work at the then-new and experimental Beit T'Shuvah, marrying its founder and being accepted to study for the rabbinate at the University of Judaism.
To learn more, I visited Beit T'Shuvah on Venice Boulevard. There, Borovitz and his wife, Harriet Rossetto, the social worker who founded the center, gave me a tour of their small campus. It has dormitories for 100, a cafeteria and a shul that every Friday draws 350 people: current residents, alumni and some neighbors who just like Borovitz's revival-style services.
Rossetto and Borovitz explained their treatment program for Jewish addicts young and old, some poor, others the children of Hollywood moguls. It's a combination of worship, Torah study, group therapy, individual psychodynamic therapy and traditional Twelve Step recovery on the Alcoholics Anonymous model.
Somehow, this melding of Judaism with Twelve Stepping struck me as even less probable than the notion of Jewish addicts. I think this had something to do with my sense that the Twelve Steps are, like Wicca -- goyish.
AA's founders were openly Christological; when they enjoined their followers to put faith in a higher power, it was clear whom they meant.
"A power greater than ourselves" leaves room for interpretation, and AA's emphasis on confessional prayer and humiliation before a deity has worked for Jews, Muslims and even Unitarian-style deists. Still, like other quintessentially American self-help or empowerment formulas, like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's power of positive thinking or Stephen Covey's Mormon-derived habits of highly effective people, AA is clearly rooted in Christianity.
As we sat in Rossetto's office, I asked the couple, "Am I alone in my perception that the Twelve Steps are, well, Christian?"
Borovitz, tall, burly and 52, stroked his red-and-white beard, sat forward on the sofa and explained patiently that I was mistaken. The Twelve Steps, he said, are closer to Judaism than to the Protestantism from which they derive. After all, Protestantism (in its Baptist and Calvinist strains anyway) places ultimate importance in belief; Judaism, we know, wants belief but insists on action. The mitzvot (good deeds) are primarily concerned with what we do, not what we think.
And although the Twelve Steps, like the Ten Commandments, begin with a requirement of belief, they move to action: make a list of persons harmed, make amends to them, carry the message to others. The 10th step is to take an inventory of one's failings, and, Borovitz asked, is that not the essence of Judaism, whose holiest day is set aside for confession and atonement?
A version of this review appeared on nextbook.com.
Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of the New Haven Advocate, is the author of "Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah, American Style" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).