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Jewish Journal

The alchemist

by Rob Eshman

September 14, 2010 | 7:21 pm

Yes, that’s my wife and daughter on the cover of this issue.

It’s not a normal thing for an editor’s spouse to be the focus of a cover story.  The Jewish Journal is a community newspaper, but it is also, for lack of a better word, a real newspaper. Advertising dollars don’t buy coverage or, if an organization screws up, we don’t turn a blind eye, and machers don’t get special treatment. Because we take very seriously the idea that we are a journalistic enterprise for the entire community, we strive to create a level playing field where all voices can be heard, all corners of the community covered, accurately and fairly.

This can get complicated, precisely because many of us are part of the community we cover. We don’t want to show favor to those people we happen to be close to, but we don’t want to somehow punish them for being related to us, either. My wife, Naomi Levy, is a rabbi and an author. As much as I have worried over the years about any appearance of trying to promote her work, at the same time I have worried, too, that she might not get the recognition she deserves in this paper, simply because she has the bum luck of being married to me.

I wrote “in this paper” because over the years, Naomi has been the subject of glowing profiles on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Today Show”; in the Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping, Parade and just about every Jewish paper in the country — but she is rarely mentioned in this one.

This week, however, it was not my decision to make. Naomi’s new book, her achievements as a rabbi and the enduring themes of the High Holy Days have created the moment, and the other editors here felt Naomi’s story needed to be told. The story that appears in our pages was edited without my participation, and the excerpt and cover image were selected without my oversight. What you will read here, like all the reporting in The Journal, is a story that our editors believe is worth reading about.

Ten years ago, Naomi and I faced a crisis that had us grasping for every possible way to cope. Our daughter, Noa, had received a dire diagnosis. As Naomi relates in her new book, “Hope Will Find You,” her life was turned upside down.  Each day, she faced down the endless tasks of navigating schools, tests, specialists, therapists and health insurers. Meanwhile, I threw myself into work, hoping to pick up the financial slack and grateful that I had something to distract me, as much as possible, from my worries.

Rabbis often have a gift for turning daily life into lessons. Call it Jewish alchemy. Instead of searching for a way to turn dross into gold, they turn the mundane into stories. Naomi, whose sermons moved me long before I even dared ask her on a first date, always excelled at this. But after Noa’s diagnosis, Naomi stopped writing, stopped lecturing, resisted stepping onto the pulpit.  The alchemist in her died.

Then, as Noa grew stronger, so did Naomi. She began to look for the meaning behind what had happened, to recall the stories of that time, to wonder if there weren’t larger lessons in our struggles, to create Torah from life.

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, Naomi gave a sermon about the importance of finding one’s divine mission in life. Each one of us is given a divine mission that only we can fulfill, but the challenge, she said, is that we’re not told what it is. How do we discover it? Often, she said, it is precisely in that arena where we face the most challenges that we can find the answer. She quoted from the book Sefer Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace):  “A person’s greatest block is actually the key to his divine mission.”

To illustrate, she told the story of a zoologist named Alan Rabinowitz, whose agonizing battle with stuttering led him to become one of the world’s great champions of wildlife. Knowing what it was like not to be able to speak, he decided he would speak for those creatures who also had no voice.

After Naomi read me a draft of her sermon, I looked at her and said, “But that’s exactly what happened to you, too. You lived your own sermon.” Naomi has taken the most challenging part of her life, found its universal message and turned it into a lesson to help others.  Writing this book, I told her, was her mission.

With the creation of Nashuva, her other mission, Naomi is back to leading services. That explains why last night I came home late from work to hear, in my living room, the Nashuva band practicing the Unetaneh Tokef prayer for the Yom Kippur service. I heard them singing, “And let us acknowledge the power of this day’s holiness, for it is full of awe and dread.”

And all I wanted to do was watch “Weeds.”

As I drifted off to sleep, “Weeds”-less, I thought about how the writer of that poetic prayer had it wrong anyway. Any day, every day, any moment — not just Yom Kippur — can be holy, can fill us with awe and dread, with insight and wisdom. But sometimes, it takes a rabbi to show us how.

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