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The Pilgrim exchange, part 1: On God as a conversation stopper

by Shmuel Rosner

August 13, 2014 | 4:01 am

Lee Kravitz

Lee Kravitz is the author of the memoir Unfinished Business and the former editor in chief of Parade magazine. Previously, he was founding editor of React magazine and an editorial director of Scholastic Inc. Kravitz is president of Youth Communication, a publisher of writing by and for inner-city teens and youth in foster care. He is also active on the boards of the Public Education Network and The League: Powered by Learning to Give. A graduate of Yale and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Lee lives with his wife and children in New York City and Clinton Corners, New York.

This exchange will focus on his recently published book Pilgrim (Hudson Street Press, 2014).

***

Dear Lee,

Unlike most of the titles we normally discuss on the blog, your new book tells a very personal story of religious soul searching. It gives us an account of how you basically ‘tried out’ several kinds of religious life after no longer being able to ignore your growing thirst for authentic spirituality. The journey begins and ends with Judaism, which you rediscover as the book progresses (I hope I haven’t ruined the ending for anyone). I’d like to start this exchange by asking you about the beginning of the process –

At the beginning of the book, you give the impression that seriously contemplating faith and religion as an established Jewish family man – with kids, a career and responsibilities – is quite a lonely task. You give us the sense that your environment – liberal, affluent, pretty Jewish – was not one in which people talked about about God very often (when the subject came up, you mention that your friends would normally try to find something else to talk about). You also show how tricky talking to one’s wife about the subject can be after years of living together.

My question – do you think that having to keep your religious struggles and doubts to yourself was your unavoidable burden as a busy family man of a certain socio-economic background, or do you think there was something about the type of Jewish life you were surrounded with that somehow made it more difficult? Do you believe that the difficulty in openly talking about God is a Jewish-American predicament, or is this not about the Jewish community?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address your thought-provoking questions about my book.

As a child of the 1960s growing up in an affluent, suburban community, I was obsessed with identifying a purpose for my life. I wanted to align my actions with my beliefs and become a better, more compassionate person. I drew inspiration from many traditions: my birthright religion of Judaism, but also Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. I was a seeker. I identified with the character of Siddhartha in Herman Hesse's novel of the same name. Then at 21, my spiritual longings went underground -- for nearly 30 years. 

They surfaced again a few years ago: After 9/11, a job loss and a health scare, I found myself aching for God. Why had it taken so long for me to get back to that crucial youthful quest? I was a workaholic. With my career and family obligations, I didn't have the time I would have needed to pursue a spiritual life. I've heard that same regret from executives who were raised in other religions. When the work you do is demanding, meaningful, and all-consuming, perhaps you're less likely to center your social life around a church or synagogue; you satisfy your need to belong and be a part of a community at your workplace and in connection to your job.  

As a journalist, I wasn't supposed to bring my religious beliefs into my reporting. Beyond the role it played in politics and war, religion seldom came up as a topic in the newsrooms where I worked or in the magazines I edited. Or at home. The vast majority of my friends and family members were either indifferent or hostile to God. And my wife, who was raised a Humanistic Jew, is an atheist. Usually you hear about the stress religious differences play in interfaith marriages. In our Jewish marriage, my non-believing wife couldn't understand why I yearned so deeply for God. I'd find myself censoring my feelings about God in her presence. When her brother was killed in a car crash, I kept God completely out of our conversations for fear of upsetting her. This dynamic can just as easily take root in a marriage between two Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, or Muslims if one of them is pursuing a more spiritual path.

And the fact is, it's hard to talk openly about God, even when you're with like-minded people. As Rabbi David Ingber says, "We live in a generation that has post-traumatic God disorder." This is true for Jews and non-Jews alike. Each of us brings a certain degree of conceptual and emotional baggage to the word "God." The word itself can be a conversation stopper, especially when you're a seeker struggling to articulate the evolving nature of your beliefs. 

The Conservative Judaism of my youth did not encourage seekers like me to explore other traditions and approaches, either within or beyond Judaism. (Perhaps that was true of other denominations, too; perhaps they were afraid of losing us.) Judaism, however, is a religion of seekers.  Genesis 12:1-- "And the Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.'" In all of literature, is there a more inspiring banner to carry on the journey to a more authentic spirituality, or to seeing the faith of our forefathers with fresh eyes?

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