The Invisible Jew
by Mel Waldman
Once, I possessed a faith that was beautiful, pure, and untested. An Orthodox Jew, I had the strong faith of youth. My mentors recommended that I go to a yeshiva and study to become a rabbi. But the religious life was not my destiny and I evolved on a different but convergent path, where I explored the labyrinthine landscape of the psyche rather than holy terrain.
I lost my faith because of the particular circumstances of my life which I shall soon discuss. Yet like many assimilated Jews, I have become the invisible Jew, vanishing into the larger non-Jewish community. Is such assimilation good or bad or a mixture of both elements?
Some critics, like Mamet, look harshly on Jewish assimilation. “The conversos of Spain escaped the Inquisition by pretending to embrace Catholicism. They acted, in all outward forms, as Catholics but secretly practiced Judaism in their homes. The new converso, the assimilated Western Jew, in a curious inversion, practices no religion whatever, retaining only his self-identification as a Jew” (Mamet, 2006).
In this article, I will speak from my own personal experiences. Perhaps, I lost a piece of my soul, or even its glittering center, when I lost my faith and distanced myself from Judaism. But Judaism, as my religion, had become irrelevant to my life.
One day I woke up and felt nothing. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I was transformed into an alien creature, although my metamorphosis was invisible to others.
I went to synagogue and prayed. But the rituals of prayer were experienced as a burden — no longer a direct connection to Hashem, my G-d. (“The simplest name of G-d in Jewish tradition is Ha-Shem, literally ‘The Name.’ Many traditional Jews say Ha-Shem instead of any other name of G-d, except in the context of worship or group study.”
In addition, “most traditional Jews won’t write out the word ‘God,’ so many Jewish books and periodicals print it ‘G-d.’ Just as the four-letter name of G-d isn’t supposed to be pronounced, some Jews extend this restriction to writing names of G-d. Also, it ensures that a name of G-d won’t be defaced or erased if the paper is ripped up, soiled, or thrown away”) (Falcon & Blatner, 2001).
Soon, my soul was emptied of divine presence, transformed into a bleak Waste Land. Eventually, all the rituals and practices of Judaism became mechanical, robotic gestures devoid of spirituality. Quietly, I sailed away from Judaism, lost at sea in a storm of despair and broken faith. I became the invisible Jew and an outsider, seeking truth outside my religion.
Over the years, I have labeled myself an atheist, agnostic, and theist, in those poignant moments of religious nostalgia when I recalled my early faith and connection to G-d. When I was an atheist, I found Judaism, indeed any religion, to be false. Religion and the notion of an omnipotent and all-good G-d were a myth.
But my loss of faith seemed unconnected to the process of assimilation. I believe my atheism was fueled by the dark experiences of my life. Simultaneously, I discovered a larger world beyond the Jewish community where, at times, I blossomed. Eventually, I became an assimilated Jew.
My assimilation was both a blessing and a curse. Beyond the protective cocoon of Judaism, I became spiritually connected to the world-wide community of man. Yet as Freedman (2000) points out, “the Indian-born writer Bharati Mukherjee has likened the process of becoming an American to ‘murdering a former self.’ And she said this by way of recommending the decision.”
Like the Jewish immigrant, I gave up a part of my Jewish identity. But looking back, it seems I was driven to leave the religion my father embraced rather than driven to approach and belong to the non-Jewish community. Yet in the processing of secretly running away from my Jewish roots, I discovered the world outside Judaism.
Early in life, I became an outsider. My father was a hard-working, high-pressure dress salesman, rumored to have played the banjo with Guy Lombardo in the old days. (Fact or fiction? It is anyone’s guess!) He loved to woo the ladies with his fast- and sweet-talking words. Certainly, he charmed my mother, who loved him passionately, soulfully, and totally, despite his many shortcomings. And she was his one true love, he often proclaimed.
But from the start, he rejected me His rejection was deep and penetrating, cutting, wounding, and fragmenting my soul. Perhaps, he was jealous and envious of Mother’s love for her gifted son. Yes, I was her brilliant son who would one day be a great man.
Her attention and admiration for me was apparently unacceptable. Father would not be outshone by his son, the young intellectual, who had captured Mother’s heart. Thus, he seemed compelled to compete with me. And when he felt threatened and diminished by my accomplishments, he condemned and castigated me, forcing me to withdraw from his presence.
I hid in my room and explored the vast universe of mind, soul, and creation. I fed my wounded spirit with knowledge. Beyond my required studies, I devoured books on psychology, philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis, hypnosis, parapsychology, literature, and poetry.
I became a thinker and a writer. (Actually, I started writing at the age of 5 or 6. I wrote mysteries and stories of suspense. Not until my pre-adolescence or adolescence did I investigate the more advanced subjects mentioned above.)
Father’s rejection deeply wounded me. But Mother’s love seemed more powerful, absolutely unconditional and expansive, empowering me to be and become a good person — a mensch! With her nurturing and absolute faith, I became a young man of spirituality and intellect.
While my mother’s ultimate vision of me as a man of greatness was intimidating and sometimes experienced as a pressure always to be perfect, my father’s apparent contempt and hatred was a source of despair and hopelessness. I needed to navigate my confused self between Scylla and Charybdis, the dangerous rock of greatness and the whirlpool of worthlessness. But it would take almost a lifetime to find a viable balance between my two parents’ extreme perceptions of me.
Eventually, I found and nurtured a positive self image. In my Mirror of Creation, I discovered the real and beautiful image of a Jewish man-one planted in reality and not in the visions or projected nightmares of my parents.
I did not become a rabbi because quietly, insidiously, I was becoming a rebel. And seven months after my 20th birthday, my mother died prematurely at the age of 50. My father became fanatically religious and obsessive-compulsive about Jewish rituals. He shoved Judaism down my throat! And I experienced an overpowering pressure to conform and surrender some of my individuality.
But secretly I questioned everything, and silently I distanced myself from Orthodox Judaism, no longer embracing it as the center of my being. (Unfortunately, I did not manifest the same rebellious attitude toward the non-Jewish world and the pressures of assimilation.)
My father, unable to cope with my mother’s death and the living son she adored, kicked me out of our home twice. The second time I did not return.
After I left home, I survived the hard years that followed. Yet I became a full-fledged outsider to my family and religion. Eventually, my family and I did not communicate or maintain any contact. They seemed to forget me. And congruently, I forgot (or denied) my Jewish roots.
Years ago, I blamed my family and religion for failing me in my darkest time of need. Vulnerable and frightened (and unaware of my strengths and potentialities), I condemned my relatives, my rabbi, and members of the congregation for not reaching out to me.
But looking back, I doubt that the rabbi or congregation were aware of the problems and conflicts my father and I had. And following my mother’s death, the extended Jewish family she kept together became fragmented, splitting into many parts. Mother was our spiritual glue. When she passed away, our family structure collapsed.
And this fragmentary family could not provide me with emotional support, for it was struggling for its own survival. Eventually, it dissolved into a group of disconnected family members whose lives unfolded in different ways, directions, and places.
Thus, the family that existed when my mother was alive was vanishing. My relatives were struggling to survive and make sense of their own lives. Perhaps, I could have reached out to them or to the rabbi and congregation and asked for help. But I did not. No one reached out. That’s the way it was.
Neither my family nor the rabbi nor Judaism comforted or fed me spiritually during the hard, challenging years after my mother passed away. My spiritual nourishment came from a different source: the mysterious, creative process of writing that began at the age of 5 or 6 and connected me to the divine, transforming me into a man blessed by a holy encounter and the gift of creation. And this miraculous process has continued to bless and heal me throughout my life.
In addition, in my role as a therapist, I also participate in a creative process of healing and tikkun, both for my patients and myself. Some of my patients keep journals and write about their daily thoughts and feelings and dreams. They bring their journals to the therapy sessions and share them with me. In this process of writing and reading, they are learning to heal themselves.
Psychotherapy is potentially a life-changing spiritual process of healing the wounded self and discovering the hidden beautiful landscape of the human psyche. It is yet another road to self-actualization and spirituality.
But still, there is a vast hole in my soul where Judaism once was ensconced in its sacred home. At this point in my labyrinthine life, I have no definitive answers to my questions about Judaism, G-d, and evil. But I have fragmented thoughts, like the scattered sparks of the universe that may form a unity someday.
When I felt connected to Hashem, Judaism was a joy. But after I lost my faith, it became a burden. I was overwhelmed by the many laws and rituals to which I was expected to adhere. I perceived Judaism as a massive superego (Sigmund Freud’s psychological structure analogous to the concept of conscience). Judaism was my guilt-producing religion of restraint, inhibiting my freedom of thought and action.
I never fully abandoned Judaism. Even when I considered myself an atheist, I took pride in my cultural background and heritage. I identified myself as a Jewish man with a hunger for learning and achievement. And throughout my life, inspired by my Jewish heritage, I immersed myself in intellectual and artistic pursuits.
I believe I lost my faith because I could not fathom how an omnipotent and loving G-d could permit suffering and evil in the world, especially in my home. In contrast to Mother’s generous love and understanding, Father was a terror, having been beaten and terrified by his father and unable to end the cycle of abuse. My father was a sadist! But he did not physically abuse me even though he often threatened me with a hard black leather belt. With his dark and demeaning words, he castigated me every day. Only when I hid in my room and pretended to be invisible did he leave me alone.
(But near the end of my father’s life, when he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, I took him into my home and cared for him. Only then did we make peace, after a lifetime of war and conflict. And by openly embracing each other, we performed tikkun repair and mending of our souls and, indirectly, the universe!)
Out there in the skies and at sea,
and in foreign lands, we search for them,
although there are strong suspicions
that sleepers have already arrived,
perhaps years ago, waiting to be called,
praying to hear the shibboleth
and to begin jihad.
(Shibboleth is any test word or password.)
Yet here at home over half a century ago,
almost every night, a war of terror began
again and again, when Father,
a product of the old generation,
came home from work, with raw rage
and the threat of a hard black leather belt
to teach character, especially respect,
in the privacy of our home.
In the good old days, through a secret culture of terror,
I learned, as did the other children of my generation,
Our fathers created us in their images,
and we recognize the face of terrorism.
* * *
More terrifying than my father’s rage was my own toward him. I was terrified I would become like him. I needed help. And I received it.
I did not escape from my father’s wrath until I went out into the world. And only with therapy followed by a long and comprehensive psychoanalysis was I freed from my father’s sins. Ironically, by embracing psychoanalysis, I am now capable of embracing Judaism once more.
(In my experience, a successful analysis implies a spiritual integration. When I learned to forgive my father and myself, I was released from the prison of hatred, self-hatred, and abuse. At the end of my father’s life, he softened and expressed his love for me. We learned to love each other, two wounded men at a turning point in life.
I have traveled far and still have a long way to travel on the path of spirituality and righteousness. But I have learned two important lessons: First, sublimation of anger and rage is a beautiful and transformational process. Second, to save my soul and be fully human, I must forgive. With these lessons, I can embrace both my spirituality and my religion.)
Today, I yearn to be close to Hashem and to reconnect with Judaism although I am still bewildered by the mysterious universe and His Will, frightened and saddened by evil and the tragedies of life, and humbled by my own ignorance. I choose to believe in Hashem and I assume that my human perceptions and understanding are limited. G-d is incomprehensible and unknowable. Yet I long to feel His presence.
I live half a block away from the Tree of Life Synagogue where I was bar-mitzvahed and married. Over the years, I have been inside the old synagogue on a few occasions, especially on Yom Kippur, to say Yizkor for my deceased parents and other departed relatives. (Yizkor is the memorial service for family and friends who have passed away.)
The Tree of Life is always there and always welcomes me inside. Yet I have stayed away.
Will I re-embrace my Jewish roots and Jewish identity? Can I find a balance between Judaism and a world view in which I am connected to and involved in the vast community of man? I do not exist within the “old walls of identity” (Freedman, 2000) nor do I exist solely “outside the old walls of identity” (Freedman, 2000). I am still searching for my spiritual home.
Now, I must confess that I have been almost phobic about entering this precious shul, hidden in my soul for many years, the holy container of ancient memories and dreams-the synagogue where my father and mother worshipped.
Silently and alone, I pray to Hashem. I am bewildered... Yet I pray!
Falcon, T. & Blatner, D., Judaism for Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2001
Freedman, S. G., Jew vs. Jew: the Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000
Mamet, D., The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. New York: Schocken, 2006
Copyright © 2008 by Mel Waldman