the unlikely disciple

In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)

Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.

I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.

I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).

I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.

As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.

liberty university, lynchburg, va.

There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.

Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.

And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.

As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”

and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?’” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!’”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?

open thank-you letter

Dear –,

I am writing this here because I don’t know how to write you directly — and because what I have to say deals directly with my journey to the rabbinate, which this site chronicles. I am writing on the off-chance that you have found or will find my blog. I know it is at least a possibility. And if you don’t make your way here, I’ll feel better at least putting this out there in the universe.

I’ve thought about you often in the past year as I applied to rabbinical schools and reflected on my reasons for doing so. Almost every time I answered the question, “Why do you want to be a rabbi?” (and it’s been asked quite frequently, in various contexts), I alluded to you.

Things did not end well between us, and that still does not sit well with me. But I want to tell you how much I valued your support at the beginning of my Jewish journey. I’ve had the opportunity to tell everyone else who helped me along the way.

You were the first Jewish guy that I dated, and maybe the first Jew with whom I was close. You made the fairly obvious to most — but stunningly  liberating to me — observation that I did not have to remain in the religion of my family of origin. It was a revelation. And you knew of what you spoke, because your mother is a convert.

I went to shul with you for the first time, I opened a siddur with you for the first time, I stood on the bimah with you for the first time. You encouraged me to learn about Judaism, and you helped me to realize that I have a Jewish soul. You’re who I think of when reading Anita Diamant‘s words:

[T]he fact is , many people find a home in Judaism as a result of falling in love with a Jew. As one Jew-by-choice wrote, “What better way to discover Judaism than through love? People sometimes say deprecatingly, ‘Oh, she converted for marriage.’ Or, ‘Oh, he converted for her.’  . . . The point is: in these instances, the non-Jewish lover sees the beautiful in his beloved and identifies with it. What is it but the Jewishness of the Jew that he wants? And so he chooses to become a Jew himself. This is not something to scoff at.

It’s hard for me to see how I would have gotten here, on the cusp of the beginning of rabbinical school, without you. We did not last, but what I gained from you lasts yet.

Thank you.

through the looking-glass

I made it.

!ברך אתה יי אלחינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Summer classes ended yesterday, and I passed Hebrew 4, as my teacher told me this morning. She asked me to meet with her the day after the final because I panicked during it and couldn’t quite finish. We talked through the text together, and then she gave me opportunity to answer the questions I hadn’t gotten to. This is just one of the ways in which she is a great teacher.

It was disappointing to leave the last class feeling completely frustrated by my performance (although there was also an odd symmetry to having the last class end in the same way the first class did). But yesterday was not at all indicative of my experience in the second four-week class. I got an A- on my midterm, and almost everyday the teacher told me that my homework was “superb.” I felt relaxed in class, and I even made Hebrew jokes (dorkiness acknowledged). Perhaps most importantly, I feel prepared for Hebrew 5, which begins in just a few short weeks, since I will continue with the same teacher. In fact, I pity my future classmates, the ones who did not share with me in the experience of this summer, because they have no idea what they’re in for. She is fair but tough, and I am so glad that I now know what to expect from her class.

Recalling the anxiety, fear, and complete incompetence that I felt during the first course (Hebrew 3), I can still feel the knot in the pit of my stomach that I had almost every day. In this case, ignorance served me well, as I don’t know that I could have knowingly put myself in this situation. (Well, one type of ignorance served me well: I certainly wouldn’t have minded actually knowing more Hebrew before the start of the class.) But as the cliché goes, I am stronger for this experience.

One of the highlights of the summer was the minyan on Wednesday mornings. Two upperclassmen started it, and we had a consistent if small showing each week, a mix of faculty and students who were still in Boston this summer. I loved starting those days with prayer, quiet, reflection, and meditation. It’s not a surprise that I enjoy davening, but it has been a bit of surprise to me how much I’ve loved it. While I enjoy praying on Shabbat, I haven’t had a more regular prayer practice until now. Even when I was facing the possibility of more sleep, I went to minyan anyway, and I was always glad that I did. I felt calmer and more centered — and so ultimately more ready for class on Wednesdays. Various people led the morning service, and the different selections, melodies, and readings made what can become rote into a new experience each time. This is an intentional prayer community, and I am excited to do this regularly in the school year.

Peeps supervises midterm studying; photo by joe grossberg

I have learned more Hebrew in the past two months than I have in the previous two years, when I started studying seriously to be able to enter the rabbinate. I unearthed all of the skills that I developed in college (most of which were based on already having a good grasp on the material) — and learned new ones (based on generally not knowing what the hell is going on). I also got a glimpse of some of what I might be able to expect of myself as an older student, especially in contrast to the other students in my class, all of whom are 7-10 years younger than I am. First and last days notwithstanding, I felt like I generally panicked less and apologized less, trusting that the instructor would both see my effort and know where I was developmentally, as a good teacher does. And she is an excellent educator.

I also realized the difference between a class taken simply to fulfill a requirement, or even to learn something interesting, and one that is the basis of vocational calling. My success in this class is vital to my future as a rabbi, and I had to be mindful not to let my frustration and anxiety about my limitations become dislike of Hebrew, while still giving myself permission to count down the days and be glad that this intensive Hebrew experience is over. A two-hour Hebrew class three times a week is going to feel like a breeze after this summer!

Orientation starts a week from Sunday. Bring it on.

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