TURNING BACK: THE PERSONAL JOURNEY OF A “BORN-AGAIN” JEW
Popular media never seem to get their fill of stories about jaded young men and women born into Orthodox Jewish communities who emerge – spiritually deprived and intellectually hungry – into the “normal” world of pop culture, non-marital relationships and complex “gender expression.” Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was greeted with ecstatic reviews (notwithstanding the book’s manifest factual problems) and remained so popular that, eight years later, Feldman’s autobiography reappeared as a Netflix miniseries. Shulem Deen likewise found a ready audience for his memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, in which he describes his painful exodus from a Hasidic hell.
But what about travelers in the opposite direction? Though it’s no secret that a great many Jews raised in secular surroundings have adopted Orthodoxy over the last few decades – the making of B.T.s, or ba’alei t’shuvah (“those who return”) has even been described as a “phenomenon” – their stories, when written at all, are generally addressed to a narrow Orthodox audience and told in such a way that outsiders to that community will not find much of interest in them.
Michael Lesher’s beautifully-written and provocative memoir, Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew, is so startlingly different that the book, though easy to love, is not easy to categorize. It’s not a typical “B.T.” book: there’s no cheerleading for Orthodoxy, and no shortage of questions about its culture or the behavior of some of its adherents. On the other hand, Lesher has little patience with secularist dogma, and his skewering of Jewish “liberals” who can tolerate anything except traditional Judaism will not win him many friends among the politically correct. I also doubt that Lesher’s descriptions of his painfully awkward (and sometimes hilarious) experiences with Orthodox dating, sprinkled with sentences like “I was just a Jew with his nose in the Talmud and his imagination in Last Tango in Paris,” are calculated to find admirers for the book in the ArtScroll/Feldheim crowd.
Turning Back is really what every first-rate book about religious transformation ought to be: intensely personal, rich in human detail, and alive with the tensions of changing lifestyles, personal collisions, doubts, desires, disappointments, surprises – and, among all that, an inner drive to get hold of an elusive reality that only a certain kind of religious life seems to offer.
Those in search of comfortable answers won’t find them here. But Lesher’s journey into Orthodoxy is so full of unforgettable details that the reader is likely to be grateful Lesher’s ride wasn’t easy. In fact, the book contains a kind of metaphor for the journey. On a late-night subway ride over a bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan, tired and jaded after an unsuccessful date, Lesher watches as the lights of the city below him “leave a tantalizingly abstract pattern of red and white in neon, fireworks accidental in their combinations and all the more astonishing for that.” From the bridge it seems as though “appetite writes itself gorgeously over the depths of river and darkness.” But later, walking through the Lower East Side, Lesher writes, “Now that I’m closer to the city buildings, their beauty when seen from above is gone, and I register the sinister drabness that was masked in shadow in the view from the bridge.” Again and again in Turning Back, Lesher experiences a similar pattern: things lose at least part of their magic as he draws closer to them.
Not all of it, though. Lesher’s enchantment with the Talmud is contagious, as is his fascination with some very unusual people he meets at Ohr Somayach, the B.T. yeshiva where he goes to study in Monsey, New York. (It’s hard to imagine another place where you’d find a Peruvian mindreader, an aging skeptic obsessed with anti-Semitism and a newly-religious Israeli who says, “Business and government in America pollute the ground. Scientists in America pollute the soul” – all in a few short months.)
And Lesher makes it clear that there’s no simple way out either, whatever outsiders may imagine: he has as much trouble with his family during his transition as he does with some of his zealous fellow students. One brother intermarries while Lesher is studying in yeshiva. His father visits him – stirring painful memories of his parents’ divorce. Another brother has become an evangelical Christian. It’s all here: everything that makes contemporary Jewish life so messy, so full of collisions and tangents, and – when seen from the perspective of someone who is both inside and outside the traditionalist camp – so thoroughly uncanny and unpredictable. Lesher gives voice to all of it, and whether you agree or not with all of his personal choices, it’s hard to resist the way he tells the tale.
As it happens, I’ve known Michael Lesher for years, particularly as a campaigner for victims of child sex abuse and as the author of Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities, the first (and still really the only) book-length analysis of sex abuse cover-ups among Orthodox Jews. In other words, I’ve always known that Michael isn’t afraid to speak his mind and doesn’t hesitate to take up a subject that won’t make his life simpler.
That same spirit is abundantly in evidence in Turning Back. But this isn’t a book of facts and figures, not a collection of essays, not even a provocative treatment of problems in Orthodox Jewish culture. This, in Lesher’s own words, “is a book about life – about my life, to be specific – and not about movements, statistics or trends.” It’s also a book filled with surprises, humor, sadness, sharp insights, and characters that Lesher’s treatment of them renders almost larger than life. And in his extended narrative about the Crown Heights riots of 1991, Lesher manages to combine all of these things into a riveting meditation about life and death, Jews and anti-Semitism, fear and hatred, hope and despair, religion and modern America.
What can I say? No two people can have exactly the same experience of life inside Orthodox Judaism. But whatever you know about that experience, you’ll gain something from seeing it as Lesher sees it. His writing is consistently superb, and some of his insights are so fine I’m tempted to quote bundles of them.
Here’s one that follows an incident where Lesher, heading home late one night, gives five dollars to a Jewish beggar who confronts him on a deserted Manhattan street and then disappears after trying (unsuccessfully) to wangle more money out of him. Lesher writes:
Most money is given to beggars out of cowardice, says Nietzsche. Was I a coward? Needless to say, before my conversion I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving such a creature five dollars. So why had I handed it over now? Had I done it only to prove (to him? To myself? To the invisible eye of Orthodox social opinion, watching at all hours?) that I really had changed – that my new lifestyle was more than a style? Or was I just an ordinary dumbbell, taken in as all dumbbells are taken in?
At one level, I guess, the religious life amounts to a new set of devices by which we can be manipulated. And against which we must therefore learn to toughen ourselves. At the risk – it sometimes seems – of losing touch with exactly the fire and tenderness that was behind the appeal of that life in the first place.
We want to be saints, and end up as calculating nebbishes. We want to transcend the limitations of ego, and we find ourselves struggling for some way to unscramble our own motives. People who think of Orthodoxy as a simplifying creed have never lived in our skins.
No, Orthodoxy – as Lesher sees it – is not a simplifying creed. And Turning Back is not a simplifying book. It’s only a great book. And a book everyone ought to read.
The link to the book on Amazon is: