If Only: Finding America in Hasidism

By Abraham, Pearl | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

If Only: Finding America in Hasidism


Abraham, Pearl, Michigan Quarterly Review


A recent Newsweek article reporting on a field of study called neuro-theology asks whether our brain wiring creates the idea of god, or whether god created our brain wiring.1 It's similar to the question linguists have been asking about the structure of language: Does language reflect the attributes of our brains because it was designed by us, or do our brains develop in childhood to accommodate linguistic structures?

I suspect the answer, if there is one, is mixed, that a little of both takes place. In my particular case, whether or not I was born with religious wiring, certainly by the time I was in my teens I should have grown into a fervent Hasidic woman, prepared to marry at eighteen, give birth to eight or ten children, marry them off, await dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren, and consider this existence the happiest on earth.

From every angle, the circumstances of my life pointed me in the direction of a devout religiosity. I didn't follow this path, and the question is why. Why is there no religion in my daily life?

My mother's response to this question would be: If only. She believes that I would have remained religious if only the family hadn't moved to America. After years of shrugging my shoulders, I'm beginning to understand that America did have a great deal to do with who I became, but not altogether in the sense my mother has intuited.

A particular episode in my life inspired in me an acute selfawareness. It happened when I was fourteen or fifteen, and Aunt Rachel from Israel was visiting. We were in Brooklyn for the day, waiting in the car for my mother and sister, who had stepped out to purchase something at the local health food store. My father was in the driver's seat, reading from one of his religious books, psalms or mishnah, as was his habit during such stops. Taking my cue from him, I immersed myself in a novel.

Aunt Rachel, who must have been bored, tried to engage me in conversation, which I discouraged. When my mother returned, Rachel informed her that I was a child who ought to be watched, that I was dangerous.

My father was upset that this had been said in front of me, and called it nonsense. I was deeply thrilled because it confirmed for me what I had known all along, though perhaps not so clearly: that I would be someone different, dangerous somehow.

In one of his introductions to Omens of Millennium, titled "Prelude: Self Reliance or Mere Gnosticism," Harold Bloom refers to what might be a universal childhood experience, when one feels with certainty that one is not after all the child of one's natural parents. Bloom calls this sensation curious and asks whether it isn't an awakening to the knowledge (Gnosis) of something in the self that's older even than one's parents, "that cannot die because it was never born." He goes on to write of the experience of deep reading in childhood, which provides the "pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one's outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown."2

Reconsidering the event from this late present-day perspective, various aspects stand out; for example, my father's awareness that such an announcement is in itself damaging, or empowering (depending on the point of view). More significantly, that it wasn't the mere act of reading that brought forth the criticism (though that later became a subject of debate), but the fact that I had refused to engage in what was decent social behavior, what any Israeli child, Rachel pointed out, understood perfectly. In other words, I was growing into an American. I had placed personal desire above the needs of others, thereby rebelling against the familial institution.

Daniel, in E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, describes this social responsibility, in a sentence I liked enough to memorize: "And all my life I have been running from my family, and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another, they are what you come upon around the corner and the Lord God who is so anxious for recognition says you must ask how they are, and would they like something to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time. …

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