> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Next Year in Jerusalem, Conclusion

May 9, 2009 | by Ellen Willis

A groundbreaking chronicle of spiritual search, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine, April 1977.

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Click here for a pdf version of the entire article.

There began to be moments – usually early in the morning, before I forced myself to get up and face the day – when I was more inclined than not to believe that it was all true, that I was only resisting because I couldn't stand the pain of admitting how wrong I was. What about the prophecies ... and the way modern history seemed almost a conspiracy to drive the Jews back to Israel ... and the Bible... Mike and I had been going over Genesis, along with the Rashi commentary, and I had had a sudden vision, like an acid flash, of a Garden, and a Presence ... and my personality, my Sagittarian compulsion to aim straight at the cosmic bull's-eye... "The blessing and curse of being a Jew," said Reb Noach, "is that Jews are thirsty for God, for the absolute. A Jew can never have peace. Whatever he does he'll be the best at, whether it's being a radical or being a criminal. It's all misplaced searching for God. Every Jew is a neurotic..."

Insanity, decadence, call it what you please, I could never be a traditional Jewish mother. But maybe I didn't have to be.

And if I became religious, what would I do? Insanity, decadence, call it what you please, I could never be a traditional Jewish mother. But maybe I didn't have to be. Actually only men were subject to a specific mitzvah to marry and have children. And not everyone took the Weinbergs' hard line on procreation – according to one rabbi I'd met, a psychologist, the halacha permitted contraception when necessary to preserve a woman's health, including her emotional health. Nor were the role divisions in the family absolute, no law actually forbade women to work outside the home, or men to share housework. Even within the bounds of Judaism I could be a feminist of sorts, crusading for reforms like equal education, perhaps contesting the biased halachic interpretations of male rabbis. And my experience would put me in a position to reach women like me and bring them back.

In private I could have this fantasy, even take it seriously. Which would not stop me, an hour or a minute later, from getting into a furious argument with a man. It was one thing to consider the abstract possibility that women's role in Judaism was not inherently oppressive, another to live in a culture that made me feel oppressed. Once when Mike and I were dinner guests of another of his teachers I complained, "You know, it makes me feel like a servant when you sit there like a lump while I help serve and clean up."

"It isn't customary for the men to help," Mike said, "and if I got up I'd make everybody uncomfortable, including the women." He had a point – when in Rome and all that – but it was a point he was not exactly loath to make. The fact was that for Mike, moving from Western secular society to Orthodox Judaism had meant an increase in status and privilege; for me it meant a loss.

One night Mike and I got together with Dick Berger, one of his best friends at the yeshiva. Mike was very high on Dick, who, he said, was an unusually perceptive person with a gift for sensing someone's emotional blocks. He had been encouraging Mike to get more connected to his feelings. I had met Dick once and he had told me a little about himself. He had been a newspaper reporter in Pittsburgh, had written an unpublished novel, had been into psychedelics and Transcendental Meditation. Later he had told Mike that he felt I had seen him only as material for my article. I didn't think that was true, but I worried about it anyway. I hated it when people claimed to know my motives better than I did, but I always worried that they were right.

The conversation that night was pleasant enough until Dick and I got into an argument about men sharing child care. Dick suggested that 3,000 years of tradition shouldn't be tampered with, and I started getting angry in a way I knew from experience led to no good. Then he really pushed the wrong button.

"You're so emotional! Can't we talk about this objectively?"

"You're hardly being objective. It's in your interest as a man to think what you think."

"I'm feeling detached," Dick insisted. "By that I mean attached to my basic essence. You're reacting out of your conditioning in Western culture."

"You're reacting out of your male-supremacist prejudices, only you have 3,000 years of tradition on your side."

"But I'm not being aggressive and hostile – you are!"

"Your can afford to be 'objective' and 'detached'! You're happy with the system – I'm the one who's being oppressed by it! Why shouldn't I be hostile – what right do you have to demand that we have this conversation on your terms..." My sentence went hurtling off into the inarticulate reaches of un-God-like rage.

Another time, another friend of Mike's: Harvey, a tall, dark, intense South African. "I'm not here because I want to be," he said. "I want freedom and money and the pleasures of the body. I was happy in my non-religious life – I miss it. But once you know there's a God..."

We started arguing about design and evolution. "Either there's a God," Harvey said, "or all this harmony and purpose is a coincidence."

"Those aren't the only possibilities..."

"And there are vast odds against coincidence. If you had a dart board that had lots of red and just a little white, where do you think your dart would hit?"

"That's a silly analogy," I said.

"What if you had to lay money on it?"

"I'm not going to play this game! It's ridiculous! It's irrelevant!"

"Answer me," the prosecutor insisted. "Would you bet on white or red?"

"I'm not Pascal!" I yelled. "And I'm not about to change my entire life because of some abstract intellectual decision about what the odds are on there being a God!"

"The Torah isn't only a carrot, you know. It's a stick, as well. There's punishment – you get cut off..."

And I'm not going to play your guilt game, either! You men are not going to cram your sexist religion down my throat!

There it was, the dirty little secret: I might be persuaded to return to Judaism – but not by a man.

There it was, the dirty little secret: I might be persuaded to return to Judaism – but not by a man. After one of our encounters, Reb Noach had declared, "You are emotionally committed to rebelling against the male sex!" He was right, of course, and in principle I agreed that one ought to be wary of such a priori commitments. But whenever I clashed with a man I seemed to end up with a renewed conviction that my rebellion was a matter of simple sanity. Men with their obnoxious head trips! Men with their "objectivity": "Let's discuss this rationally – should I remove my foot from your neck or shouldn't I?"

* * *


And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? That thou shall say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. – EXODUS 13:14

You know her life was saved by rock and roll. – VELVET UNDERGROUND

Mike and I were walking in Mea Shearim talking about happiness. My revised departure date was nearly two weeks away, time for plenty of changes, but I knew that I would not, at least for the present, become an Orthodox Jew. My decision had involved no epiphany, no cathartic moment of truth; my doubts remained and perhaps always would. But to put it that way was looking at it backward. The fact was that only a compelling, inescapable moment of truth could have made me religious. Nothing less could shake my presumption in favor of a life that made me happy.

From Mike's point of view, I was refusing to accept the truth because of a strong emotional resistance; though he too had resisted, his unhappiness with secular life had made it easier to give up. On the other hand, he kept suggesting, I might be a lot less happy than I thought.

"Dick sees you as a very unhappy person," Mike said. "And Reb Noach thinks you're really unhappy."

I felt a twinge of resentment – who were these people, who hardly knew me, to call me unhappy? – mixed with anxiety. Was I fooling myself? I didn't think so. I was not perfectly happy, or as happy as I wanted to be, but in spite of my unresolved problems I was happier than not. Having problems, even serious ones, was not the same as being unhappy. I knew the difference because I had experienced it. For about seven years, beginning the year I started college, I had suffered from a severe depression. At the time I hadn't called it that, I didn't know what to call it. I wasn't especially sad; I just had this puzzling sense that nothing was quite real, that my life was, as I put it to myself, all procedure and no substance. Most of my activities, however theoretically enjoyable, secretly disappointed me. Reading my favorite poets, camping in Yosemite, marching on CORE picket lines, making love, somehow I nearly always felt like a spectator. When I got married I knew I was making a mistake but felt powerless to act on that knowledge; no matter how a movie may horrify you, you don't yell "No!" at it or smash the projector. I was conscious that all was not well, but then I thought, perhaps everyone felt this way, perhaps this was just the way life was. In the beginning that thought jibed neatly with the spirit of the time – the tail end of the silent Fifties.

My depression had begun gradually, for no obvious reason, and ended the same way. But over the years my memories of descent and recovery had crystallized around a few symbolic events. The first occurred when I was a Barnard freshman infatuated with a Columbia sophomore, an old friend from high school. One day I ran into him on the street and casually suggested – we were friends, right? – getting together some time. He looked uncomfortable and mumbled a non-answer. To my surprise I felt almost no pain. I noted that fact with detached interest. How sensible, I thought. Why cry over a situation I have no power to change? Four years later, when I was living in Berkeley, I heard Bob Dylan for the first time and was an instant fanatic. Dylan's voice got straight through to me, and what it said was, No, this is not just the way life is. Then a friend lent me Wilhelm Reich's classic, Character Analysis. I had never heard of Reich, and the book was a revelation: among other things, it contained a precise description of my emotional state. Other people had been in the same condition and been cured! I was not hopeless! It took me a while to pick up on these messages but eventually I left my husband, returned to New York, became a journalist, decided I thought I was really a radical, and fell in love. Somewhere along the line I noticed that my strange remoteness was gone.

My emergence from despair had ultimately depended on what religious people call the grace of God.

I had had bouts of depression since then – the worst one had driven me to my therapist – and in occasional moments of stress I had reverted to staring at the movie. But I felt certain that I would never again lose myself in so terrible a way. In retrospect, it was clear that what had done me in were my conflicts about growing up female – conflicts I still felt. The difference was that I had decided to engage and struggle with life rather than withdraw from it. And making that decision – as often as necessary – was what happiness was about. I agreed with the Jewish insistence that happiness was a choice. Yet how I had gained the strength to choose remained a mystery, part of the larger mystery of how one connected with Reality. Like the inexplicable, ineffable liberation I'd experienced on acid, my emergence from despair had ultimately depended on what religious people call the grace of God.

Not that external circumstances were irrelevant. Things might have been very different if it had not been for the Sixties – and especially for rock & roll. Rock had been a major factor in my recovery; it had had the power to move me when almost nothing else did. I had been an ardent rock 'n' roll fan in high school. (Sometimes I thought this was why my depression hadn't hit until I arrived at Barnard where – this was 1958 – you were still supposed to dance to Lester Lanin.) But by the early Sixties I had largely abandoned pop for folk music. Still, when Dylan released his first rock album I was excited. I felt he had brought it all back home in more ways than one. After my marriage broke up in 1965 I started listening to AM radio again. The Sixties renaissance had begun; the pop charts were dominated by the Beatles and Stones and their epigoni, by Motown and folk rock. My new love was not only obsessed with the music but self-conscious about its cultural significance and its influence on our lives in a way that was new to me. I began to make my own connections. My first serious article was a long essay on Dylan.

Mike had once been a rock fan, but since becoming religious he had come to see rock as a drug, an escapist distraction. He also considered my writing a suspect activity; he and Dick Berger agreed that journalism, like traveling, was a way of observing life rather than participating in it.

"Do you think you would have gotten more out of being here if you had just come and gotten involved instead of having to think about your article?" Mike asked.

"I don't know," I said. "But if I hadn't decided to write an article I probably wouldn't have come."

Without the protection of my writer's role – my license to observe – I might not have had the courage to come. But more important, my overwhelming urge to write about a subject that touched every major issue in my life had routed a powerful impulse to repress, sit tight, let inertia take over; my decision to face up to my spiritual crisis was inseparable from my compulsion to observe and analyze it, to pursue every last connection. Anyway, writing was not just observing – it was sharing one's observations, a social act. It was also hard work. My identity as a writer might, as Reb Noach had suggested, be a prop for my ego, but it also had something to do with taking my work seriously. I had not begun thinking of myself as "a writer" until I had changed my attitude from "Right now I'm writing, maybe next year I'll study psychology" to "I'm going to stop playing games and commit myself to being the best writer I can be." Now, looking back on that change, I saw it as another crucial step toward happiness.

Clarity or death! Reb Noach insisted, and if there was one bit of clarity that emerged from all my confusion it was the conviction that my happiness was not illusory. As I tried to explain that conviction to Mike, I felt suddenly disgusted with my current funk. No wonder Dick and Reb Noach thought I was unhappy. I was a mess. I had gained ten pounds and developed a cold. I was sleeping later and later. If I had a serious talk with someone it exhausted me so much I would run back to the security of Shimoni Street and take a nap. "When we act out of fear of pain we're choosing death," Reb Noach was always saying. "The Torah says, 'Choose life!'" I had been running from the pain of uncertainty and conflict, had even thought, "I can't stand any more of this – I'm going to kill myself." How absurdly self-important!

Perhaps it was sheer determination to prove Mike wrong but my mood slowly began to change. I began, finally, to respond to the beauty of Jerusalem, to the hills and the peculiar atmospheric sparkle I had noticed nowhere else. I felt as if I'd been let out of prison.

* * *

Passover was approaching. I had deliberately scheduled my trip so that I would be in Israel for the week-long holiday. The Passover Seder – which was supposed to be celebrated on each of the first two nights – was the one Jewish ritual my family regularly observed. Most years we had our Seders with my mother's sister's family; my uncle, who was observant though not Orthodox, presided at the ceremony. For the rest of us Passover was less a religious occasion than a family party, a spring version of Thanksgiving. Still, it was impossible to retell the Exodus story year after year and be unaffected by it. It was, after all, a story about escaping oppression for freedom, and I was fond of thinking of it in contemporary political and psychological terms; to me the Seder's concluding invocation – "Next year in Jerusalem!" – expressed hope for both kinds of liberation. To Orthodox Jews however, Passover meant something very different – as I had learned attending Lorie's classes, the traditional definition of the freedom the Exodus represented was a mirror image of my own.

Passover commemorates a historical event – the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, the prelude to the revelation of the Torah. But for the religious Jew it is also an ongoing reality. The Haggadah (The account of the Exodus read at the Seder) says, 'In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he personally had gone forth from Egypt." According to tradition, Egypt represents materialism, hedonism, amorality. To relive the Exodus is to affirm one's liberation from bondage to the Pharaoh within – the yeitzer hara – and one's readiness to live in true freedom, that is, under God's law. This theme is made concrete in the central symbol of Passover, the matzah – unleavened bread. Because the fleeing Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, it is forbidden during Passover to eat or possess bread or any food made with leaven: symbolically, leaven represents the expansion of the yeitzer hara.

Reb David, a young teacher at Aish HaTorah, and his wife Ruth had invited Mike and me for the first Seder. In the morning we went over to help with last-minute preparations. Ruth put me to work hemming her older son's new holiday pants. Later I played with the kids, who had been sent out on the porch with a bowl of nuts to crack. A week ago their noise, mess and bickering would have driven me further into myself; now I was actually having fun.

The Seder began at around eight. The idea of the ceremony is to teach everyone – especially the children present – as much about the Exodus and its meaning as possible. Reb David went over each page of the Haggadah, asking questions, discussing various rabbis' interpretations, and by the time we reached the end of the first part – which we had to do before we could eat – it was almost midnight. After dinner we carried on for two more hours. The Seder ended – I had wondered about this beforehand – with the traditional words: "Next year in Jerusalem."

Later in the week, Mike and I were guests at the Weinbergs', along with several vacationing students of both sexes. I was very conscious of the rebbetzin, who seemed continually busy – though her admiring female guests competed with each other for jobs, there was always more to do – and continuously serene. Occasionally one of the kids gave her a hard time, balking at some little chore. Long after the average parent would have been shrieking with frustration, the rebbetzin would calmly repeat her request – or else, with no visible resentment, she would do the task herself.

Feeling guilty about my own lack of patience and selflessness, a lack I was sure was obvious to everyone, I slinked around trying to be inconspicuous. Finally the rebbetzin cornered me.

"I think," she began, "that you think you have to hide your femininity to be taken seriously."

For a moment I was speechless. "Why do you think that?"

"Well, for instance, the way you dress, the way you wear your hair."

Oh, if that's all she means, I thought. She doesn't realize, I'm only looking this way because I've been depressed. I knew I had been neglecting my appearance. Most days I stuck my long hair under a scarf so I wouldn't have to bother with it, and I couldn't wear anything with a waistline because I'd gained so much weight. On the other hand, the baggy dress I had on was actually quite fashionable in New York, and besides, since my normal jeans-and-T-shirt wardrobe was halachically unacceptable, what was I supposed to wear, and anyway, wasn't this the same old oppressive business of always judging a woman by her looks... Nice try, but it won't do, I admitted. Face it: she's right.

The rebbetzin, staunch apostle of traditional femininity, did not appear to doubt for a moment that she could be both a woman and a serious person.

The big lie of male supremacy is that women are less than fully human; the basic task of feminism is to expose that lie and fight it on every level. Yet for all my feminist militance I was, it seemed, secretly afraid that the lie was true – that my humanity was hopelessly at odds with my ineluctably female sexuality – while the rebbetzin, staunch apostle of traditional femininity, did not appear to doubt for a moment that she could be both a woman and a serious person. Which was only superficially paradoxical, for if you were absolutely convinced that the Jewish woman's role was ordained by God, and that it was every bit as important spiritually as the man's, how could you believe the lie?

I was too much the product of Western libertarian values to travel the rebbetzin's route to self-acceptance, and so far I had not succeeded in finding my own...

* * *

On my last night in Jerusalem I went back for a final visit with the Weinbergs. Reb Noach was talking to a young visitor named Ron. Ron was explaining that he had come to Israel to get his head straight, figure out what to do with his life. Did he want to take over his father's diamond-polishing business, or what?

"Come to our yeshiva," Reb Noach said. "Find out what Judaism has to say about these questions. For instance, why are we here? What are we here for?"

"To serve God?"

"No. The world was created to give man pleasure. The Torah tells us how to get it. The Almighty didn't want us wandering around like chickens with their heads chopped off."

Ron was obviously interested, and Reb Noach began urging him to come to Aish HaTorah for a week.

"I can't," said Ron. "I've committed myself to work on my kibbutz till the end of July. And my girlfriend is there."

"Don't worry about the kibbutz. They can get someone to take your place. What are you there for? You won't find the answers to your questions on a kibbutz."

"I can't come now," said Ron. "But I promise in three months I'll be back."

"Come now," Reb Noach persisted. "Who knows what could happen in three months? A man should never say, 'When I have time I'll study.'"

"I can't," said Ron, "but my mind is really blown by your concern."

I made my goodbyes. Reb Noach gave me some parting advice: "Jews say, whatever else you do, be happy. Even if you're a lawbreaker, just fulfill that one commandment."

In the morning Mike went with me to the airport. We stood there awkwardly, unable to say most of what we felt. For the first time since this long trip had begun, I had the old flash that he was my male mirror image.

Judaism teaches the conventional patriarchal idea that men have more of a bent for abstract reasoning, women for intuitive understanding. I believe that this split is social, not biological – that in a society where men rule and women nurture, it makes sense for men to develop their intellect at the expense of their emotions and for women to do the opposite. Still, I agree that although the difference is probably not innate, and certainly not absolute – I, for one, am more cerebral than most of the men I know – it does exist. And at the moment Mike and I were a study in contrasting male and female sensibilities. I was leaving Israel, with all the intellectual questions unresolved, because in the end I trusted my feelings and believed in acting on them. Though I might use logic as a weapon against uncertainty, I did not, finally, have Mike's faith that it would lead me to the truth.

I still did not know whether my refusal to believe was healthy self-assertion or stubborn egotism; the Jews, the Bible tells us, are a stiff-necked people.

Mike had been 24 when he became religious. I had been 23 when I came out of my deadly depression. It seemed to me that both changes represented the same basic decision to be happy. But mine had been a purely intuitive decision, to allow myself to feel; his had presented itself as an intellectual decision, to go where his logic led. Perhaps our paths were equally valid. Perhaps not. As I kissed my brother goodbye I still did not know whether my refusal to believe was healthy self-assertion or stubborn egotism; the Jews, the Bible tells us, are a stiff-necked people.

I arrived exhausted at Kennedy, retrieved my baggage, slogged through customs and went outside to wait for my parents to pick me up. Only then did I allow myself a moment of enormous relief. I had made it after all. No crash, no bomb, no hijacker, no unexplained delay. I was here in New York, body and soul intact. And then I thought, so what? Suddenly I was quite unable to understand what I had been so anxious to come back to. The airport was bleak and sterile. The weather was unseasonably cold, and a freaky windstorm was making everyone run for cover. I huddled in the doorway of the terminal watching the cars go by like an endless procession of anti-American cliches. When my parents drove up I felt another surge of relief, but on the way back to their house my confusion returned. Where did I belong? What did I want?

The following evening my father drove me home to my apartment in Manhattan. The windstorm had blown away the smog, and from the expressway we had an unusually clear view of the harbor and the skyline. It was dusk, the lights of the city were beginning to blink on, and I was seized with an almost religious tenderness for New York and its special beauty. Yet at the same time, staring at those glittering lights, I saw something else: the temptations of Egypt. My eyes filled, and I thought – groping for irony I could not quite reach...

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home,
Like a complete unknown?

Click here for a pdf version of the entire article.

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