Off the Grid: Joshua Safran’s Childhood Was Nothing like Yours
One boy’s improbable journey from witches’ commune to Jerusalem.
For a Jewish kid growing up in 1980s America, Joshua Safran's childhood was unconventional to say the least. Much of it was spent hitchhiking with his free-spirited mother Claudia across the rural west – living intermittently in a commune, a dilapidated ice cream truck, and on the forest floor without electricity, running water, toilet, or refrigeration.
With great resilience and a sharp mind, by age 25 Joshua was a top-10 law school graduate, happily married, and an observant Jew.
This is his incredible journey.
In the Beginning
Joshua Safran was born in 1975 into a commune of witches in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Rather than cackle over caldrons, these wymyn – the extreme wing of the feminist movement – channeled pagan spiritual energies to "rescue the goddess and heal the world."
"My mother is an incredible idealist," Safran told Aish.com from his home in Portland, Oregon. "She was in search of utopia and brought me along for the ride."
His mother Claudia was a "red diaper baby" – the term for children raised as American Communist. Her father was blacklisted by McCarthy for encouraging the downtrodden proletariat to rise up in a Marxist revolution and overthrow the U.S. government. "They were willing to sacrifice for a utopian ideal," Joshua explains.
When Joshua was 4, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Claudia anticipated nuclear war and took to the hills of the Pacific Northwest to "keep the struggle alive." Mother and son spent the next five years off the grid and on the open road. Joshua had no rules, no father, and no stability.
This tenuous childhood declined further when Claudia married a Marxist guerilla commander from El Salvador – an occultist who also turned out to be a violent alcoholic. Amidst regularly beatings of his mother, young Joshua would hide under the covers, terrified to confront the monster. By age 12, Joshua's soul was so desperate for justice that he plotted to kill his stepfather.
Stirrings of Spirit
Joshua describes his early years as "nominally home-schooled," his mother opposing public school for "teaching bad values of capitalism, violence and competition." When his formal education began in sixth grade, Joshua could read and write at a college level, and was expert in Russian literature, Marxist theory, geography and geopolitics. Yet he was ignorant of basic math and science.
Joshua's social transition was difficult, as the other kids mocked his hippy style. "The paisley patches on my thrift store clothing and tree sap in my hair made me a prime target for redneck bullies of the rural west," he demurs.
One evening, Joshua and his mother were hiking to their home – a tarp in a temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. They met a man who took one look at Joshua and said, "He's got a rabbi's nose!"
Joshua later asked his mother to explain. "Oh, I never told you we're Jewish?" she said, describing it as a family they shared with Freud, Marx and Einstein. Joshua was shocked to find he had deep roots, "that I belonged somewhere." When he pressed for more information about being Jewish, his mother gave a classic Jewish answer: "Let's go to the library and look it up."
The Jewish story mirrored Joshua's life: Outcast, wandering, adversity, seeking higher purpose.
Starting with Encyclopedia Britannica, Joshua discovered he was "descended from an ancient tribe that emerged from the mists of prehistory to teach the world about ethics and God." He looked at the portrait of Maimonides and had a visceral sense this was his personal family photo album.
He also learned that the Jews – scattered to the wind, oppressed and demeaned – soldiered on, believing in their cause and making an impact wherever they went. "On some level this mirrored my life story," Joshua says. "Outcast, wandering through adversity, seeking a higher purpose."
At age 12, Joshua heard the stirring words of Bob Marley's "Corner Stone":
The stone that the builder refuse,
Will always be the head cornerstone.
These words of rejection and ultimate redemption resonated deeply with Joshua, inspiring him that "all this adversity was somehow laying the foundations of a wonderful life." When his mother claimed those words were written by King David, Joshua pored through the entire book of Psalms to disprove her. "I discovered, to my surprise, King David speaking to me across three millennia."
From there Joshua took refuge in the public library, where he "rode the reading room through space and time," soaking up history books and the Bible, and as a bonus finding refuge from his violent stepfather at home.
"I was deeply affected by Moses," Joshua says. "Moses grows up disconnected from the Jewish people, goes into the wilderness to find God, and is later reunited with his people. For me, this was an important invitation to reclaim my heritage."
Joshua excelled at school and earned a full scholarship to Oberlin College, where he studied Politics, Environmental Studies, and Judaic/Near Eastern Studies. Joshua's research of anthropology, spirituality and philosophy led to the conclusion that his mother's road to utopia – expressed in Wiccan spirituality and Marxist politics – were fabricated fads, incapable of true personal and societal transformation.
Joshua craved authenticity, what he calls "the one and only original, no imitations or substitutions." Seizing on his Jewish roots, he visited the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and – pre-Birthright – wrangled a free ticket to Israel.
Searching for the core of the 4,000-year-old Jewish story, Joshua connected in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he stayed at the Heritage House youth hostel and enjoyed Shabbat meals with the Machlis family. "Every square space was filled with upwards of 100 people," he describes. "I felt the wave of simcha as we walked in."
What impressed him most was the Abrahamic hospitality and sense of inclusion. "I looked pretty weird with my long hair and flannel shirt. In America, they'd call the sheriff. In Israel, people fought over the honor to host me in their home."
Joshua's breakthrough experience came while attending a High Holidays beginner's service at Aish HaTorah overlooking the Western Wall. He recalls: "The rabbi announced: 'It's time for the Priestly Blessing. Are there any Kohens here today?' So the guy in front of me – a London gutter punk with orange dreadlocks and a safety pin though his nose – raises his hand. I'm thinking, This will be so embarrassing when security has to escort this guy out.
"But they brought him up front, unfurled a prayer shawl over his shoulders, and all of us, including the esteemed rabbis, stood back to receive the Priestly Blessing. At that moment of acceptance and unity, I knew I was home."
When Joshua returned from Israel, his mother pointed out the irony of – growing up with no rules and no father – and now subscribing to a ‘rule-based patriarchal system’.
“From a young age I felt by a tangible paternal presence, guiding me through life-and-death situations. I was swept by waves in California and almost drowned; I fell out of a massive tree, and I careened down a cliff in a car with no brakes. Each time I felt a calm, omniscient presence coaching me out of it.”
I'd seen the contrived spiritual systems fail.
Joshua was on a spiritual search, knowing very little except that he didn't want a derivative knock-off product. "I'd seen all the contrived spiritual systems and how they failed. As the original monotheistic faith, Judaism has full legitimacy and authenticity. And if it's all an elaborate scam to get me to behave like an ethical, compassionate human being? That's an excellent 'worse-case' scenario!"
After graduating Oberlin, Joshua spent a year studying in the mystic Israeli city of Tzefat. The clean mountain air, storied cobblestones and ancient Jewish wisdom illuminated Joshua's return to his Jewish roots. At Yeshiva Shalom Rav, he discovered Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld's zt"l approach to Torah life – emphasizing inclusion, and not judging people with different traditions or backgrounds. "It uses warmth to show what Judaism can be," Joshua says. "That spoke to my heart."
Crime after Crime
In looking toward a career, Joshua saw lawyers as exemplars of success in America – both financially and in their ability to assist the poor and powerless in a chaotic legal system. Joshua applied to prestigious Berkeley law school and was accepted. That set into motion a new life direction – marriage to his soul mate Leah, fatherhood, a home in trendy North Berkeley, and a corner office at a corporate mega-law firm.
"After living for so long on the margins of society," he says, "I wanted to experience the 'American dream.' Representing Fortune 100 companies, with my own secretary and a hefty salary, I felt I'd finally arrived."
Yet that feeling lasted for six months; the material pleasures failed to satisfy his thirst for a meaningful life. "You're deeply entrenched on a hamster wheel, working ungodly hours," Joshua says, "You're either on the partner track or you're fired. Because of how I grew up, I felt I had to prove that I could compete and succeed as well as everyone else."
"At the law firm, the average burnout rate of an associate – from his first day on the job until the time he either collapses or quits – is 18 months. I lasted for 8 years, and without question what saved me was the mandatory weekly recharge of Shabbat."
Around this time, California adopted a new law to assist women who'd been sent to prison after defending themselves against an abusive intimate partner. With another lawyer, Joshua took on a pioneering case that tested this law and unknowingly stumbled into a 7-year ordeal that led him to confront the demons lurking from encounters with his own abusive stepfather.
The case centered on Deborah Peagler, a sweet and dynamic woman who led the world's largest women’s prison gospel choir. At age 15 she'd been taken by a pimp and drug dealer in south central Los Angeles, forced into prostitution and horrifically abused for six years. When the pimp was found dead, Deborah was falsely charged and convicted of murder. By the time Joshua entered the picture, she'd already languished 20 years in prison.
The case caught the interest of Yoav Potash, Joshua's friend and filmmaker who agreed to document the case. In the seven-year process to obtain freedom ("a nightmarish, bureaucratic rabbit hole of injustice"), Joshua exposed deep corruption in the LA District Attorney's office and attracted nationwide media attention.
"I'd plotted to kill my abusive stepfather. That could have been me sitting in prison."
For Joshua, the case became personal when Deborah explained how the pimp, after a beating, would use raw steaks to heal her wounds. The words hit Joshua like an anvil, conjuring up his darkest childhood memories of his mother being beaten by the Salvadorian revolutionary. "Deborah was a metaphorical extension of my own experience," he says. "I'd plotted to kill my abusive stepfather. That could have been me sitting in prison."
Joshua subsequently shared his experiences with Deborah, the first time he'd ever discussed them openly. "I had therapy sessions with a convicted murderer at the maximum security prison," he says wryly.
Employing legal creativity and prodigious tenacity, Joshua eventually obtained Deborah's release from prison. The case – especially Joshua's unique involvement – was immortalized in the documentary Crime After Crime, winner of dozens of awards and featured at the Sundance Film Festival and Oprah Winfrey Network.
For Joshua, this entire ordeal was a tikkun, a spiritual repair of sorts. "For years I'd been carrying the burden of my own cowardice when my mother might have been killed and I didn't do anything to protect her," he says. "The fight for Deborah's freedom helped prove to my 10-year-old self that I finally had the courage to stand up against domestic abuse."
Out of this caldron, Joshua produced a memoir of his childhood, Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid. Critics called it “beautiful, powerful, introspective, hilarious, heartbreaking... and a remarkable account of survival despite the odds."
Joshua is now a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and wrongful imprisonment, and a regular on the Jewish lecture circuit. His message is one of liberating people from stigmas that ruin their lives. "With my own childhood, I needed the courage and permission to confront my experiences, to talk about it, and not be ashamed," he says. "Everywhere I go I get pulled aside by people carrying around these lifelong secrets."
Today and Beyond
Joshua's childhood left him with jagged edges, and he is determined to provide a more "normal" life for his three daughters, ages 10-14. "Everything I do as a father, I view dramatically as a tikkun for my own childhood," he says. "I'm trying to navigate this middle path, where my children gain the resilience I had growing up – but without the difficult experiences that gave me that training."
Joshua and his wife are applying ancient Torah wisdom to navigate life's core areas: marriage, parenting, community, and spiritual growth.
Viewers of the domestic abuse film see how Torah ideals impact Joshua's devotion to the cause. The film shows Joshua at morning prayers, praising God for "releasing those who are bound" (matir asurim). Joshua tells the camera: “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.”
With sensitivity guided by Torah, Joshua’s role in this story is a Kiddush Hashem. Joshua says he was particularly inspired by the stories of Rabbi Aryeh Levin (A Tzaddik in Our Time), a Jerusalem holy man who dedicated his life to helping prisoners. "Every inmate prays for the day when a team of lawyers will show up and fight for their release," he says.
As for domestic violence, it is an issue that remains close to Joshua's heart. "I always wondered why my mother would allow herself to be beaten. I later discovered that the problem extends back to my great-great-grandfather who became an orphan when the Cossacks murdered his parents while he hid in a closet. He was devastated and raged out violently like a family lightning rod, starting a chain passed down through each generation. Here I am, five generations later, experiencing the fallout of that pogrom."
"My Communist grandparents had strong Messianic yearnings."
Meanwhile, Joshua is grateful for the sense of idealism he inherited from his Jewish grandparents. "They were raised with traditional eastern European Jewish values, so had strong Messianic yearnings. Yet they applied our 4,000-year-old yearnings onto Communism, the popular 'ism' of the time."
Joshua's mother inherited both this idealism and lightning rod syndrome, heading for the hills in what Joshua calls "the last woman standing, seeking a higher truth, and called to sacrifice for the good of humanity."
Safran is not Joshua's given last name. He and his wife chose it together, based on the root sefer, book. That's where this whole story begins, as the People of the Book, and reversing a generational search for utopia – from one direction to a traditional Jewish ideal. His three daughters attend Jewish day school, one a recent Bat Mitzvah was a family first in 110 years.
Joshua reflects: "If I could do it all over again, I'd choose the experience slogging through muddy trails at my mother's side, over the cushy sugar-and-television suburban life I'd once dreamed of. At Oberlin, I met kids from suburban families who were clinically depressed, on medication, suicidal, and complained their parents never cared about them. The grass is always greener. So I enjoy the small pleasures like a hot shower and I get excited when the utility bills come."
For Joshua Safran, it's all part of his miraculous storybook adventure.