October 18, 2018

Meant to Be

Earlier this year, two remarkable authors came to town and changed the way I thought about being Jewish.

Frederic Brenner, the French photographer, came to speak about his new book, "Diaspora: Exiles at Home" (HarperCollins). The product of 25 years of work, the book contains photographs of Jews living very different kinds of lives in 45 different countries. The images are powerful, as are the accompanying analyses by some of the great thinkers and writers of our time.

There are photos of the Orthodox celebrating Hoshana Rabah in Mea Shearim, "recreating a Polish shtetl," Brenner saidat a reception in his honor, "a reverse journey." And there was a striking photo of a group of Jewish barbers in the former Soviet Union, taken years after Brenner first photographed them in their native land, now posed together in the Dead Sea, in their new home — reinventing an old life in a new land.

The theme, echoing God’s commandment to Abraham, is a powerful one for Brenner: "Get out of your house where everything is fixed and go into the house of wandering," he said. "Whether we’ve wanted to or not, we’ve been recreating this for 4,000 years."

The photographs manage to capture the obvious physical aspects of this journey, but in doing so, they point to the spiritual aspects, too. The result is that although we’ve wandered as a people, from Cochin to Kiryat Arba to the Conejo Valley, each of us has also embarked on a personal Jewish journey, and the sum total of these is the constant re-imagination of what it means to be Jewish, of Judaism itself.

"Jewish identity belongs to the Jew," Brenner said. "It’s not disappearing, it’s reconfigurating. Each fragment of the puzzle needs the other to exist."

I thought of Brenner when a week later, I sat down to speak with Walter Anderson. On the surface, here are two men with little in common. Anderson is CEO of Parade Publications, publisher of Parade Magazine, the largest circulation weekly in America. He is by appearances a card-carrying member of the Eastern Establishment: good name, major corporate title and those lovely patrician manners.

Imagine my surprise to discover that he’s actually Jewish.

No. Imagine his surprise.

Anderson was a 20-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam, when he returned for his father’s funeral. His father, William Anderson, was a cruel, violent man who beat Anderson mercilessly. After the funeral, Anderson turned to his mother and asked, "The man we just buried … was he my father?"

His mother’s answer — that Anderson’s real father was a Jewish man with whom she had spent a single night of adulterous passion — sent him on a journey of spiritual discovery. In his recent memoir, "Meant to Be" (HarperCollins), Anderson reconstructs the mystery of his past. He is blessed that his guide into this Brave Jew World is his close friend from the world of publishing, Elie Wiesel, who acts as rabbi, muse and sounding board.

The Jewish identity Anderson assembles, the Jewish life he now lives, may lack the memory of grandparents and familiar foods and family holidays, but it is rich in an adult appreciation for the wisdom of his tradition.

"I believe in three things," Anderson told me. "I believe there is one God who is indivisible. I believe we are judged in this life by our behavior. And I believe that though we cannot always choose what happens to us in life, but we can always choose our response."

The impact of his mother’s revelation grew slowly, until he found himself on a work-related trip standing before the memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar. "That moment hit me like a slap," he said. "It forced me to recognize who I am. I’m not different from these people. I am of these people."

I found Anderson’s book — and Anderson himself — very moving. His is not only a great story well told, it is in a sense the story of every Jew I know. As much as his Jewishness was revealed to him, Anderson also had to choose how and why to be a Jew.

Making that choice, making it consciously, wisely, with knowledge and passion, is a task each of us faces. It is a personal task with communal consequences.

When I asked Anderson how he responds to those who won’t accept him as Jewish according to some interpretations of Jewish law, he waved it off. "You don’t hold the keys to the club I’m joining," he said. "I know who I am."

Last week, a Hillel Foundation study revealed that today’s college-age Jews are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewish parents and those with only one. The study "underscores what we’ve been saying all along," Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, told a reporter. These students are on a journey toward forming their identity, and the Jewish community should reach out, constantly and creatively, to help them along. Quite simply, the next generation of Jewish identity is up for grabs.

I might start by sending Anderson around to college campuses. He can tell them that despite his book’s title, the truth is that we are not meant to be anything other than what we choose.