Meant to Be

Earlier this year, two remarkable authors came to town andchanged 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 bookcontains photographs of Jews living very different kinds of lives in 45different countries. The images are powerful, as are the accompanying analysesby some of the great thinkers and writers of our time.

There are photos of the Orthodox celebrating Hoshana Rabahin Mea Shearim, “recreating a Polish shtetl,” Brenner said at a reception inhis honor, “a reverse journey.” And there was a striking photo of a group ofJewish barbers in the former Soviet Union, taken years after Brenner first photographedthem in their native land, now posed together in the Dead Sea, in their newhome — reinventing an old life in a new land.

The theme, echoing God’s commandment to Abraham, is apowerful one for Brenner: “Get out of your house where everything is fixed andgo 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 physicalaspects 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 toKiryat Arba to the Conejo Valley, each of us has also embarked on a personalJewish journey, and the sum total of these is the constant re-imagination ofwhat it means to be Jewish, of Judaism itself.

“Jewish identity belongs to the Jew,” Brenner said. “It’snot disappearing, it’s reconfigurating. Each fragment of the puzzle needs theother to exist.”

I thought of Brenner when a week later, I sat down to speakwith Walter Anderson. On the surface, here are two men with little in common.Anderson is CEO of Parade Publications, publisher of Parade Magazine, thelargest circulation weekly in America. He is by appearances a card-carryingmember of the Eastern Establishment: good name, major corporate title and thoselovely 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, whenhe returned for his father’s funeral. His father, William Anderson, was acruel, violent man who beat Anderson mercilessly. After the funeral, Andersonturned to his mother and asked, “The man we just buried … was he my father?”

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

The Jewish identity Anderson assembles, the Jewish life henow lives, may lack the memory of grandparents and familiar foods and familyholidays, but it is rich in an adult appreciation for the wisdom of histradition. 

“I believe in three things,” Anderson told me. “I believethere is one God who is indivisible. I believe we are judged in this life byour behavior. And I believe that though we cannot always choose what happens tous in life, but we can always choose our response.”

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

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

Making that choice, making it consciously, wisely, with knowledgeand passion, is a task each of us faces. It is a personal task with communalconsequences.

When I asked Anderson how he responds to those who won’taccept him as Jewish according to some interpretations of Jewish law, he wavedit off. “You don’t hold the keys to the club I’m joining,” he said. “I know whoI am.”

Last week, a Hillel Foundation study revealed that today’scollege-age Jews are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewishparents and those with only one. The study “underscores what we’ve been sayingall along,” Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, told areporter. These students are on a journey toward forming their identity, andthe 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 collegecampuses. He can tell them that despite his book’s title, the truth is that weare not meant to be anything other than what we choose.