March 19, 2019

A rabbi’s journey, a mother’s anxious path

“This can’t be my life.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy has been hearing people speak variations of this phrase for years. Whether she met them at Nashuva, the Westside spiritual community she founded in 2004, at one of her many speaking engagements or just somewhere in her travels, Levy kept finding people who seemed to be enduring the day-to-day, waiting for something to happen so that their lives could begin.

“I found that more and more people were saying [that] to me,” said Levy, whose new book, “Hope Will Find You,” comes out later this month. “When this happens or when that happens — ‘When I fall in love, when I get married, when I get divorced, when I get this job, when I get out of debt, when I lose weight, when I have a baby’ — just a never-ending list of people coming to me saying those types of things. That this thing I’m doing right now isn’t really my life. ‘It’s not my life. It’s somebody else’s, I don’t know, it’s just not really my life — it’s just this little thing I’m doing right now.’

“And of course,” Levy said, “it so resonated for me, because it was the running theme of what I had been going through for a number of years already. ‘This can’t be my life.’ ”

From the outside, this wouldn’t seem to be true. Levy is a prominent rabbinic voice in the national Jewish community, and her first two books have earned her a broad fan base. She also frequently gets calls from members of the Christian clergy, letting her know how her writings have helped them in their work.

Levy was among the first class of women to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, in 1984. When she took the pulpit at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, she was, at 26, the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast. She is a best-selling author, has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show” and NPR, and has been named one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis by Newsweek four years running. Given all this, it’s hard to believe Levy ever felt stymied in the way she describes.

“Hope Will Find You” tells the story of a very private struggle. Levy chronicles her journey from the inside, telling her story as she lived it, ultimately showing us how her rabbinic training — and her daughter’s wisdom — helped her to make sense of her own life.

“I was petrified,” Levy said, recalling the way she felt when, in 2001, she was told that her 5-year-old daughter, Noa, had been diagnosed with ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a degenerative neurological disease that is fatal. “I felt a mixture of a lot of different emotions. Fear, anger, paralysis, a desire to see every possible doctor and every possible therapist — all of those things together.”

What the many doctors she subsequently visited eventually told Levy and her husband, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, about their daughter was inconclusive. They could not confirm that Noa’s condition was A-T, nor could they say whether it was degenerative. In “Hope Will Find You,” Levy offers readers a look into her inner life during those seven uncertain years between Noa’s diagnosis and her bat mitzvah.

Although the book is interspersed with material one might call rabbinic — quotes from biblical and midrashic sources, biting Yiddish proverbs, instructive stories Levy has collected from family, friends and congregants — at its heart, “Hope Will Find You” is an unflinchingly honest memoir by a parent in anguish over the fact that she may lose her child.

Levy has dealt before with a harrowing personal experience in her writing. Her first book, “To Begin Again,” drew on her recollections of her father’s murder at the hands of a mugger, and everything that followed. When she started writing “Hope Will Find You,” Levy said, “I had intended to write a book similar in tone to ‘To Begin Again.’ ”

But she quickly realized that what worked for “To Begin Again” — speaking directly to her reader with words of advice, encouragement and comfort — wasn’t appropriate for “Hope Will Find You,” in which Levy tells her own story from the inside. “I thought maybe the reader could just learn from what I’m learning,” she said.

“What I’m learning — not what I’ve learned, but what I’m learning,” Levy said, “is that teachers come in the strangest garments.” And indeed, in “Hope Will Find You,” Levy lets readers into her world, a place brimming with wisdom waiting to be discovered, with lessons coming from unexpected sources. A saleswoman at a clothing store unintentionally intuits essential traits about Levy’s character. A homeless man helps her achieve a deeper understanding of a biblical text. Levy finds much-needed encouragement in the words of a Buddha-like bald man she meets in a waiting room at one of the many clinics she visits with Noa. She even writes about a bizarre vision she had in a dream.

It seems like stuff more likely to show up in the tales of Chasidic masters than in contemporary writing. And when it comes to engaging with Jewish tradition, Levy is not hesitant. Her second book, “Talking to God,” is a collection of personal prayers for the many occasions left out of traditional prayer books. Levy offers up prayers of all sorts, from the ultra-specific (A Prayer to Say When Your Child Grows Up and Moves Out) to the general (A Prayer for Bad Days), from the ones for times of the highest joy (A Prayer of Thanks When Love Arrives) to those for moments of deep sadness (A Prayer When One’s Child Is Stillborn), to those for events that bring up mixed feelings (A Prayer When Mourning a Parent Who Was Emotionally Unavailable).

Levy’s prayers are composed in modern-day English and are approachable for readers from many different backgrounds.

“I like my davening straight-up. I’m a plain-vanilla kind of davener,” said Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, director of special projects at the Rabbinical Assembly. “And I was really surprised at how touched I was by the book [“Talking to God”]. I was really kind of amazed by it. What she writes has great appeal to people who are traditional. It is very traditional but also very inspirational.”