After reading Carrie’s review, my interest in this book was definitely piqued. Janet’s review sent me clicking to Paperback Swap to order my own copy. I’m glad I did. Reading this book frustrated me, fascinated me, sent me on more than one journey of self-examination.
First, the frustration. This book meanders. Boy, does it meander. Part of it could be that my understanding of its organization was very superficial because I know little about the Jewish calendar or the ecclesiastical calendar, and both of these provide the scaffolding for this book. It also helps to look at this book as a collection of essays instead of a linear story, which I did not do until I had finished it and had time to reflect on it. One more more thing that made this book difficult for me to follow was Winner’s inclusion of so much of her personal life. I had a difficult time keeping all the characters (her friends, classmates, boyfriends, rabbis, priests, etc.) straight. Really, though, these complaints are minor when compared to the overall enjoyment and challenge I received from this book.
As I mentioned in my monthly nightstand post, it was fortuitous that I read this book just after finishing Potok’s The Chosen (my review here) since Orthodox Judaism figures heavily into both of them. While Winner’s journey away from Judaism is towards Christianity and Danny’s is towards modern psychology and all its implications, their experiences are similar in that they both lose their communities (families) as a result. I also got a kick out of the fact that Winner mentions Potok so much in her own book. At one point, she even imagines her life as the heroine of a Potok novel!
This book also caused me to pause and consider my own journey. Although I have certainly not left the faith of my fathers, aren’t we all sort of reconfiguring our practice of that faith in our own lives? I certainly am. Having grown up in an extremely conservative church and family, I find myself doing things I never thought I’d do, but ones which I feel have more to do with personal preference than divine edict. (I’m not talking about sin here, but rather what are called “convictions” in my circle.) This sense of identification was most strong to me while I was reading about her journey away from Orthodox Judaism.
My identification with Winner also extends to her love of reading and books. For example, while reading the section in which Winner gives up reading for Lent, I was nodding my head furiously because I can remember when, as a teen, I attempted to give up reading for pleasure on Sundays. Like Winner, I was unsuccessful. 🙂
I just plain old enjoyed reading this book. I like Winner’s style. I’m about as far from her theologically as two people can be, I think, and still be adherents to the same faith, but I enjoyed reading about her conversion and her extremely bookish life. (Take that as it is: an off-the-cuff statement, not a declaration of doctrine.) When I’m reading a book I especially like, I dog-ear the pages which hold passages I find moving or memorable or ones I want to blog about later. This book has nearly twenty dog-eared pages. Obviously, I can’t share all of the passages I like, but here is a small sampling:
The Incarnation appealed to the literature buff in me. Embodiment was the novelistic culmination of anthropomorphism, of assigning God human characteristics. All through the Torah, God is pictured as having hands, a face. The rabbis say, Of course God doesn’t really have hands, but the Torah uses language of faces and hands and eyes so that we will have an easier time wrapping our minds around this infinite, handless God. That is what you say if you are a rabbi. But if you are a good novelist, you actually give Him hands and eyes by the end of the book, and that is what the Bible does. It says, in Deuteronomy, that God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and then it gives Him an arm in the Gospel of Matthew. (52)
This is one of the things that happens when you convert: it happens when you grow up a God-inclined half-Jew who abandons her parents’ ways for the rigors oand requirements of Orthodoxy, and it happens when you are a long-skirted, long-sleeved frum Jew who somehow turns and kneels at the foot of the Cross. One of the things that happens is, you feel family-less, even if your own family doesn’t cast you out, and you lean on your friends and your classmantes and all the people in your new religious world more than you should. Your roommates, and their parents, and their friends, you gobble up their lives, adopting and being adopted and fitting yourself in just so. You need a family and you love them like a family and you make them love you back just that way, and they do. And so, should you convert again, you lose all sorts of things: not just your library and your vocabulary and your prayers, but also your family, all the people who made you their own and who you made yours. It’s a good reason to only convert once, if you can help it. Because it is more than just your religion that you lose. (178)
All the stories look different through Christian glasses. (241)
When God made His Covenant with Abraham, He promised that He would “make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.” Jesus is the needle who sews the children of God who are not descendants of Abraham into that nighttime sky. (248)
I am interested to read more of Winner’s books. I don’t agree with everything she says, but I enjoy reading her thoughts. For more about Lauren F. Winner, go here.
And for more I Read It! posts, go here!