NEW YORK (Oct. 24)
The author of the recent memoir “Generation J” is a poster adult for the unaffiliated Jew.
Lisa Schiffman grew up in a non-Jewish environment that, as she describes it, came directly out of an early Philip Roth novel. She suffered from a serious case of Christmas envy and didn’t have a Jewish education or a Bat Mitzvah.
Now 35 and living in the Bay Area, she’s intermarried and not embarrassed about it — but on a spiritual quest to find a Jewish identity.
She chronicles her journey in the recent book “Generation J,” a frank look at Schiffman’s attempt to connect with a religion that she feels drawn to even though she wasn’t raised in it. That journey takes her to a Judaism and psychology conference, a Buddhist monastery and two different Jewish ritual baths.
“I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It shouted at me,” she told JTA recently about her need to explore her Judaism.
Judging by the way the phone boards light up when she appears on radio call-in shows, Schiffman is not alone.
As she puts it in her book, “We were a generation of Jews who grew up with television, with Barbie, with rhinoplasty as a way of life. Assimilation wasn’t something we strove for; it was the condition into which we were born.”
At a recent reading and discussion of her book in New York, Schiffman is patient with — and a bit dumbfounded at — a female member of the audience who criticizes her book and her reading for being too “West Coast” and not serious enough about Judaism.
She seems to want to reach a resolution and allows the critic to rant for several minutes until the moderator moves on to another questioner.
Schiffman, who has a master’s degree in social anthropology from Oxford, describes herself as a searcher. She calls her book earnest, but it’s also self-deprecating.
As she writes about her desire to cook more:
“My husband is a man of wisdom. He knew better than to mention that I cook dinner once a month. Or that cooking, to me, means buying tomato sauce and heating it up at home.”
Despite its occasional humor, the book is also infused with a certain amount of exclusionary anger.
While Schiffman was growing up on Long Island, her only affiliation with Judaism was a negative one: identification with the Holocaust. In her book, she describes the image of Jewish women in concentration camps that flashes across her mind while she walks on the tiled floor toward a mikvah.
It was her inability to find a rabbi that would marry her and her fiance, whom she describes as a “lapsed Unitarian,” that planted the seed for her quest. In the end, they were married by a cantor and opera singer who had played a rabbi in the movie version of “Goodbye Columbus.”
Six years later, after reading an article in a Jewish newspaper that told how a Reform rabbi had blessed the union of a lesbian couple, she visited him, only to learn that he wouldn’t have married her either.
Schiffman, who is currently on a cross-country book tour, turned to religion books, but found them difficult to connect with and boring.
“For me, humor is really important and I think it helps open me up to wisdom,” she said.
Her quest receives a boost when she learns that, according to Jewish tradition, the Talmud is not finished, which opens a crack in the door for her to “recast our questions.” The Talmud, she writes, “was waiting for us to continue to write ourselves, and in so doing, to invent the future.”
For the most part, her parents support her quest.
“It touches a chord with them. They’ve always been culturally Jewish and expressed that through social action,” she said, mentioning anti-Vietnam War protests and campaigns for liberal political candidates. “They just don’t understand the religious aspect of it.”
In fact, one of the most interesting parts of the book comes when she takes them to an unconventional synagogue in the Bay Area.
“Generation J” may not resonate as much with those who grew up with more positive Jewish identities. Indeed, there are some parts that may make some affiliated Jews wince.
So could the book’s cover, which features Schiffman’s back henna-tattooed with a vine that intersects a Star of David.
But several members of the audience at the New York event also stood up and commended her for her bravery and frankness. When she was interviewed on the radio recently, a religious Catholic who was marrying a religious Jew called in and said Schifman’s attitude about intermarriage — she wants to reframe it as an opportunity for the Jewish community — made her feel less alone.
In any event, she’s unapologetic about her approach, saying she wanted to make Jews “who are really comfortable examine a few things.”
While she hasn’t come to any resolution about Judaism, Schiffman, who is pregnant, says she and her husband plan on raising their child as a Jew.
She teaches reading to prisoners at San Quentin with one of the figures in the book — a convert to Judaism — and she sees this work as a mitzvah.
She also recently met with program directors with the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations to discuss how it could connect with unaffiliated Jews like herself. Her advice: Examine innovative programs created outside organized Jewry, such as the Bay Area’s jEwCrEw, which began with a few people meeting in a cafe and has led to regular book discussions and community service projects.
She meets every other week with a rabbi to discuss Jewish readings — she’s taken with the philosophers Martin Buber and Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, and she plans to study Hebrew.
“I’m in a relationship with Judaism now. And it will keep growing and changing,” she said.