A Long, Strange Trip Toward Judaism


Joshua Safran was born into a world of communes, covens and radical politics, but was too young to understand what the revolution was all about. When he was 4, his single mother took off for places far less conventional, leaving the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco for the desert and hills. They lived in an old bus, a decommissioned ice-cream truck, a teepee and abandoned shacks with no running water, hitchhiking thousands of miles, ever in search of utopia.

Safran has written a memoir, “Free Spirit: Growing Up on the Road and Off the Grid” (Hyperion), that’s startling, funny and brutal. With detailed clarity, he recalls his unusual life, unfolding his coming-of-age, his journey to Judaism and also his experience of domestic violence.

Now a lawyer who lives in Oakland, Calif., Safran visited New York City last month. In an interview, he seems disarmingly upbeat and easygoing. He is wearing a knit kipa.

“You’re seeing me as a 37-year-old,” he says, when I remark that he seems like a regular guy. “I had a decade of rage and anger and a real sense of betrayal, that my mother had deprived me of a life. No refrigeration, no electricity. Why would you do this to a child?” He adds, “It was her utopia, not mine.”

His mother, Claudia — as he refers to her throughout the book — was the daughter of Jewish Communist parents who taught her to think of life as black or white, good or bad. She dropped out of college in 1963, moved to California and embraced street protests, paranormal experiences, drugs, vegetarianism, feminism and yoga and was vehemently anti-war and anti-government. When she left San Francisco with Josh (who was born in 1975), she saw their escape as a way to protect him from war and from Ronald Reagan. The free-spirited Claudia believed that school was no place for a child, so she home schooled him in poetry, people’s history, extra-sensory perception and the sky.

They moved a lot — every chapter has a new setting — in search of an intentional community that shared her ideas about closeness to the land and political consciousness. But her sense of utopia shifted over the years; always, she came up with new plans and stayed hopeful. Mostly, they lived in poverty and hunger, with few possessions and a string of live-in boyfriends. Safran’s father, whom Claudia met at a poetry workshop in San Francisco, had no interest in fatherhood and scant presence in the boy’s life.

In a foray in Seattle, Claudia returned to school, deeply interested in learning about U.S. foreign policy in Central America. She met Leopoldo, who told her that he escaped from El Salvador after being tortured. Weeping, he spoke of his murdered son. Before long, Leopoldo was also reciting poetry and singing love songs and moving with them. Even as a kid, Safran noticed that the facts of his stories shifted in his many retellings. And soon after their marriage, in bouts of jealousy and drunkenness, Leopoldo would beat his mother. She forgave him and tried to heal him, feeling a sense of responsibility for the U.S. government’s actions, but Safran never did.

When he was 11, Safran finally convinced his mother to let him attend school. He showed up in thrift store clothing, unwashed, with sap in his hair from living in a lean-to in the woods. While he knew Russian literature and Darwin, he didn’t know fractions or cursive script, and wasn’t prepared for the tortures of the schoolyard, where he was pounced on and teased. Back at home, he did homework by candlelight.

Earlier, when they were living on a mountain, they met a man named Ray whose accent reminded him of his grandmother’s. Ray told Claudia, “Your kid’s got a rabbi’s nose,” and recognized them as landsmen. For Safran, that was the first time he heard anything about being Jewish.

He writes that he learned that they weren’t “totally alone in this universe. There was a name for us. A name for why Grandma Hariette said ‘Who really knows?’ when I asked her where we were from. A name for being Russian, Lithuanian and German, but cringing at the memory of the Russians, Lithuanians and Germans. … And this same name must be the reason we continued to wander, searching for a promised land, while we avoided Christians, read books, and gesticulated wildly with our hands. A name that explained it all.”

When they got to a town with a library, he searched the stacks for books on Judaism. He thought to himself, “Maybe I’d finally go home, wherever that was.”

Judaism became Safran’s rebellion, as he taught himself what he could. It seemed authentic and while his mother was a deeply spiritual person, her traditions felt “like they were created in front of me,” he says.

During high school, he won a scholarship to attend Simon’s Rock College and there met Jews his own age for the first time. As soon as he could, he went to Israel. “I felt a deep sense of return. I could have stayed but felt that I was running away. I wanted to stand up for people like my mother and myself “ he says.

Safran and his American wife both feel most at home in Israel. They’re the parents of three daughters and are very involved in the Orthodox community of Oakland. In the sense of hospitality and warmth that he experiences among Jews wherever he travels, he sees “a strange shade of the utopia my mother was looking for.”

I first met Joshua Safran last year at a film festival where a documentary was screened about his work to free an incarcerated woman who had been a victim of vicious domestic violence. Safran was one of two attorneys to take up her case, pro bono, and eventually get her out of jail, battling bureaucracy and corruption. “Crime After Crime,” chronicling Safran’s unrelenting efforts, is a heartbreaking, provocative and unforgettable film.

He recalls that when interviewing his client, he broke through the barriers between them when he told her that his mother too had been beaten. He hadn’t spoken much about those experiences before, and that opening up led him to write this book.

Every Sunday for a year while he was preparing his book, Safran and his mother were the envy of every mother in Oakland. The pair would get together and linger over lunch, talking non-stop about things that even from a distance seemed meaningful. She was totally open about their lives, not censoring anything. Now, she’s writing her own book, a prequel to his.

He recalls that while in law school, he began to reevaluate her as a parent as he met people who were suicidal, unloved or full of hate. His anger lessened as he came to see that she led with her heart and managed to do a lot of things right. He always felt loved and that he could do anything.

“I’m happy to say that we’ve grown up together,” he says of Claudia. She completed her college degree while he was in college and is now a trained volunteer with Shalom Bayit, a Jewish domestic violence prevention agency. At local book events, she sometimes appears with him.

“Claudia remains ever exuberant and optimistic. She wakes up the same way as she did then, seeing every day as a new opportunity.”

Since his kids were born, Safran has been determined to give them a childhood sharply different from his own. He doesn’t worry about white sugar and white flour as his mother did, and is pretty easy on extra candy. Still, he pinches himself at luxuries like a coffee cart at the office. He may be the only person who delights in paying utility bills. “You get all this water and electricity for so little.”