I’ve always admired people who can take the pain and suffering from their lives and turn it into a compelling memoir or novel. The most famous of these was the best-seller by Frank McCourt, “Angela’s Ashes,” which told the harrowing tale of growing up dirt poor in Ireland and being raised by a beleaguered mother of four and an alcoholic father who would drink most of his paycheck away each week.
McCourt’s 1996 tale of surviving a painful childhood is one genre of memoir that never seems to go out of style. Another memoir that moved me was “To Begin Again,” the harrowing story of a female rabbi from New York who lost her father as a teenager in a horrible tragedy, yet manages to move to California and start a new life, family and spiritual center.
That memoir, published in 1999, was written by a former college classmate, Naomi Levy, an inspiring woman who has overcome a number of tragedies in her life.
Levy grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s, and led a normal life there, attending the local high school and going to synagogue on the Sabbath with her beloved father. As a child, she so enjoyed singing the Friday night prayers with her dad that one day she enthusiastically told him that she’d like to become a rabbi. In that era, the Conservative and Orthodox branches of Judaism did not allow women to become rabbis, so her career fantasy seemed far-fetched, but her father wouldn’t let that get in the way.
“If you put your mind to it, I’m sure one day you can become a rabbi,” he encouraged her.
But when she was 15, tragedy struck. Her father was gunned down in their neighborhood during a robbery. All of a sudden, Naomi’s world came crashing down. As she explains, it was not just her father who perished that day. The strong and enthusiastic mother who raised her also was a victim that night, and she was no longer the same care-free teenager. Naomi had lost her father and all the dreams she had for sharing her adult life with him died that night, too.
For the next few years, Naomi describes being in a daze as she tried to sort out her life. I met her a few years after that tragedy, when we were sophomores in college and attended the same Friday night prayer services and lived in the same co-op off campus. We were not very close, but I do recall being enchanted by her beautiful singing voice when she led Friday night prayers at Cornell’s Hillel. She seemed happiest when she stood at the lectern and led services and was able to sing all those songs that bound her together to her father.
Naomi had pursued her dream of becoming a rabbi and, miraculously, she was in the first class of women accepted to the conservative Seminary on W. 122nd Street in Manhattan. How her father would have rejoiced as his daughter broke the glass ceiling and had followed his words of encouragement to her dream. I recall in the mid-1990s reading her memoir, a hopeful tale of resiliency and faith and happiness, and thinking that she is now finally on a happy path.
And now, two decades later, it seems like Naomi has turned the lemons of life into a savory lemonade. She is the leader of a spiritual center in Santa Monica, Calif., with a large following. She is married to a handsome, kind man who edits the local Jewish newspaper, and they have raised two smart, healthy children who are now in college.
Rather than being content that her life has turned around and all’s well that ends well, Naomi has spent the last five years in search of something even more elusive than happiness: She is looking for the human soul. In her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” Naomi uses a recently discovered exchange of letters between the great Jewish physicist and a grieving Rabbi as the jumping off point for a meditation on how every human being can search for their own soul. I won’t ruin this wonderful book for anyone who wants to read it, but suffice to say that you will be moved by Naomi’s ability to weave personal memoir and philosophical discourse so accessibly and emotionally.
On Sept. 7, Rabbi Naomi Levy will be at the 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan for a conversation with actress Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”) about her book and her valiant search for the human soul. If you can’t attend that talk, then just go online and buy her book from Amazon. It’s a special story from a very special thinker.
Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallo
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