Monday, August 21, 2006

'Holy Unexpected' by Robin Chotzinoff

Posted by Picasa By Robin Chotzinoff
($25, Public Affairs, 288 pages)

Nobody expects to stumble across God in an unexpected place, least of all someone who doesn't believe in God at all.

But when writer Robin Chotzinoff realized 40 years into her life that she simply wasn't a very convincing atheist, there were no thunderclaps, just a warm winter rain, no cyclone but a soft Chinook wind. God was inside her, where she least expected to find him.

Chotzinoff's "Holy Unexpected: My New Life as a Jew" is one woman's religious journey, but without the proselytizing or solemn moralizing. In fact, it's just about what you might expect from the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who didn't put much stock in God: Not irreverent, but certainly not somber. It's a story about a journey as much as a destination.

Chotzinoff comes from a long line of Jews, some with passionate ties to Judaism, some with less. Her great-grandfather was a Russian rabbi who emigrated to New York City at the start of the last century, ironically freighted with disdain for dreaming: the arts, music, literature and politics, to name a few of his poisons.

So his son, Samuel - known to family and friends as "Chotzie" -- became a great pianist and writer, of course. He performed in Carnegie Hall and with other great musicians, including renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz, who later became his brother-in-law. Charmingly eccentric, he later founded a free music school on the Lower East Side for gifted young players. He also ate bacon ... on purpose.

If Chotzie was a lukewarm believer, Chotzie's son Blair - Robin's father - was somewhat chilled by the thought of it. Sure, he knew Yiddish, but to him, being Jewish was about passionate individualism, smoked sturgeon, chopped liver, Mel Brooks and "[making] generalizations about the goyim." To him, Orthodox Judaism was a peasant superstition.

But being a Jew was still important to Blair. He was glued to the TV during Israel's Six Day War with Arabs in 1967, not because he saw it as a victory of one faith over another, but because he was proud of the Israeli army as a bunch of "bad-ass Hebrews instead of people hiding in ghettoes."

His privileged daughter Robin was the exclamation point on his rebellion. A self-described "born-again atheist" as an adult who'd never set foot in a synagogue, she attended Christian nursery school, believed in Jesus "for about two hours," attended Bryn Mawr and Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and briefly worshipped "at the feet of a Tibetan drunk." She delved delightedly into drugs and sex. Worse, she became a newspaper reporter.

In 1998, after the unexpected death of young Jewish friend who'd lived life to its fullest, Chotzinoff thumbed through the yellow pages under "Synagogue." There was only one listing in the small Colorado town where she then lived, and it actually used a Methodist sanctuary for its services. She was drawn to the notion of a practical faith, in which what one does now is what counts, "that a single day of this life is worth a thousand in eternity."

And she found it appealing that, as a Jew, she would be encouraged to argue with God, enjoy great sex, and to act passionately, not just believe.

So a year later, after the birth of her daughter Gus, 40-year-old Chotzinoff went to her first-ever synagogue service:

"The service lasted four hours," she writes. "My butt was numb by the time it was over, but oddly enough my brain was wide awake, digesting the whole Jewish New Year concept. There was a lot to do - celebration of creation, feel brand-new about everything old, start over, acquire a few cosmic points. You have to admit you're human; that you will probably screw up again next year, but that your desire to make things right is believable. ... I was sitting among my own people for a change, even if they didn't notice I was here."

Chotzinoff's mid-life spiritual awakening is alternately tender and surprisingly funny. A gifted writer, reporter and dreamer with two previous nonfiction books and numerous articles, she gracefully draws meaning from simple moments. A childhood debate over the relative importance of being Hercules vs. Jesus. The propriety of praying while snowboarding. How to observe the Sabbath on Saturday but still go to Wal-Mart for duct tape. Resting her head on her dead father's arm moments after his last breath. You needn't speak Yiddish to understand exactly what's in her heart.

"Holy Unexpected" is also populated with unique characters from the author's life who illustrate the kaleidoscopic spectrum of religious exploration, from faithless to faithful. It's a memoir, but there's little arrogance or ego on display. The sensitivity of this memoir is in its cast as much as its poetic rendering of an ancient faith, race, culture or whatever you believe Judaism to be.

And at a time when Jewishness lies deep in the heart of the heart of a great conflict that's not-so-casually been labeled World War III, "Holy Unexpected" slices through the frustrating dialectics, obscure and misinterpreted ideologies, the wailing walls of prejudice, and fanatic manifestos fired like Katyushas from an increasingly radicalized Middle East. Chotzinoff's personal story is a different kind of exodus, a journey from rootlessness to belonging that many of us - Jewish, Christian or Muslim - make in our lives.

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