Review of A Stranger in the Midst: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Nan Fink, HarperCollins. 250 pp. $23.
Nan Fink has led an exceptional life, and yet her story has universal relevance. In this memoir, she maps her journey from a Baptist childhood through her conversion to Judaism. But instead of ending her story at the climax of her conversion, she goes on to describe her emotional and spiritual experiences in the years since, as she struggles for acceptance, and self-acceptance, as a Jew and as a convert. Converts to Judaism sometimes inspire amazement, admiration, suspicion and even hatred; and Fink does not shy away from dissecting any of these reactions. But perhaps most often, in the Jewish community, converts inspire curiosity. This brave book will reward, and instruct, the curious.
Married as a teenager to a Protestant minister, Fink divorced and then converted to Judaism in mid-life, when her children were already grown. In partnership with Michael Lerner, she then founded Tikkun, the influential magazine of Jewish thought and politics. Fink and Lerner married, nurtured their successful magazine together for a decade, and then parted ways. Meanwhile, Fink was experiencing a feminist and religious crisis, travelling a circuitous and often painful road from Orthodox Judaism through secularism to an intensely personal form of Jewish spiritualism. Through it all, she fiercely defends her right to claim the Jewish identity she fought so hard to gain.
Fink's journey was harrowing, and thus her memoir is equally so. She is brutally honest in facing her own doubts and insecurities as a convert, her awakening to the anti-Semitism in American culture, and the mistreatment she encountered as a convert and as a woman in American Jewish culture. It is interesting to note the similarity between Fink's title, Strangers in the Midst, and the title that Gabrielle Glaser chose for her recent book on interfaith marriage: Strangers to the Tribe. Converts to Judaism and members of interfaith families, particularly the children, face many of the same issues inherent in their dual heritages, including suspicion from insensitive Jews and Christians alike, and the struggle to integrate two worlds into a coherent identity. Fink's story probes the space between the Jewish and Christian worlds, a space shared by converts and anyone connected to an interfaith family.
In the course of her spiritual journey, Fink goes through a series of familiar stages: elation, disillusionment, bitterness, reconciliation and return to spiritual peace. Much of the story takes place in California, and Fink's reflections are not without a certain New Age flavor. Much of the suspense is generated when Fink's attraction to Orthodox ritual and learning conflicts with her emerging feminism. At a certain point in the narrative, her concern over her status as a convert becomes almost secondary to her concern over her status as a woman. At this point, the book will resonate for any Jewish woman who has struggled with Jewish patriarchy. For a reader with hindsight, it is painfully obvious that Fink would be happier with some more progressive form of Judaism. We read with frustration as she returns again and again to Israel, to an Orthodox shul (synagogue) in California which shuns her, to Orthodox rabbis who discourage her. Yet she continues to seek Orthodox approval, not only because of an aesthetic and intellectual appreciation for Orthodox rigor and ritual, but because she wants her credentials as a Jew to be beyond reproach.
Throughout her book, Fink struggles with that eternally thorny question: what is a Jew? Her exploration of the question is subtle and poignant. Her insight as a convert into the tangle of religion, ethnicity, history, politics and culture that is American Judaism should make this memoir required reading for any thoughtful American Jew.