Eugene L. Pogany is a practicing clinical psychologist in the Boston area whose recent book, In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust, was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. He lives in Newton, Mass., with his wife and two sons.
Night Reading: A Still Small Voice - The Mystery of Religious Conversion
This article originally appeared on jbooks.com, and is reprinted with permission.
"Let each man meditate upon his own couch and be silent."--Maimonides
How does a person find spiritual homecoming in a religious tradition other than the one in which he or she has been raised? The answer I have uncovered in various memoirs has led me to believe that, beyond the observable psychological and cultural predisposing factors to religious conversion, it can be one of life's precious mysteries.
In the course of writing In My Brother's Image, my memoir about the fate of the various members of my father's family following their conversion to Catholicism, I became intrigued by my grandmother's spiritual journey. Not having been raised as an observant Jew, my grandmother was baptized in 1919, ostensibly for practical reasons: her veterinarian husband had been appointed to the Hungarian civil service. However, while he was at best a pro forma Christian, she readily became a devout Catholic, immediately attending Sunday mass and regular confession. Her twin sons became altar boys. Both at one time or another considered entering the priesthood; eventually one actually did.
Based on guarded family stories, I was forced to imagine that my grandmother found a spiritual companion in Christ, a feeling of divine nearness akin to a soft, human breath or touch. It was a sharp contrast to the "otherness" of God our Father, whose remoteness paralleled that of my grandmother's own father who had been away for long periods during her childhood, serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army. And, as someone who suffered many physical maladies since her mother's death when she was four years old, my grandmother must have ached for the comfort of an adoring mother and discovered that feminine, maternal aspect of the universe in the spirit of the Blessed Mother.
Understanding these social and psychological predisposing factors may take us to the gate of faith, but then "grace" or "gift" or "the still small voice of God" shrouds that threshold in mystery. In 1944, after twenty-five years as a deeply believing Catholic, my grandmother was deported to Auschwitz because of her Jewish birth. She died there clutching a crucifix and uttering prayers to her adopted Savior.
Following his own persecution as a Jew and disillusionment in his Church, my father, the second twin born to my grandmother, returned to Judaism. Thus, even while I lovingly embrace the Judaism my mother and father instilled in me, I feel bound to honor my grandmother's faith in a Lord she discovered somewhere in the private depths of her heart.
In Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family, Stephen Dubner wrestles with, and ultimately laments, his Jewish parents' being drawn to Jesus as Lord and Mary as Blessed Mother. Baptized separately prior to their marriage, the couple proceeded to rigorously raise their family of eight children as practicing, if not uniformly pious, Catholics.
It is not difficult to discern the psychological backdrop to the Dubners' separate religious callings. I think the author is aware of it himself, although he could not quite muster the compassion to embrace those reasons.
His parents' faith, especially his mother's, ultimately clashed with his own emerging Jewish sensibilities. In the case of Dubner's father--as with my grandmother--his adored mother died when he was a child. His father was a demanding and rigidly observant Orthodox Jew who made Judaism an utterly uninviting way of life for his spiritually hungry and emotionally vulnerable son. Dubner's father entered the porthole of Christ's love and the Blessed Mother's embrace while a solitary Jewish soldier on Christmas Island during World War II. Christianity genuinely gave him new life, buoying his otherwise wounded spirit and deflated self-esteem that subsequent years of anti-depressants and shock treatment would never be able to touch.
Dubner's mother found comfort in another faith when her own Jewish family failed to offer enough warmth and light to provide a sense of spiritual direction for her questing soul. For her, too, suffering early in life provided the springboard to search for something more sustaining. Her mother was an anxious and undermining individual; her father rather helplessly, if lovingly, admired his daughter's blossoming Christian faith.
Stephen, the Dubners' youngest child, never took to his parents' Savior and was later guided back to the God of the Jews, but not before struggling to understand better the father who died too young and the disconnect Dubner himself felt at a young age from Jesus and Christianity. He worried that his was not a spiritual quest as much as a way of tracking down the source of the ancestral blood he instinctively felt coursing through his veins. But even if his return to Judaism was less mysterious than his parents' departures, his teshuvah, or repentance, was just as full of wonder and awe. Maybe coming into, or back to, Jewish faith is a much less spiritual and mysterious process than it is a deliberate and arduous taking on the yoke of Jewish learning and living, as well as seeking out one's own identity.
Helen Fremont's After Long Silence provides an instance of a family that converts to Catholicism for entirely practical, defensive reasons and then keeps its Jewish origins and sad Holocaust history secret from the next generation. Following a childhood of attending Catholic mass with their parents, but sitting in the rear of the church and never taking communion, it was left to Fremont and her sister to uncover their family's Jewish roots in Poland and painful wartime losses as Jews. Posing and finding refuge as Catholics during the war--Fremont's aunt married an Italian Catholic nobleman, which paved the way for the family's conversion--Fremont's mother and father continued their religious masquerade when they couldn't bear to uncover the deportation and murder of their parents and then face the prospect of telling their children about it.
Leaving Judaism has always been an understandable, if lamentable, choice made by some Jews to protect themselves and their children from a legacy of persecution. The miracle, if there is one, is on the side of Fremont who, after a lifetime as a Catholic--living, peculiarly enough, among a community made up of many Jewish Holocaust survivors--found her way back to her ancestral identity, and to the neglected legacy of her murdered forebears.
Gaps and silences growing up, and years of feeling like she didn't fit inside her own skin, led Helen Fremont to piece together hunches and clues about her parents' well-guarded past. As for Dubner, Christianity for Fremont became a source of misfortune, blocking and postponing her self-discovery and growth as a Jew. And like Dubner, Fremont had no spiritual epiphany, just that sense, shared by descendants of conversos (Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who secretly practiced Judaism), that her soul was at home somewhere else.
The most touching, and in some ways awe-inspiring, account of religious conversion I have recently come across is the story of Katherine Kurs. Kurs has edited a remarkable collection of stories of spiritual discovery in a book titled Searching for Your Soul, but in my opinion, none of the stories of these notable writers and historical figures is as remarkable as Katherine's own.
Recounted in the Introduction, as well as in the fiftieth anniversary issue of the journal Cross Currents (College of New Rochelle, NY, Winter 2000), in an article titled "Between the Mystic and the Mainstream," Kurs tells of her discovery during childhood meditations of a "peace beyond all comprehension." She tells of how she came to identify that profound peacefulness as the Christ, but then describes her awakened attachment during her adulthood to her family's lapsed Judaism.
As a currently practicing Jew, Katherine has likened the Christ-like peace to the Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical tradition) sefira of Keter, or "Crown," the loftiest of ten emanations from the unmanifest Godhead, representing a seeker's highest possible spiritual attainment.
It is touching that Katherine, having revived her family's Jewish heritage, would seek to place her mystical experience within a Jewish context. Yet, she has spent so many years elaborating her reflexive Christian understanding of that sublime peacefulness of her childhood that she now recognizes the separateness of the Christian and Jewish tributaries of her religious and spiritual identity. Consequently, she has become a Christian minister, officiating at Sunday Sabbath services, while also being a practicing Jew who observes Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and has found a home in synagogue.
One could readily ask, why does Katherine Kurs not locate her sublime spiritual experience in the Jewish religious tradition, which she seems to have done by at least defining it as kabbalistic? Perhaps she cannot unambiguously answer that question.
After all, this was a child who would sew nuns' habits for her dolls without knowing anything about Christianity, and located the source of her inner peace in church sanctuaries. Despite feeling Jewish and striving to be a good Jew, Katherine lives with an intimate and ineffable experience that she instinctively clothes in the garments of another faith. I believe that Kurs authentically feels both Jewish and Christian, and feels bound to be both.
There is no dogma or doctrinal map to delineate the disparate spiritual landscapes that her soul inhabits. But perhaps by occupying that uncharted middle ground between uncanny Christian calling and canny Jewish teshuvah, Katherine Kurs most thoroughly illuminates that perplexing, painful and undeniably wondrous mystery of spiritual transformation and religious conversion.