By Sarah A.Spitz
EINSTEIN AND THE RABBI
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the start of the Ten Days of Awe that culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Just in time, Rabbi Naomi Levy has written a new book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul,” partly a detective story and partly a primer on tuning into your spiritual side.
The Rabbi is a Venice resident who runs Nashuva, a Jewish spiritual outreach congregation that has no permanent home but holds monthly Sabbath services at a church in Brentwood and will meet both indoors and outdoors (in Temescal Canyon Park) for High Holy Days. For these services, they have their own house band led by the Rabbi herself.
The detective story began when she found a letter written by Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of his day, to a man known only as Dr. Marcus, whose own letter to Einstein had not yet been discovered. Einstein’s words moved her deeply.
Excerpting what he wrote: “A human being … experiences himself … as something separate from the rest. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.”
What does this mean to her, I asked in an interview. She said, “Einstein was describing the whole we’re all part of and that fact that we’re blind to this interconnection. My sense is that the soul within us is the key to experiencing that whole and that unity.” It’s what drives the search for science as well as the spirit.
It led her to uncover the story of Rabbi Robert Marcus, a man who liberated 1000 children who had survived the Buchenwald concentration camp after World War II, but whose own beloved first-born son died of polio, sadly not long before the vaccine was introduced. Among those he rescued was world-renowned author and Holocaust chronicler, Elie Wiesel, known then only as Eliezer, “who looked more dead than alive,” she writes.
Facing a spiritual crisis, Rabbi Marcus sought solace from a scientist, and perhaps some scientific reassurance that his son’s soul might somehow live on.
Rabbi Levy had her own moment of soul searching. As a child, her Orthodox Jewish father instilled a true love and reverence for the Judaic tradition in her. By age four, she wanted to become a rabbi, even though at that time there was no such thing as a female rabbi.
But when she was 15, her father was pointlessly murdered in a robbery and she became lost spiritually. Until one day, while walking on her college campus, she says she felt her father’s presence.
What was that like, I asked. “You know how when you’re sleeping and you have the feeling someone’s watching you, then you wake up and they’re standing there? It was like that.”
With him on her shoulder and in her heart, she found herself spiritually recharged and her path again became clear. She became part of the first class of women to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school and the first woman in her movement to start a congregation on the West Coast.
“Einstein and the Rabbi” is written in short, readable chapters, with examples of the kinds of issues she counsels people about, many quite universal, and with a prayer or thought practice that can help focus attention on a personal spiritual tune up.
The book is also an example in courage; Rabbi Levy faced four surgeries to rebuild her nose, which had to be completely removed due to cancer. She describes the process of the reconstruction in detail.
But asked if, as a spiritual leader, she has some special resources for coping, she said: “I think there’s a lot of projection that goes on regarding clergy. I’m a flawed person just doing my best each day to see and experience the good.
“Every chapter I write is about things I grapple with. I’m a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn and I meditate and pray every day; it doesn’t make me not be a worrier, doesn’t make me not have anger or moments of questioning God, all those things are part of me. But if I didn’t, it would be so much worse.”
Now she must take extra precautions regarding her exposure to the sun. “Part of my daily practice is to ride my bike every morning; it’s the way I write. I ride with a digital recorder around my neck. Even on hot days, I have to wear long sleeves, gloves, a baseball cap, tape on my nose and globs of sunscreen.
“I never get bored, because the sky is never the same any two days, and the color of the water and the color of the sand is never the same any two days. And on the first morning that I got the green light to ride, when I reached the halfway point I stopped and said the ‘Shehechayanu,’ the blessing for new beginnings. From that day forward, I say it every single morning, and I don’t take it for granted. I say that blessing every single day.”
It translates as “Thank you God for giving us life, for sustaining our lives, and for enabling us to reach this moment.”
That’s as good a place as any to start the search for your own soul. To all my Jewish friends and family, “L’Shanah Tovah” — to a good year ahead.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.