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A Rabbi's Road to Recovery

Books / Speed Read

August 25, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1989, Naomi Levy became the first Conservative Jewish rabbi ever to lead a congregation on the West Coast, Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

For her book "To Begin Again" (Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages, $24), she has drawn on her memories. Some are of herself. (As an eighth-grader she filled out the blurb for her graduation annual. Favorite sport: basketball. Hobby: playing guitars. Ambition: rabbi.)

But most are about members of her congregation who found themselves in a hell on Earth yet made it through and managed to keep their faith.

Maybe they made such an impression on her because she'd been there too. Her father was murdered during a street robbery when she was 15; she married the wrong man a few years later and, arguably worse, divorced him.

Meshing these stories with instruction in Jewish religious traditions and with details of her reaching a new understanding of God, Levy builds a road to recovery. Full of companions and guides, it might make the trip a little less terrifying for others.

Indeed, the book's publishers are aiming it at the self-help shelf. There is a lot here about psychotherapy: the painter who joins Alcoholics Anonymous, the gambler who tries a 12-step recovery program, Levy's own visits to therapists.

But Levy isn't suggesting that therapy is a substitute for religion. Instead, she says, it's a way of helping people live with a God whose powers may be limited.

A young woman who had been raped and locked in the trunk of her car came to the rabbi. She wanted to know how God could let such a thing happen.

Levy remembers saying: "If God could prevent all tragedies from occurring, then there would be no tragedies. I don't believe that's in God's hands."

The woman lifted up a book of Hebrew scripture and held it in her arms.

"By hugging the Torah," Levy says, "she was physically able to cling to God, and as a result to find a degree of peace, despite her anger."

Reading of Levy's father's funeral, we learn about shiva, the Jewish period of mourning:

"During that week, mourners are not supposed to work, shave, leave their homes, engage in sexual relations or even stare at themselves in the mirror. It is the designated time to receive comfort from those prepared to offer it."

Levy emphasizes the importance of touch as part of the healing process. She writes of a student who described the most significant religious experience of his life. His prematurely born son had been confined to an intensive care unit before the man ever had a chance to touch him. To honor the Sabbath, the man entered the unit, knelt beside the crib, put his hands on his son's head and blessed him.

"If you have never laid your hands in blessing upon your child or upon anyone you love, try it," writes Levy. "You cannot imagine the love that is transferred at that moment."

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