Joshua Hammer is an American Jew who lost his brother to a strict and demanding faith, one that believes in fervent obedience to sacred law, submission to a charismatic spiritual leader and the separation of the sexes. Even the brother's name was changed, and his wife was chosen for him by his religious community.
The faith that claimed Tony Hammer was not some obscure cult. Rather, after growing up in a family loosely affiliated with Judaism's Reform movement, the brother, renamed Tuvia, embraced the strictest practices of Orthodoxy as a baal tshuva, a term used to describe a Jew who comes to strictly observant Judaism from secularism or some more liberal branch of Judaism. "He proclaimed himself to be a 'Torah Jew,' " explains Joshua Hammer, "identifying himself with the ultra-Orthodox fringe of Judaism, whose adherents maintain that every word of the Old Testament is the literal truth and isolate themselves as much as possible from the secular world."
The overturning of expectations in "Chosen by God"--a family torn apart by its Jewishness--says something profound about the growing rift between the most highly observant Jews and the rest of the Jewish world. As a foreign correspondent, Hammer had lived and worked in some of the most exotic locales around the globe--Bangkok, Jakarta, Katmandu, Karachi--but regarded the life that his brother now lived as something far stranger.
"My brother stands beside me in the basement synagogue, his bearded face glistening," writes Hammer. "As he prays, he begins to bend at the waist with robotic movements, jerky flexes that seem to bring him close to a state of rapture. Then, all at once, he punctuates his wail with a half-dozen sharp blows against the right side of his chest. The harsh thumping against his heart makes me wince."
What drew Tuvia to fundamentalist Judaism, as Hammer explains it, was a restlessness that had always afflicted his younger brother. As a young man, he had been an accomplished actor and a political activist, but Hammer also describes him as "something of a misfit," "painfully nervous and insecure," someone who was "desperate to be loved but couldn't get a date." If he was "always searching for gurus," however, he seemed to hold no interest in religion. Indeed, on a trip to Israel in the early 1980s, it was Tony who warned Joshua about the strictly observant Jews who courted him: "Those guys acted as if Darwin had never existed."
But, as it turned out, the comforts and certainties of strictly observant Judaism won him over. As Tuvia, he entered into an arranged marriage and placed himself under the tutelage of a series of rabbis. As a result, the two brothers lived at a physical and emotional remove from one another for nearly 20 years. Only in 1997, after returning to America from his latest tour of duty in Brazil, did Hammer resolve to repair his relationship with his estranged brother, and "Chosen by God" is the intimate account of that effort. The result is an edgy family memoir that confronts us with the huge and heartbreaking chasm that separates Tuvia from the rest of his family.
At first, Hammer approached his brother as an anthropologist might approach some long-lost tribe of hunter-gatherers. "My journalistic instincts were awakening," he confesses. "I was suddenly intrigued by the arcane rituals of his life, the insular community in which he lived, the complexities of this psychological metamorphosis, and his relationship with a shadowy Hasidic rabbi." Hammer joins Tuvia in prayer, at the ritual bath, on visits to the various rabbis under whom Tuvia studies the Torah and the Talmud--Hammer, too, would be welcome to join his brother as a baal tshuva, but he remains an observer rather than a participant.
At moments, Hammer manages to achieve a certain ease with his brother. "What brings you to Sodom?" he jokes when Tuvia shows up at his office in Manhattan, a place that Tuvia ordinarily shuns. And Hammer insists that his attitude toward his brother evolved "through shades of anger, frustration, empathy, and acceptance." But even after a year of witnessing and sometimes sharing Tuvia's spiritual life, Hammer confesses that "I am no closer to believing in God." Ultimately, Hammer fails to draw Tuvia out of the spiritual ghetto into which he has disappeared and declines to join him there.
"Chosen by God" denies us a happy ending. "I often felt that my brother was walking about in a state of permanent hypnosis," Hammer concludes. "In exchange for the protective balm of absolute faith, it seemed to me, he cut himself off from much of the richness and diversity of life." The ultimate irony is that Tuvia's devotion to his faith prompted him to forsake the bond of flesh and blood that once linked him to his mother and father and brother, the very bond that Judaism celebrates as one of its core values.
Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of "Moses: A Life."