When Rabbi Naomi Levy became the rabbi of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Calif., in 1989, she was 26, recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary. A member of the first seminary class to admit women to study for the rabbinate, she became the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast. At first, she was treated like something of a curiosity, but after a short time, after several marriages, births, burials in the community, she went from being their “new young woman rabbi to being their rabbi.”
Her debut book, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times (Knopf), offers a Jewish perspective on healing after life’s inevitable dark moments. Drawing on her rabbinate and her life experience, she tells stories of people suffering the kinds of great pain that might have crushed them, yet they manage to find new strength and faith.
Although the book is not a memoir, her own life story and sometimes rocky spiritual path are described. When she was 15 and a student at Yeshivah of Flatbush, her father was shot and killed in a robbery on a Brooklyn street. Her own belief in God was also shattered, and only years later, while studying the poetry of Yehuda Amichai at Cornell University, she came to see that it was possible to “love and hate God at once, to view God as omnipotent and impotent. … I suddenly realized that it was my own concept of God that had caused me to feel so abandoned by God when my father died.” She began to see God as “a presence who has the power to subtly point me toward the holiness that resides in simple acts. Once I made that leap, I could stop hating God and start listening to God. … I began to believe in a God who was just as outraged as I was, just as pained, and just as helpless to protect my father from all harm.”
When people questioned how she could help others when she was so young in the beginning of her rabbinate, she says she felt as though she had taken “a crash course in life experience.” Her tone is one of compassion and warmth, steeped in Jewish learning. Most of the stories she retells in the book — about congregants who suffer from addictions, who face terminal illness, whose children die, those who question “What good is God?”; their experiences of rape, financial ruin, divorce (including her own, and her happy second marriage) — are drawn from sermons she gave at Mishkon Tephilo. In an interview with The Jewish Week, the 35-year-old rabbi explains that she started out giving traditional sermons and then began telling life stories, which was “very liberating.” Congregations, she says, “create their own rabbis. They helped to shape the kind of speaker I became. The text of people’s lives came alive for me and my community.” In fact, the book was sold to a publisher on the basis of transcripts of several sermons.
Rabbi Levy’s speaking voice is upbeat, a bit girlish, with traces of Borough Park, where she grew up. When asked if rabbinical school prepared her for the rabbinate, she remarks that it’s really instinct and her personal experience that helps her to understand people going through difficult times. “Much of what you do as a rabbi has little to do with what you study in school.” She explains that she doesn’t think the range of personal crises she encountered was unique to her synagogue. “If you scratch the surface of any gathering of human beings, on a train or at a movie or in an given family, you’ll find suffering.”
“To Begin Again” offers theological and spiritual discussion as well as practical advice for facing the challenges of daily life after experiencing a tragedy. Rabbi Levy writes about returning to God, facing solitude and silence, dealing with guilt and envy, the power of prayer and ritual, community, memory and more; she concludes most sections with original prayers, also drawn from her sermons.
The book also provides a view of the texture of life of a rabbi, whose daily life is tied in with the pains and joys of her congregants’ lives. After seven years and “months of soul searching,” she stepped down from her position as rabbi in order to spend more time with her two young children, who are now 2 and 5.
This is the kind of uplifting book of comfort one might give to a friend going through tough times. But it also has more general appeal as a thoughtful book about a Jewish outlook to life, full of hope and the potential of new beginnings.