Many parents say they learn from their children. Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new memoir, “Hope Will Find You” (Harmony Books) — a poignant and compelling account of grappling with her young daughter’s potentially fatal illness — describes how the child’s faith and fortitude saved the author, spiritually and in every other way.
The above description might sound trite or treacly, but Rabbi Levy’s writing isn’t. Her story has elements of the self-help book she set out to write, she told me recently. But it is suffused with personal accounts of the rabbi’s successes in counseling others while acknowledging her own inability to help herself.
She writes that in her work as a rabbi, “by far the most common human condition I learned to guide people through is this: an overwhelming feeling that life hasn’t begun. … The people were all different, but the yearning was the same. Life would begin when certain pieces fell into place: ‘when I lose weight,’ ‘when I fall in love,’ ‘when I get a job,’ ‘when I get married,’ ‘when I have a baby,’ ‘when I buy a home,’ ‘when I get divorced,’ ‘when I quit my job’…”
But in the wake of her daughter’s illness, as Rabbi Levy felt herself growing increasingly unable to function in any of her roles, she realized that now she was the one waiting for life to begin, waiting for her little girl to be made well again.
“It resonated for me,” the rabbi said, “because it was the running theme of what I had been going through for a number of years already. ‘This can’t be my life.’ ”
At once straightforward and insightful, the book balances the narrative of her family’s ordeal — reeling from the diagnosis that 5-year-old Noa had a rare degenerative disease called ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) — with Jewish teachings and the young girl’s innate wisdom that, over time, bring Rabbi Levy back from deep despair.
“What Noa [now 14] teaches me all the time,” she said in an interview, “is not to focus on the ‘nevers,’ but to think positively, and accept, and celebrate what we have. Instead of worrying, it’s about being able to embrace possibilities.”
The book focuses on Rabbi Levy’s seven-year journey from helplessness — feeling inadequate to function as a rabbi, teacher and writer — to an appreciation of life’s daily blessings, culminating with Noa’s bat mitzvah, when the youngster dispensed with her prepared text and spoke from the heart about recognizing that life isn’t fair and learning to accept her disabilities.
“I always wanted to be one of those people who has it easy, but I can’t because that’s the way I am,” Noa said. “But then again, Moses had disabilities and he didn’t do so bad.”
In the course of endless visits to medical specialists and physical therapists as she watched her daughter lose her muscle control but not her inner balance, Rabbi Levy was awed by the little girl’s deep understanding of what matters most in life.
Indeed, the book’s title came from something Noa told her mother one day: “Maybe the spirit is talking to us through God and telling us that — if you don’t like your life — if you really try to enjoy life, you will find hope.
“No … hope will find you.”
“I literally gasped when Noa said that,” the soft-spoken rabbi recalled. “What it meant to me was that so much of the battles in life are because we strive and struggle much of the time; the art of letting hope in and welcoming it is really just a simple thing, and yet one of the hardest of all.”
In the book, Rabbi Levy credits her husband, Rob Eshman, editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, for his stoic optimism, and their son, Adi, now 17, who Levy said helped Noa “immensely by his inability to see her as anything but his sister.”
Levy, founder and leader of Nashuva (Hebrew for “we will return”), a popular spiritual community in Los Angeles that focuses on turning prayer into social action, is no stranger to tragedy. When she was 15, muggers murdered the father she adored one night on a Borough Park street near her home as her mother watched in horror. Levy’s first book, “To Begin Again,” describes her conflict with God and her long journey back toward faith, culminating in her ordination in the first class of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school to admit women, and her subsequent role as a pulpit rabbi.
Her second book, “Talking To God,” reflects on the power of personal as well as traditional prayers, encouraging readers to feel comfortable communicating with and seeking comfort from a source of healing for everyday issues as well as existential ones.
Part of her work includes conducting prayer-writing workshops, some of whose participants are atheists, and her prayers range from the general (Prayer for a Bad Day) to the very specific (Prayer of Thanks When Love Arrives or Prayer When Mourning a Parent Who Was Emotionally Unavailable).
Levy acknowledges that her own connection to God has not always been easy. “It’s been a source of pain and anger and confusion,” she said, “and yet for me that connection seems to be inescapable. I could hate God and feel abandoned, but I couldn’t stop believing in God.”
Over time, Noa’s doctors changed their dire diagnosis. Her neurological illness continues to present a number of physical and learning challenges, but now at 14 she is thriving at a school that specializes in educating youngsters with disabilities, and continues to grow in “her ability to learn and in her self-esteem,” Rabbi Levy says.
For the rabbi and her family, the fact that life goes on is a miracle in itself. And one the rabbi appreciates more than ever. Her book, at its core, is about living with uncertainty and learning not to take anything for granted.
“A life with God doesn’t mean a life of clarity,” she writes on the next to last page. “Life is uncertain, life is unfair, life is chaotic, and God is in the fog.”
So is much of real life, too, but the wisdom offered up here by Noa and her mom help us see things a bit more clearly.