The Reason for Hebrew Hutong

The purpose of this blog is trifold. First, I hope that this forum becomes a place to discuss the larger questions about becoming and being Jewish in a modern world and a secular nation. Second, I want this to be a place to approach issues of ecumenical interest from a Jewish point of view, not least the growing challenge of modern atheism and anti-theism. Finally,  I want this to be a resource for others like me who are seeking ways to reach and live a Torah lifestyle in a modern world.

I have, all too frequently, found myself drawn into impassioned posts concerning Israeli politics, the international relations of the Middle East, and anti-Semitism. While these are issues of profound import to me, I have discovered that they draw me away from the core purposes of this blog. I will, therefore, try to avoid such discussions going forward. This is a blog of faith, not of politics.

A Bit About Me

I am a fifty-something American man who was raised in a Reform Jewish household where observance of our faith was, well, casual. Which is to say, we identified ourselves as culturally Jewish, and we observed the barest subset of the 613 mitzvot. My education was so secular and rationalist that it was delivered by a school affiliated with the Episcopal Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

But my Jewish identity remained strong and grew in my early teens. Through summer camp and Sunday school at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, I became hungry to learn more about my heritage and to become more observant. Turned off by what I saw as the degradation of the bar mitzvah in my community, I skipped mine at age 13 but was determined to have one – a strictly religious ceremony – before I graduated from High School.

Then, just as that process got off the ground at about the age of 17, a good friend told me that I was, according to Halachah, not Jewish: my mother had been converted by a Reform rabbi. I checked with more learned voices – many more – and it turned out to be true.

A Walk in a Wilderness

That, to put it gently, upset me deeply. I spent the next 14 years nursing anger at what felt like a rejection, like Judaism had turned its back on me.  During that time, I went on a long spiritual journey, first rejecting organized religion altogether as a needless filter between G-d and man, and later studying a wide range of faiths, learning much about each but never practicing.

Then, in 1995, my father passed away after a long illness. The rabbi who presided over my father’s funeral, the wise and lettered Steven Leder (The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things), approached me after my eulogy and told me with great fervor that I had missed my calling – I should have been a rabbi.

His words went through me like a shock wave, in a single breath rekindling the pintela yid, the spark of the Jew inside of me. Suddenly things about my life began to make sense: not rationalized sense, but intuitive sense, and I felt a connection to Hashem deeper than any I had ever felt. I meditated much while sitting shivah for my dad, and when it was over I realized that I had always been – end ever would be – Jewish, with or without the assent of other Jews or the concurrence of halachah or a beit din.

A Jewish Journey

So with the passing of my father began my journey out of the wilderness, a journey that continues today and has thus far been every bit as meandering as that taken by our forefathers on the road from Egypt to Canaan. I reconnected with the Jewish community. Six months after my father’s passing I moved to China, met the woman who would be my wife, and began learning about Torah, Yiddishkeit, and what it means to be a Jew. And here I am, over two decades years later, still on the road. The first seven years were on my own, the next ten were guided with the patient assistance of Rabbi Shimon Freundlich and the amazing people at Chabad Lubavitch in Beijing, and the last three have found me engaged alone in a struggle to become a better Jew. With the dawning of the year 5777 in the Hebrew calendar, I am once again on the pathway of teshuvah, of return.

I am not Jewish under Jewish law. I will have to undergo formal conversion, as will my wife and son. That will happen at a time in the future when each of us are prepared to live our lives in accordance with Halachah. In the meantime, we are “ramping up” our observance, I’m spending time studying, we are slowly adding to the number of mitzvot that are part of our daily lives.

Even as I undertake this spiritual journey, I am taking an intellectual journey as well. Judaism is as much about the head as about the heart, as much about questions as answers, and as much about action as faith. Fundamentalists of both the religious and atheist variety have managed to polarize the debate about “life, the universe, and everything” since even before Galileo Galilei faced down the Roman Catholic Church. What I am discovering is that the truth lies somewhere between the extremes of the debate.

Finally, this is all taking place against the background of China, and in the context of my career as a businessman and writer.

That, in just over 600 words, sets the tone for this blog.


Disclaimer: nothing in this blog should be construed to represent a Halachic opinion – I am not qualified to give one – nor is it the opinion of my employer, my clients, my family, or any organized Jewish organization.

If you have read this far, thank you, and thank you for joining me on my journey.

2 thoughts on “About

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  1. I was struck by your ready acceptance of the invalidity of the reform conversion. The whole thing turns on authority and who claims it! If a conversion is pure, attended to by a rabbi and accepted by the convert who is to deny the validity. As a atheist Jew raised as a reform Jew in the 1950’s I got what one rabbi friend called a third grade education. I now study with a Chabad rabbi, not because I expect to jump over the barriers to blindly accepting the mitzvot, but because, as you have said often in posts, there is much to learn and much to be understood. I appreciate your blog and once I post this comment I am going to immediately follow your blog as well.

  2. Roger, thank you for your comment, and forgive me for taking a year to answer it.

    Let me make clear that I do not question the value of any conversion for anyone, least of all the conversion of my own mother. The validity of what is in a person’s heart, head, and soul is for Hashem and – Hashem alone – to judge. No tzaddik, posek, or beit din worth the title would, I think, argue with that point.

    I think the subtext to my experience at my father’s funeral is this: a Halachic conversion would not make me a Jew – I am a Jew and I believe with perfect faith that Hashem sees me as one. A Halachic conversion is a formality to give comfort to the more observant among my fellow Jews during certain situations in my life, and because I think it is a worthy goal.

    I will take my time about, though. I cannot move along the pathway to teshuvah faster than my wife because, as my rabbi put it, shalom bayis takes precedence. What is more, I believe that for someone like me, I do not need to blindly accept any mitzvah – I have the luxury of learning each of the mitzvot one at a time, savoring that learning, and gaining the nachas that come with not only practicing a mitzvah, but understanding in my head and heart its meaning and value.

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