Reading a Memoir and Hearing a Prayer

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September 1, 2005
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Diane Cole

The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey From Darkness To Light. Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock. (William Morrow, 2004) $23.95, 226 pp.

To Wear The Dust Of War: From Bialystok To Shanghai To The Promised Land — An Oral History. Samuel Iwry. Ed. L.J.H.Kelley. (Palgrave Macmillan. 2004) $22.95, 214 pp.

In many ways, a confessional memoir is like prayer, yielding catharsis, release, and a renewed sense of possibility that is also known as hope.

I write that not as a rabbi or a psychologist, but as a journalist and author who has often turned to personal writing in an attempt to make sense of a series of family losses and traumas that seemed to make no sense. But my purpose in revealing painful details of my own life in print — in essays and in my memoir — was also propelled by a desire to help others. My voice, I hoped, could help others find their voice. If in some way my story could ease readers through their own journeys through loss, I thought, perhaps I would find some grain of meaning in my loss as well.

And this creation of meaning, I am convinced, is tied up with the power of story.

Whether one calls it confession, a memoir, or journal-writing, when we articulate deeply felt experience on paper, we are telling a story whose narrative helps bring sense and meaning to our lives. Inherent in every life is an ongoing story — even if, until it is told, the particular themes and the individual strategies that help the writer move from one chapter, one challenge, to the next, are not necessarily clear. Some sections of the story may be cautionary. Others may stem from the need to bear witness — to declare that attention must be paid, lest an important personal history, or history itself, be forgotten. And the best memoirs resonate with all these elements.

These thoughts came to mind after reading two very different kinds of confessions that were published last year: The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light, by Rabbi Mark Borovitz and co-author Alan Eisenstock, and To Wear the Dust of War: From Bialystok to Shanghai to the Promised Land by Samuel Iwry and edited by L.J.H. Kelley. The voices of these memoirists could not be more disparate, the details of their lives less alike. What unifies them is the strength these men display in staring down the darkest aspects of experience. And their strength may serve, in turn, to strengthen our resolve to stand up to the challenges in our own lives.

As its title suggests, The Holy Thief is a tale of personal redemption and rehabilitation, as told by a roguish prison inmate-turned-rabbi. Central to Borovitz’s story is a theme that recurs throughout the High Holiday liturgy: the difference between confession (which, at its most surface level, can be mere lip service) and true repentance (the concept of teshuvah, the soul’s turning away from evil toward goodness). As he tells it, from adolescence on, Borovitz worked one con after another, amassing a resume that included fencing mob goods, kiting checks, defrauding car dealers, hustling porno flicks, and generally ripping off anyone sucker enough to give him another chance in the mistaken belief that this time he’d keep his promise to reform. Two stints in jail leave him estranged from his wife and daughter and, ultimately, make him a stranger to himself.

What happened to the nice Jewish boy he once was — the one who went to shul and wanted to make his widowed mother proud? As corny as this may sound, he heard the voice of God. And it is in this moment of revelation that he decides he must change his life. He turned away from his criminal past and turned instead to the prison rabbi he had befriended and who subsequently encouraged him to pursue formal religious training. Borovitz is now the rabbi at a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles, the House of Return, and the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit T’Shuvah. Not without reason does he liken himself to the holy thief “who steals souls back from the devil and steals souls back from the dead.” In this context, his public confession of past misdeeds is less self-indictment than self-example: a tale of renewal told to inspire hope and kindle the possibility of change.

In To Wear the Dust of War, the distinguished Dead Sea Scroll authority Samuel Iwry (1910–2004) uses personal revelation only to document his experiences. As he described it, his life spanned three worlds, each with its own trajectory of experience: first, as a student and teacher in the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania before World War II; then, while himself a refugee from Hitler, actively helping rescue other Jews to escape Nazi Europe; and, from the 1950s until his death last year at the age of 93, as a leading biblical scholar in the United States.

Indeed, writes Dr. Iwry’s son, J. Mark Iwry, in the foreword: “The truth is, my father never was eager to write this book. Probably the prospect of reliving the Holocaust was too wrenching…” So it is all the more impressive that he did choose to speak and remember, in this oral history that touches on almost every aspect of 20th-century Jewish history. Always the teacher, he corrects the popular stereotype of a single unified pre-War Eastern European Orthodox community. He does not flinch from the harrowing details of life on the run as an active member of the Polish Jewish underground as he chronicles the endless series of bribes, forgeries, and audacious risks devised to save as many Jewish refugees as possible.

Iwry recounts all this without self-pity and with as little emphasis as possible on his own role in saving so many other fellow refugees. This humility suggests his recognition — as both witness to, and scholar of, history — of the limits of one person’s story. At the same time, his willingness to revisit, in memory, so much raw pain, implicitly acknowledges the power of personal testimony to endure as historical evidence. And therein lays the hope, the prayer, and the catharsis all at once: that we, too, will remember, and perhaps even learn, as we continue our own journey into the year ahead.

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New York-based writer Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges (Winedale Publishing). She contributes to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report, among other national publications. She can be reached at djcole86@aol.com.

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