Reclaiming my spiritual voice: The Rebel and The Rabbi’s Son by Izzy Eichenstein
Israel (Izzy) Eichenstein is a descendant on both sides of royal Chasidic dynasties whose members trace their lineages back through generations in Europe. He is the son, grandson, great-grandson and great-great-grandson of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. In Chicago as well as New York, Israel and elsewhere, the name Eichenstein can inspire awe and open doors in the most religious circles.
Izzy Eichenstein found that most of those doors were closed to him — not that he wanted to walk through them in the first place.
The Chicago native’s recent book, “The Rebel and The Rabbi’s Son: Finding My Soul Beyond the Tribe” tells the story of a child brought up in a religious family who rebels and walks a different path.
A spate of books over the last few years have detailed this phenomenon in excruciatingly detailed terms, from Judith Brown’s “Hush” to Anouk Markovits’ “I Am Forbidden” to Israeli writer Naomi Regan’s newest work, “The Sisters Weiss,” a novel which centers on a woman who leaves her haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family.
Interestingly, most have been written by women. Eichenstein’s, though, is different in more ways than the gender of the author. Though his story is also a painful one, it’s told with humor and a lack of bitterness – qualities he said he was striving for in the self-published memoir.
Eichenstein, now a successful real estate developer in Los Angeles, was born and lived the first years of his life on Chicago’s West Side, the youngest child in a dynasty of Chasidic rabbis who had first come in the 1920s to the “triefe medina” of the United States. Here they attempted to replicate as much as possible the ultra-Orthodox, “Torah-true” world of Eastern European Jewry.
Eichenstein’s father, Rabbi Moses Eichenstein, first headed an Orthodox synagogue, known as the Austrian Galician shul, on the West Side. But when neighborhoods began to change, the family moved to the North Side and Rabbi Eichenstein, faced with the need to make a living for his family of three young children, became the spiritual leader of a Traditional synagogue, A.G. Beth Israel.
For an ultra-Orthodox rabbi to lead a synagogue where men and women sat together and most congregants were not Orthodox was considered a shanda by many other members of the family, even though Rabbi Eichenstein, his wife and children adhered strictly to the Orthodox lifestyle. Izzy Eichenstein traces much of the discord in his own life to this disconnect in his father’s.
Young Izzy, meanwhile, wasn’t fitting in to the life he was expected to lead, where Torah study trumped all other pursuits. He was more interested in following the Chicago Cubs, playing sports and meeting girls than in studying the Torah portion of the week. While his brother, sister and cousins “were on the ‘A’ team with the Orthodox community,” he writes, “I was now on the ‘B’ team.”
When he is unable to give a good answer to a question one of his uncles asks him about Rashi, the Torah commentator, he thinks, “If my uncle had asked me to recite the Chicago Cubs lineup or stats regarding the Chicago Bears, I would have astonished him with my knowledge and feats of memory.”
Indeed, his first deviation from the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism comes when he turns up the volume of a radio on Shabbat so he can listen to a Cubs game. He is amazed when he isn’t struck dead for the transgression. Instead, “a reluctant rebel was born,” he writes.
In his teens, he struggled in his Jewish day school but found a release in sports, both watching and playing them. At Yeshiva High School in Chicago, he tried to fit in but didn’t seem to be able to. Instead, all year he looked forward to the summers he spent at Camp Moshava in Wisconsin.
One year, though, his parents pulled him out after two weeks at the much-beloved Modern Orthodox camp and, to his sorrow and fury, put him instead in an ultra-Orthodox camp in New York. Ultimately his family knew how unhappy he was there and sent him for the rest of the summer to another “yeshiva boot camp,” which he also hates.
For the next several years, he bounced back and forth as his family tried to shape him into the ultra-Orthodox Jew he seemed unable to become. He graduated from a new yeshiva in Pittsburgh, where he sincerely tried to fit in, then spent some time at a yeshiva in Israel. He met some young Israeli soldiers and visited their kibbutz – and was severely reprimanded by the school for engaging in such extracurricular activities. He continued attending classes but without much interest. “I had fallen off the path,” he writes.
That path took him on a decidedly different turn when he met a young Reb Shlomo Carlebach, much less famous and revered than he would eventually become. Eichenstein was drawn to the charismatic performer and the other young people in his entourage –Carlebach dubbed them his “holy hippelach” – and began spending most of his time with them while still nominally attending classes at the yeshiva. Eventually he left Israel and moved to New York City, still searching for a place and profession in which he could feel comfortable.
He soon heard from Carlebach and again joined his inner circle, becoming his roadie and eventually his manager. He tried to arrange a meeting between Carlebach and Bob Dylan, one of his artistic heroes, but the timing was never right.
However, Eichenstein and Dylan became friends and spent hours drinking wine and discussing Judaism in Greenwich Village bars. The closeness ended when Dylan entered his short-lived phase as a born-again Christian. Eichenstein, meanwhile, temporarily ended up in his old bedroom in Chicago when he contracted mononucleosis.
It was during that confusing time that he connected with Rita Lipman, a girl he knew growing up. She came from a Modern Orthodox family – only slightly less stringent than his own – and was also in the process of moving away from her observant roots. They began dating and eventually fell in love, a process that Eichenstein marks as the end of his lost years and the beginning of a new, joyful life.
He writes: “It was as if a guardian angel had decreed, ‘This kid’s been through enough. He’s a good boy at heart. Let’s show him how tremendous this world can be.’ Whoever was watching over me (maybe it was Zaide?) led Rita and me to each other. I’m absolutely sure of it. If someone asked me, ‘What’s the proof that there’s a G-d?’ my answer would be, ‘Rita ended up in my life.’ All the other blessings flowed from that one.”
They married in an enormous Chasidic wedding at the Palmer House, and Eichenstein went back to working for Carlebach, then eventually tried a number of different jobs and professions, including selling advertising for a radio station and staging a concert to celebrate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Eventually the couple moved to Los Angeles and Eichenstein began mapping out a career in real estate, one in which he became very successful. Eventually they had three children.
There was still the matter of their religious affiliation. The couple joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue but found it hard to make friends. They joined another, and Eichenstein was elected to the board, bringing tremendous joy to his mother. Yet they still chafed under the religious restrictions and made up excuses about “having to take the kids to the doctor” so they could feel free to drive on Shabbat. They began attending services at a Conservative synagogue but didn’t feel comfortable there either.
Eventually, through a day school their children attended, they are led to a Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel. Eichenstein writes: “I was only conscious of one fact: I had been uncomfortable at every other synagogue in Los Angeles, and at this one, I felt comfortable. … I came to rest spiritually at Temple Emanuel” with its dynamic leader, the well-known Rabbi Laura Geller.
He decided to tell his story in a book for a number of reasons, the genial Eichenstein said in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles office.
“I felt there was a story to be told because my family is extremely well known in Chicago,” he says. “It was also one way to honor my dad. He had tremendous courage, as the son of a Chasidic rabbi, to end up taking a congregation on the North Side of Chicago that had mixed pews. He was courageous and beloved. So was my mom.”
Many who knew Eichenstein urged him to write a book. “A lot of people said, you have such an interesting story – you’re the last one of your Eichenstein generation and you grew up in a synagogue different from any other Eichenstein,” he says. “You grew up where nobody (among his father’s congregants) were observant but they all loved being Jewish.”
Izzy Eichenstein also loved being Jewish. The book, though, is about conflict, he says, noting that his name, Israel, means “to struggle with G-d.”
“I was struggling with my own Jewish identity,” he says.
He takes pains, though, to make sure an interviewer understands that he harbors no bitterness toward his parents, both now deceased.
“My dad and mom were great people,” he says. “For my father, it took tremendous courage to be in a congregation where the rest of the family, (most of whom) still live in Chicago, did not appreciate his willingness to step outside the bounds of ultra-Orthodoxy.”
Even though his congregants may not have been observant, Rabbi Eichenstein and his family remained scrupulous in their own observance, their son says. “If the love for my parents doesn’t come through, I didn’t write a good book,” he adds.
As for his own path, “I loved the Cubs. I never fit in with the beards and the hats,” he says. “But I wrote the book out of love and respect and very little bitterness. I’m not angry at anybody.”
That can’t be said for everyone in the family. Throughout the book, Eichenstein paints his older brother and sister, both of whom have remained within the haredi world, as unyielding towards their rebellious sibling. Today that brother and a cousin live in Chicago, and although they have never spoken to him about the book, “I feel sure they are not happy about it,” he says.
While he has an occasional conversation with his brother, he is not in touch with his cousins or other members of his family.
“Nobody calls me. We have gotten occasional invites to simchas, but otherwise the dialogue is at zero,” he says.
Except for “a few nasty emails” from people who know his family in Chicago, Eichenstein says the book has been received very positively.
“A lot of people came to me and said, I really struggle with my Jewish identity,” he says. “I tell them, the way to be Jewish is to struggle with G-d.”
For Eichenstein himself, writing the book was cathartic. “My life has changed,” he says. “I’m at an age where you just have to say, this is who I am.”
He says that although he could have secured a publisher for the book, he wanted to self-publish because “I wanted to hold on to it.” Now a non-Jewish individual has told Eichenstein he is interested in writing a screenplay based on the book.
“A lot of non-Jewish people have read the book. They struggle with father and son issues” that are also at the heart of his book, he says.
“I want people to have the oxygen to find their own Jewish identity and be respected for it. People feel boxed in – they don’t have that oxygen. They fear their neighbors more than they fear G-d,” he says. “I’ve spoken all over the country and people write me from around the world saying, you helped me. I was in hiding. I wanted to give a voice to those people.”
Sometimes people tell him that the real rebel was his father for agreeing to lead a non-Orthodox congregation. “That was the ultimate rebellion,” he says. “My family wants to whitewash that story, and I will not allow it.”
There is another story that is even more mysterious. His father once told him “in hushed tones” that a Reform rabbi in Chicago helped his grandfather when he first emigrated from Europe. He never named the rabbi.
Perhaps, he says, there’s a symmetry in the fact that Izzy and Rita Eichenstein are now very involved in their Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
The main message of his book, its author says, is that “nobody has a copyright on spirituality. You have to respect other people and their path. But if a son or daughter decides they’re not going to be religious, just love them a little more. Don’t push people away.”
Eichenstein says he still loves Chicago and the Cubs. “And I love being Jewish. The main thing was I had to find my own Jewish identity. I had to say, I’m not going to apologize for how I turned out.”