Finding Your Own Path

To the many blog readers’s who over the years have asked me about my unusual background ,  My memoir titled ” The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son” has just been released.

Below is the synopsis:

The closed world of ultra-Orthodox Jews in America is a subject of much curiosity and intrigue as they coexist, just barely, with the outside world in day-to-day business dealings. Bonded by history, culture, and sacrifice, they will do whatever is necessary to protect their own kind, even if that means squashing the spirit of a young man or woman who doesn’t  “fit in” or choose to practice this very spiritually and physically demanding way of life.

This is the story of Izzy Eichenstein, who was born into a Chasidic dynasty and expected to carry on the traditions of his forefathers and virtually all the male elders of his extended family,in becoming a spiritual leader. This is also the story of Izzy’s spiritual birth into a family who had high expectations for him that he could never meet.

With their long beards, side curls, high black hats and long black coats, the Chasidic Jews of America have always kept their lives separate from modern-day American life. Living in a way that closely mirrors their seventeenth-century founders in Eastern Europe, TV watching and going to movies are forbidden, listening to the sound of a woman singing is a sin, as is mixing with outsiders beyond their closed communities. While Izzy’s home life was not quite this vigilant, the rest of his family were entirely comfortable living within these strict religious confines.

In  The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, the reader is taken on a journey inside the sacred world of the ultra-orthodox Chasidic community, off-limits to not only those of other religions, but also to other Jews who are not considered “religious enough” or “worthy” of entrance. It is a world where rites, rituals, and absolute adherence to religious scripture dominate every move and every decision one makes, and those who do not comply are subject to punitive actions including “shunning.”

For Izzy, religious expectations came with the territory: On his father’s side, he was one of the grandsons of Rabbi Y. Eichenstein, the leader of Chicago’s Ziditshov Chasidic dynasty, while on his mother’s side, he was a direct descendant of the equally imposing Novominsk Chasidic dynasty, originally from Mińsk Mazowiecki, Poland. From early on, Izzy straddled two worlds: that of his family and the world outside and the divide widened with his growing awareness of the difference.

In his book, Izzy chronicles the challenges he faced in order to find his own path, starting early on in life as his childhood love for baseball overpowered his interest in religious and academic studies. Trying to please his idealistic father and devout mother, he learned that love was not unconditional, but rather, based on his achieving a long list of expectations and goals that came with his birthright.

In his yearning to please his family, Izzy aims to fall into line. He attends one highly acclaimed yeshiva after another, with its intensive schooling and prayer, starting with the modern yeshiva in his hometown of Chicago, later to the ultra-Orthodox, black-hat-only yeshiva in  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and finally, at an eminent yeshiva in Israel. But despite all his efforts, he remains torn. He is more enlivened by the pop culture of the 1960s and sports than by the promise of leadership as a rabbi carrying on his family’s tradition.

With a constant spiritual battle raging inside of him, Izzy reaches out to an outsider for help. That man turns out to be the illustrious counter-culture icon, Jewish songwriter and recording artist Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who invites Izzy to join him on a whirlwind journey that changes his life. In the process, Izzy gains a foothold into building a religious identity of his own. While it does not resemble that of his family’s, it carries forward Izzy’s respect and love for Judaism, and adds a new layer of depth.

In the years that follow, Izzy rises to acclaim as Shlomo’s manager and booking agent. He meets world-changing recording artist Bob Dylan, with whom he cements a friendship that lasts for years. As he travels the world with Rabbi Carlebach, Izzy discovers he has a talent for negotiating business contracts, a skill that will serve him well in the years to come.

When life on the road takes its toll, Izzy returns to his parents’ home to recover his health. There, in his hometown of Chicago, he meets the woman of his dreams. With her, he finds a soul mate who understands the religious demands of his family, coming from a similar background herself, with roots to pre-World War II Chasidic royalty in Warsaw, Poland. The two make a pact to forge forward, leaving their families to start a new life in Los Angeles.

However, Los Angeles brings a new level of culture shock as they find themselves outsiders, again, in a city where “who you know”and  “where you live” appear to matter more than who you are. Over the years, as Izzy builds a successful career in the world of industrial real estate, he build a family of his own. But while he is now free to choose how to raise his children and to make religious choices that are integral to who they are, the chains to his past continue to bind him.

Finally, it is a school teacher at their son’s secular high school who boldly challenges Izzy to choose: either bring up his children with the same constraints that shadowed his life—and win the love of his large, extended family— or choose to honor his children’s interests and cut off his family forever. This painful choice allows Izzy to find his soul beyond the sacred tribe. It is a heart-rending moment of decision that encapsulates his very essence as a member of what some might call a fundamentalist upbringing.

In this straightforward and utterly compelling memoir, readers can see that there are many ways, not just one way, to love one’s religion. Also, as one of the remaining members of a family torn apart by the Holocaust, this book challenges the way children of survivors think about carrying on their heritage; that they can carry it forward while still respecting their own belief systems.

This story is a must-read for anyone who has experienced the bondage of fundamentalist religion, whether it be Chaidic Jews, fundamentalist Mormons, Amish, Born Again Christians, Scientologists, or any other movement that claims to have the “only answer.” Most importantly, it tells the story of how the spirit can survive untold hardship and remain strong and true.

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