October 8, 2003: Perspective

Circling back to home

Listening to others, a writer finds his own religious path

By Tom Levinson ’96

Tom Levinson ’96 is the author of All That’s Holy: A Young Guy, an Old Car, and the Search for God in America, which was published in August by Jossey-Bass.

Princeton was conceived as a seminary, though it was founded as a college of arts and sciences. Its third president was Jonathan Edwards, a catalyst of the colonial Great Awakening. Perhaps, given this pedigree, I shouldn’t be surprised that my own religious awakening began there – one that ultimately took me on a 10,000-mile road trip-cum-pilgrimage to interview people around America about the place of religion in their lives and communities.

I am Jewish, a born and bred, fourth-generation New Yorker who grew up a Christmas Tree-decorating, Judaism-heckling, doubting Thomas. On Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar, during my freshman fall, I ate two barbecued chicken sandwiches in the Forbes dining hall. While others fasted, I took seconds; in the process, I stuck my tongue out at my tradition and the people who found meaning in it.

In my freshman hall, amidst the Methodists and Catholics, the agnostics and Unitarians, there lived a bustling, scrawny, 16-year-old Orthodox Jew. He grew up in the Soviet Union and moved to Brooklyn as an adolescent, assuming the rigors of Orthodox observance only a few years before starting college. He appeared to divide his time between prayer and physics. We chatted occasionally. He led a life defined by religious obligations and pursuits. What sounded back-breaking to me provided him with spiritual sustenance. His choice filled me with a mixture of admiration, pity, and befuddlement. But his commitment lingered with me.

Later, as part of a playwriting seminar in 1995, I traveled to Valmeyer, a village of 900 people nestled against the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois. Only months after they were flooded out of their town by the epic rains that fell in the summer of 1993, Valmeyer’s residents had made a historic and heart-wrenching decision: to leave their post-diluvian homes and relocate, two miles east and 400 feet uphill. During our playwriting trip we visited a makeshift school, wandered through rows of trailers housing the town’s temporarily homeless families, and interviewed the residents.

In the wake of that trip, I started to see the American landscape as suffused with religious import. Valmeyer’s communal migration echoed the vision of Puritan John Winthrop, who had dressed his band of religious dissidents in the scriptural aura of a “city on a hill.” To learn more, I headed to divinity school and, after graduation, took to the highway, where I set about talking to religious believers. I met a Mormon who worked in a Las Vegas wedding chapel; a Trappist monk in rural Iowa, and a Buddhist monk in California; a Branch Davidian outside Waco, Texas, and a Hindu in Jackson, Mississippi; fundamentalists and atheists, seekers and the saved. The first person I met was a 24-year-old shopkeeper of a halal market in Dayton, Ohio, an Iraqi Muslin named Hayder Almosawi. He and his brothers had fled their homeland during the first Gulf War, entered Ohio public schools speaking no English, and logged time operating a McDonald’s fry machine before purchasing their store. Hayder had endured his own kind of flood, a tide that drove him from his home, his family, his roots. I wondered what people packed on their way to a city on a hill, and what they left behind in the valley.

A few days later I visited the new Valmeyer. All straight lines and gleaming curbsides, it was an ordered rebuke to the muddy, molding chaos of the old town. I bumped into David Riebeling, the pastor of one of the town’s churches. His church had flooded, too, and as the townspeople evacuated their homes and considered a nomadic future, the congregation worshipped in the basement of a neighboring town’s nursing home.

“We had new people who would come to worship with us there in the basement,” Pastor Riebeling recalled. “And they’d come back. It blew our minds when this would happen. They wanted to join our church. We’d ask them, ‘Why? We don’t have a building, we don’t have a clear future.’ And they would say, ‘You don’t have a sanctuary. But this feels like a real church.’” The pastor paused for a moment. “You know that children’s thing? ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people?’” He moved his hands in time with the rhyme. “They meant the church isn’t the building. It’s the people.”

The stories of strangers, I eventually came to understand, can help you learn your own. One day I sat in the Window Rock, Arizona, office of Eddie Tso, the program director of the Navajo Nation’s newly formed Office of Diné (or, the People’s) Education. A 1994 Navajo study revealed that the number of Navajo medicine men, the tribal leaders endowed with knowledge of the community’s ritual traditions and sacred wisdom, had plunged almost 90 percent in just two decades. Eddie Tso, charged with recruiting and training a new cadre of medicine men, faced a monumental task: to recover traditional teaching for the contemporary Navajo, to retrieve the past while not rejecting the present.

His challenge, set against the modern Navajo crisis, struck a deeply Jewish chord in me. For many centuries Judaism had survived because of the community’s institutional commitment to its memory, even while individual Jews chose acculturation or blending in as their means of survival.

And Eddie’s story, set against my own journey, struck a personal chord, too. Eddie had grown up on the “res”; his grandfather and uncle had been medicine men. “But I wasn’t so interested then, when I was growing up,” he told me.

I immediately perceived a biblical parallel linking the ancient Hebrews and the modern-day Navajo. I shared with him the story of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, a priest and elder, who pulls an overworked, struggling Moses aside immediately after the exodus, and tells him to delegate: The people’s survival, he advises, indeed their very liberation, depends on their own participation.

No doubt there was a long way between the Torah’s example and Eddie Tso’s making it happen. But in that moment, in the space where my Jewish knowledge impacted a tenacious, committed Navajo, I suddenly realized that Judaism was all I needed. This didn’t negate the value and need of pursuing the wisdom of other traditions. These religions were still worth studying; other people’s faiths were still worth encountering. But my inquiries into other traditions had taken a Navajo shape: They traced for me a circle.


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