From Central Park to Sinai: How I found my Jewish soul
by Roy S. Neuberger
Jonathan David Publishers/ $24.95
Reviewed by Rabbi Yakov Feitman
The Jewish Observer
May 1, 2001
Roy Neuberger – today Yisroel – was born into a family that seemed to live the American dream and the Jewish nightmare. Wealth and privilege, private schools and country homes on the one hand and absolute ignorance of Judaism on the other. Roy knew nothing of Yom Kippur, had never seen a pair of tefillin (when he saw men wearing them for the first time, on an early trip to Eretz Yisroel, he thought he had landed on Mars) and at one point was about to enroll his child in Catholic school.
The saga of how he and his wife Linda – now Leah – traveled from the depths of assimilation to become b’nei Torah with a beautiful Torah home and family is the riveting chronicle of this book. On the one hand, the story is not easily replicated. Mr. Neuberger was born into opportunities and advantages not shared by many. But his spiritual journey and the courage with which he and his wife took each new step can inspire – and already has inspired – others to do the same.
Roy attended the Ethical Culture Midtown School in Manhattan until sixth grade. A Catholic professor at tThe University of Michigan, where Roy attended, later aptly defined the school as the place "for the Jews who are too embarrassed for Reform." At the Sunday School component of this institution, Roy studied about Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and a drop of Judaism for good measure.
None of these clicked for Roy, and his soul yearned for something real, something substantive, something which would resonate with the aching void in his spirit. In good American fashion, Roy’s mother sent him to a psychiatrist. The result for Roy was "pure agony." No answers to his profound questions, no solace for his spiritual agony, no new direction for his quest. Even after meeting and marrying his wife, they realized that "we have everything and nothing."
After exploring Eastern religions and various forms of Christianity, Roy and Linda met Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who changed their lives, brought them to Torah and eventually gave them their son-in-law Rabbi Osher Jungreis, who married their daughter Yaffa. I won’t spoil the suspense for anyone by revealing how all this happened. Suffice it to say that Mr. Neuberger writes with humor, a keen perception about human nature, refreshing sometimes astonishing candor and an endearing humility about his spiritual odyssey.
CONFRONTING PERSONAL FAILINGS
One of the reasons all this is so special is our current reluctance to reveal even slight imperfections about ourselves, lest we be judged unfavorably. Rabbi Hutner zt'l once provided encouragement for a young man depressed about his apparent insufficient growth in Torah by pointing out that the Chofetz Chaim at twenty-three was surely not the Chofetz Chaim at seventy-three. In fact, it would be uncomplimentary to imply that someone had not grown over several decades. Yisroel Neuberger has the courage and caring for others to present his story so that they, too, can learn and begin their own journeys. The Gemora (Avoda Zara 17a) tells the tale of Elazar ben Durdaya who gained the title "Rebbe" when he underwent a wrenching teshuva process. Commentators tell us that it is the nature of the repentance experience to make of the baal teshuva a teacher, for he automatically becomes the role model for those who observe his example.
Through this work, Roy S. Neuberger truly also becomes a Rebbe to future generations who will read, be inspired and emulate his example. There is a certain midda (character trait) called being mevazeh atzmo al kedushas Hashem (see Berachos 20a with Rashi), being willing to debase oneself for the sanctification of Hashem. I am sure it was not easy for Mr. Neuberger to reveal his intimate struggles. But "this endlessly restless soul," as he defines himself, is a metaphor for many of us and a parable for all of us. Yisroel Neuberger got rid of his "poison" and "the healing came" automatically. There are lessons here for all of us, not just the "not-yet-frum."
P.S. WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great Torah personality of the nineteenth century who founded the Mussar Movement (promoting introspection, integrity and ethical conduct), spoke of the inner revolution necessary to achieve positive change in just one character trait. How impressed he would have been with Roy Neuberger’s monumental revolution in challenging and then reformulating his own life values and goals!
Perhaps, in his way, Mr. Neuberger, who carries his progenitor’s Hebrew name, Yisroel, lives a fulfillment of the teachings of the sage of Salant.
Rabbi Feitman, Rav of Kehillas Bais Yehuda in Cedarhurst, N.Y., a well-known lecturer and author, is a frequent contributor to these pages.
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