Gayle Redlingshafer was a minister of music at a Texas mega-church. Harold Berman was a secular Jew from New York. When they married, they agreed on a few things: they would never have children, and religion would never get in their way.
Despite their “best” intentions, though, Gayle and Harold began to feel the need for a shared spirituality. This led them on a years-long journey through a variety of synagogues, religious studies classes, and soul-searching. They were more surprised than anyone when Gayle decided to convert to Judaism, and Harold decided to visit the “foreign country” that was orthodox Jewish teachings.
As someone who spent years convinced I would never become Orthodox, I read the Bermans’ new memoir, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, with great interest. Having read several memoirs from converts, including former Christian ministers who discovered insurmountable theological problems with the New Testament, I appreciated the intellectual and emotional honesty of both Gayle and Harold in describing a difficult journey. This understandably led to some marital friction, especially when Harold discovers his misconceptions about Orthodox Judaism: “Growing up, I had always thought of Orthodox Jews as being closed to questions. You leave your thinking self at the door, you follow the rules, and that’s that.” When an Aish HaTorah rabbi welcomed his questions, his skepticism and even his Christian wife to classes, Harold faced the familiar plight of the self-satisfied uneducated Jew who discovers there is a depth and profundity in the Torah just waiting to be discovered. I know how that feels.
Gayle understandably feels betrayed and confused when Harold feels compelled to follow his way toward what he realizes will be a spiritual truth and wholeness. Yet she also finds that many Jewish ideas resonate with her, and moreover, she is frustrated by the hypocrisy of Jews from their Reform synagogue who claim a concern over intermarriage but who stop their children’s religious education if the kids display a little too much enthusiasm. “What are you afraid of?” she wants to blurt out, but does not.
When the Bermans adopt their toddler son from Russia, he seems to have been born with a deep affinity toward Jewish spirituality, and they know that they must continue to follow their unexpected path, no matter where it leads. The Bermans tell their story in a series of letters to one another, a diary format that allows them each to give full expression to their insights, questions and emotions. It makes for a very compelling read.
In tandem with their book, Harold and Gayle Berman have also created a support network (http://www.j-journey.org) designed for intermarried couples like themselves. Harold explained that the program is meant to offer “a friendly, understanding voice, and who better to mentor and support them than families like ours who have stood in their shoes?” It’s also meant to provide a uniquely Orthodox response to intermarriage and a new thread in the communal conversation. “It’s a response that does not accept intermarriage as equivalent to inmarriage and which maintains the integrity of Judaism, but at the same time makes the beauty and inspiration of Judaism available for those who are interested,” he added.
Since launching the book and the web site, the Bermans have heard from many people “under the radar” who have a sincere interest in observant Judaism. “The level of interest is surprising,” Harold told me in an email exchange. “Some come from evangelical Christian backgrounds, and as they’ve delved into the ‘Hebrew roots’ of their faith, it has led them both to greatly admire Judaism and in some cases to start asking difficult theological questions about their own faith. Some are from more secular backgrounds and find Judaism to be intellectually challenging and spiritually meaningful.”
Other intermarried families who were completely disconnected to the Jewish community have reported that the non-Jewish spouse is now undergoing Orthodox conversion, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to live in a Jewish community. Harold got a call from someone who lives in a small town “in the middle of nowhere” where everyone is Christian and most believe that non-Christians won’t go to heaven. “Through some ‘chance’ business encounters the person last year met some observant Jews and became curious,” Harold said. “He began to read, one thing led to another, and now that person also is moving halfway across the country and starting the gerut process,” Harold says.
The Bermans hope their book will speak to intermarrieds who want to engage with Judaism and who are searching, but don’t know quite for what. Response from this audience has been very positive: “Even if people don’t want to do what we did, at least not yet, the idea of addressing these issues and really searching seems to speak to them.”
Doublelife is about more than Harold and Gayle Berman’s long, arduous and sometimes wrenching spiritual journey. It’s also a moving love story about a couple so in love and so committed to one another and to their son that they find a way to communicate, find common ground, and overcome huge obstacles, even those as seemingly as intractable as how to reconcile lives having been lived in two very different faiths.
Judy Gruen’s latest book is Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping. Try it, you’ll like it!
Catch up on other Mirth and Meaning entries you may have missed on http://www.judygruen.com