A free spirit finds his own way

A free spirit finds his own way

Joshua Safran's incredible journey unfolds in new memoir

Joshua and Leah Safran and their children, dressed as characters from Joshua’s childhood.

Of course the 1960s didn’t end on January 1, 1970.

The wild decade of flower power and Vietnam and free love and hippies and Yippies seems, many people agree, to have petered out in the early 1970s. The draft ended, the sexual revolution became complicated, the hippies grew up.

In general.

That was not at all Joshua Safran’s experience. Born in 1975, to a mother whose resolute refusal to engage in anything as morally bankrupt as an ordinary, middle-class, rooted-therefore-shackled life, he grew up as a wanderer, surrounded by the rhetoric and worldview of the superannuated hippies who grew ever more distant from the general culture as they lost their romantic glow and began to seem increasingly bizarre to the more purposely well-bathed.

Joshua Safran

Safran has written a memoir about his childhood on the road with his charming, brilliant, feckless, demon-driven mother. “Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid” is a funny, moving, thoughtful, well-written book. (He will talk about it in Teaneck on October 13; see box for details.)

It also is of particular interest to Jews, because although Safran did not know he was Jewish until he was 9 years old – in fact, he didn’t know anything about Judaism at all, including its existence, until then – his relationship to Judaism, developed on his own and later, has defined much of his adult life.

His first introduction to Jewish folkways was indirect.

Safran grew up mainly in the Pacific Northwest – he now lives in Oakland, Calif. – and after his early childhood in San Francisco, he and his mother, along with whichever of the men who occupied her heart and her bed at that time, lived in the towering, majestic, primeval, huge-scale splendor of the wild country there. Despite some entirely self-generated attempts to go to school – the young Safran was ill-prepared for the children he met there, who thought he was weird and told him so, early and often – “I was homeschooled for much of my childhood,” he said in a phone interview.

“My mother taught me to read and write, and she developed a correspondence with our cats,” he said. “At one point, we had 16 of them.

“They would leave me notes, and they’d be signed ‘The Katz.’ They didn’t sound like my mother – they’d say things like, ‘Do you want we should be hungry? We want something to nosh on.’

“And because my mother never talked that way, I always thought that’s just the way cats – or Katz – talk.”

Safran and his mother, Claudia, had the kind of life that would have been immensely difficult for most readers to live, but makes for an extraordinary story; the wit and wild humor, and great loneliness, captivate readers and the detailed exploration of social trends and fringe movements are marvelous (and sad) social history. Claudia’s passionate embrace of social justice, her ability to move from radical lesbianism to anti-nuclear campaigning, to a Rainbow Tribes mudfest, to a marriage to a man who turned out to be an abusive and compulsive liar is both fascinating and oddly logical.

Meanwhile, her son was integrating his adventures in a world far more physically imposing, dangerous, and spectacularly beautiful than the one in which most of us live into an idiosyncratic life of his own.

When he was 15, Safran went to a poetry workshop at Simon’s Rock, the liberal arts college in Great Barrington, Mass. (Despite his patchy education he clearly was very smart, and his background gave him unusual and hard-earned insights, so “because I did well on the PSATs, this wonderful professor arranged for me to have a free ride there,” he said.)

“Not only was I around intelligent people my own age, which was amazing, but many of them were Jewish kids. I’d never met anyone like them before. So one night I was in the dorm, and these guys were doing impressions of their grandparents, and doing Borscht Belt routines, and I heard words like ‘schnorrer.’ I understood it, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a Katz word, from the cat world,’ and then I realized that no, it’s from the Jewish world.’

“So my mother’s Jewish identity somehow came through in a fake correspondence with cats.

“I still have this weird association with cats, that somehow they are the most Jewish of animals because they speak Yiddish.”

He did have a Jewish grandmother, back home in Philadelphia, but she was, Safran says, “very crypto about it.

“Her first language was Yiddish, and she had an accent, but when pressed she would say that her name was German or Polish.”

Safran has a name that seems to be recognizably Jewish, at least to other Jews, but that is not the name with which he started life. His birth name was Joshua Reed – Reed was not his mother’s birth name either, nor her married name, nor the name of Safran’s father. Instead, it was her pen name, which she used during her poetry-writing phase. When he was about to be married, his fiancée, Leah, originally decided to take his name – “it was easier,” he said – but then “I thought, ‘do I want my mother’s late ’70s pen name? She changed her mind about everything all the time. I don’t want to do that. I want to do my own thing.”

His last name, Reed, translates as Suf in Hebrew, so Suf had been Safran’s nickname when he was in Israel. “So we did this visioning. We were both going to give up our maiden names. We wanted to find a Hebrew shoresh” – a root word – “that was a Hebrew name that worked in both languages. We came to sefer” – book – “because of storytelling, so that’s the name that we both settled on.

“It’s perfect. We call ourselves Safran by choice.”

As he entered his teens, Safran’s life gradually became more conventional – a change that happened, for the most part, after this memoir ends. (He hopes to write another one that takes up the next part of his story.) At 17, he went to Oberlin College, and then he made his way to Israel, where his immersion in Judaism began.

Safran, who today is a lawyer, performer, and rabbi, a strong, active advocate and counselor for victims of domestic violence, and a modern Orthodox Jew, entirely at home if not completely comfortable in the conventional American Jewish world, found that Judaism and Jewishness helped him feel at home in the world in two discreet ways.

“There was a sense that it was all about tribal bloodlines,” he said. When he discovered and then began to explore his background, “I went from not belonging to anyone or anything, through a quirk of genealogy, to belonging unconditionally,” he said. “It was a very powerful experience to go to Israel and be unconditionally accepted at the most Orthodox levels. I showed up at the Aish Hatorah program, and they said, ‘Do you have a place for Shabbes?’ and all of I sudden I was in.

“It’s the opposite of conversion. It’s not that you should become us, but you already are a part of us.

“It was an empowering feeling. It was very powerful.

“One of my most powerful experiences of it was my first Yom Kippur. I was in the Old City, thrown in with all the random people, and it was time for Birkat Hakohanim,” the priestly blessing. “They say, ‘Are there any kohanim here?’ and this guy comes up, with orange dreadlocks and a nose ring, a British biker, and he says, ‘I’m a kohen,’ in a British accent, and without any question, without any judgment, they bring the guy up and wash his feet. The entire community, including the esteemed rabbis, are accepting blessings from this guy.

“It was a powerful statement of ‘oh wow, this is for real.’ This wasn’t like any other religious community I had seen. These guys were like, ‘Okay, you’re a kohen, go for it.’

“That was the identity/belonging track.

“The second part was my own discovery of monotheism,” Safran continued. “I really did feel from a very young age that I was guided by a single paternal spirit, who guided me out of a lot of life-and-death situations. Some of them aren’t in the book – being lost on a beach in northern California, taken out by the waves and almost drowning; falling out of a massive tree, being in a car on a cliff with my mother with brakes that didn’t work.

“Each time I felt a tangible paternal presence, a calm omniscient man coaching me out of it.”

When he was young, he called that calm paternal presence Edward. “He was a regal, exotic spirit.” Later, when he knew more, he called that spirit God.

“One of the few nice things about how I grew up is that at a very young age I understood the majesty and power of the natural world,” he said. “Some of the habitats I was in were absolutely spectacular, and they gave me the sense that there is so much more than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

“Then Judaism came along, and said, ‘Here is the name for that, the history of that.’ I immediately recognized Abraham. That was me. I was the kid in the wilderness, who was spoken to by the monotheistic, nonpagan God, who told me to go. And then, of course, there was Moses, the greatest prophet, the guy who grew up among the goyim and didn’t speak the language. I began to see myself in that template. That was the acceptance part of it. Just as Moses was able to randomly show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m one of you,’ and they say, ‘Hey, want to be our leader?’ I felt very much that this is the place for me.”

Safran is now married and the father of three daughters. He is providing his children with the stability for which he longed when he was a child. He has chosen the life he lives now because “I owe it to my daughters. I want them to be able to say, ‘I will always remember my childhood home’ and have deep lifelong friendships that began in their childhood.”

But is it enough for him? Maybe not. “Personally, I get very uncomfortable sitting in one place too long,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel like a caged animal with an office job.”

And American Jewish life, too, sometimes feels a bit staid.

“All my formative Jewish experiences were in the land of Israel, where I had this ancient connection, so I have had a hard time adjusting to the American Jewish world,” he said.

He loves his shul – Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Calif. – but “we use a lot of English and there is a lot of schmoozing and a lot of announcements. The thing that inspired me was dancing in a stone courtyard under a full moon, not the whole business of dues and committees. It doesn’t feel like the religious tradition that I signed up for.”

Who: Writer Joshua Safran

What: Talks about his book, “Free Spirit”

When: Sunday, October 13

Where: Two places in Teaneck:

Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, at 10:30 a.m. and Teaneck General Store, 502A Cedar Lane, at 4 p.m.

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