Confessions of a Religious Anarchist in Israel

He distanced himself from the ultra-Orthodox world of his youth, does not attend synagogue and calls himself secular, but author Dov Elbaum still has a profoundly Jewish soul. His goal? To help create a secular halakha and new cultural language for nonobservant believers.

Anyone banished from the paradise of childhood is destined to go on yearning for it. Twelve-year-old Dov Elbaum was sent to yeshiva, away from the forest near his home where he had played in ancient and moss-covered caves, while in his imagination he conversed with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His days became filled with Torah study, his nights with contemplation of sin.

Now, many years after he left the ultra-Orthodox world and became a journalist and writer, Elbaum is once again writing about his childhood in the shade of the carob trees − as if he were longing for the time when his imagination roamed freely and his belief in God was innocent and pure, before the serpent of doubt shook the Garden of Eden with seductive whisperings. Fortunately, whenever such yearning is stirred in Elbaum’s heart, it spawns a new book.

Dov Elbaum - Ilya Melnikov - May 4, 2012
Ilya Melnikov

Unlike his three previous works of prose, which depicted a tortured quest for faith, this time Elbaum has written a book in rhyme, “Yanuka be’i Hanesharim” ‏(“The Eagle’s Island,” published by Am Oved, featuring beautifully delicate illustrations by Liora Grossman‏). “The Eagle’s Island” is a fairy tale inspired by the story of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Elbaum has lectured for years on Jewish philosophy and is a great admirer of Rabbi Nachman. Such knowledge often informs his weekly Torah portion show on Channel 1 and his books as well. But until now, he hasn’t ever really tried his hand at adapting a text from Jewish literature and translating it for the secular public ‏(see below‏).

Elbaum, 42, is publishing this new book as the first anniversary of his mother’s death nears. In his office at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he is a research fellow, he appears somewhat withdrawn. There is no trace of the television personality who often uses a pompous and dramatic style of presentation. He is sprawled lazily in his chair and his voice sounds sleepy. Perhaps he is afflicted with that malady of television stars whose personality shrinks as soon as they’re out of the spotlight. But Elbaum, who has always showed an aversion to star status, provides another explanation of his relaxed appearance.

Elbaum - May 4, 2012

“It took me many years to realize that I really am a dov ‏(“bear” in Hebrew‏),” he smiles. “In winter I have a slight tendency to hibernate.”

His mother’s death may be a more tenable explanation for his demeanor. “I watched my mother deteriorate for three years,” he explains. “Her stroke marked the start of a steep physical decline. But her mind was clear up to the very end.”

This was, of course, a physically and emotionally difficult period, but nothing prepared him for the shock of her death and her gaping absence. “It’s as if I were handed a profound midlife crisis with extra-complex dimensions,” he says sadly.

His bond with his mother was very deep. Elbaum was the youngest of her nine children − a mama’s boy. He says he inherited his rather large physique from her. She was also the first person he told of his decision to leave Jerusalem’s prestigious Hebron Yeshiva when he was 17.

Elbaum  - May 4, 2012

He describes this intimate moment of confession to his mother in his book “Masa Be’halal Panui” ‏(“A Walk Through the Void”‏): “I will never forgive myself for the cruel way in which I informed my mother that I’d decided to switch direction and leave the religious way of life. I startled her into wakefulness after an afternoon nap ... There was a scrim of sadness in her eyes that crushes me to this day whenever I think of it. The sadness of a long chain of generations ... This old sadness turns my heart white with shame and regret even now.”

You rebelled against her. Did she ever forgive you?

Elbaum - Daniel Tchetchik - May 4, 2012
Daniel Tchetchik

“My mother was the only person who loved me unconditionally. She never turned her back on me, she never criticized my actions. She was disappointed by me. But there was never anything even close to a question of whether or not she still loved me.”

His abandonment of the religious world caused quite a stir in Jerusalem Haredi circles. “I was thought to have a truly promising future,” he recalls. “It was usually never the good ones who left, always the ‘weak’ ones.”

Elbaum  - Lior Mizrahi - May 4, 2012
Lior Mizrahi

Unlike his mother, the rest of the family reacted in more predictable fashion: “My older brother told me that it would have been better if I were killed in a car accident, because that way, in his view, I would have been killed without having sinned. My father asked Rabbi Schach [Eliezer Schach, a prominent Torah scholar] what to do, and he told him not to perform any rituals of excommunication and not to sit shivah. But my father didn’t speak to me for 10 years. Emissaries were sent to try to get me to change my mind, and the peak was when they brought in Uri Zohar [a former actor and director who became religiously observant], who spent a whole night trying to scare me with a depiction of hell that was totally superficial. It didn’t work.”

Today, however, he has a good relationship with his father: “My father is from the old generation. In his world there aren’t too many emotions. In his world, the main concern is physical survival.”

Elbaum recalls his mother with great admiration. She was “a classic daughter of Jerusalem of the old generation,” who could read Yiddish, and mostly knew what every good Jewish woman was supposed to know – how to cook, knit and sew.

“My mother spoke Arabic,” he says. “She grew up with Arabs in the Old City. In her childhood, Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. If you lived in Mea She’arim, you knew Arabs, you knew Christians. She talked with everyone. She was also a champion knitter. Everyone wanted to be with her. I used to sit at her feet unraveling old sweaters and rolling up the yarn, and listening to her stories.

“Her religious identity was not complicated. Simple faith. When I asked her what she thought of my book ‘Masa Be’halal Panui,’ she replied, ‘I’ve been told that you talk a lot about God in it. What could be bad?’”

Ironically, it seems that it was his mother’s unconditional love that enabled her son to cross the lines to secularism. “None of my brothers and sisters received the same kind of love from her,” says Elbaum. “And therefore no one else could go as far as I did. My mother ‘loosened the ropes’ with me. All that I am, I owe to her.”

On assignment

After he left the yeshiva, Elbaum was able to overcome the cultural gaps he faced with lightning speed. He entered Jerusalem’s secular Rene Cassin High School, where he completed his matriculation certificate in a year. He did his army service at the Israel Defense Forces’ Bamahaneh weekly. Before his discharge he also worked for a time at the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir. On one of his assignments, he infiltrated the right-wing extremist Kach movement. After his article was published, broadsides were plastered around Jerusalem denouncing him and then editor Doron Glazer. It was very embarrassing for his family.

After the army, he worked for a while at the ‏(now defunct‏) Hadashot newspaper, where he met writer Dorit Rabinyan. They married when he was 23 and divorced two years later. The marriage was premature – “a connection between wounded people,” as he puts it. At the time of the divorce, he was already reporting on Haredi affairs for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth; journalists who knew him at the time say the rabbinical court hurried to issue him a get ‏(bill of divorce‏) so he wouldn’t make trouble for them in the press.

Not long after he began working as a reporter for Yedioth’s weekly supplement, Elbaum left to work in electronic media.

In 1997 he wrote a highly popular weekly television skit, performed by stand-up comic Gil Kopatch on “Parshat Hashavua” ‏(“The Weekly Portion”‏), on Channel 1. Before long he’d become one of the hosts of the TV interview program “Hotzeh Yisrael,” together with Rino Tzror. And at the same time he was accepted into an interdisciplinary program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University. He wrote his master’s thesis in the framework of the Jewish philosophy department, about kabbala and Hasidism.

“On ‘Hotzeh Yisrael,’ Elbaum was like a younger version of Yaron London. Watching him was like saying: ‘I am an intellectual,’” says Shahar Ilan, deputy director of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious equality and freedom, and a former Haaretz journalist who knew Elbaum from his Kol Ha’ir days. “He could have either gone after the money or continued to represent quality, and he definitely chose quality. He didn’t try to be a ‘talent.’ I think he was afraid that commercialism would force him to compromise.”

In 2006, Elbaum was among the founders of the secular yeshiva Bina, where he still teaches. That same year he was also appointed chief editor of Yedioth Ahronoth Books, a position he left after little more than a year. There are different views as to why he left. Some writers claim that, during his tenure, he was more concerned with writing his own book than with working on theirs. In any event, this episode did not leave a significant mark, either on Israeli culture or on Elbaum himself. He says he left after he realized that he just wasn’t cut out for a managerial position. “I’ve never done well with structure,” he says.

Since then, he seems to have stopped trying to find an “important” career and has settled in comfortably as the host of Channel 1’s “Weekly Portion” show. The intelligence he displays there is a compass guiding him through the vast array of topics that come up on the show. And yet, on the other hand, it also reflects some type of inner truth, and that sometimes detracts from the program: There are episodes where he is quite keen and sharp, and others where he tends to ramble a bit and lose the thread. It all depends on his level of interest.

‘Big world outside’

The Elbaum family goes back many generations in Jerusalem, and had always lived in the Mea She’arim neighborhood. After Dov was born, however, the family moved to Ramat Eshkol, which at the time was still secular, on the border of a Haredi neighborhood. They hoped to improve their housing situation. “And what an improvement it was,” Elbaum remarks sarcastically, adding that the family still rues the day they moved there, convinced that if they’d stayed in Mea She’arim, he would have remained ultra-Orthodox, because “I might not have encountered the big world outside.”

His first taste of that world came in a Jerusalem park. A few weeks ago, we both visited the park where it all began. It was a nice sunny morning after a rainy and stormy weekend. The park − called Gan Sanhedrin, after the 71 members of the supreme court of ancient Israel, who were apparently buried in the caves that dot the hillside nearby − turned out to be one floor below street level, on a quiet street in the heart of the Haredi Sanhedria neighborhood, very close to Elbaum’s parents’ home.

For a little while, as dust motes caught in the sunbeams glittered, the park appeared like something out of a dream, surrounded by crooked carob trees, ferns and rocks.

“You could see far beyond the park. The Sanhedria neighborhood wasn’t there yet,” says Elbaum, pointing as he heads down toward the park. “From here, when I was around 10-years-old, we would run to the Shabbat demonstrations on the Ramot road. Down there was where all the craziness was. Police, horses, shouts of ‘Shabbes! Shabbes!’”

The echoes of those demonstrations are long gone. Now I drink in the wonderful quiet here. Having grown up in the crowded, ugly streets of Bnei Brak, where balcony abuts balcony, and yeshiva abuts yeshiva − I could appreciate this patch of untouched nature. Elbaum still knows every inch of this garden, every bush and every stone.

“I used to climb this carob tree when I was 4-years-old, and talk with the forefathers,” he says. “This flat rock was the place where Abraham bound his son Isaac for sacrifice, and this cactus here was the burning bush. In my mind, Abraham – when he went to Mount Moriah – came here.”

Nothing stirs the imagination and inspires fear like a cave. Elbaum and his friends used to slip into the caves here through the small openings, using candle stubs for light: “We lived in these caves. This was a magical place for me. On the one hand a cave is like a womb, but on the other hand it’s a very scary place, and sometimes also filthy and disgusting.”

Each cave here has its story. At the edge of a big one, with a large bench-shaped rock by the opening, he would envision the 71 sages of the Sanhedrin sitting and discussing fateful questions concerning the Jewish people. Such as what to do about the Romans, or Shimon Bar Kochba.

Your parents allowed you to go in the caves?

“They didn’t know. We lived without parental supervision. My mother had so many kids to look after, it enabled me to disappear. It saved me.”

A few children who came into the park slowed down and stared at us. Apparently they’d never seen a man and woman sitting on a bench together.

“This is where my imagination ran wild,” says Elbaum. “This rock − when you’re a kid it looks like a mountain. In the winter, tons of cyclamens would bloom here. The pools would fill with water and the first frogs would appear. For me this was the Land of Israel, the land of the Bible.”

He was a daydreamer and far from being the teacher’s pet, he adds. “I was a good student, but I was wild. I was an energetic kid who was disruptive in class and bugged the teachers and other kids. I got beat up. I was a troublemaker.”

When Elbaum was 12, his parents sent him to yeshiva in the hopes that it would straighten him out.

At yeshiva, did you keep on dreaming about your biblical heroes?

“Not at all. The yeshiva expunged that world of feeling. It turned me into somebody focused on the Jewish religion, concerned only with strictures, guilt feelings and fasts. For half a year, through a whole winter and more, I kept quiet. I only continued talking if it was about Torah.”

Chilling novel

Elbaum recalled his abstention from talking in the chilling novel “Zman Elul,” which he published at age 26, and which was filled with mercilessly realistic descriptions of a pitiless reality. His view of that time appears to have softened over the years. If once he depicted the yeshiva as a tough, punitive place, now he says there were also beautiful times, too. As for his “vow of silence,” he says, “It gives you a lot. It’s really zen. The moment you’re not fully engaged, you develop new powers of observation.”

Still, despite the beauty of it, you left.

“Like every teenager, I grappled with questions of identity, sexuality. Just because a Haredi kid is wearing a suit and hat − he’s not immune from that. But that wasn’t the only thing. With me it wasn’t a matter of being a heretic, because I was always a believer. Basically, one day at age 17, when I was at the Hebron Yeshiva, it just hit me that this was all there was. And it wasn’t enough for me. Hebron constitutes the ‘peak’ of the Lithuanian study method. But it’s rubbish. I saw that they were going over the same thing all the time, not getting anywhere. I thought − ‘Is this what I’ll have to offer the world? Do I want to live in a closed world of Torah study?’

“You could say that I left in order to get to know the world and be in a dialogue with it. I knew what I was headed for. I was miserable, lonely, I had nothing. But I didn’t feel that I deserved a medal. I think my departure derived from a place of wanting freedom ... This is what I read in the Book of Exodus: ‘I shall be what I shall be.’ God can be everything.”

Some loud blasts in the distance suddenly interrupt the flow of memories and words. “The tremendous pull I feel for the Bible, to be so engaged − it’s really all about a yearning to return to this place,” says Elbaum as we’re about to leave the park. “The yearning for the innocence of the child before the Haredi yeshivas ruined it for me. What is the Bible? It’s the simple place, without mediation. If I’m going to be a Jew, I want to touch this place. Everything else seems to me destructive and distorting, as in the case of what happened in my life.”

Not taking sides

After years in which he denied the existence of God and yet sometimes cried out to him in the wadis like a Breslover, Elbaum is now busy building a more mature relationship with his Creator and religion. This doesn’t mean that he has resumed being religious. On the contrary: Elbaum insists that he has decided to adhere to a middle path, without embracing the standard definitions of religious or secular. Without taking sides.

“I’m comfortable living in both worlds,” he says. “A lot of people feel the same way these days. Look, 80 percent of the [Israeli] Jewish public believes in God [according to recent survey in Haaretz]. These are people whose connection with Jewish culture is a voluntary one. And the problem is that this culture has no language of its own. It’s still thought of as something that’s not serious enough to have words devoted to it, to have a philosophy and theology created for it. I am currently working on building this cultural language.

“I think that besides the trends toward primitivism in Israeli society, that you can see in the Knesset and on television, there are also other trends. Last summer a half-million people shouted, ‘The nation demands social justice.’ This is a vision of the Jewish prophets. I don’t think it’s a trivial thing that there are so many secular study centers for Jewish culture. This trend is gaining momentum thanks to the fact that there is total diplomatic stagnation. The peace discourse has stopped. The void is being filled by a discourse over identity. The interest in Jewish culture is a positive thing. One day I’ll sit down and learn Gemara.”

But you left Haredi society and opened up to the world. You weren’t interested in getting to know other cultures?

“I have a deep interest in Buddhism and the philosophies of the Far East. And I also see myself as a child of Western culture, in terms of literature, music and so on. But I don’t think that you can live a full existence here without living in intimacy with your own culture. And Jewish culture is our culture, and it’s the reason you live in Israel. Things can’t work solely on the basis of intellect. If you want to create continuity, it has to be expressed in other ways, too. On the Hebrew calendar, in your Shabbat. In many more things.

“This is the conclusion I reached at Bina: that you can’t live with Jewish culture in terms of the intellectual dimension alone. It doesn’t last. What’s required is inclusion of the full essence of a human being − the intellect, emotions, sexuality, everything. It requires a deep and rich background, if we want our children to continue living here, with all the complexity of it, with the danger that’s always hovering. To create this deep dimension, we’re working now on the creation of a secular halakha. A guide that will offer a suggestion for the Shabbat of the secular Jew, who maintains a deep connection with his culture.

“The halakhic Jew conducts Shabbat observance according to all the relevant sections of the Shulhan Arukh [code of Jewish law]. Haredim observe Shabbat on a level of fear. We are trying to develop a Shabbat that goes back to the basic biblical conception. To me, Shabbat is like a time capsule that is supposed to give you freedom. In which you are supposed to free yourself from hierarchical relations. The way I see it, on Shabbat you don’t engage in what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing, but rather in a way that reflects how you wish to celebrate your freedom and liberty, in the deepest sense.”

Elbaum still retains the mannerisms of the yeshiva student he once was. When he gets worked up, his hands make the typical emphatic gestures of that world. “Most secular people don’t know what to do with their Shabbat. They turn the day into a spare day − for working in the garden, fixing up the house.”

It bothers me that you still seem to have this Haredi attitude toward the secular − that they’re only interested in going to the beach on Shabbat. That’s a one-dimensional and even insulting description.

“I know I’m presenting an extreme view here. The general idea, though, is that secular Israeli culture has failed to fill itself with meaningful content. At its core, secularism is about emptying the world of holiness. But as soon as you empty out your culture, if you don’t fill it with other content, you have a problem.

“Israeli culture these days is characterized by what it doesn’t have. As soon as the pioneering element was gone, the culture of sacrifice disappeared. It’s a culture that’s lacking something. You can live European culture in a very profound way. But I think that it can’t be only this: You still come from a people with a glorious culture. This place can be intolerable when you don’t know what you’re doing here. You have to build yourself a place where your mythological figures once roamed these same rocks. Only then do you feel at home.

“I’m a secular person who believes in God. I believe that a person has to live a secular life and not only a holy life. I’m a big believer in secular society. I’m grateful every day to be a part of it. Because only there does the path of choice lie. It’s what enabled me to find my way back to Jewish culture. I couldn’t have chosen this from within Haredi society. Now I’m trying to redeem it from all kinds of repression that is harmful to it.”

So this is the Zionism that Elbaum has adopted after growing up in anti-Zionist society. He says he identifies with the pioneers of the Second Aliyah: A. D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, even David Ben-Gurion: “I believe this is the purpose of this ingathering of the nations − for the Jew to rebuild his culture anew.”

‘Believing person’

In recent years, many of Dov Elbaum’s best friends have been people who are kibbutz members or were in the past. Many work with him at Bina − like Ari Elon ‏(a lecturer in Judaic studies and the son of former Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon‏); Muki Tzur ‏(a scholar of the kibbutz movement‏); and Assaf Inbari ‏(a literary scholar, whose book “Habayta,” about Kibbutz Afikim, was edited by Elbaum‏). “The two societies, Haredi and kibbutz, are ideological and ethical societies at root, and this is the basis of our understanding,” he says. Eran Baruch, Bina’s executive director ‏(and another former kibbutznik‏), adds that Elbaum found a home at the secular yeshiva. Baruch calls Elbaum a “talmid hakham” ‏(a true Torah scholar‏), saying, “He could be in some sort of elite place. Someone so talented and well-known as he is − it would be no problem for him to earn plenty of money. He doesn’t need to run the yeshiva, but this is his moral choice: to be an intellectual and to lead.”

Elbaum also has a deep connection with leading kabbalist Rabbi David Basri. For the last 15 years, they’ve been studying together once a week. Elbaum is widely credited with having built up Basri’s image as a top kabbalist; he wrote about the rabbi in Yedioth Ahronoth. Basri also presided at Elbaum’s second wedding.

“I enjoy [my sessions with him] tremendously and I zealously keep it up,” says Elbaum. “It keeps me in the conversation. I love learning Torah. I guess I’m still a real yeshiva bocher after all.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Basri, the kabbalist’s son, calls Elbaum “a good soul,” and says that at the lessons his father has with him, Elbaum displays “a quick grasp and ability to master an issue, to understand all of its aspects, to get at the hidden meaning.”

The younger Rabbi Basri isn’t the least bit concerned with the question of whether Elbaum is secular or religious. Nor is he familiar with Elbaum’s proposal for a Jewish secularism: “I haven’t really had the opportunity to discuss matters of religion with him. We’re not out to persuade anyone. That’s not our job. I think I wouldn’t define him as a secular person, but rather as a believing person. I’ve heard he teaches Torah. I think that is his mission. I think that Dov’s job is not to change. His job is to be Dov Elbaum. He is directed by Heaven.”

Though his ties with Haredim have grown stronger over the years, Elbaum’s attitude toward their society as a whole remains ambivalent. “There are many things that I love,” he notes. “For example, this is a society that sanctifies charity, acts of kindness and helping others. And its attitude is that the goal in life is not to acquire as much as possible and have fun − like the prevailing attitude among the secular public. But on the other hand, ultra-Orthodox life has also become like a cult, with all the characteristics of a cult. It uses all the resources of its members, and works by extinguishing independent thought.” Elbaum believes the change has to be encouraged from the inside, and that Haredim need to be offered support networks.

Although he is very attached to Jerusalem, he and his wife Carmit ‏(whose father is former Shin Bet official Rafi Malka‏) live today with their four daughters in the community of Tzur Yigal, next to Kochav Ya’ir. Carmit grew up in a secular family and does not share his religious ponderings or lifestyle. Still, “it slowly and gradually trickles in, because she lives with me,” he says. “I try to have a family-oriented Shabbat, or to be out in nature, not amid a crowd and noise, and I refrain from any type of work activity. At the Shabbat meal we recite the kiddush, sing Shabbat songs and discuss the weekly Torah portion a little. We light candles. Without any pressure.”

Noam, his 12-year-old daughter, is currently studying the Torah portion for her bat mitzvah in the framework of a mother-daughter workshop.

“I don’t feel that she absolutely must be called up to the Torah,” he explains. “I don’t want to force it on her. But we decided that the workshop is not a matter of choice, because ignorance of the Jewish element is not an option as far as I’m concerned. Otherwise, I’ll have no one to talk to. My girls won’t be able to understand my books.”

He does not go to synagogue because “I don’t like the regimentation. I’m a religious anarchist. My Judaism is totally anarchistic, and the Hasidic figures I admire are also anarchistic. The forefathers whom I would have liked to hang out with were also revolutionaries.”

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was also an anarchist who rebelled against existing frameworks, which is why Elbaum feels such a strong attachment to him and his writings. Of course, he also identifies with the tormented, ever-searching soul that Rabbi Nachman personified.

On a recent Tuesday evening, at the Bina Center in the Ramat Efal Seminary, Elbaum spoke about Rabbi Nachman, Martin Buber and the Ba’al Shem Tov. A lesson on Hasidic kabbala − two hours without intermission. Those in attendance – people in midlife and older, many of them lawyers and physicians – have been studying with Elbaum for years and listen keenly to the dialogue he conducts with himself. As a lecturer he is interesting, but not especially charismatic. There is no hint of celebrity about him as he enters and exits the class.

“’A Walk Through the Void’ was created there,” he says after the class. “I work with these people like in a workshop.We’re constantly developing ideas together. I test things with them and learn new things. I don’t take whatever I learn from the greats of kabbala or Hasidism as divine truth. I don’t think that God was revealed to these people and delivered truths to them. Not to the Ba’al Shem Tov or Rabbi Nachman. I admire them as creators. And what I’m doing is trying to see if their creations correspond with my life. For me, it’s a runway from which to take off, an inspiration for my own thinking. It helps me to gain elevation, to think about life.

“Lately I’ve been asking myself, for instance – and this comes up in class – how much a person can change, and will I have another round of change in my life. I have a yearning for change. To me, change really underscores the power of life. Stability makes me nervous. I wonder in which prison I’m in now, in which illusion. It’s not easy for the people who live with me. I’m never relaxed.”

The past year was particularly difficult for Elbaum, and marked by a creative block as well. “I couldn’t write, or even read,” he reveals. “I also quit smoking and I was suffering the effects of nicotine withdrawal. During this year I felt like I was an unwell person who needed to heal. I used to smoke three packs a day. But after my mother’s death, I realized that I didn’t want to leave my daughters as orphans, and start my journey into the World to Come.”

Elbaum is completely weaned off smoking now: “In the journal of mourning that Roland Barthes wrote after his mother’s death, he says that from that moment when a person’s parent dies, his days become numbered. Time stops being endless. You go into shock, because you really get it now that this whole life is only something like 80 years or so. Suddenly you think about how most of life is made up of sleep, worries, anxiety about making a living, doctor visits, dealing with the body. How much is really left? Gornisht [nothing]. It’s depressing.

“I’m trying to preserve this feeling, and not to fall into a dulling of the senses, to repression and obfuscation. Because otherwise a person can fall asleep standing up and see that it’s too late. This is also part of the grieving process. You grieve for yourself. For your life. You suddenly understand in the most concrete and powerful way that life is limited and dwindling.”

Are you depressed?

“Overall, I’m not depressed. I’m satisfied with the path I’ve taken. I’m trying to just roll along with life less than before, to be more directed, to know more precisely what it is that I want.”

One thing is certain, for Elbaum: the clear knowledge that he will write about his mother. He appears to have been able to create that longed-for bridge back to his family, he says. And today he is able to forgive his father, to understand “that when you come to him with this kind of news, you’re basically killing your father with your own hands. I think it was quite noble of him that he never chased me out. Even though it might have been harder for him than it was for me.

“Today I have respect from my family. Not that they agree with my way. But their stereotypes have been shattered, too. For them, secular people were always folks who spent all day chasing after sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. That’s what Yated Ne’eman reports. For them, not only have I turned out not to be a drug addict, skirt-chaser or thief, but the opposite in fact − I’m a person with values, someone whose ideas people want to hear. The fact that the rosh yeshiva ‏(head of a yeshiva‏) is my study partner and he is someone everyone recognizes as an important man has also helped their image of me. They see that I’m not just a punk. Although they still harbor the hope that one day I’ll return to their world.”

Winged agent of change

“The Eagle’s Island,” the first in a series of books featuring the eagle Yanuka as protagonist, tells of a gathering of eagles who are supposed to crown a king that has the most ancient memory. The inspiration for the tale is Rabbi Nachman’s story “A Tale of Seven Beggars.” The text works on a number of levels. Its natural audience is young readers, but their parents are liable to see it as an allegory about a spiritual journey. And it also relates to the author’s childhood: “My father, who was close to the Breslovers, read me this tale of Rabbi Nachman’s when I was a child. And when I read it to my daughters, they asked questions that I’d never thought about. This was what impelled me to write it anew.

“The correspondence with a favorite figure of mine from Jewish culture thrills me,” Elbaum continues. “Why an eagle? An eagle is the only bird that has one cycle of change in its life, which it must go through. There is a time when it must shed all of its feathers, pull out its claws − and, worst of all, it has to keep smashing its beak until it comes off and a new beak can grow. If it doesn’t do this, it dies. Because then its claws won’t be strong enough. So. for Rabbi Nachman, the eagle is the biggest agent of change. It’s the ideal changer.”