The Divided Life of Adam Baruch

The columnist who abandoned his religious upbringing for the secular world became disillusioned with his new home. But he could never really go back.

Sunday, at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery. There was not a single ultra-Orthodox Jew among the thousands of mourners - not those who knew the deceased when he was a child in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, and not those who openly and secretly read his columns and books, which brimmed with halakhic discussions and polemics infused with an ultra-Orthodox worldview. Artists and journalists escorted Adam Baruch, along with pupils and neighbors. The ultra-Orthodox did not. Unless you count David Rotenberg, a member of the hevra kadisha (burial society), who conducted the service in accordance with the religion and dignity of the deceased, though he had barely heard of Baruch before then.

"I knew he was a writer. I did not know what subjects he wrote about," Rotenberg said. "Now, based on the eulogy, I see that there was a great deal of religious background here."

Adam Baruch wrote countless words about that "religious background," derived from his grandfather, Rabbi Wachtfogel, head of the Mea Shearim Yeshiva, and from Rabbi Yagel, head of the yeshiva in Pardes Hannah where Baruch attended high school. This background was reflected in the thousands of midrashim (rabbinical exegesis) and halakhic rulings that he quoted, interpreted and explained for many years in his column "Shishi" ("Friday"), and in the many books of halakha that he authored: Seder Yom (Daily Routine), B'tom Lev (In Good Faith) and Hayenu (Our Lives). But Baruch, who never dared to reveal his bare head, had more than a religious background - he had an internal religious divide.

"In recent years, he was filled with loathing for what was happening around us," said his friend, writer Haim Be'er. "When he was in yeshiva, like myself, like many of us, the secular world worked its powerful magic on him. He was drawn in by the enchanting strings of Israeliness, and he stretched them as far as he could, to [Yonatan] Ratosh and Atzag [Uri Zvi Greenberg] and Nathan Yellin-Mor, and then, at a certain point, he realized that ultra-Orthodoxy, of all things, could produce interesting fruit, and that the secular world could give birth to nothing. Even here, at his funeral, they only photographed the 'celebs.' And he was full of loathing for such things, for the rotten fruit of that tree, which he himself groomed and bore. In recent years, Adam became filled with dark despair, but it is not true that he lost his energy. He wrote his halakhic trilogy, and thought that his real audience could be found in yeshivas. That is the audience that longs for the same things that he did. But he couldn't engage in a 'belated homecoming' to that world - he couldn't go back."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who were familiar with his books and columns considered him to be a strange bird: a philosopher and avid defender of halakha on one hand, but planted in the secular elite, on the other; an advocate of halakha whose personal commitment to Jewish law was vague. Ultra-Orthodox readers are astounded by his vast knowledge, but from their vantage point, that was not necessarily a virtue. "Different," "peculiar," "lost," "searching for a path" - these are a few of the adjectives that were used to describe him this week.

But that is not how Rabbi Ovadia Yosef saw him. In August 2000, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party asked Baruch to save him from the storm invoked by his statement that Holocaust victims were "reincarnations of people who had sinned." The rabbi invited Baruch to interview him and provide him with a platform in which to clarify his words and apologize.

"You have the words and the letters. You speak for me," the rabbi told the journalist who so admired his rulings, and who wrote about them in his books and columns. In an article in Ma'ariv, Baruch wrote: "Who am I representing in this conversation? Who is 'the other' here?"

Ultra-Orthodox journalist Yossi Elituv was present at the interview. "What I saw in Adam was surrender. Usually, when a journalist sits down for an interview, he maintains his status. But he entered in complete subservience, as if he were taking advantage of the uproar that had occurred that week to finally meet the object of his admiration and sit with him for an hour and a half. When the rabbi told him, 'Explain me,' he answered, 'With pleasure, honored rabbi.' He constantly asked, 'What else should I say? What else should I explain? What do we tell them?' Adam completed every sentence that the rabbi began. The rabbi told him, 'What a wise pupil.'"

During that same period, Baruch released Seder Hayom, the first of three books in which he compiled halakhic rulings. But during the last 10 years, he also devoted time to Zikaron Baruch, an abandoned synagogue in the Noga neighborhood of Jaffa, where he lived. Baruch joined with workers and craftsmen in the neighborhood to restore the synagogue to life. "Zikaron Baruch was the thing most precious to him," Be'er said. "The name - Zikaron Baruch [which means both 'blessed memory' and 'memory of Baruch'] - was not a coincidence. He saw it as his own blessed memorial."

Zikaron Baruch was once a shtiebel, a small, homey congregation. It used to be affiliated with the Komarna Hasidic sect, which has now nearly disappeared. Baruch considered himself a messenger whose job was to write about the sect and its sages, and about this synagogue, in his columns and books.

"There was a feeling there that people had prayed inside [the synagogue] only yesterday. An aging synagogue, simple, warm, moving, elegant because of its simplicity, moving because of its existence," he wrote in the first chapter of B'tom Lev, which he devoted to the synagogue. "It was with great pleasure that I accepted the role of being one of the gabaim [managers of the synagogue] - to serve as an assistant in the renewal of the congregation. To that end, I studied Seder Gabaim [religious tractates pertaining to the position] and especially the gabai's obligations. The gabai's rewards exist in the world to come."