In Joshua Safran's Memoir, Jack Kerouac Meets Edgar Allan Poe

'Free Spirit' Tells of a Troubled Childhood On and Off the Road

The character of memoirist Joshua Safran’s mother seems to have jumped out of a Jack Kerouac novel.
Getty Images
The character of memoirist Joshua Safran’s mother seems to have jumped out of a Jack Kerouac novel.

By Raphael Magarik

Published November 19, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

For a time, that is. If the first half of the memoir is in the tradition of Mark Twain, the second half recalls, literarily speaking, Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic stories. Assigned to interview a victim of American foreign policy in Central America, Claudia discovers Leopoldo, who sells himself as both freedom fighter and hounded refugee from El Salvador. These are lies, but Leoopoldo is a skillful weaver of tales, and Claudia falls in love. She marries him to aid his push for asylum and American citizenship (which grows more pressing in the face of a DUI charge).

As Leopoldo’s hold over her strengthens, he blossoms into a full-blown mon-ster. He drinks, he beats Claudia, he steals and crashes cars, and he verbally harasses and dominates Josh. This is not to mention his homophobia, misogyny and other degeneracy. Leopoldo’s paranoid jealousy precludes Claudia not only from finishing an academic degree but also from working outside the house. The trio’s poverty forces them into a harebrained scheme to build a new house and life together on a friend’s forest land, but this plan quickly collapses. Though Josh and Claudia are malnourished and poorly sheltered throughout the book, only under Leopoldo does this poverty feel like dungeon deprivation.

The book’s depiction of the strange mix of gullibility, radical guilt and fascination that draw Claudia to Leopoldo, and his sadism and domination of her, achieve a ferocious intensity. The mood infects Josh’s return to public school. Bus stop and locker bullies seem less like teenage tormentors than like Leopoldo’s minor demons.

But this background also overshadows the book’s third major plot, Josh’s maturation. His academic success, rediscovery of Judaism, and study in Israel are reported hurriedly, in the wake of Leopoldo’s sudden defeat and departure. Watching his mother being abused leads Josh conveniently to legal work defending survivors of domestic violence; this is admirable, but overly pat. Though Safran shares childhood traumas, they have all been, it seems, resolved. The book’s final pages function mainly to reassure the reader of its author’s happiness. This is too reassuring, and it explains the book’s one stylistic defect: Though Safran is funny, engaging and a great storyteller, he exhibits very little doubt about the past. There is no reckoning with the limits of either memory or perspective. The narrator is utterly insulated from the doubts and craze of his childhood.

Nonetheless, “Free Spirit” is entertaining and moving. John Updike said he felt moved to write “Rabbit, Run,” his harrowing novel of a delinquent husband who leaves a wife and two-year-old, by his annoyance at the romanticized irresponsibility of “On the Road.” Safran’s memoir contains a similar deflationary conservatism, a sense of the horrors alongside American roadways. His Orthodox Judaism, like Updike’s rigid and illiberal Christianity, imposes an order and tradition on an America dangerously diffuse and unaccountable.

But Safran marries those chaotic evils to an older, more naïve American ecstasy. In this, he typifies the post-1960s “baal teshuva” movement of newly Orthodox, who consciously rejected the counterculture’s libertinism and radical politics but also institutionalized its anti-materialistic spirituality and drive for authenticity. Safran seems more aware of this paradox than most. As a result, his memoir clarifies the mixed aftermaths of that latest and most dislocating of America’s religious revivals which we call the ’60s.

Raphael Magarik is a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, working on English and rabbinic literature.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.