Episcopalian, By Way of Yiddish

Autobiography

By Peter Manseau

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Confessions of a Jewish Priest: From Secular Jewish War Refugee to Physicist and Episcopal Clergyman

By Gabriel Weinreich

Pilgrim Press, 177 pages, $25.

* * *

‘Yiddish has magic,” the linguist Max Weinreich once said. “It will outwit history.” But history, it turns out, also has a few tricks up its sleeve. For evidence, look no further than the recent memoir by Weinreich’s youngest son, Gabriel. “Confessions of a Jewish Priest” (Pilgrim Press) tells the strange but true tale of how a boy raised at the center of secular Jewish life in Europe came to be a Christian and a clergyman half a world away.

Leave it to history to take the scion of a family of renowned Yiddishists and turn him into an Episcopalian.

Gabriel Weinreich’s story opens in interwar Vilna, where 7-year-old Gabi lived with his parents and brother in a community that was both thoroughly Jewish and aggressively irreligious. “There was never any doubt in my mind about [being a Jew],” he writes, “but neither was there any doubt that being Jewish has nothing to do with religion.”

What being Jewish did have to do with, for the family Weinreich, was endless scholarly pursuit. When Gabi was born, his father was a well-known professor and revered figure among Vilna Jews. Decades before the 1973 publication of his magnum opus, the 1,000-page “History of the Yiddish Language, Max had already secured himself a place in history as the founder of the Jewish Social Sciences Institute, YIVO, which to this day serves as the preeminent archive of Eastern European Jewish life. Gabi’s older brother, Uriel, followed in these impressive footsteps, becoming a linguist in his own right and, until his premature death, his father’s hope for the future of Yiddish in America. The rest of the Weinreich clan was no less accomplished: Gabi’s mother, Regina, held a Ph.D. in botany; he himself earned a doctorate in physics.

This accumulation of achievement is all the more remarkable considering the circumstances in which it began. The bookish peace of the Weinreich’s Vilna home was interrupted first by the hardships Jews faced on an almost daily basis, and then by the greater violence of — again that old trickster — history.

Incidents of brutality arise in Weinreich’s “Confessions” without a hint of dramatization. A gang of Polish workers trick young Gabi into chatting with them so that they might put a cigarette out on his calf. His father is beaten at the request of city officials. His mother is arrested without cause and threatened in a prison for political dissidents. All of this is mentioned casually, as if such anecdotes were so far from unique that Weinreich is reluctant to draw attention to them.

The turning point in this family saga occurred when Gabi was 11 years old. In what at first seemed very poor timing but later turned out to be fortuitous, the author’s father and brother left Vilna to attend the 1939 International Linguistics Congress in Brussels. One week after their departure, Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact. Within a month, Poland was partitioned and effectively ceased to exist. Max and Uriel became stateless persons, leaving Gabi and his mother in a city many already knew to be doomed.

Had all four Weinreichs been similarly stranded, that might have been the end of the story, and were that the case, much of what we take for granted as part of Jewish culture in America would never have come to be. YIVO would not have moved to New York; generations of students would not have met the language through Uriel’s seminal textbook “College Yiddish.” It’s arguable that the Yiddish revival of recent years would not have occurred at all.

But then — evidence perhaps of Yiddish magic? —Max was able to arrange passage out of Vilna for his wife and son. An around-the-world adventure followed, and eventually the Weinreichs were reunited in the United States.

Gabriel Weinreich has indeed lived an exciting life, but he does not seem too concerned with telling his story in an exciting way. Rather, he organizes his childhood memories in a form appropriate for a role he assumed more recently. He is a convert to, and a priest of, the Episcopal Church and, accordingly, his chapters are essentially a series of sermons — with titles such as “Anti-Semitism,” “Morality,” “Self-Discipline,” etc. — that use scenes from his family’s history more or less as parables. He tells his stories quite well, with a gift for well-remembered detail, but often his remembrances do not seem as important to him as the lessons he hopes they will impart.

It’s difficult to find fault with the desire to make

sense of one’s life, and the author’s experiences have posed more questions than most. Not only must he contend with the large-scale suffering he witnessed and narrowly escaped as a Vilna Jew, there are other, more intimate tragedies told here that also beg an explanation. Only late in the book, for example, after he has explained that his conversion began with the casual act of joining his second wife — a Christian — for a church service, do we learn of an event that seems far more transformative: that his first wife — his Jewish wife — committed suicide after 18 years of marriage.

All of which might make a psychologist’s reading of Gabriel Weinreich’s conversion to Christianity roughly the same as what a Yiddishist’s might be: S’iz shver tsu zayn a yid (“It’s hard to be a Jew”). Maybe being a Jew was just too hard, and maybe a new faith offered relief.

Yet Weinreich himself insists that conversion is not so simple. Having been raised without religion, he doesn’t believe he has converted from anything or that he has given up the tradition in which he was raised. With his conversion, he writes, “I was not abandoning anything except, perhaps, my atheism.”

He considers himself, in fact, both a Christian and a Jew. Not surprisingly for the son of such a distinguished family of linguists, he makes his strongest case in support of this claim with a statement about language. In his darkest moments as well as in his most joyful, he tells us, whenever he feels a desire to pray, he does so in Yiddish, and he knows his prayers will be understood.






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