An Orthodox Jew Reviews Andrew Klavan’s 'The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ'

Andrew Klavan’s latest work is a major departure from his usual sort of fare, novels which might generally be classified as thrillers. The book loosely tells the story of his life thus far, with a particular focus on his religious conversion from atheism to Christianity.

Despite Klavan’s Jewish ethnicity, it should be noted that I did not say “his conversion from Judaism.” The reason why goes some way toward detailing my sadness when reading about the joy he claims to feel in his new faith.

Klavan is a serious writer, and it shows; the book is not badly written, and I will assume that it is accurate in its description of his early life. He describes an upbringing which was not atypical of 1960s suburbia (slightly older than Klavan, I remember it very well myself), but which incorporated a set of family dynamics which can only be considered abusive.

Klavan himself describes his father as “neurotic,” a word which crops up several times in the book. Like many Americans of Jewish ancestry whose formative years were mid-century America, with the Depression and the war years, Klavan’s parents were driven by a combination of the need to make a living and the genteel anti-Semitism then still fashionable to drop any serious attempt to live observant, meaningfully Jewish lives in pursuit of acceptance and affluence. It was a pursuit in which they were noticeably successful; Great Neck, NY, where Klavan grew up, is not an inexpensive place to live.

In Great Neck, the family went through the motions. They belonged to a Conservative temple; they observed in some fashion most of the major Jewish holidays; but something was crucially missing. Klavan himself says that his mother was a stone-cold atheist, whose mother before her had probably also been an atheist. She went through those motions under quiet protest, as a gesture to her husband. Indeed, he describes her as a borderline anti-Semite in her disdain for anything Jewish. As a girl, she frequently played hooky from school to immerse herself vicariously in the imaginary life of the WASPish “upper crust” portrayed in so many movies of the day. The daughter of a not very successful lawyer, this was the life she aspired to for herself and her family.

His father was very different, an intensely competitive man in an intensely competitive business, commercial radio, where for some 25 years he hosted one of the most popular morning radio programs in New York. Much of his radio routine was comedic, employing characters and dialects picked up from his experience over the years, some of which made Mrs. Klavan cringe. The competitive struggle left its scars: himself a college drop-out, Mr. Klavan, Sr. was at best ambivalent about education; left somewhat paranoid by having lived through the era of the Holocaust and confronted many of its refugees and survivors, he imagined Nazis behind every wall and around every corner. As a consequence, he seems to have imagined Jewishness in largely negative terms, standing against the rest of the world, rather than for anything in particular.

Worse, he was unable to channel his competitiveness to deal only with his profession; his sons, and in particular Andrew, were also the targets of his aggression. As Klavan tells it, his father could not stand to see him succeed at anything in which his father had not excelled. The result was a child imbued with far more resentment and anger than the usual rebellious teenager, and the times – the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s, fraught with radical political upheaval, the so-called “sexual revolution” and the “counter-culture” — provided vehicles for expressing it all.

The only warmth and stability in Klavan’s young life had come from external sources, in particular their Jugoslavian, non-Jewish housekeeper named Mina.

One year, Klavan staged a protest on the occasion of Chanukah. His father’s non-Jewish radio partner used to send some presents to the Klavan boys in addition to whatever presents they got from their parents. Andrew overheard his mother talking to the man’s wife, asking that they stop the practice, saying that it was “too much” for them. Whether as a consolation prize or just to get rid of an annoying kid for a night, she arranged for Andrew to spend, of all nights, Christmas Eve with Mina’s family.

By his account, he was warmly accepted into her family circle, pressed into service in decorating the house, mixing cookie dough, and so forth. All activities in which he joined with gusto and remembered with such nostalgia that, many years later, when he walked through the Christ-Kindl-Markt in Munich, the smells of the baked goods, reminiscent of those cookies, made him think of “home.” Contrasted with the civil war in which he was engaged in his actual home, it is not hard to see how Klavan began to develop a positive picture of Christianity.

Another part fell into place with his developing interest in western literature, born of his imagination and ambition to be a writer. Klavan came to recognize the Bible as one of the foundational books (he calls it the foundational book) of western civilization. The entirely secular orientation of Klavan’s education should be noted. He attended an after-school “Hebrew school” for a while, but by his own admission learned nothing and tried to learn nothing, dropping it entirely after enduring the extravagant coming-out bacchanalia which the secular Jewish world calls a “bar mitzvah,” and which has little resemblance to the occasion of a young man’s thirteenth birthday in an observant household. Klavan himself was ashamed of the whole proceeding, so much so that, he says, one night he took all the gifts he had received for the occasion, put them into a box, and buried them in the family’s garbage can.

When Klavan speaks of reading the Bible, it is instructive that it seems only to have been the New Testament. Similarly, though he claims to have examined “other religions,” the only ones he specifically mentions are Freudianism (surely an atheistic religion, not a branch of science) and Buddhism. Conspicuous by its absence, clearly, is any serious attempt to examine his actual heritage, to look at Judaism.

Why is not hard to understand: He thought that the negative, empty rituals observed by parents who believed in nothing were that heritage, and here is where my sadness becomes deepest: for in the neglect, though he eventually came to recognize the ultimate dead-end atheism actually is, he was driven to seek G-d in a foreign place.

To be sure, for Klavan the place wasn’t all that foreign, His entire education, upbringing, and outlook were those of a secular, twentieth-century American. He was immersed in the foreign culture and civilization of the west, and thought only in terms of its categories. As he shrank from the abyss, recognizing through the writings of Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade what sort of monstrosity atheism taken to its ultimate core becomes, the only serious alternative he had to fall back on was, of course, Christianity.

Klavan writes of five epiphanies which he experienced on his way to faith, and what is striking about them is that no one of them is in any way uniquely Christian. There is the “truth of suffering,” which he chooses to connect to “the cross,” but which certainly has many poignant echoes in the Jewish tradition; the “wisdom of joy,” which is at the heart of true worship in any tradition; the “reality of love” with which the Torah is shot through, if one only deigns to look; the “possibility of clear perception,” which is again a major premise of the Torah life and lifestyle; and then the “laughter at the heart of mourning,” which seems to be the conviction that G-d has a sense of humor, again something which is shown repeatedly in the Hebrew scriptures and the Talmud.

What is, perhaps, somewhat surprising is that Klavan’s story doesn’t find repetition many times over, given the number of people of Jewish ethnicity who have been raised with equally scant knowledge of their actual heritage. The only reason I can think of is the almost militant secularism of general American popular culture over the past half-century or so, coupled with one more thing: The surprising revival, against all odds, of traditional, Orthodox Jewish observance. As I reported last year, the only segment of the American Jewish population which is growing is the Orthodox one, and fully 30% of self-described Orthodox Jews were not raised that way, and became observant later in life.

It is truly tragic that a man with Klavan’s gifts will not be among them, and that his progeny will be lost to the Torah-nation.