From rural America to Israel: An Orthodox Jew's unorthodox life

The multicolored threads of Joseph’s life combine to portray a creative imagination and a remarkable optimism in the potential of the good in humanity.

 Joseph Cox, from Portland, Oregon, to Modi'in, 2014 (photo credit: Ingrid Mueller)
Joseph Cox, from Portland, Oregon, to Modi'in, 2014
(photo credit: Ingrid Mueller)

For an observant Jew, Joseph Cox had a rather unorthodox upbringing.

He was born in rural Oregon in 1976, and before that, Joseph’s family lived in rural Idaho. Theirs was a plot of land located at the bottom of the Salmon River Canyon, 10 hours from the nearest town. Until they built their own hydroelectric dam, they had no electricity or running water. At that time, despite their distance from civilization, his parents were both completing their PhD dissertations from Columbia University

Joseph’s intellectual life is part of his inheritance handed down by his parents. 

Becoming a Torah-observant Jew in a pre-modern wilderness

Their approach to Judaism was unique in the true sense of the word. How does one become Torah-observant in a pre-modern wilderness? Joseph attributes his parents’ embrace of Judaism and survival to the necessity of counting time and to the acquisition of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law.

They read the parasha, the weekly portion, from an English Bible so they could clearly mark every seventh day, and they studied the daily practice of Jewish law from the Shulchan Aruch to understand how to live safely in a pre-technological world.

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

This led to an understanding of the law as written and the law as practiced, without any of the thousands of years of Mishna, Talmud, and other Rabbinic discussion.

They began with a focus on the practical rather than the spiritual laws. “Basically, all the stuff Torah-observant Jews ignore today,” says Joseph. 

Their isolation led to some personalized rituals. Before Yom Kippur, for example, unaware that it was no longer a custom, they sent away their goat, a scapegoat for sins, to Azazel, in fulfillment of the service of the day as written in Leviticus 16. Their goat always returned home. 

The family left Idaho and moved to rural Oregon immediately after the tragic death of his brother Jeremiah at the age of seven. Joseph was born a year later, but that loss continues to haunt him to this day. 

When his parents hosted a book-warming party for Jean Auel, author of The Clan of the Cave Bear series, Joseph, aged three-and-a-half, was asked to tell a story to the guests. It was because of that story that he decided to become a writer. 

Their new home in Oregon became Camp Cox to the myriad guests who visited for their hillbilly-Orthodox Shabbat. Many stayed on well beyond the Sabbath meals. These included young men and women who were struggling with drug addiction. Although their presence taught Joseph never to indulge in drugs, he nevertheless acquired some useful advice, “If you’re tripping and the person you’re tripping with sees the same thing as you – you ain’t tripping.” 

And when the border control asks if you are carrying illegal drugs, do not answer, “Whaddya’ need?” 

JOSEPH IS the author of 12 books ranging in subjects from Torah-based fiction, to thrillers, to an alternative history of the Syrian Civil War. He describes his experiences and ongoing explorations in his latest book, A Multi Colored Coat (an autobiography of sorts), a mixture of love, philosophy, adventure, and random “serendipitous encounters.”

His genealogy begins generations ago with his ancestors Rashi, the rulers of Troyes, France, and Fulk, King of Jerusalem. He wonders, “Am I a European Jew, an American Indian, a Swede, an Englishman, a Crusader, a Cossack, or a hillbilly?”

He concludes, “I don’t place too much stock in my identity. It is the stories that matter. It is the stories we carry forward and the stories we create that define our past and create expectations for our futures.” 

Playing a small part in bringing Peruvian purple potato chips you now buy in the supermarket to global markets; barely escaping his burning car when it blew up; being homeless for a while; finding pleasure in talking to random strangers, such as a terrorist in training, or an ardently secular, Israeli cognitive anthropologist; navigating faith, love, marriage; raising children and community, are all part of his exuberant storytelling.

TODAY, JOSEPH lives in Modi’in with his wife Rebecca and their children. They made aliyah in 2014 from Portland, Oregon. Before making aliyah, they often hosted many guests, including Israelis, in their home, and developed a strong support network that made their aliyah experience easier. Upon arrival, they were given an exceptional welcome.

“As with so many of our biggest decisions, my wife was the main one who determined it was the right thing to do,” says Joseph. “I wasn’t certain, but she was 100% correct. We have blossomed here in ways that would have been hard for my pre-2014 self to fathom. Our mutual decision was driven by culture,” says Joseph. 

“The US seemed to be entering a state of dramatic cultural decline. On the contrary, Israel, with all its problems, was generally moving in a more positive direction. The very fact that Israelis of all stripes have children shows they are investing in a world beyond themselves and their own time. This was the environment – an environment of fundamental fulfillment despite imperfections, that we wanted to raise our children in.” 

Joseph writes weekly interpretations of the parasha, the weekly Torah portion, called The Torah Shorts. But do not expect the format you are used to reading. His interpretations range from adventures in pre-Columbian Peru, to life in a primitive village, to interactions with musicians, addicts, and internet hackers. And somehow, each dvar Torah magically relates to the weekly parasha. His commentaries reflect a life of original thought.

DISCUSSING EDUCATION, Joseph relates that he and his three siblings were homeschooled. When they were young, they secretly read magazines like The Economist, Forbes, and Aviation Week, instead of doing the homework their parents assigned. He only understood years later that, in fact, that was what his parents were hoping for. 

“My parents valued academic and social independence. But these aren’t unmitigated goods. Being able to work and interact with others, and thus surrendering some degree of both truth and freedom, empowers us.

“The biggest problem today is the belief that there is one right way to educate, whether for religious or scientific reasons. For me, fostering competition (and cross-pollination) between approaches, ideas, and ideals is the best way to improve our world.” 

In Israel, he appreciates the educational options available to their children. They have six children in six different schools. This variety has allowed each child to grow in their own individual ways, with a sense of independence and freedom.

His undergraduate degree is in intellectual history. “The goal of intellectual history,” he explains, “is to understand how ways of thinking have developed and changed over time. You learn to step outside your own reality, preconceptions, and biases. My studies in this area have not only made me a more flexible thinker, they have also enabled me to be a more empathetic writer. I can move across time, culture or identity.”

He writes, “We aren’t simply members of a group, and if we think that way, we lose so much goodness and richness and reality. We are created in the image of God. No matter who we are, our potential knows no limits.”

The multicolored threads of Joseph’s life combine to portray a creative imagination and a remarkable optimism in the potential of the good in humanity.■

Joseph Cox From Portland, Oregon  to Modi’in, 2014