Books: Epiphany on the beach

A Jewish psychologist undergoes a lifetime of changes, in a journey from New York to California to the Golan Heights.

Beach at sunset (illustrative) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Beach at sunset (illustrative)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hippies, flower children, anti- war protests, communes, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The tumultuous anti-establishment 1960s would forever alter American society, as long-accepted boundaries gave way to free love, neutral values and political correctness.
Steve Sherr, the product of a typical assimilated Jewish family in the Bronx, spent most of that pivotal decade preparing for a career as a psychologist in the counseling center of San Diego State University. As the ’70s rolled in, he found himself floundering personally and professionally in a tide of moral relativism and fuzzy expectations. He had no compass to help steer his patients or himself to safe waters.
“We were the ‘experts,’ but unfortunately our profession was in such a state of flux that it more than matched the turmoil that these people were experiencing in their own lives,” he wrote in No Stories to Tell: The Psychologist Meets Infinity.
“We were more like a restaurant than a science. There was nothing in our profession that was sacred or unchangeable,” he continued. “One minute something would be considered pathological, and the next minute it would simply be someone’s choice of lifestyle.... Situations became extremely difficult to evaluate and it was hard to tell where to draw the line.”
The title of this thought-provoking and often funny autobiographical account comes from Sherr’s realization that he had no stories that could offer meaningful guidance to his children on how to make their way in a confusing world.
Like many Jews before and after him, Sherr sought answers in a variety of structured approaches, including energy workshops, the Self-Realization Fellowship, Aikido and Sufism. Nothing fit quite right, but Judaism wasn’t on his radar.
And then, at the nadir of his existential crisis, he had an epiphany on the beach. Suddenly, unexpectedly, God entered the picture and Sherr saw himself in a new light as the purposeful creation of a Creator.
It would be a long, winding voyage from that mystical moment to embracing the Jewish practices he’d disdained as “hypocritical and empty” as a preteen and, much later, to his retirement in the Golan Heights (an experience he likens to a lion released back into its natural habitat).
Despite the heaviness of his topic, Sherr is never preachy. His prose is infused with intelligent, self-deprecating wit and keen observational comedy. For example, he notes of his unsuccessful tryout for the high-school basketball team: “Slow, white, and short, I was the kind of kid that announcers liked to refer to as an ‘intelligent’ player, meaning that I had all of the necessary physical tools to become an owner.”
There’s a wonderful description of a short-order cook in the Missouri diner where he and his fellow graduate psychology students would gather at night for scrambled eggs and chemically enhanced discussions about – what else? – personal growth and self-actualization.
“We all wanted to self-actualize, but we weren’t exactly sure how to do it, or what it actually looked like.... Yet apparently, here it was, seemingly embodied in the most unlikely form of someone slinging hash down at the Minute Inn. We were pretty sure that we were looking at someone who had self-actualized, someone whose level of mastery had transcended the art itself.... He wasn’t a teacher or a consultant, and he wasn’t peddling his wisdom in seminars or workshops. He was... at one with the eggs, at one with the hash browns, and at one with the universe, standing calmly at the center of the cyclone, doing his thing.”
It would take many decades, but Sherr persisted in finding the right recipe to reach the level of that short-order cook, only kosher-style.
I would have liked more details about how his wife came to be on the same spiritual page. Sherr writes that telling her about his beach epiphany had a “deep and damaging” effect on their marriage. Yet they stayed together and, some years later, moved from their California dream house to an Orthodox community in La Jolla and finally to a national-religious community in the north of Israel.
Even less is said about his children’s adjustment to the seismic religious changes in the family. We get the sense that, in time, they got on board with their parents’ program; we’re even told that his son spent time at Aish HaTorah. I suppose Sherr meant to protect the privacy of his daughter and son, but the reader can’t help being curious.
No Stories to Tell resonated with me on many levels. There are cultural references the author and I share from our origins several years and a few miles apart: pink Spaldeens, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, the elevated No. 1 subway stop at Van Cortlandt Park. There are the strong Zionist stirrings that led to aliya after our kids were grown.
But one need not be familiar with Purple Haze-era New York or California to feel moved and inspired by the stories that Sherr has, through decades of effort, succeeded in gathering and telling. ■