No Stories to Tell: The Psychologist Meets Infinity by Steve Sherr (Miklat Press 2016)
Reviewed by Deborah L. Gordon
Steve Sherr calls his new memoir, No Stories to Tell, a “modern-day spiritual adventure story.” With vivid detail, insight, and self-deprecating humor, Sherr describes growing up as a typical, assimilated Jew in New York in the ’50s and ’60s, his education and career in psychology, and his journey to an observant Jewish lifestyle.
In his early years, Sherr’s greatest joy came from playing basketball and guitar. What is most evident – and what he does a fine job getting across in his conversational tone – is his increasing disillusionment with life. In his reflections about college, Sherr shares a flippant remark made by his abnormal psychology professor, which resonated deeply with him, “‘[L]ife is essentially a race between physical and mental illness.’ If one didn’t get you, the other would.”
Part of Sherr’s lack of inspiration included his negative feelings toward Judaism. While he had Jewish friends and felt most comfortable with them, he associated the rituals and practices of Judaism with “embarrassing displays of excess, and a fairly meaningless tradition. It had little to do with modern life, and was certainly not worth living or dying for.” Steve’s wife Marianne had an equally uninspiring experience of Judaism as a child; however Sherr writes that their feelings about their Jewish identities “ran surprisingly deep” and it wasn’t easy to walk away from the tradition.
As the memoir proceeds, Sherr traces both his personal and professional frustration. The couple eventually moves for Sherr’s job as a university counselor at San Diego State University (where he ended up spending his entire professional career). Like everything that Sherr encounters, however, he is looking for purpose. That search was underscored given the tumultuous time period of the late ’60s. “We wanted everything to be as meaningful as possible…That’s why a lot of disenchanted people were dropping out, in search of alternative lifestyles that would be more personally fulfilling, and better suited to themselves as individuals.”
Although Sherr never truly “drops out,” he sure comes close. Steve and Marianne settle into their new community, but suburban life is hard to get used to after the spontaneity and openness of graduate school. Sherr struggles to find a community, to parent, and, professionally, feels “that [he] had nothing to offer anyone,” which made life itself, as well as counselling, feel like futile endeavors.
Just when the pointlessness reached its apex, Sherr had a spiritual awakening, described with raw honesty in the chapter, “Sandpiper.” Until this point, Sherr’s discontent led him to consider all sorts of other options – including various psychological approaches, the ’60s movement, martial arts, Eastern thinking – yet never his very own religion.
Together with Sherr, the reader experiences this moment as one of relief, hope, and encouragement. After this midlife spiritual awakening, the real journey begins.
From here on, the memoir picks up pace, detailing Sherr’s search for a spiritual path, explorations of the various strains of Judaism, and his ultimate commitment to Orthodoxy. Sherr describes how little he knew about the Torah as “staggering;” “I was even a little hazy about the difference between Moses and Charlton Heston.”
Sherr spent years exploring Judaism and mitzvos, trying to discover who he is, how frum he wanted to appear, and the like. By the end of the memoir, he identifies as, “a religious Zionist with Hasidic and secular overtones who still likes to shop at Marshalls.”
As Sherr progressed on his quest, Marianne grappled with her husband’s abrupt change to frumkeit. He depicts this tension to a certain degree, but we are left wondering how it resolved, and how committed Marianne became to Orthodox Judaism. The brushstrokes we are given contrast sharply to the details of the first half of the book. Yet, by now I felt I knew Steve, and was interested in learning more. I walked away feeling somewhat shortchanged.
Similarly, the Sherr children, Jonathan and Samantha, are slightly mysterious, including their ages in relation to the story. We do learn that Jonathan went to Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem as a young adult. However, we are left wondering about his observance, as well as Samantha’s. Samantha is mentioned only in passing and the reader has no idea what her experience was.
The Sherrs move to Israel take us into Book II, “Journey to Hispin.” With his sardonic wit, we ride the aliyah rollercoaster with the Sherrs, complete with bureaucratic nightmares, ulpan, terrorist attacks, and the search for a community.
Book III, “Stories Along the Way,” is replete with thoughtful insights and anecdotes. However, these chapters would have been more meaningful had they been inserted into the flow of the narrative. Placed at the end, I found myself trying too hard to figure out where each piece might fit.
In “Exodus,” one of the final chapters, Sherr paints a portrait of the American Jew whose family and nation “were lost in a Holocaust of Success” and the “Holocaust of Idiocy and Assimilation.” His description makes the assimilated Jew ponder his decision to live in America, to settle for being “a good person,” yet being ignorant of his own heritage and special calling as a Jew.
After many years and much consideration, the Sherrs were able to escape this conundrum and begin a new life in the Golan Heights. At once idealistic and realistic, Sherr admits that although there are real dangers in Eretz Yisrael, “it’s the right place for us to be.” After getting to know Steve so well, it’s clear that it is right for him, and he also makes those of us in America think that, perhaps, the time is right for us to be there, as well.