Scott Turow, 68, best-selling author of 13 books, out with a new novel set against Balkan conflicts, raised Jewish in West Rogers Park, former federal prosecutor, understands “the spiritual elements that move so many other people and, of course, I feel them, too, but I don’t put the same name on it.”
Growing up on the Far North Side, “There had to be Gentiles who lived in the neighborhood . . . but I never saw those kids . . . As far as I was concerned, everybody there was Jewish, with very few exceptions.”
One non-Jewish kid in eighth grade was given a “not mitzvah” because he’d been to so many of his classmates’ bar mitzvah ceremonies, marking the coming of age for Jewish boys, “so we celebrated him.”
“I loved growing up in a secure, urban neighborhood, and I missed it terribly when my parents extracted me and put me down in the suburbs,” in Winnetka, where he attended New Trier Township High School.
“I was raised in a very Reform family,” with grandmother on his mother’s side a “would-be socialist” and a maternal grandfather who referred to religion as “the greatest swindle in history.”
His mom “wasn’t a believer,” but his dad was. Neither had much formal training in the faith. Yet, “in one of these just terribly ironic things . . . they were founding members of the synagogue that I attended.
“I’m not even sure how that came to be, except that the rabbi’s wife was one of my father’s patients” — his dad was an obstetrician-gynecologist. “I did go to Sunday school and then Hebrew school until they threw me out . . . I was finally expelled a few months before my bar mitzvah . . . a behavior problem because I didn’t want to be there.”
“In reflection and adult wisdom.” says he “realized that I was correct to be dissatisfied with that education, ’cause they weren’t teaching us language. All they wanted to do was teach us to be able to read the Torah,” the Jewish bible, and Jewish law, “with no comprehension of what the words meant.”
Where he grew up is still a heavily Jewish area, though there seem to be more Orthodox, or traditional, Jews there today. One change: Devon Avenue. In his younger years, it was the “main street of that Jewish community” and is now “wonderfully diverse but principally Indian and Pakistani.”
“My father, when I questioned him, really told me that he really felt the spark of some creator. He delivered babies, and he was always overwhelmed by that experience.”
“I had a large dose of religion, and it was pretty clear to me by the time I was approaching adolescence that I didn’t get it . . . I just wasn’t a believer. And, you know, that’s never changed.
How does he describe his beliefs?
“A sense of fellow feeling with my other humans and a recognition of our small place in the universe and certainly a deep faith in the power of good among human beings to make a better life.
“I think I grew up with a very strong moral upbringing, but, at least, at my mother’s table — and my father worked so much, it really was my mother’s table — nobody put a religious name on it.”
His grandparents were Russian Jews who “came with memories of pogroms” — bloody purges — and fled as Jews were conscripted into the czar’s army.
There were Roma — also referred to as Gypsies — from their same region.
They’re a focal point of his latest book, “Testimony,” set amid and in the aftermath of the Balkan conflicts involving Croatians, Serbs and Bosnians (and Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims) in the former Yugoslavia. The region spiraled into war starting in the early 1990s and experienced ethnic cleansing and other atrocities — with some prosecuted later for war crimes.
The plot of the book: An American attorney “goes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate an alleged massacre of 400 Roma . . . at the end of the U.S. peace-enforcement efforts in Bosnia.”
While researching “Testimony,” Turow learned from forensic anthropologists that, when mass graves were exhumed in the Balkans and tested, “They found the DNA completely unavailing because there was no way to tell the difference between the Muslim Bosnians and the Serbian Bosnians . . . or the Croatian Catholics. It was all the same gene pool.”
“Without dwelling on it,” the book aims to make clear “that each group at different times did horrible things to the other one,” though he says, “I think the level of Serbian atrocities particularly against the Muslims far exceeded what I understood.”
But “it’s not as if unkindness was confined to one group.”
“I have a dear friend who says, I think correctly, that more evil has been done in the name of religion than any other force in human history. On the other hand, you know, a great deal of good has been done in the name of religion,” including giving “meaning to many, many people’s lives.”
“Do I engage in organized religious practice? There’s a Seder in my house every year” — the feast at the start of Passover. “I have these ambivalent feelings on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
“My problem with the Jewish liturgy is that it can be translated as follows: ‘Dear God, I am a meatball — and while you’re at it, smite my enemies.’ . . . This is a line of one of my college roommates, and I’ve always found it to be particularly accurate.”
Been working on a TV series about a family of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“That’s not a life for me, but I respect it . . . It gives even the act of waking up a sense of transcendence.”
How does he think some Chicago politicians reconcile their religious beliefs and practices with their cynical acts?
As a federal prosecutor, Turow was involved in Operation Greylord, which targeted Cook County’s crooked judicial system, where bribes dictated “justice.” He wrote a novel based on the case, “Personal Injuries,” and “the ultimate bad guy” was an Irish Catholic judge who went to mass each day.
“I’m sure, in his mind, corruption is one of those petty sins that God forgives because ‘everybody’ does it.”
Turow says he learned as a prosecutor that bribe-takers often believe everyone else is crooked, too, and that “it’s an illusion to believe in rectitude . . . That goes to explain how you can be deeply religious because that’s the ‘big thing’ and then dismiss the rest of it as the trivialities that God forgives.”
Is there a cosmic reckoning?
“I do believe in karma . . . what comes around goes around, or what goes around comes around.”
Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.
Listen to previous “Face to Faith” podcasts:
- Cardinal Blase Cupich: Some of ‘greatest Christians I know’ have no ‘faith system,’ Aug. 27, 2017
- Gov hopeful Daniel Biss: Faith that fuels divisiveness is ‘dead wrong,’ Aug. 20, 2017
- Lutheran scholar Martin Marty on faith, Luther, the state of religion: Aug. 13, 2017
- Chicago Sky’s Amber Stocks: Message matters more than the denomination, Aug. 6, 2017
- ‘Hood’ and ‘holy’ minister Marilyn Pagan-Banks: Not alone ‘even when you make bad choices,’ July 30, 2017
- Author Patrick T. Reardon: ‘Embrace the pain of life as well as joys,’ July 23, 2017
- Paylocity founder Steve Sarowitz: Baha’i ‘made sense to me right away,’ July 16, 2017
- Candidate Chris Kennedy: ‘I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work,’ July 9, 2017
- Jail warden Nneka Jones Tapia: ‘I think God is all around us,’ July 2, 2017
- Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera: ‘Let it be God’s will if we lose or win,’ June 25, 2017
- The Mekons’ Sally Timms: ‘Not the kind of atheist who’s down on religion,’ June 18, 2017
- J.B. Pritzker: At times, ‘your faith has to overcome maybe logic,’ June 11, 2017
- Daoud Casewit, American Islamic College president: ‘We’re as American as we are Islamic,’ June 4, 2017
- Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people,’ May 28, 2017
- James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born,’ May 21, 2017
- Michael Magnafichi, one-time ‘rising star’ in Chicago mob: ‘I do say prayers,’ May 14, 2017
- Ald. Ameya Pawar: ‘There’s always the opportunity for redemption,’ May 7, 2017
- Sir the Baptist: ‘I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain,’ April 30, 2017
- Singer Shemekia Copeland: ‘Hell, yeah’ God loves the blues, April 23, 2017