Steve Bets on a Vehicle Fueled with Faith and Recovery
By Carl Blumenthal
Stick to Your Shtick, Boychik, And You'll Go Far
We meet in a Dunkin Donuts, near Steve’s “program” at the Jewish Board of Family Services (JBFS) on Coney Island Avenue, just north of Kings Highway, in Brooklyn.
With a whorl of white hair on his head, matching trim beard, and wire spectacles perched on his nose, Steve resembles a modern-day “tzaddik” or wise man.
He buys me a cup of coffee—I refuse a donut—because generosity is part of his nature. America may run on Dunkin, but we’re here sitting on stools to discuss the often bittersweet subject of “faith and recovery.”
Steve would never pretend to imitate Mel Brooks’ rendition of the “2000-year-old man.” Nevertheless, Steve is fond of scriptural-like irony, and paraphrases the lyrics of that major musical deity, Bob Dylan, who accuses the listener “You ain’t lost your faith; you never had any,” on the song Positively 4th Street.
Or there’s Steve’s quip, “How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a light bulb? That depends on whether the light bulb wants to change itself.”
These two insights bracket Steve’s life, one of mental illness from an early age, when he “ditched the theory” that all was right in heaven and on earth. He more or less wandered alone in a faithless wilderness for 40 years.
However, when his two sisters and brothers-in-law turned to Orthodox Judaism in the early 1990’s, their example rubbed off on him: “I thought about everything I’d been through and decided I needed to be more conversant with my tradition. I began to think about religion, life, God, the universe…how things happen.”
Steve was attracted to the meaning of suffering in Judaism, particularly in terms of his own life. He began to understand that suffering can bring you closer to God by identifying with the plights of other people, a notion which reminds him of the book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
Then, through “mitsvot” or good deeds, you may alleviate suffering; thereby empowering yourself in the service of God. This thinking may sound circular, even paradoxical, but that’s what faith is all about.
If this reasoning also seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, everyone who has survived bouts of mental illness knows recovery is like an engine that needs a constant supply of gas—an image Steve appreciates because he can tell you the horsepower, not to mention the fuel efficiency, of every car on the market.
Like Albert Einstein’s famous maxim, “God does not play dice with the universe,” Steve is equally emphatic: “God is not lax; he’s not oblivious to what goes on; He’s just and merciful. If you rob banks or mug people, there will be a reckoning.”
This transformation of his attitudes about things earthly and divine over the last 20 years has alleviated some of the sadness and uncertainty from his earlier days. Steve explains, “It’s set the table for what I have to do. I’m a Jew with mental illness, and I have to be the best person I can be. I try to help others on a daily basis. I’ve never been good at planning the future.”
Through his work as a peer counselor, his loyalty to friends, and his compassion for the members of his self-help program at JBFS, he’s on the road not only to recovery but also to “discovery of who I truly am.”
Then, he lowers his voice, as if to say out loud the following will jinx him: “If I ever relapse to the point where my only resource is the program, my belief in myself and in God will give me the strength to try something else, to put something forward.” It’s a nascent belief that hope will grow.
Or as Mel Brooks might say in a Yiddish accent, “Stick to your shtick, boychik, and you’ll go far.”