India to Israel

May 9, 2009

10 min read


An accomplished woman's journey to Jewish tradition takes a 15-year tour through India and its ashrams.

I was seeking God, so of course I did not look in Judaism. Instead I went to India. It was the heyday of the Sixties, during my junior year at Brandeis. I found a guru and started meditating. Near the end of the year, my guru said to me, "You're Jewish. Why don't you investigate Jewish mysticism?"

Jewish mysticism? I had never heard of it. Not in all my years (12 to be exact) of afternoon and evening Hebrew school. Nor during my devout attendance at Shabbat services at my local synagogue. Nor during all my whole-hearted involvement in my Jewish youth group, of which I served as chapter president and national board member. Months of meditating in India had convinced me that there was a spiritual dimension to reality, that life held treasures greater than the physical world could offer, and that by following the proper methods I could elevate myself to the ultimate state: God-consciousness.

If Judaism also could get me to that goal, why not? I had a warm spot in my heart for Judaism. I changed my round-the-world ticket to include a stop in Israel.


A conscientious college student, I began my search in the card catalogue of the Hebrew University library. Under the entry for "mysticism/Jewish," all the books were written by one man, Gershon Scholem, who, as the introduction to one book revealed, lived right there in Jerusalem.

Intrepid, I knocked on the door of his apartment. Professor Scholem, then retired, gave me two hours of his time in his book-lined study. I explained to him, rather naively, that I was not interested in studying Jewish mysticism as an academic subject; rather, I wanted to live it.

Of course, I did not realize that Gershon Scholem was the world's leading advocate of Kaballah as an object of study, not as a path of transformation. He shook his head grimly and told me that I would not find what I was looking for.

Disappointed, I returned to the United States, finished my final year at Brandeis, and gave my parents nachas by graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. The day after graduation, I joined an ashram, an Indian-style spiritual community, situated on twenty-one acres of woods in eastern Massachusetts.

I stayed there for the next 15 years.


I meditated three times a day, served as personal secretary to the guru, taught meditation and Vedanta philosophy when the guru was out of town, headed the publishing department, cooked for the community and our guests once a week, and tended two extensive flower gardens.

My life was full and challenging, internally and externally.

The hardest part of life at the ashram was the lack of what our guru disdainfully called, "one-on-one relationships." The ideal of Eastern spiritual paths is celibacy. They assert that sexual relationships dissipate spiritual energy and that emotional attachments divert one's exclusive focus on God. For our ashram, composed mostly of men and women in their twenties, celibacy was a difficult, unrelenting challenge.

Then, in 1984, during my fifteenth year at the ashram, I was disillusioned and unsettled by a series of scandals involving the most prestigious gurus. First the New Age world was shaken by the revelation that the Zen Roshi heading the San Francisco Zen Center had been having an affair with one of his married students.

Next came a host of sexual allegations against the revered Swami Muktananda. After that, one guru after another fell like a game of dominos. The July 1985 issue of the "Yoga Journal" featured as its cover story: "Why Teachers Go Astray; Gurus, Sex, and Spirituality." It included an article by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who reported:

"According to this survey -- which includes information on 54 teachers -- sexual relations form a part of the lives of 39 of them ... Significantly, 34 of the 39 teachers who are not celibate have had at least occasional sexual relationships with one or more students."

I was devastated. Here I was straining every nerve and muscle to follow the ideal of celibacy, while the most highly regarded proponents of the path couldn't hack it themselves! And what about the issue of truth? Almost all of those 39 teachers publicly espoused the importance of celibacy and pretended to be celibate.

Kornfield's article concluded: "We need to discover how to join sexuality, conscious awareness, and love, and how to integrate all parts of ourselves into our spiritual life." His article was admitting -- what I had began to discover for myself -- that Eastern paths had no formula for accomplishing this.

Judaism -- with its 1,001 national organizations and vocal leaders at the forefront of every cause -- had been more hidden than the lost Buddhism of Tibet.


That same year, we celebrated the birth centenary of Swami Paramananda, the ashram's founder, by inviting speakers from all the world religions. This time the Jewish speaker was an Orthodox rabbi.

Rabbi Joseph Polak moved the packed hall to tears. The theme of his talk was "Love of God, even unto Madness," based on the teachings of the rationalist 12th century sage Maimonides.

"This is Judaism?" I marveled. In all my years spent at my local temple, I had rarely heard mention of God, let alone love of God. Could this be the same religion?

Rabbi Polak and his wife invited me to their Brookline home for Shabbat. I resisted. Two months passed, but I kept the scrap of paper with their phone number.

Meanwhile, "A Bridge of Dreams", the book I had been writing for five years, a 640-page biography of Swami Paramananda, was published. The book was well received in the New Age world. Ram Dass wrote an appreciative review in the "New Age Journal", and the "Yoga Journal" excerpted it as a cover feature.

Amidst this flurry of excitement, I went to the Polaks for a Shabbat. Then another one.

Then strange things started to happen. Leading a meditation service in "the shrine," the ashram's inner sanctum, I suddenly felt like I was suffocating. My breathing became difficult, I started to sweat, and I stared at my watch, waiting for the earliest possible moment I could escape what had previously been my favorite place in the world. I never entered the shrine again.

Our guru decided that I was suffering from burn-out in the wake of my book's publication. She offered me $2,000 to go anywhere in the world I wanted for two months. I went to a travel agency and picked out brochures for Boro-Boro.

A few days later, through the Polaks, I attended a lecture given by Rabbi Dovid Din, who was visiting Boston from New York. He spoke about Judaism as a yoga. He explained that the word for Jewish law, halacha, literally meant "walking." Judaism was a path, with a goal: God-consciousness.

He explained the rituals of eating kosher and keeping Shabbat as spiritual practices. He said that many people who derided kashrut had no problem committing themselves to a vegetarian regime; that many
people who called Jewish practices "mindless rituals," devotedly surrendered themselves to Hindu practices. I blushed.


The Polaks had told me about another rabbi in New York: Rabbi Meir Fund, who taught classes in Kaballah in Manhattan and Brooklyn. For a month I studied intensively with him. Then Rabbi Fund said to me, "If you really want to learn Judaism, you have to go to Jerusalem." I forgot about Boro-Boro, purchased a two-month ticket to Israel, and arranged to study at Neve Yerushalayim, a yeshiva for women with little or no Jewish background.

After my first day, I was flying. The intensity of the spiritual aspiration in the dozen people I had met that day in Jerusalem surprised and inspired me. "This is Judaism?" I kept saying to myself.

During the next several weeks, I attended classes at Neve and around the city. I had major issues with Torah Judaism: feminism, universalism, etc., etc. In every class, and sitting privately with teachers more brilliant than any I had known in college, I questioned, challenged, debated, and argued.

The answers always came by understanding the contested concept on a deeper plane. Many of my objections were on a sociological level; the answers were always on a spiritual level.

The most attractive element of the Jewish spiritual path was its sanctification of marriage. In other major religions marriage is considered a concession to human weakness. Judaism, on the contrary, asserts that marriage is the highest state, that the sanctified union between husband and wife affects mystical unions in the upper worlds.

I saw this as the best of both worlds. I was amazed that the formula for integrating "all parts of ourselves into our spiritual life," which the East painfully lacked, could be found in Judaism.

During all my years at the ashram, I had been striving to transcend the world. Judaism insisted on sanctifying the world. As a Jew, I could use the physical to elevate myself, and I could elevate the physical world in the process.

"How could it be," I wondered to myself, "that Judaism is the world's most hidden religion?"

Judaism -- with its million-dollar stained glass edifices, its thousand and one national organizations, its hundreds of community newspapers, its vocal leaders at the forefront of every cause -- had been more hidden than the lost Buddhism of Tibet.

What I was now discovering was an entirely different religion. Not a structure, but rather a very deep diamond mine. The deeper I went, the more gems I discovered. But it was all hidden underground, invisible to passersby.


I had promised my guru that I would be back in time to drive her to a speaking engagement on August 26. Every night, in the post-midnight hours, I would go to the Kotel (the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site) to meditate. In the charged atmosphere of the Kotel late at night, I was able to meditate deeply. The inner voice I heard kept telling me that I should stay in Jerusalem and take on the practice of Torah.

My conscious self winced at the prospect. I was 37-years-old. I had no money and no job prospects. (Imagine my resume: 1970-1985 Ashram secretary.) I had no family or friends in Israel. My whole life -- my spiritual path, my livelihood, my guru, and all my friends -- was at the ashram. But I had spent my entire adult life learning to align myself with the will of God as I perceived it. Now my intuition told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was God's will for me to stay in Jerusalem and practice Torah.

I stayed. Sixteen months later, I married a musician from California who, it is clear to me, is my soul-mate from forever. My first child was born just after my fortieth birthday, my second child six years later. We live in a 900-year-old house in the Old City of Jerusalem, five minutes' walk from the Kotel.

I still struggle with my spiritual challenges, which is the whole purpose for which we human beings are here in this world, but Judaism has brought me closer to God than I have ever been.

Yes, this is Judaism.

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