Finding the Poem Within
A young poet's search for spirituality and his desire to reach out to his dying mother lead him to places he could never have imagined.
Did you ever lose something that you really loved? You search aimlessly in the dark, running back and forth from one room to the other, hoping desperately to find it. Your mind is eaten up with thoughts about where it might be, who might have found it. You imagine it lying somewhere all alone, afraid. I spent years of my life searching for something that I had lost, trying to fill the lonely, homesick feeling I had inside. The only problem was that I had no idea what I was looking for.
I was anxiously waiting to graduate high school and get far away from New York City. The city was stifling for me; I couldn't breathe under the shadow of the great dark towers that blocked out the sun. My soul yearned to travel and be alive, free of the faceless metropolis. The first chance I got after graduation, I bought a standby ticket for any flight to Europe and ended up flying to Ireland with a childhood friend. That was my first taste of the world, and it tasted wonderful. It only succeeded in whetting my appetite for more.
I wanted to study the world's religions, and Judaism was the last on my list.
My next trip was much longer. Six months backpacking in Europe -- France, England, Spain, Italy, Hungary. Nothing could stop me. I had discovered spirituality and was searching for answers to quench the thirst inside my soul. Everywhere I went I met spiritual people who helped to guide me in my quest. I wanted to study the world's religions, and Judaism was the last on my list. I decided to stop telling people that I was Jewish.
After months of traveling, I started to feel that Europe didn't possess the answers I was looking for and decided to go to the Far East. There I could find the truth. The only thing that kept me from attempting to hitch to India (besides the numerous borders I would have to cross, many of them war torn) was my mother. She was sick and pleading with me to return home. When I told her that I might travel forever, the silence on the other side of the phone told me that she was crying. I couldn't break her heart. I had to return home. My spiritual quest would have to wait.
The Sufi Bookstore
It was autumn and I was 20 years old, trying to find a way to express my new-found soul amidst the rush hour subway traffic, the homeless people, and the incessant noise. I got a job in midtown entering data and delivering mail for a non-profit organization, and found my solace by going up to the rooftop of the tall office building and looking out at the massive city. Everything was still and silent. I could see the Hudson River, glittering in the distance, making its way out to the ocean, and at last I could see the sky.
A few days a week I drove my mother to the hospital downtown and waited with her while she received her treatments. I wish I had spent more time with her. It was so hard. I was at the peak of my life, beginning to explore the world and she was stuck and scared.
I discovered that even amidst the concrete jungle, there were many others out there who were searching for spirituality and meaning in life. I found a whole network of poetry readings, lectures, and classes on all sorts of topics. I tried meditating with the Buddhists, afternoon Yoga classes, and many other attempts to connect with the higher world. I read books from every religion I could get my hands on -- all except Judaism, that is. From my few visits in childhood to a temple, it was clear that it wasn't for me. There was no spiritual content there worth delving into. I longed to find a language in which I could pray in, and prayers and rituals that I could perform, so I continued to search.
My evenings were spent writing deep into the night, passionate poems about my travels and my spiritual journey, and about the sadness that I felt in my heart about my mother who was slowly departing from this world. At last I completed my masterpiece, a ten-page epic poem that encompassed everything that was happening in my life. It was full of depth and pain -- pain from the fact that I felt alive for the first time in my life but was unable to truly share it with anybody, and frustration that I was slowly losing my mother and was unable to help her. It was entitled, "Ode to Jack Kerouac, or Did You Ever Lose a Mother." I printed out one copy and ran to a poetry reading at a bookstore downtown.
There was no shortage of searching Jews at the Sufi bookstore.
It was called Sufi Books and hosted classes and lectures by speakers of every faith. Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam renowned for their tolerance towards all spiritual paths. Sufis are also known as Whirling Dervishes, because of their ecstatic dance circles. That night a British poet performed the translated poems of Rumi, a medieval Sufi poet from Persia. The poems were beautiful and ecstatic about his yearnings and love of God. One of the topics that he often spoke about was how a person has to see how everything in their life fits together like a perfect story.
After the reading I met a young man named Geoff, also an aspiring writer with an interest in religion. His father was Jewish and his mother was an interfaith minister. We struck up a conversation in the bookstore about our love of poetry and our search for spirituality. The young woman who worked behind the counter overheard our conversation and interjected, "You should join me and my friends tomorrow night at the Sufi Mosque for dancing and prayer. Then on Friday, don't miss attending Shabbos services at the Carlebach shul on the Upper West Side!" Although I rarely spoke about it, my Jewish heritage found me once again. It wasn't hard for her to guess. There was no shortage of searching Jews at the Sufi bookstore.
The next evening I met up with Geoff and we made our way towards the Sufi Mosque. It was my first time in a mosque, but the atmosphere was one of warmth and acceptance. Hardly anyone there was Moslem from birth, including the Sheikah, the female cleric. At least half of the young people there were Jews. The service consisted of dancing around the large carpeted room barefoot, chanting in easy Arabic phrases followed by a short prayer towards Mecca and then a festive meal. The woman from the bookstore reintroduced herself. "My Muslim name is Rabiya, but I usually go by Rebecca." Rebecca was Jewish, and her fiance, John, was the son of a Baptist Minister. Together they were some of the few Westerners to have visited Mecca.
Friday night, Geoff and I met again, this time to go to Carlebach Shul. It was my first time in my life inside an Orthodox synagogue. I was a little nervous. As we neared the shul we could already hear loud singing reaching out to the street. We pushed our way through the crowd blocking the narrow entry to find ourselves in a tiny room overflowing with people. Everyone was singing beautiful melodies with great joy. There were many familiar faces of people I had seen the night before at the mosque -- young Jews searching for something. Suddenly a large man wearing a very strange looking fur hat and sporting a long grey beard, came dancing down the narrow aisle. He danced straight up to me and then pulled me with him back down to the front of the shul. "It's so good to see you!" he said hugging me in a warm embrace. I didn't know how to react. Were Chassidim always so friendly? I had seen many of them in the diamond district in midtown, but none of them had ever hugged me before. I found out later that I had just met Rabbi Mordechai Twerski, the son of the late Hornsteiple Rebbe of Denver, Colorado, Rabbi Shlomo Twerski. It is no wonder that he is affectionately called the "Hug-achuver Rebbe" by his disciples. His warmth had a strong impression on me, although I wasn't quite sure what had just hit me.
Back at my place, I decided to lend Geoff my newly printed poem for his long subway ride home. "Let me know what you think." We kept up the friendship for the next few months and I continued to divide my time between the mosque and the shul.
My parent's apartment building got a new doorman from Pakistan and I talked to him about my newfound interest in Islam. He bought me a Koran and some other books as well. One day he greeted me, "Today is Ibrahim Day."
"What's that?" I asked.
"Ibrahim Day is the day that our forefather Ibrahim was to sacrifice Yishmael."
"You mean Isaac," I corrected him.
"No Yishmael," he snapped back looking annoyed.
"Listen," I said, "I don't know much about the Torah but I'm pretty sure that Abraham went to sacrificed Isaac, not Yishmael. I think I have a Bible at home, I'll go upstairs and check."
I had no idea that this was one of the main points of contention between the Moslems and the Jews. He didn't raise the point again, but I began to see that it was not possible to be a member of both religions at once while remaining intellectually honest.
Death and Life
Had I known that she only had a few more months left, I probably would have done everything different.
I was in denial of how badly my mother's condition had deteriorated. Had I known that she only had a few more months left, I probably would have done everything different. I would have spent more time at home. Instead I wanted to live on my own, so I could write and meditate. I was rambunctious and didn't understand much about the world. I completely ignored the fact that she might actually die; we all did. I was too young to process such a tragic loss and unprepared for the pain. I thought that everything would be fine. Not only would she survive, but if God forbid she didn't, it was all meant to be and I would accept it with happiness. Or so I thought.
Her death came suddenly and it was a shock for me. I stood there in the hospital room with my family unable to speak, unsure of what to do. I tried laughing, crying, it was such a strange mixture of emotions. On the one hand I was so happy that her pain was finally over; on the other, I felt like my whole world had been destroyed. I suddenly was overcome with a desire to speak to a rabbi, to find out what I should do, how to cope with the pain, how to help my mother's soul move on to wherever it had to go. I had heard of shiva, although I had no idea what it was, but I was certain that this was the right thing to do. This was what she would have wanted. I would speak to a rabbi the first chance I got.
As we left the hospital building, we felt a tremendous weight lifted from our shoulders. All those years of pain were finally over. We drove uptown in silence. Miraculously there wasn't any traffic and the stop lights seemed to turn green just for us. There was a tangible feeling that our mother was flying high above, looking down at us from the clear blue winter sky. She had become one with everything.
I sat shiva and learned the aleph beis for the first time in order to say kaddish. I started going to shul every morning. Soon someone bought me a pair of tefillin. On Shabbos, I continued to daven at the Carlebach Shul and have Shabbos meals with all the young people I had met at the Sufi Mosque. Eventually, many of us stopped going to the mosque all together, feeling naturally more connected to Judaism. It wasn't long before I decided that I had to go to yeshiva to find out what it was all about. I felt like I was on a mission to help to raise up my mother's soul, to help her to finally let go of her fear and to rectify those things that she was unable to do in this world. Six months after she passed away I was on a plane bound for Israel to find a yeshiva.
After learning in a yeshiva for a few years, I was finally ready to start coping with my mother's death. I yearned to read some of my poetry from back then, especially the epic poem I had written in order to help me to reconnect with my mother. When I asked my father what ever became of all of the writing I had done, he told me that his computer had crashed while I was away in Israel, and that everything I had written at that time was lost. I took the news very harshly and it felt like I had lost my mother all over again, as if a whole part of my life had disappeared. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my old friend Geoff might still have the copy I had lent him way back then. It had been close to two years but I still had his number somewhere. I called him up. He was so happy to hear from me. He couldn't believe that I had been in yeshiva all that time.
Both of our lives were forever changed, all due to that one fateful weekend.
"You'll never guess what I just did," he said. "I just took hand in the Sufi order." He had converted to Islam! Both of our lives were forever changed, all due to that one fateful weekend.
"Do you happen to have that poem I gave you?"
"I'm so sorry," he said. He had been cleaning up his house and had just thrown it out the week before! It was gone forever, and so was my mother. I would only be reunited with them again in the next world. I would have to learn to let go and say goodbye.
John and Rebecca, the woman from the bookstore, came to visit me when I was in yeshiva in Israel. We spoke for hours about my experiences and how happy I was living as an observant Jew. John later told me that I was one of the major inspirations in his decision to convert to Judaism. I held one of the poles at their chuppah. The Sufi bookstore closed down sometime after that year. Today it has been replaced by a pizza parlor.