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Searching for My Lost Tribe

June 27, 2010 | by Rabbi Gavriel Horan

It never occurred to me that it was right under my nose.

My childhood best friend’s father traced his lineage back several generations to find that he was 1/16 Native American. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to allow him to dance in the Lakota Sioux Sun Dance Festival in South Dakota every summer, something white people generally weren't allowed to participate in. Every year my friend would tell me the most amazing stories of his summer adventures out West, and I would wish I wasn’t born “white.” I didn’t have any spiritual heritage to speak of. To me, Judaism was nothing more than baggage. Like most American Jews, I felt completely devoid of spirituality and cultural identity other than bagels and lox, which I didn’t like.

My friend’s parents had a major impact on my life. They took me camping, hiking and fishing for the first time. I loved every second. Their house was always full of interesting musical instruments, animal bones, and sage incense. When my friend turned 13, I was invited to join them in Upstate New York for his coming of age ceremony. Together with a bunch of other “born again” Native Americans, we escorted him deep into the woods for a Vision Quest. He fasted and spent the day and night all alone there, in the hope that he would have a vision that revealed his life’s purpose. Meanwhile, all those back at the camp spent the day in the sweat lodge, a small wooden frame covered in blankets.

He chanted as the room filled up with boiling steam. It was pitch black except for the glow of the rocks and it was amazing.

With everyone inside, my friend’s father splashed water over red-hot rocks, chanting as the room filled up with boiling steam. It was pitch black except for the glow of the rocks when the water hit them with a hiss. It was amazing. At the tender age of 13 I made up my mind -- I would find a people of my own someday with their own unique spiritual tradition and rituals.

Irish Pride

In high school I saw a few movies about Ireland and Scotland which sparked my imagination. I walked out of the theater with an Irish accent that stayed with me for months. Before Halloween, I visited the local fabric store and picked out a few nice scraps of tartan plaid and then stayed up all night sewing kilts for some of my friends and carving model weapons out of wood. Together, we paraded the streets of Manhattan dressed like Scottish warriors. Nobody blinked an eye. I studied Gaelic for a year in school and listened exclusively to Irish music. I related to the struggles of the people as they fought for nationhood and independence and even contemplated joining the IRA. I desperately wanted a people and a cause worth dying for.

The summer after graduating high school, my best friend and I flew to Ireland and spent a few weeks hitchhiking across the entire country. It was our first time out of the U.S. and we were in heaven. I felt like I was finally coming home to “my people.” My friend really was of Irish descent and he was able to find some of the towns that his ancestors came from. He even found a copy of his family crest of arms on a key chain. I was surprised to find one with my last name as well, but it was a coincidence. My grandparents changed their name to Horan after the war, from the more Jewish sounding Bergrin, meaning “Green Mountain.” Horan was the Czech equivalent, meaning “Man of the Mountain.” Horan just so happens to also be one of the most popular Irish names.

The green rolling hills of the Irish countryside were indeed beautiful, the beer flowed freely in the pubs, the music lifted the spirits, and the people were warm and friendly, but alas, it wasn’t my home. Despite my great Irish accent and the fact that I may have found my key chain, I was still an outsider looking in, and I couldn’t convert to Irish.

Lost and Found

For my 20th birthday, my best friend’s father built a sweat lodge for me and we celebrated my coming into adulthood together chanting over the red hot coals. Afterwards, I set out to see the world once more. I started delving into various world religions, although I never lost touch with my Celtic or Native American “roots.” I continued traveling for the next year and visited dozens of countries throughout the world, always searching for that familiar feeling telling me that I had at last found my people and my spiritual homeland. Every time I alighted from the plane or train in a new country I always met with the same disappointment. Although each place had its own beautiful and unique cultures, it wasn’t my people. I was still searching for my lost tribe.

Some time later, a friend of mine invited me to go for Shabbat to an ultra-Orthodox community in Upstate New York. I had never been to a Shabbat meal before -- certainly not in a Chassidic community, but I decided to go along for the ride anyway. Friday night I entered our host’s home with trepidation. The man of the house, Rabbi Rosen, wore traditional Chassidic clothing complete with long beard, side locks, a black hat, and a long black robe special for the Sabbath. He looked like he had walked straight out of 18th Century Europe. The family was warm and friendly and I quickly got over my fear. Rabbi Rosen worked as a ritual slaughterer in the Catskills.

“You know I didn’t always look like this,” he told me halfway through the meal. I was shocked.

As his story unfolded, I learned that he had grown up in a completely secular Jewish home, just as I had. He had majored in ecology in university, and got a job researching Bald Eagles in the wilderness of Montana. For several years he lived alone in the woods, hunting for his own food while doing his research for the American government. He eventually became friendly with a neighboring Indian tribe and even learned to speak two different Indian languages, dialects of Sioux and Blackfoot. He loved the way they lived with such simplicity and poverty while maintaining great meaning in their lives. He desperately longed to learn about their secret spiritual traditions, but alas, they were closed to outsiders.

“You come from the ‘holy white rock man’ -- Moses. Your people have great wisdom of their own. Go back to your people!”

After many months of living near the Indians, he approached the matriarch of the tribe, a wizened old woman, and told her that he wished to learn the ways of her people. She inquired about his heritage. He explained that he had been born Jewish. As a child, she had been kidnapped by Christian missionaries and was educated in a missionary Bible school. She remembered learning briefly about Judaism in the school and she had tremendous respect for the Jewish people. The story of Moses going up to Mount Sinai alone for 40 days and nights was reminiscent of her own traditional vision quest. “You come from the ‘holy white rock man’ -- Moses. Your people have great wisdom of their own. Go back to your people!”

Rabbi Rosen arrived in New York City with two long braids on the side of his head and started searching for a yeshiva where someone would teach him to reconnect with his heritage. The rest is history.

I was blown away. If he could give up all that and return to Judaism, maybe it was worthwhile for me to check it out.

Returning Home

When I was offered a free trip to Israel, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about my heritage. As I walked off the plane, a feeling started to well up in my stomach. Of all the two dozen countries I had visited across the globe, there was always something missing -- I was always an outsider. Walking the ancient cobbled streets of Jerusalem just hours after getting off the plane, I suddenly felt something I had never experienced before, something strangely familiar, yet totally unexpected. I couldn’t understand why tears kept welling up in my eyes --maybe it was the jet lag. Only upon entering the stone ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem did it hit me why I felt so overwhelmed with emotion: a voice rose up from within that simply said, “You're home.”

All I wanted was to find my people and my homeland; Judaism wasn’t what I was expecting.

At last, I found the feeling that I was looking so long for. The problem was that I wasn’t so happy with it. All I wanted was to find my people and my homeland; Judaism wasn’t what I was expecting. “Me, a Jew?” I never even considered the possibility that I might find meaning within my own tradition. But Israel had captured my passion and it started to plant its seeds in me.

On a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels, we learned about the daily rituals that took place in the Temple, Judaism's holiest site. The tour guide explained that the Cohanim, the priestly tribe, used to perform ritual sacrifices while the Levites, the musician tribe, used to sing and perform the most beautiful melodies. It was the first time in my life that I had heard that Judaism had different tribes, passed down from father to son. Although there were 12 tribes of Israel, most people today are unable to trace their tribe all the way back.

One of the kids on the trip told us that he was a Kohen. His family had kept a record of their tribe for 2,000 years since the destruction of the Temple. I couldn’t believe that such lineage was possible. I was jealous that he belonged to such a special tribe. I was just a regular Jew. My family had no such record that I knew of.

When I got home, I described my experience to my father and how moved I was to be in Israel. I told him that one of the kids on the trip was a Kohen.

“Do you want to know what we are?” he asked.

“We know our tribe?” I asked incredulously.

“Of course,” he said flatly. “Levi.” We were members of the tribe of Levi, the third son of Jacob, and I had never known. The Levites were the musicians and the teachers and they were not granted a biblical share in the land of Israel because instead of working the land, they devoted themselves entirely to spirituality and were supported by tithes from the other tribes.

The irony was tangible. There I was, searching my whole life for a people and a tradition, yet it was in my own backyard all along. For years I was envious of my best friend for his 1/32 Native American blood and his Irish crest, while feeling completely devoid of my own heritage. Meanwhile I could trace my line back thousands of years all the way to Levi ben Yaakov, Levi the son of Jacob! A direct line to spiritual greatness, complete with a homeland, a people, and a rich tradition. At last I had found my long-lost tribe!

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” I asked my father.

“You never asked.”

Sometimes the greatest treasure is buried in our own backyard, just waiting to be unearthed.

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