Frames of Reference

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

One day I saw an ad in our local Jewish newspaper for a series of Kabbalah classes to be held at the Jewish Community Center. I asked my friend if she would like to go, as we were both interested in mystical traditions. She would and we went.

The teacher was a real deal Lubavitcher rebbi. He wore the black suit. His head was covered with a black hat. He had the beard.

The class consisted of mostly men and a few women. The men were there more to show what they knew. The women were there to listen. We were there to learn. The rabbi was soft-spoken. We hung on his every word.

When the series was over, the rabbi said that he would be willing to teach a private class in someone’s home. My friend and I excitedly waited for the end of class to speak with him. We were interested, we told him, in learning more. We assumed that we would be joining others with the same desire but it seemed we were the only ones who asked. This caused a problem for the rabbi. First of all, we were women, not the traditional target for teaching the Jewish mystical system. Then there was the issue of who we were personally. I was culturally observant, sharing holidays and simchas with my family and friends but didn’t keep to the religious dictates. I even taught yoga and studied Buddhism. My friend was a good Roman Catholic familiar with the Tao. We both practiced Qi Gong and meditated. Not the typical Kabbalah students. We were surprised when he agreed to teach us.

But there were conditions. We would meet in my house where, I surmised, he would feel more comfortable. He wouldn’t shake our hands and wouldn’t eat any food I offered because I didn’t observe kashruth. (Eventually he would take tea from a Styrofoam cup but not in the beginning.) If one of us couldn’t make the class, it would be cancelled; he could not be alone with a woman other than his wife. My friend and I respected his strong need to remain within certain boundaries as he respected our intense desire to learn.

We met once a week for a year-and-a-half, just the three of us. We discussed passages in the Tanya. We explored ethics. Our talk was animated and exciting but it was our silences that were enlightening. Often, after we had chewed on a topic for a while, we would lapse into a satisfying period of non-verbal communication that was almost a meditation, each of us deep into our own connection with the topic. We would emerge from it smiling, feeling full, knowing we had come to a new awareness.

The orthodox side of my family could not believe that I was studying Kabbalah; they knew my orientation. My friend’s family members just shook their heads. Meanwhile, we were walking a spiritual path that expanded our understanding of the larger picture of existence.

During the week, my friend and I continued the discussion – between chores and work, after dinner and sometimes before breakfast. The concepts were not easy; they demanded attention. We never knew when an enlightened thought would hit us, and, ready as we thought we were for clarity, we were never prepared when it struck. Like the time I was taking my morning shower and suddenly felt myself shatter. It was after we had been discussing the shattering of the vessel that led to creation. I had no sense of my skin holding myself together. It seemed that I was floating adrift and far from any recognizable landmarks. For a moment I had no idea where I was, what I was, where I belonged. Tears streamed down my face but they were tears of wonderment not sadness. I had experienced my own shattering of the vessel of self. I was free!

When I told the rabbi, his face lit up. He took my hand in his, a gesture that was both startling and profound. We smiled at each other, not speaking; we were both somewhere beyond words.

I was surprised that with my interest in so many spiritual disciplines, my freedom came through Kabbalah. My friend said she understood. She still went to church but because of her universal explorations she saw the rituals more as portals into meditation than as requirements for her spiritual practice. She continued to go because it was the place where she knew to connect with the Mystery. She said I couldn’t help connecting with the Mystery through Kabbalah because it was related to my being Jewish. These were our frames of reference no matter what we studied.

The class eventually grew and we started meeting at the rabbi’s house. People brought many perspectives to the table and not all of them were Jewish, but Kabbalah gave us all something to integrate into our own personal frames of reference.

Ferida Wolff’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, Horizons, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. An author of seventeen books for children and three essay books for adults, she has also contributed stories to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and HCI’s Ultimate series, as well as online at and as a columnist for You can visit her website for more information: or her blog at

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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