Tag Archives: kabbalah

Bashert? Who, Me?

by Esther Erman (Mountain View, CA)

Let me tell you a story.

In 1993, I was a 47-year-old divorced mother of two college graduates, getting my doctorate in language education. Despite being that oxymoron – a “mature student” – I was also a “starving student,” financing my degree at Rutgers with a meager teaching assistantship and a couple of other low-paying jobs.

After a period of disillusionment with Judaism, I’d slowly been working my way back. In addition to my work in language education (pedagogy, linguistics, and culture of diversity), I had a strong interest in feminism, which led me to concurrently earn a certificate in women’s studies. That was how I stumbled upon Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Her writings exhibited a feminist view of Judaism and included a concept, new to me, of the Shekhinah – the feminine side of the deity. I was inspired to study with her. But (and remember this was long before Zoom) the rabbi lived in New Mexico, which to me, a denizen of New Jersey who’d never been west of Chicago or south of DC, might as well have been the moon.

Then I received a brochure from Elat Chayyim about their upcoming summer Jewish Renewal retreat in Accord, New York. Lo and behold, Rabbi Gottlieb was scheduled to teach during one of the weeks! I applied and, given my starving student status, received a scholarship to enable me to attend.

But just then, my son, who was teaching in Prague, decided to come home for some of the summer. If I went to Elat Chayyim as planned, I’d have had to miss time with him. Although Rabbi Gottlieb would be there for only that week, I figured I’d be despondent after my son returned to Prague, so I changed my retreat week to one that would take place after he left. And I decided I’d even splurge and treat myself to one of the $50 massages being offered at the retreat, which would be only my second-ever massage.

Without Rabbi Gottlieb there, I chose a class in Kabbalah. Spirituality and mysticism have been occasional elements in my life, with me devoting a good amount of energy and attention to them at times. That summer, I felt especially open to and interested in both. The Kabbalah class was taught by Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, then the rabbi of the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley. (For this New Jersey resident, it was hard to say which was more exotic and strange – Berkeley or the Aquarian Minyan.) Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank was possibly the gentlest man I’d ever met. He and his class, his creativity and his energy, were a continuous revelation. I felt ongoing wonder and amazement as we studied and learned and experienced together. Even though this was in 1993, I felt as if I were back in the 60’s – only being a more authentically “young” person than I’d actually been back in the real 60’s. I felt open – and I was amazed to be having these feelings in a Jewish context. (Unfortunately the world lost a great spirit when Rabbi Wolfe-Blank died at a very young age just a few years after that summer.)

I perceived both Rabbi Gottlieb and Rabbi Wolfe-Blank and their teaching as being exotic – so different from my East Coast/Eastern European/Holocaust survivor experience of Judaism. Here I found a place for my creativity and my individuality, a place where my uniqueness (or my oddness) could be not only accepted, but honored and celebrated. Maybe it was this that lowered my barriers and let me be open to what came next…

Each retreat attendee was assigned to a small group mishpocha (family) – kind of like a homeroom – where we met first thing in the morning and then again in the late afternoon, to share our experiences. Lee, one of the few men in my mishpocha, had just completed a course in massage therapy and wanted to practice. He offered a free massage to everyone in the group. Great! I can get the massage and save the $50. 

The time for the massage came. As I was about to get on the table, I looked at Lee – and I saw him surrounded by a golden aura. I caught my breath and was smitten. And then I thought, Oh no! He lives in California. 

At a very few times in my life, I’ve had what I consider “mountain peak” experiences (in which I include rare experiences of visions and voices). I had studied a bit of mysticism and different beliefs. And a lot about astrology because I had a co-worker who was very knowledgeable and generous. I knew a bit about auras, and I had seen one or two, but nothing as startling as the golden aura around Lee. Although gold auras are usually associated with saints and other divine beings, the message I received was Pay attentionthis is a good man, and one who might be very important to you.

I spent much of the rest of the week trying to get Lee’s attention, but, to my increasing dismay, to no avail. At the closing circle of the retreat, I was crying. Lee came over, gave me a hug, which was clearly not meant to offer anything more than kind support. Lee also offered me a full-size box of tissues, saying he didn’t want to pack them for his flight back to California. Being sure I’d never see him again, I made copious use of those tissues on my drive all the way back to New Jersey. 

And then I wrote to Lee…

Lee and I  have just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Especially on Shabbat, I remember exactly how much I longed to be with him on that first Shabbat during the week we met. As we celebrate Havdalah at the end of Shabbat with our arms around each other, I glance at that box of tissues in its hallowed spot in our home, and, in wonder, thank the Shekhinah for bringing me together with my bashert.

Like Rebecca, the heroine of her upcoming novel (Rebecca of Salerno: a Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder), Esther Erman was a refugee. The daughter of two survivors of the Shoah from Poland, Esther was born in Germany. A naturalized citizen, she early developed a passion for language. After receiving her BA and MA in French from different divisions of Rutgers University, she returned there for her doctorate in language education. She wrote her dissertation about Yiddish, her first language, which she had abandoned at age five. A multi-published author, Esther now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Lee. When they’re not traveling—especially to be with family in other parts of the US and in England—she loves to bake, quilt, and add to her monumental book collection. Her website is EstherErman.com.


Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

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 www.grandparents.com and as a columnist for www.seniorwomen.com. You can visit her website for more information: www.feridawolff.com or her blog at http://feridasbackyard.blogspot.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity