I am Jewish. My parents were Jewish. My grandparents were Jewish and all their parents and grandparents were Jewish. My father's father's name was "Abraham". His brother's name was "Moses". I was circumcised, went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and ate more than my share of bagels, lox, gefilte fish, and matzoh balls. Like any good Jew, I celebrated the High Holidays.
Wait... hold on a minute... I don't think "celebrate" is actually the right word. Make that "endure" -- me, as a young boy, being far more devoted to baseball and playing with my dog than fiddling around with that silky, red prayer book marker separating one section of indecipherable Old Testament text from another. My Rabbi, the very forthright, wise, benevolent, Rabbi Alvin D. Rubin, always seemed, at least from my adolescent point of view, to be wondering if he had, somehow, lifetimes ago, taken a wrong turn out of the Sinai desert, finding himself, as he was, these days, shepherding a flock of polyester-wearing suburbanites way more interested in their golf game than the unpronounceable name of God.
These were my roots -- not the grey roots my canasta-playing mother religiously turned blond the day before each family visit to the temple -- but roots, nonetheless. The hand I was dealt. My karma. The surreal, slightly salty smorgasbord of my not-yet-enlightened life.
Please don't get me wrong. I am not complaining. My introduction to Judaism was not a bad experience. On the contrary, it was good -- full of warmth, comfort, and the safety that comes from hanging out with "one's own kind". But the older I got, the more it dawned on me that it wasn't religion I was looking for, but whatever it was it was that inspired religion to come into being in the first place -- not the Ten Commandments, but the feeling of amazement that preceded them being inscribed on stone tablets.
And so, on the day I went off to college, I decided to take a break from Judaism. Though I still found the word Deuteronomy quite intriguing and knew, in my heart of hearts, I would miss the rugala after each irregularly attended Sabbath service, it was time for new adventures.
Fast forward seven semesters to my senior year of college.
As I crossed the threshold into my parent's house for Christmas vacation (notice I didn't mention "Hannukah"), my mother greeted me with three words I will never forget: "THE RABBI CALLED" -- a phrase that could only mean one thing: I had done something terribly wrong.
"He wants to see you," she continued. "Tomorrow morning."
While not quite a burning bush moment, I was definitely feeling the heat, as the echoes of my mother's words fanned out into the vast suburban horizon: "The Rabbi wants to see you... The Rabbi wants to see you... The Rabbi wants to see you".
Though I hadn't been to Temple in five years, I still remembered where it was and made my way there, dutifully, the next morning. Nervous? Yes. But more than that, curious.
The Rabbi was sitting behind his desk, smiling. Behind him were shelves of many books.
"Mitchell", he began. "Welcome. I'm going to cut right to the chase. We've been following your progress for years and... well... you see... there is shortage of Reform Rabbis and I want you to seriously consider entering the Rabbinate."
"Deer in the headlights" could not begin to describe the feeling I was having. More like "wildebeest at sunrise".
The rest of our conversation was a blur -- me half Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and half Lenny Bruce on speed. The Rabbi mentioned something about me not having to pay taxes on my future house and I mentioned something about a motorcycle.
Later that night, my father, whose belief in God seemed be escalating exponentially the closer I got to losing my Vietnam-phobic college deferment, wanted to talk.
"How'd it go?" he asked. "What did the Rabbi have to say?"
"Umm..." I replied, stalling for time. "It was... interesting. The Rabbi wants me to become a Rabbi."
"That's great," my father blurted. "You'll make a great Rabbi."
"But Dad," I protested. "I don't believe in God."
My father looked up.
"That's really not important," he said. "You like PEOPLE, right? You like to READ, right? You'll make a great Rabbi."
"Dad... I don't think that's how this stuff works."
Five years passed. I went to Graduate School (in poetry, not medicine). I married a Shiksa (not a Jew). I took LSD (not the law boards). And I, blissfully, became the student of a 13-year old Guru from India. My parent's response? A kind of dark night of the upper middle class Jewish soul punctuated with words like "tsuris", "mishugahah", and a ton of other Yiddish words they used whenever they didn't want my sister and I to know what they were talking about -- which was often.
But then a funny thing happened. The plot twisted. My good friend, Steven Ornstein -- also Jewish and also a student of the same young, Indian Guru -- invited me to an "Evening with Shlomo Carlebach", a Jewish Rabbi, who was one of the leading lights of the "Baal Teshuva movement" -- a movement I knew nothing about -- one that was apparently designed to attract secular Jewish youth back into the fold. Shlomo, Steven assured me, was the real deal -- not your run of the mill Rabbi, but a true "keeper of the Jewish flame..."
So I went. What else was I going to do? Eat a salami sandwich?
The first few minutes of Shlomo's presentation are unremarkable. What I see is a disheveled man with a beard and a guitar mumbling a few words of introduction to a very conservative audience wearing their well-pressed Sabbath clothes. First he starts strumming. Then he starts singing. Then he starts smiling as if the Red Sea is about to part.
"OK, fine," I say to myself. "We're in for a Yiddish Hootenanny with a non-traditional Rabbi just back from Israel. Cool".
But the next thing I know, Shlomo is jumping up and down. Not just a little. A lot. This is not shtick. This is not some Borscht Belt Vegas act. This is a man plugged in, on fire, and all of us can feel the heat.
With each deeply moving song he sings, Shlomo gets more animated, more out there, but the "out there" he gets isn't out there at all. It's IN THERE. Something is going on inside this man and we can all feel it. His own private Idaho? His own promised land? It's hard to tell, but what isn't hard to tell is how much he's enjoying himself and, even more than that, how much he wants the rest of us to join in.
It's clear now, that Reb Shlomo Carlebach, wide-eyed, soulful leader of the still forming Jewish renewal movement, is polarizing the room. Half of the congregation is with him. The other half is squirming in their seats, planning their escape. But Shlomo doesn't seem to mind. Like some kind of crazed bar mitzvah band leader in an alternative universe, he makes a few gestures and gets everyone standing, holding hands, and moving in unison up on stage and then down again -- a curious mix of hora and suburban conga line.
I have never seen anything like this before in a temple. Never. We aren't praying, we are PLAYING -- and the play is sparking the experience that prayer is supposed to take us to. Freedom. Joy. And gratitude. The last time I had been on a stage in a temple I was reciting my Haft Torah -- 14 lines I had painstakingly memorized for months so I could "become a man". Now it's all improv. Nothing is rehearsed. Nothing is memorized. Nothing is at stake. The only thing happening is joy.
Shlomo walks to the ark, takes out the Torah, and hands it to a smiling, young man who immediately starts dancing with it. Dancing with the Torah! Yes! Yet another phenomenon I have never witnessed before.
"My Holy Brother", he calls to the young man to my left. "My Holy Brother", it is so good BE with you. "My Holy Sister", he intones to the woman to my right. "Do you know what a blessing you are on this Earth"?
And the amazing thing? Just by saying these words it becomes instantly true. Whoever he hugs, whoever he directs his spontaneous declarations of love to suddenly FEELS holy, suddenly FEELS blessed, suddenly FEELS totally alive -- touched as they've been by the kind of "Lo, I say unto you" energy that has the power to instantly turn words into reality.
And then, with no absolutely warning, he turns to me. "Oh my Holy Brother", he exclaims, tapping his mic three times, "go find the Rabbi and tell him I need more power! Go!"
Man on a mission, I descend the stage and begin my search for the Rabbi. It doesn't take long. I find him in the kitchen, with his wife, rapidly putting on his overcoat. Very rapidly. If this was the Wild West, the Rabbi is, most definitely in his "get out of Dodge" mode.
"Rabbi", I ask, with as much respect as I can muster. "Shlomo needs more power".
The Rabbi says nothing. He just stands there, looking at me, shaking his head. The next thing I know, he is out the door, his wife trailing behind.
I return to the main room. "Shlomo!" I exclaim, "the Rabbi has left the building. He wasn't willing to give you any more power".
"Fine, my Holy Brother", he says. "I have my own power!"
And with that, he unplugs the mic and begins singing even louder than before, his jumping up and down some kind of unhinged call to prayer to anyone in the general vicinity.
Five minutes pass. Many people leave. Those of us who stay are all on stage now, spinning in circles, laughing, singing, arms outstretched, or simply gazing into a distance that is becoming increasingly closer.
"Shlomo!" calls a bearded young man in front of me, his shirt untucked. "Let's take this to my apartment! I live only two miles away".
And so, in a few minutes, the evening's caravan of love continues out the door, into cars, down a road, up some stairs, and into a book-lined, dimly lit abode of a local Hassid now kvelling, beyond belief, that Shlomo -- Reb Shlomo Carlebach -- charismatic, rule-breaking, wide-eyed leader of the still forming Jewish renewal movement, not having slept in God knows how long, is going to be holding forth (and fifth and sixth, no doubt) in just a few minutes, without a break and without a single complaint -- a motley crew of Hassids, hippies, and holy fools by his side.
Standing next to my Holy Brother, Steven, in the middle of what no one has a name for, I have no clue what the protocols are -- or if any exist... or if it matters... or why I am even thinking at all. Shlomo certainly isn't. He is just taking his seat, the one he is offered, surveying the room and sensing, once again, that this -- this HOLY MOMENT -- is the perfect time for a STORY. And so he begins.
I remember nothing of the story he told that night, not the plot, not the setting, not the characters. All I remember is the feeling -- the feeling of wonder, the feeling of awe, the feeling of being absolutely in the right place at the right time and being so utterly glad to be alive.
And when he is done (which, by the way, is something he never is), a great laughter fills the room, followed by a flood of Talmudic references I have no clue about, and the voice of someone, from the back, calling out, "That reminds me of a story".
And so another one begins... and then another.. and then another, waves of spoken love and wisdom bubbling up from a buoyant ocean we are all swimming in.
But even ecstatic Rabbis get tired, and Shlomo certainly is, his nodding no longer a sign of his unabashed appreciation of life, but a prelude to sleep, which is precisely when Steven and I, trusting our instincts, approach and ask if he would like a ride back to his hotel.
Wired as this man was to the experience that everything is coming to him directly from God, he nods, stands and, as he exits the room with us by his side, embraces as many people as he can get his hands on, saying something kind to everyone -- then continues with us, out the door, to the street below.
Thirty minutes later, we are in his hotel room, Shlomo making a beeline to a small bag of tangerines he had just brought back from Tel Aviv.
"These, my Holy Brothers, are sweet. You must have one. You must."
And with that, he begins peeling -- one for Steven and one for me.
The three of us, now sitting on his rumpled bed, are enacting a Jewish ritual that transcends space and time -- noshing. Sweet. The tangerines are sweet.
Then Steven speaks.
"Reb Shlomo," he begins. "A few years ago, my friend Mitchell and I, met a young Indian Master and received a very powerful inner experience called Knowledge. We are wondering if this experience is referred to in any of the Jewish holy books".
Shlomo's ears perk up, his eyebrows arch -- a signal to Steven to elaborate.
"Oh yes, YES!" Shlomo says, "absolutely", quoting from the Talmud, Kaballah, and God knows how many other sacred texts.
Steven and I keep looking at each other. We cannot believe our good fortune. I mean, here we are, completely out of the blue, having a private audience with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, wise man, sage, holy fool, storyteller supreme -- when we notice that the room has become suddenly quiet. Curious, we both glance at Shlomo. He is asleep, fast asleep, sprawled out sideways on the bed like some kind of beached Biblical whale, snoring lightly, shoes still on.
Steven, on a roll, leans closer and whispers into Shlomo's ear the news that his good friend, Mitchell, was going to be getting married in three weeks.
Shlomo, from a deep sleep, sits bolt upright and looks right through me. "I'll perform the ceremony," he says. "Me! I'll marry you!"
If I had been Saul on a horse, I would have been knocked off by now, but I wasn't. It was just me, sitting on a bed with Shlomo and Steven in a mid-priced, mid-town Boston hotel room, 5,504 miles from Jerusalem.
"Um... Shlomo," I say. "We already have a Rabbi".
Shlomo's eyes open wider. "Is he straight?"
"Well... a lot straighter than you, Shlomo."
And with that, Shlomo smiles, closes his eyes, falls back, and goes to sleep. Steven and I stand, turn out the lights, and continue on our way.