On a break from a Hindu Ashram in the Catskills I stopped into Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-Mart in the mountains of New York happens to, in addition to an odd myriad of all types of strange people, house the Chasidic population on summer vacation from Brooklyn. Amidst a sea of Indian gods and goddesses, a frum woman is a bigger comfort than you could possibly imagine.
I eyeballed the peyas and the head coverings from afar and then got in line behind a lovely Jewess. She looked into my eyes, hers full of G-d, and she said gently, softly, “This lane is closed, I am the last customer.” My Colombian friend walked up a minute later and intending to translate into Spanish, I blurted out a quick Hebrew explanation of the situation. Then I looked at the woman, a flash of eyes again, and muttered, “I was just in Israel, things get lost in translation,” and scuffled off.
Yesterday during Yoga class we were doing upside-down Asanas and a male teacher stammered, “This pose will prevent varicose veins,” and then nervously tiptoed away. An awkward phrase, a verbal bomb dropped. He wanted me to know that hanging out upside down would keep my thighs supple, and I wanted this Jewish woman to know that I was a tribe’s member just returning from the mother ship, Jerusalem.
We drove back to the Ashram when we left the superstore. My compatriots were two women, one nineteen and Indian American, the other eighteen, fierce, and Colombian. We talked after that about what happened in the store, about my intense love for the mere sight of Chasids, and about how strange, even scary, some of the Americans in Wal-Mart really looked to me. It wasn’t that I hated them, or even thought they were ugly. It was something beyond that, something in their eyes, some mark of the unrecognizable that left me full of fear.
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, even the most bizarre, most horrific, most awkward human is recognizable within the small rubric that Jews, Non-Jews, Christians, devotional hippies and the secular offer. Every identity marker is measurable by the individual’s relationship to G-d, or lack thereof.
Nothing, bar the jets in the sky, the bombs at bus stations, the borders as warzones is scary, that is, nothing basic within the nation itself provokes any fear. I missed American diversity in Israel; I missed seeing multiple cultures and languages interacting in odd places like Wal-Mart. And then, at Wal-Mart, amongst people from all nations united under what looked like American poverty, I simply and purely missed Israel.
Back at the Ashram it was study night when we returned. First, though, we had to say goodbye to a girl’s visiting parents. Her tall, stately father waved goodbye, “Don’t let them brainwash you, honey.” Back in the realm of religious indoctrination I relaxed. That unrecognizable strain in the eyes of shopping mall customers was an unclear lineage, an unclear relationship to the holy. It wasn’t that they were bad people or ugly people, or even un-pious people, just, based on blanket assumptions; I could not assume that they were all G-d fearing people. Not a good thing, nor a bad thing, just a thing. I fear Wal-Mart customers because I don’t know for sure if they believe in G-d.
At this particular Ashram they happen to love Jesus. No one warned me. It was not an easy adjustment, from Israel and Yeshiva and a whole year explaining how idolatry, astrology, Jesus and a long list of others were forbidden. Meanwhile, I went, in the course of forty-eight hours into the rabbit hole. I am surrounded by idols of divine figures, of gurus, I pray with a priest who charges $54 and a piece of fruit for Vedic astrological readings and I listen to a very tall Swami quote Lord Jesus on a daily basis. In place of Shabbat, we get Sunday Hymnals. In place of Shacharit, Sivasana.
I have adjusted to Jesus. Not by obliterating or dying as a Jew, but by using my Torah studies to understand his presence in my ashram. It was Modern Jewish History and Chasidut combined that showed me about fringe religions. It was in Germany that assimilationist Jews adapted their synagogues to church structures in order to appeal to the masses. And it are the Chabadniks and Bratslovers who appeal to those on the edge of society, the edges of religious community seeking something more, something different, something to give them a sense of family.
So I calmed down on day five of yoga farm when I realized what I was seeing. I predicted that the guru, Swami Vishnudevanda, in from India in the sixties, wanted his Hindu Yoga tradition to appeal to the American masses and was using Jesus to bridge the gap. My prediction was true, this Swami was the same man who taught the Beatles about yoga, who flew his peace plane across the Middle East, over the Berlin wall, who had a passport “to the world” and threw flowers instead of bombs with Peter Sellers.
This leaves me at an Ashram in the Catskills, a few miles from Mazel Wok, from kosher pizza and ice cream, from more long summer skirts and Jewish camps than I thought existed. It leaves me in a temple, which I sweep once a day, full of everything my religion swears against. At the end of each day we pray, and tonight, only seven of us were there, seven women, a flame of knowledge, a song and an offering of food. I was safe in here, not in Israel, not looking into the eyes of a Jewish woman at Wal-Mart. I was safe in here, a community of devotion, which is the salve that Wal-Mart is not, which is the Israel I have sought all along.