Through all the disappointments, challenges, and not feeling “at home” with most situations or people, I don’t think I’d be able to function if I didn’t believe there was a divine reason for everything. My spirit would for sure be broken. Although we can’t prove there’s a higher power, I strongly believe that life is a series of lessons and that we were put in our unique bodies to have all the experiences we were given. People who walk around depressed all the time honestly can’t believe this. If they did, they would know that suffering is a reflection of perspective and everything is about the way we cope. Just as children learn science, math, history, and the basic courses to make it through school, they should be taught principles of spirituality.
When my mother was told at age 35 she didn’t have long to live, she was lucky to have her dear friend, Beverly, who gave her some faith. Beverly not only made a vow to look after me when she died, but also opened my mother’s mind to her progressive beliefs about the soul, death, and reincarnation. She was gifted in her abilities to help remove the fear of death for friends and relatives that were passing.
To prepare for what was going to happen, Beverly encouraged my mother to study several books including Many Lives Many Masters, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Love, Medicine and Miracles. Before she left this world, she truly believed that she had a mission to complete and it was over. I’ve never seen someone deal with the idea of death so convinced that this wasn’t the end. I was left all of her reading materials and - for a 13 year old - the content was pretty heavy. The other kids in school were reading Judy Bloom novels.
I no longer had a mother, and my father was out of the picture. If there was such a thing as reincarnation, did it mean I chose my parents and my circumstances? Was I supposed to be alone with no brothers or sisters? Such were the questions that went into my thought process at that time. Strangely, I felt at peace in believing that my mother’s soul was always with me. I’m familiar with the concept of having a guardian angel but I felt like it was my mother’s own presence that stayed with me and kept me protected.
I began doing very deep soul-searching and all paths led to Eastern philosophy and healing modalities because I wanted to help people. My first teacher showed up when I was 18. His name was Lewis and he named his school “The Academy of Natural Healing.”
Lewis wasn’t at all what I expected. He was a Jewish guy from the Bronx and had been doing spiritual studies for over 20 years. He learned from Shamans and far-out healers and would share his teachings with a lot of charisma and personality. Often his mannerisms would make me laugh and his joking around could be borderline inappropriate if you didn’t have a sense of humor. His classes were totally unorthodox but I was only 18 and had nothing else to compare it to. It was pretty normal for us to be giving each other reflexology in the middle of a lecture or do some kind of Reiki healing. During our breaks, I’d run to the health food store on West 72nd street and grab a green juice and a side of brown rice. My whole lifestyle changed. I was living in the East Village, started eating only vegan, and my personal look was either hipster or bohemian depending on the season.
I really got into yoga during this period and went regularly to the shala in Soho to study with Eddie Stern. Eddie was another teacher that I assumed had Jewish roots, too, but I never actually asked him. I was often entertained by his clever wit while being contorted in a painful posture. Sometimes I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Although, through his close relationship with Patthabi Jois - the original guru of Ashtanga Yoga – he was nothing short of authentic. I learned from these two examples of how the real spiritual teachers never took themselves too seriously. It was the fakers that put on the air of only seriousness and being holier than thou. He never even advertised and it was almost impossible to get a space to practice and squeeze in your mat unless you showed up really early.
I started practicing daily at 6 a.m. - even on Sundays! My apartment took on the yoga theme and began looking like an ashram. I hung huge posters of Shiva and Ganesha, the Hindu Deities, on my wall. I laugh now because I thought I was so enlightened back then. I believed I had a better understanding of the world than other people because – unlike most of them - I knew some sacred teachings.
Yet even with all the yoga, meditating and spiritual work I did, I felt something was missing. The more I immersed myself in that world, the lonelier I became. All these rituals and teachings I had been learning that were derived from Asia, India, and the Far East were concepts I certainly respected but it didn’t feel like my tribe.
Although I was Jewish, I never knew anything about my own faith. My mother remarried someone who was Catholic. My father was removed and also an atheist. I never had a Bat Mitzvah or really spent time in a synagogue growing up. My limited perception of Judaism was just a lot of strict rules that made no sense. I was still proud, however, to be a Jew because my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I was also intrigued by great Jewish minds such as Albert Einstein and some of my favorite comedians - Jackie Mason and Mel Brooks.
I ended up attending a lecture with a Rebbetzin named Esther Jungreis on the Upper East Side. This woman was very petite in stature but she was a pillar of strength. Esther was a Holocaust survivor, a widow, a wonderful mother, and a grandmother. Her lessons would be about the “Parsha” which meant the Torah portion of the week. I knew nothing about the Bible but she somehow made it relevant to what was currently going on in the world.
She would also infuse mysticism, numerology, and connect the past to the present. I would listen to the biblical stories of all these great matriarchs and patriarchs and their challenges. Whether any of these things really happened is up to interpretation, but I found myself identifying with these characters. The greatest people in history didn’t grow up with a silver spoon; instead, they dealt with horrible tragedies, betrayal, jealousy, abandonment, and every painful emotion I had ever experienced times1000. Instead of being victims, they rose above their circumstance and became examples for mankind to emulate.
For me, this all lead to the question of why do some people have it so easy and others are constantly tested with challenges. Does God love people more who have happier, easier lives? I had never really believed that was the case, but Esther was sure to point out that we are actually closest to God when we trust in faith and ask for help.
No one calls out for help when everything is awesome, she explained, but only when everything is a mess, when we’re feeling hopeless, and when we can’t see the light on the other side. To my surprise I also learned that Judaism acknowledged ideas of reincarnation, and that dietary kosher laws weren’t just for health but for spiritual reasons, too. It was amazing to see the similarities between Judaism and Eastern religions. This was not typically spoken about in mainstream Jewish circles with the exception of what they teach at The Kabbalah Center.
Unfortunately, the more I immersed myself in organized religion, the more I witnessed closed-mindedness, judgment and hypocrisy. So many “religious” people I encountered weren’t necessarily spiritual or even good people. They did things because they grew up that way or maybe because they wanted to fit into a community.
I came to realize that there are beautiful lessons in every religion and spiritual practice, but you can apply those principles that personally resonate with you. You don’t have to take a stance on just one and dismiss all the others.
Whether you connect to God through prayer, chanting or meditation, it doesn’t matter as long as it feels good to you. I sometimes will sit in my room before bed and have a heart-to-heart conversation with God asking for help, guidance, and clarity. I will also set an intention for what I want to manifest and put it out in the universe. It’s kind of scary but I tend to see things unfold pretty quickly. Everything I have ever seriously focused on or prayed for has actually happened. Maybe it’s not in the exact way I wished for but I’d always receive some sideways version of my request.
Our thoughts are powerful and we need to be careful about what we ask for and put out energetically. This also shows us that - with some faith and conviction - we all have the ability to change our circumstance for the better.