The journey back home, you know, the one that begins with the first step, often begins by walking out the front door.
Loaded with a backpack that would stagger the burliest Navy SEAL, I stumbled outside toward the car. My father was waiting at the driver’s side with a wide grin. He was to take me to the Johannesburg train station, destination: Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “You must be crazy,” he said. “What do you need all that stuff for?” Perhaps he was right. After all, I was embarking on a spiritual journey-why all the baggage?
That glorious day was the first official step on my wide arc back home. Not back home to Jo’burg, but back home to my roots. It was November 1992. I was heading forth to conquer, running solo. I was going to find myself. Over the following nine years, I explored 35 countries throughout Africa, Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and the Pacific Rim, coming into contact with a plethora of cultures and wisdom traditions, constantly seeking the unified vision, the spiritual apex, the ultimate understanding of why we are alive on earth. It was a blessed journey, and I have a library of multi-colored memories, along with a veritable U.N. of friends.
The spiritual high became my top priority, challenged only when distracted by European chocolate. I met mystics and meditators, shamans and charlatans, activists and criminals. And I was not alone. My spirituality-seeking brethren and I saw ourselves as cosmic corpuscles flowing through the veins of the living Earth, transferring energy as we traveled, sharing essential-and existential-information with one another, and leaving beacons that point the way to the nearest slab of Cadbury’s double-thick and other essentials. We knew our goals, and we were young and committed. But we had to keep moving.
In November of 1994, I arrived in Dharamsala, northern India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. And then everything changed. I felt I had discovered something very special, an ancient, carefully developed, and authentic wisdom tradition with many worthy teachers and, of course, the Dalai Lama himself at their head. Not only that, the Tibetans were themselves a worthy cause, needing support in their struggle for freedom from the oppressive, brutal Chinese regime. I dove right in.
Dharamsala starts in the plains and ascends up the foothills to the snowline of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas. It is a magical place: majestic snow-capped peaks, forests, meadows, and tiered barley fields set among picturesque villages of adobe and slate. Besides the familiar slew of spiritual seekers I recognized from the global vascular system, I noticed a marked increase in the Israeli population and a disproportionate number of Jews. In fact, I discovered this in most of the spiritual centers I visited across India, but nowhere was it so pronounced as in Dharamsala. According to the Department of Information at the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv, 28,000 Israelis visit India every year, and nearly 20,000 of them head for Dharamsala. Jews, it seems, are great seekers.
My integration with the Tibetans was swift: I went into retreat, I studied, meditated, asked questions, I tried to be a good Buddhist boy. Along with others like myself, I would go into silence for days, sometimes weeks at a time. I soon discovered that there were many serious Jewish Buddhist practitioners who had ascended the ranks of the Tibetan Buddhist world. These and other Jews from an array of Buddhist sects across Asia are collectively known as JuBus. After all this time of denying any form of self-labeling, was I now going to be pigeon-holed, no matter how accurately or-quite frankly-how cool?
There are stories, many of them, that tell of Jews who were intending to take on Buddhist practices, but when the Dalai Lama discovered their intentions, he explicitly discouraged them from so doing. His general attitude is this: If one were to seek spirituality at home with the same sincerity, breadth, acceptance, and commitment, one would certainly find what one was looking for. We are born as Jews for a reason: to be as Jewish as we can.
Azriel Cohen, who runs an organization that hosts large Passover seders and programs around the Jewish holidays in Dharamsala, initially led a small delegation to meet with the Dalai Lama. He respectfully requested the Dalai Lama’s permission to run Jewish-focused religious festivals in what is ostensibly the Tibetan leader’s seat-in-exile. The Dalai Lama’s response was full of laughter, but telling: “Permission? It is my pleasure! You are the Chosen People, not so?”
In 1999, I reached a crossroad. I was a director of the World Festival of Sacred Music, the Dalai Lama’s millennium initiative. Each continent was to host such a festival, and it was my responsibility to see that the African event took place in Cape Town that December. It was a gargantuan undertaking that brought me back home to South Africa. While I attempted to make it all dovetail, I began to explore Jewish teachings and was a frequent guest at local Shabbat tables. I began learning basic Kabbalah under the guidance of Rabbi Dr. Arthur Seltzer, a Lubavitcher from New York. He had a deeply positive effect on me, and together we navigated this transformational period of my life. There was no longer any doubt that I was moving closer to Judaism. The depth of the spirituality and the personal and communal commitment fascinated me. I was compelled to know more.
Rodger Kamenetz, author of the well-known book The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, documents a meeting of the Dalai Lama and eight rabbis. Kamenetz and I once shared some thoughts on the present state of the Jewish world and the fact that so many Jews are disconnected from our tradition. What the Buddhists have done, he said, is create a Buddhism for export from which Westerners benefit. What we need to do, he continued, is to create a Judaism for export-and then import it back to ourselves.
About halfway through ’99, with a profound sense of the changes that lay ahead and a commitment to move with dedication and patience, I decided that I would head for Jerusalem. This empowering resolution altered my experience in every possible way. In January 2000, I packed my Cape Town life into boxes and embarked for Israel.
My first port of call was the Mayanot Yeshivah, which proved to be a good entry point into Jerusalem and Judaism. The young men living and learning there, warmly called bochurim (boys), came from socio-economic backgrounds similar to mine. There was a range of ages and degrees of Jewish exposure, from successfully secular to newly religious and everything in between. I spent seven weeks there and, thanks to the open attitude of the rabbis, was able to come and go as I pleased.
It was during that time that I discovered Safed, the ancient city that is the heart of Jewish mysticism. Close friends encouraged me to head up there for a visit and get a taste of Kabbalah in 3-D. I was intrigued and soon discovered that an old high-school friend and his wife were, in fact, living there, running programs for an organization called Livnot U’Lehibanot (“To Build and To Be Built”). They invited me for Shabbat, and I accepted.
From the moment I tasted that Shabbat in Safed, my life took a sharp turn. I will simply say that without rebuffing any of my former choices-all choices are ultimately Providential-I happened upon the most fitting home for me. So I stayed, and through a remarkable range of escapades, here I have remained. The ancient city accepted me, flaws and all. I met teachers and sage mentors, developed deep friendships, and discovered my wife, Tiferet, here. We have made a life for ourselves in the Artist Quarter, where she illustrates children’s books and I produce documentary films on spiritual and cultural topics, focusing on Jewish issues and life in Israel. It is no overstatement to say that we live a blessed life. I have returned, awed by the gifts that lie hidden within my true home.