How One Writer Conveys Spiritual Truths
That Are Seriously Funny
By Jay Michaelson
published in The Forward,
November 19, 2004
Because I first met Eliezer Sobel on a meditation retreat,
the first things I remember about him are his socks. The most
important rule at such gatherings, where taking off one's shoes
is inevitable, is to bring good socks. But Sobel's weren't
just the warm, wool socks that every retreat veteran has. They
were loud, bright, multicolored; they were striped and polka-dotted.
They were sartorial socks, reflecting not only his expertise
at retreats, seminars, weekends and the like, but also his
personality: colorful, wild, just a little bit outrageous.
This month, Sobel, a noted teacher, writer
and former editor of the magazine Wild
Heart Journal, has
a new book out, a novel called Minyan:
Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken (University
of Tennessee Press). The book, a series of 10 interconnected
tales of mostly middle-aged Jewish men wrestling with mortality,
the legacy of the Holocaust and their own emotional traumas,
is not the serious tome one might expect on such subjects.
It's more a wild amalgam of gallows humor, Kerouac-style riffing
and, ultimately, a sincere search for the meaning of life in
a difficult, broken world. During our interview, I remarked
to Sobel that the book contains a lot of suffering, yet at
the same time there is both a lightness about the writing and
a combination of fatalism and joy in some of the characters.
"Sounds suspiciously like my life," he
Sobel's life has indeed been a long, strange
trip. Born and raised in Fairlawn, N.J. — when I asked him about his
childhood, Sobel's response was, "Oy" — he
eventually became what he now calls a "failed hippie." "I
had the ragged, torn clothes, the hair down to my shoulders," Sobel
said. "But it was only an external uniform, with none
of the freedom and joy that was supposed to go with it."
So he went searching — really searching. In his words: "I've
been on many extended silent retreats, for up to 20 days at
a time; to Rajneesh's ashram, where I had to get an AIDS test
to get in, wear maroon robes during the day and white robes
at night, and get sniffed by two pretty girls assigned to protect
their already dead guru from his allergies to scents; to holy
spots in Israel, where I froze up on Mount Sinai, prayed at
Abraham and Sarah's tombs, Isaac and Rebecca's, Jacob's and
Rachel's, lay through the night atop the Ari's gravestone,
and took his icy-cold mikveh, supposed to guarantee liberation.
I've been through primal therapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetics,
object relations and half a dozen regular talk therapists,
not to mention endless sessions with psychics, channels, tarot
card readers and body workers. I've participated in more than
200 workshops and intensive seminars with names like Making
a Difference, Personal Reality, Conscious Love, The Mastery
Course, Actualizations, Direct Centering and The
Power of Acknowledgement.
I've allowed myself to literally be beaten up by four very
big guys in a confrontational encounter weekend designed to
bring your rage to the surface, and then in a similar group
I was held down by 10 guys so that I couldn't move and was
sure I was going to suffocate and die, and had a very, very
heavy woman therapist literally sit on my head for an hour
so that I could re-experience being smothered by my mother.
And I promise you," he said, taking a breath, "you
have no idea how many things I've left out."
With that history, I felt I could ask Sobel
some deep questions. Like, "What's the meaning of life?"
Sobel: "One of my favorite answers
to this question came from Stewart Emery, the founder of
Actualizations. He used to say, 'I don't know what the purpose
of life is, but for sure it isn't to have a bad time.'"
"What would you like your epitaph
"I'm glad that's over."
"What's the most inaccurate thing
someone's ever said about you?"
"He's so relaxed with people."
If Sobel seems to be playing the fool,
it's partly because he is — but only in the original meaning of the holy
fool, the one person who can speak truth to power and, through
humor, convey some of life's deepest truths. He couldn't resist
leaving the "meaning of life" to one quote, explaining
that "I believe life, paradoxically, does have meaning,
but it isn't to be discovered through posing the question and
looking for an answer, but rather is experienced directly in
the expression of genuine love and caring that can only happen
when the mental 'looking for answers' is relinquished."
Minyan is based in the seeming paradox
that what is most serious about life is also the most absurd — and
thus, the funniest. At the heart of the book, says Sobel, is
when one of the main characters witnesses someone dancing on
the graves of his dead relatives in Germany. "He learns
his great life-transforming lesson: If we are sad and broken,
then Hitler won; if we can sing and dance with joy, then Hitler
lost. This goes way beyond mere gallows humor to the point
of mystical, ecstatic expression in the face of All That Is,
and I felt it was important enough to feature that idea in
my painting on the cover, which depicts Reb Miltie dancing
in a graveyard, bringing with him a great light."
The Holocaust haunts Minyan, as it did
Sobel's own childhood. In one passage, which Sobel admitted
was autobiographical in nature, a character recounts: "It's
as if on the day of my birth, as I took my very first breath,
I intuited — even
then — the presence of something sinister and evil in
the air. I was somehow aware that this was not a planet with
a good safety record for Jews. I was born frozen with fear
of the specter that had permeated the world, that had generated
terror in the minds and hearts of all Jews everywhere, including
the ones I met when I first got here. I was the world's first
paranoid baby. And I've been scared of everything ever since."
These are serious themes, of course, and
Sobel's book sometimes lurches wildly — raising serious issues one moment, telling
jokes the next. His prose style reads as if the book were written
with him on amphetamines (it wasn't), and Sobel credits not
only Kerouac but also Zen Buddhism as a source for his method
of writing. As a college student, he wanted "to experiment
with nonstop, uncensored writing practice as a spiritual discipline,
a sort of mindfulness meditation on paper, using the practice
not to create something to be read or communicated, but merely
to become aware of thought processes."
After realizing that "99% of my output in
that mode was drivel," Sobel became more serious about
integrating artistic and spiritual practice, a process that
culminated in the book, course and magazine titled Wild
Heart Dancing. As
he put it: "Whether one is letting oneself go into a cathartic,
wild dance; singing songs and sounds full out from a surrendered
heart; or writing or painting with unbridled abandon and freedom,
the principle is always the same: The arts are an exquisite
vehicle for exploring the fundamental spiritual fact of life — that
in any given moment, we have the capacity to drop, or step
aside from, the narrow, limited, me-oriented personality and
allow a deeper, mysterious expression to pass through us, one
that moves way beyond mere 'self-expression' in that it emerges
from an inner well that is interconnected and one with the
Whole of existence. It is our true originality and vision,
our unique piece of the cosmic puzzle that is our responsibility
and mission to contribute."
These days, Sobel has stopped going to
(and leading) retreats and self-help seminars. He's focused
on his writing and on his music. A classically trained pianist,
he has a degree in musicology from the University of Virginia.
And now, he is concentrating on introducing his unique blend
of wit, spiritual search and "wild heart" creativity
to the Jewish audience. It remains to be seen whether the
Jewish book-reading public will warm to a book that treats
even the Holocaust with a caustic sense of humor, albeit
one that is redemptive in the end. Then again, as one of
Sobel's friends (who became the basis for a character in Minyan)
put it: "If
6,000 years of intense oppression, persecution, pogroms, Holocausts
and general all-around suffering doesn't give you a sense of
humor, what does?"
Jay Michaelson is an author,
contributing editor to the Forward newspaper, and the founder
of Nehirim, a national LGBT organization.