I entered the tea-scented room, took a yoga mat and joined a circle of 20-somethings seated on the hardwood floor. At the head of the small space, an enormous, black poster splashed with cosmic rays and multicolored planetoids were propped against the wall, titled, "The Tree of Life." In front of it, paced a bright-eyed, young Israeli man dressed in soft, saffron-colored pants and an oversized polyester shirt rainbowed with gigantic, shining Buddhas.
This was Gahl Sasson's Monday night kabbalah class at Los Angeles' Golden Bridge Yoga Studio, and it was definitely nothing like the Judaism I had come to know.
I am a 25-year-old woman who, until recently, identified herself as a cultural Jew. Born in New York, I knew where to get the best Brooklyn knishes; I'd been shopping at Loehmann's since I was 6, at Grandma's I ate Entenmann's. No question, I was Jewish.
Yet in college, classes in world religions filled me with questions. Reading texts such as "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," "Mahabharata," even pagan books, I felt an exciting tug at my soul -- these religions seemed alive, as if they were speaking to me in a way that Judaism never had. Reading about delicate Buddhist sand mandalas, altars of scented candles, strings of prayer beads and silver amulets felt beautiful, esoteric and accessible.
I explored path after path: Buddhism, Wicca, even Christianity. Yet somehow, the more I explored, the more images of temples, Hebrew script, Torahs and even my grandparents' thick Yiddish pushed their way to the front of my mind. Still, I wondered, how could Judaism -- a tradition I always saw as plain, not esoteric -- ever give me the same spiritual excitement as a Tibetan mantra or an exotic incense?
Then I stumbled across a book about kabbalah, Ann Williams-Heller's "Kabbalah: Your Guide to Inner Freedom."
Paging through the book, I saw descriptions of the many aspects of God -- colors, mystical names and angels. Could this really be Jewish? Here was a real guide to the enormousness of God, not simply prayers but descriptions of God-ness and how it actually feels to connect with God. It felt like an epiphany: after nomadically hunting for some religion, any religion, to satisfy my spiritual hunger, here was my very own religion -- my very own home -- ready to fill me up.
So it was that I found myself visiting a friend in California, when I saw an ad for Gahl's kabbalah class.
Seated in a ring of young men and women with long hair, trendy clothing and conversations about their latest yoga classes, I listened to Gahl explain Binah (understanding), the third branch of the Tree of Life (a Kabbalist representation of 10 major aspects of God).
Gahl dimmed the lights and led us in a guided meditation -- Yes! Jews do meditate! -- in which we envisioned strolling through a beautiful mountain path and inside a deep, hidden cave. The light we imagined grew dimmer, and yet the air was warm; Gahl led us to discover a stairway lined with flickering candles. We followed the candles down to a deeper, sunken area with a throne upon which we sat. There, we invited Binah, the mother, to come to us. She appeared in our minds and, placing her hand upon our hearts, she blessed us.
Feeling overwhelmed with that familiar spiritual rush I'd craved for so long, I listened to Gahl explain how the leap from Binah, understanding, to the fourth branch of the Tree, Chesed (mercy), is a leap of faith -- a time of transformation which usually occurs at roughly my age.
In keeping with that transformation, since beginning my kabbalist studies, I have joined a temple and begun to learn Hebrew. The prayers are no longer foreign to me, but represent spiritually charged messages to God, as mystical as any Tibetan mantra. In fact, they are now even more beautiful to me because in speaking them, I resonate with my own ancestors' voices.
Inside a yoga studio, surrounded by paintings of bodhisattvas and Buddhas, I realized what Gahl -- and Judaism -- was trying to say: I can never fully understand God, not through the "right" prayers or the "right" worship or the "right" meditation. I can, however, strive for an exhilarating connection to God. Judaism, in all its forms, had been offering that to me all along; I just hadn't been ready to receive it. The spirituality I'd sought was not hiding after all, but waiting to be tapped by my understanding that the Jewish God is in all things, from my grandma's Entenmann's to our very own "mantra": Baruch atah Hashem, elokeinu melech ha'olam. "Blessed is God, who turns out to be in every part of the universe" -- even inside of me.
To contact Gahl Sasson, call (323) 653-8919 or visit www.lightenterprises.com .