"I always say it is lingerie and meditation that have kept me young," says Michael Attie, a 62-year-old author, spiritual seeker and former owner of Playmates of Hollywood -- the world's largest lingerie store.
Once known as "The Lingerie Monk," Attie managed to combine his passion for spirituality with 13 years of selling sexy lingerie on Hollywood Boulevard.
I first met Attie when I recorded his mother's family history, and she told the story of her son inheriting Playmates of Hollywood. Her husband owned the store until 1982, when, faced with declining health, he called his son, who was meditating in the woods of Northern California, and asked him to come home to run the lingerie store.
Michael Attie made the most of it.
"I created the tongue-and-cheek Lingerie Zen Sect, which claimed that the fast way to enlightenment was to meditate in a lingerie store. I had meditation classes upstairs and occasionally I'd do ceremonies in the store, like the Feather Boa Dance.
"Whatever your circumstances are, that's the perfect setting to investigate the nature of awareness. Since I had a lingerie store, that was the fastest way for me."
I actually experienced a Feather Boa Dance once at Playmates. The customers dancing through the aisles included hookers, actresses and a senior citizen buying lingerie for her newlywed granddaughter. While we danced, Attie engaged us with a running commentary on the Zen of lingerie.
Attie and I met recently to discuss his recently published book, "Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way: A Guide to Meditation, Spiritual Awakening and Fun" (Neon Buddha Press, 2005). Attie says it's "an eccentric, nonsectarian, open-hearted, inspirational and de-confusing guide to the spiritual path."
Attie's own spiritual quest started in the 1960s when he, along with scores of other young Americans, many of them Jews, spent time in Japanese Zen monasteries and Indian ashrams, searching for gurus and spiritual illumination.
I asked Attie how his own Jewish upbringing related to his spiritual journey.
"My father was a Syrian Jew, which was a very tight community and they all intermarried among themselves," he said. "He was the first to marry a Yiddish -- my mother. Mostly everyone in the community was aghast, 'Don't do it! If you marry a Yiddish, you'll be a slave. If you marry a Syrian, she'll be your slave!' He told them, 'But I love her!' Perhaps I inherited a rebellious nature from my father."
"For my dad, being Jewish was mostly a social and cultural thing," he continued. "He'd go for High Holidays to the Syrian temple in rented rooms on Western Avenue. I had my first disillusionment on Yom Kippur; all the kids were running around on the street and I found my father at the Pig and Whistle, eating a big steak!
"I was bar mitzvahed, but 1950s L.A. Judaism didn't inspire or stimulate me," he said. "I go to bar mitzvahs today and can see how Judaism now can hold kids. They are vastly more challenging and spiritual than I remember from my youth."
In spite of not feeling drawn to the religious aspect of Judaism, Attie is deeply connected to being Jewish. "Of course, the deep spirit of Judaism is part of me; to me that means a sense of humor, a love of art and learning and compassion for all peoples and the planet."
Attie has found another link to Judaism: playing the accordion with his Don't Worry Klezmer Band.
"Somehow the Eastern European Klezmer musicians were a deeply Jewish archetype: wandering the Carpathian Mountains, they would appear, play their wild, anarchistic music and disappear, wandering on to the next town," he said. "In the shtetl one never forgot the fragility of life; the pogrom may be on its way. No music is both happier and sadder; life is blowing on the wind and tomorrow may never arrive. Live for now and enjoy this moment fully."
I asked Attie what was next for him.
"Amazingly, in my 62 years I've seen very little of America and have always wanted to. It seems like my opportunity has arrived. I'm going to get a van, load up my dogs, Rufus and Homer, boxes of 'Many Ways,' my accordion and spend a good part of the next year on book signing tours. My life as a klezmer gypsy may just be beginning. Of course, I begin each book signing with the 'Do the Dharma Polka.' The audience is invited to sing along."
On Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m., Michael Attie will read from and sign "Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way" at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 476-6263. To find out about his free meditation instruction and practice, visit www.dontworryzendo.com.
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of "Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.