If you don’t live in New York City it is unlikely that you know about the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Though there is a long and interesting history of the intersection of African Americans and Jewish culture in New York City, there is one group with amazing uniforms that is both vocal and incredibly racist, who preach loudly and belligerently on the streets of Harlem and Times Square about their understanding of the Old Testament and how Jews are devilish impostors. They openly condemn whites as evil personified – deserving only death or slavery. Additionally, part of their theology is how various peoples from Central and South America and the Caribbean are actually the original tribes of Israel.
I’ve seen them for years.
I’ve been shouted down as a “so-called Jew” white devil who kills black people for fun and who has built my home on the bones of black children by these guys more than once.
When W came to the table, he sat down and reported that that he had recently left his religion entirely. He was 20 years old and a former Black Israelite. He quit two weeks before he sat down with me and said that though he was raised in the religion, the racism and hatred finally became too much, so he quit and is now questioning everything he thought he knew.
He doesn’t miss it.
So how can I be of service to you? What do you need a creative approach towards?
This sweet and spiritually longing young man took off his baseball cap and plainly stated,
I am now not sure how to live my life and by which principles to follow, now that I can’t trust the ones I was given.
A stranger on the street asking another stranger how to live his life? What philosophy should he take up or follow now that he has shed his?
No small question and no small responsibility.
I didn’t speak it but what came to mind immediately was the story of a counsel that Gandhi offered to a Hindu man.
Nahari: I’m going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy’s height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
It is a beautiful story. I was inspired by its counter intuition. How can the Hindu raise a devout Muslim son?
And so the direction was the same. Go where you have just closed the door. Looking W in the eye I asked,
I know why you left them. What was the greatest gift and lesson that the Black Israelites gave you that you could still say was true?
W was startled by the question. His open face suddenly darkened as he buzzed through memories. After coming up with a few starts of sentences he finally came through with a pause and then,
I learned how to be with someone and know if you can trust them.
I knew what he meant.
Even if the lesson was used in a skewed way the lesson itself can be accurate. I told W that this is the gift that he must be grateful for and must not ignore. He can refine and elevate the gift but he must not forget to honor where he received it and where they received it from. That his lineage of trust went all the way back.
W appreciated this. He was heartened and said so. It soothed the sting of the break up a bit. But the issue still wasn’t settled – how to live his life? Gratitude for trusting wasn’t enough.
It would have been so easy to espouse the merits of Zen or Advaita Vedanta or Marcus Aurelius or Hermes Trismigestus or any philosopher. This man had been under a harsh and controlling discipline. He was full of newness. But Emily Dickinson came to meet him instead. He had never heard of the Belle of Amherst. But I told him that she was a superior American poet who wrote poetry without fail every day. It was her unflinching passion. A quote of hers seemed to meet the moment:
Why must the ecstatic be pushed to the margins?
Poetry was her ecstasy. But she is right.
That which makes us feel transcendent does indeed get pushed aside.
W smiled at the permission that Emily cracked open. I told W that we know of no reason that pandas do handstands but they do them all the time. Perhaps they just do them for the joy of it. So I asked W what was his ecstasy that he could always count on?
W and I were now open and friends. When you ask a 20 year old guy what his ecstasy was it was not a surprise that his first slightly embarrassed (but not really) answer was,
We both laughed but I said that required someone else. His ecstasy had to be self-contained. He gazed up and to the left as if the answer resided a yard above his head and came with a second answer,
But what about basketball? What moment is ecstatic? What moment to you feel free?
W said that he loved the game and every moment was fun and exciting.
“But when do you feel ecstatic? When does that freedom take over?”
I was pushing for him to be precise with his experience and see what opened up there.
It was like tugging at a secret that he longed to tell until it popped out.
In a jumpshot. When I am almost at the highest point and I have beaten my defender and he is below or on the side of me and then I am at the top of my jump and I know the ball is going to go in. Man, I play for that moment.
Who wouldn’t? How beautiful. When he spoke it, it was true for me too. And I never was much of a basketball player or fan.
I asked him if he had other ecstasies. Now that the gate was open he went right for it. He pulled out a pad of paper and showed me his drawings. W said the final stroke of a drawing when he knows the drawing is done is an amazing moment for him.
“It seems,” I told W, “that you have a way forward. Follow those ecstatic moments and see what philosophy that leads you towards. There may be a whole different life to live – let alone a way to live it. And while you are at it maybe read some Emily Dickinson.”
W put his hat back on and shook my hand and said,
Thank you so much. I never would have thought of this. I am really happy to know it now.
He handshake/chest-bumped/half hugged me and was off.
I was overjoyed at being available for him.
What is the ecstasy that you have been pushing to the margins?