(I began writing this piece in 2001, but only recently came across it in my files. This true story fills in essential details of my spiritual history and journey with my Dad and ex-husband.)
It was a day like none before or since. Larry had a borrowed kepah on his head. The kepah is a traditional skull cap worn by Jewish men as a symbol of respect for G-d and the spiritual covenant with G-d. Larry, my ex-husband who is the father of our daughter Jesse, is always willing to don some object on his noggin, with the intention of evoking laughter from either himself or an audience — whether it be with a box, a sock or jock strap.
Larry stood in shul motionless beside me as he faced the bimah. I did not detect any humor or levity coming from him, nor did I permit myself to be tempted to laugh at the incongruous image I had helped create. Wrapped in a white and black tallit, a traditional prayer shawl whose purpose is to make all men equal in the eyes of G-d, Larry would have blended in without distinction among the Conservative congregation. Had it not been for his 6’3” height, clearly making him taller than the hundreds of people encircling us, it would have been difficult to spot him. He stood with such composure and grace other Jews may have thought he was a tzadik, a righteous person, and one of long-standing membership in this Denver, Colorado shul. How natural he fit, humbly present.
But I knew better. Larry was no Jew and had no intention of becoming one as I had done the year before on June 17, 2000, after a long period of study that culminated in three dips in the mikveh, the ritual bath of purification. This formalized my admittance into a clan I knew since childhood I had already belonged, a continuation of the line on my mother’s side of the family.
Under other circumstances, Larry would have found plenty of material to form yet more of his irreverent comedic shtick. No topic is sacred or off limits for his jokes, gestures and self-deprecating humor, nor does he exclude from appropriation any organized religion’s practice or attire he finds amusing or absurd. When Pope John Paul came to Denver in 1993 Larry was most prepared. He had purchased a white and gold foam replica of a pope’s hat and wore it with glee. Larry concurred with Groucho Marx when Groucho said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that’ll accept me as a member.” But that did not mean Larry wouldn’t appropriate the outfits.
That day was the first time Larry had ever stepped foot in a Jewish sanctuary, months since he had accompanied anyone to any religious service, ceremony or celebration. Those few occasions when he did participate it was always, just as with this day, in a spirit of coming together to honor family and friends, strengthening the invisible bonds of trust, loyalty and compassion.
Shabbat prayers were well underway when I turned to look at him, keenly aware something powerful was happening.
In Larry’s profile was quiet trembling. I stood beside him watching for several anxious moments before he noticed me staring and so he turned part way to face me. The finest of red threads, like those on a road map, were clearly visible in his eyes. His tear-filled glance was of awe not pain, so my fear dissipated.
All the while Cantor Goldstein’s operatic prayers penetrated our core. We stood in rapt attention as his voice filled the sanctuary with sounds powerful enough I imagined the music passed through the invisible barriers of each one of our souls, and continued through and beyond the thick walls of the enormous sanctuary to infinity.
Cantor had begun belting out the Shema, the central prayer in Jewish liturgy when I observed Larry’s trembles. Unbeknownst to me, the force of Cantor’s ardent devotion had prepared Larry for a different way of seeing.
“Are you all right?” I whispered, stretching upward to get closer to Larry’s right ear. To his left stood Jeff, the boyfriend of our daughter Jesse. Jeff was also wearing a kepah and looked equally righteous. Jesse stood motionless next to Jeff, both of them looking at Cantor, neither of the teens aware of my concern for Larry.
Larry nodded his “Yes” while whispering back, “I’ll tell you about it later.” He then turned his gaze quickly back toward the Ark, the place where the Torah scrolls were displayed — the ones that were in good enough shape to be used regularly in service, as well as the others that were no longer in rotation because they were worn and fragile, no longer repairable.
I was compelled to look where Larry stared. I had that surprising feeling like there was something he had just spotted up there that I too must see. I scanned the bimah, the podium located in the center of the sanctuary where the Torah is read, paying attention to the people who stood on it and closest to it. I saw nothing unusual.
Every so often I found myself peering from the corner of my eye at Larry’s face, trying to discern if he were in any distress. Again in whisper I asked if he was sure he was OK. He repeated his hushed affirmative and turned to stare straight ahead.
Since his outward expression remained unchanged, I redirected my thoughts away from him but I had an unnatural feeling: I was particularly eager for this service to conclude. Eventually a calming sensation came over me and with it a reassuring understanding. I realized whatever it was that was going on with Larry was actually a positive thing, and it had something to do with my Dad. I was sure of it. Dad was here with us, but whatever he was communicating just then was between him and Larry. I was to wait patiently for Larry to be ready to share it with me.
At the end of the service we took turns happily embracing each other goodbye. Jeff and Jesse waved to us as they drove away in Jeff’s car. They were unaware Larry had experienced anything extraordinary in shul. Larry and I waved back at them and walked to Larry’s car.
“I began to feel, that I had a sense, something was about to happen,” Larry said as we pulled out of the parking lot. His eyes were still moist. Not certain he should be behind the wheel I asked if he wanted me to drive.
“I’ll be fine but I am disoriented. I feel like I am not fully here, like I’m not on the ground. I don’t feel like myself. It’s hard to explain. During service I could feel a vibration starting, slowly at first. I became concerned, like Uh oh, here it comes. I knew that something was going on with me, that something was going to happen but I wasn’t sure exactly what, or what it would do to me. I was pretty sure it was probably a vision, because I was feeling that vibration coming on. It’s a real distinct sensation, unlike anything else I’ve felt. I didn’t know if it was going to make me collapse or pass out. The vibration kept building and building up inside of me and getting more and more intense. Then I started feeling anxious because I didn’t know if I could handle it. This hasn’t happened to me in a public place. I didn’t know if it was going to make me want to jump up and run out or fall over,” he said starting to laugh.
“Did you hear anything or see anything?” I asked.
“I was looking straight ahead and then all of a sudden I saw every manifestation of your Dad, in all of the incarnations he has ever appeared to me. One by one he came in view, walking from the left rear of the congregation across. No, he walked through the people.”
“Were your eyes open the whole time or were you seeing it through your third eye like other visions you’ve had?” I asked.
“My eyes were open. I don’t think I was seeing from my third eye. I could see your Dad and the others with him as holograms, in color. One after the other, it was like a procession.”
“What was Dad doing?” I asked.
“First I saw your Dad as the young brave. He looked the same way he appeared to me the morning he died, when he came and sat at the foot of my bed. He was wearing the loin cloth and a single feather at the back of his head. He walked through the congregation and right up the steps of the bimah. He walked behind Cantor. Then he bent down and placed something in front of the Ark. He stood up and he continued walking, with the others following right behind him.”
“Where did he go?” I asked.
“He walked past the Ark,” Larry said as he motioned to the right with his hand. “Then he stepped off the bimah. He kept going, with the others following him, and then they were gone.”
“You mean, like vanished disappeared?”
“Yes. That part of the vision stopped but there was more. It continued, again from the left.”
“What did he leave?”
“It looked like a bundle, something wrapped up. He put it on the floor in front of the Ark.”
“How long did the vision last?”
“The whole thing probably took about twenty minutes, but it’s hard to tell exactly. I’m not aware of time passing when these happen. Maybe it was twenty minutes from the start of when I felt something was going on with me.”
“Who was with him?”
“A group of other Indians. He was the leader and they were behind him. Some were walking but others were on horseback. At first I thought they were warriors because they were carrying long spears. But then I figured out they were probably a hunting party. I could see they were carrying supplies so they were likely on the move. There were several of them, maybe seven or eight.”
“Did he say anything?” I asked.
“No. I didn’t hear anything. None of them looked over at me. The whole time I was just observing and trying to stay with it. It took so much concentration to hold the vision, not to lose the connection. I’m really tired.”
“Then what happened?”
“Your Dad appeared next as the Indian Chief. He was in his full headdress. He came from the left side of the shul, from the same place where he first appeared as the young brave. The Chief walked through the congregation and made his way up the steps of the bimah and left a bundle. It was bound together. These were some kind of gift. It was an offering he was leaving. I could tell these were valuable. They looked like skins, leather hides, the kind that are specially prepared for sacred occasions.”
“That sounds right,” I said. “The original Jewish temple was the place of worship, the place where people brought their sacrifices. They were commanded to bring offerings that were the most perfect or finest,” I explained, not sure if Larry really heard any of what I was saying.
“Then after he walked off the bimah, out of sight, the next one was your Dad as the Buddhist monk. He was wearing a saffron robe. There were a bunch of other monks with him,” Larry said.
“How old do you think he looked?”
“It’s hard to tell, but he was probably the oldest of the monks. They followed as he walked up to the Torahs. He left something too. It looked like a small box. I think it was a metal container. I have no idea if there was anything inside it,” he said.
“How big was it? Is it anything you recognized as being part of Buddhist practice and meditation? Like something you might be able to find in the Buddhist store where you bought your prayer bowl?”
“I’ve never seen a box like this but I will look around. I could probably recognize it if I see one.”
“Then what happened?”
“Same thing. He walked off, to the right, just like the Indians. Then your Dad, as Joe, came in from the left and he did the same as the rest. I’d say he was in his fifties, about like he looked when I knew him. He was wearing a sport coat. I saw him reach for his back pocket and take something out. It was probably his wallet. Knowing your Dad it was most likely money. That’s what he would have left.”
“Was anyone with him?” I wondered.
“No. He was by himself. When he walked away the vision ended.”
Larry was still visibly affected from the experience, maybe even more from the retelling of it. Now I was feeling exhausted.
“What do you think about it? What does it all mean to you?” I asked.
“I think there are several things. Maybe when I think about it more I’ll realize other things but I feel he was clearly conveying the message that he supported you. He was validating your Jewish path. He was showing you respect, and honoring you, for what you are. What you are doing with your life.”
“And you think as Joe he’s not upset that I’m not doing the Catholic thing like he did his last time around?” I asked.
“No. He accepts you and what you are doing here. That was real clear. Because each of the times he appeared he left a gift. It was his way of showing his respect for G-d, and for the Torah and the Jewish religion and to you. The other thing I got is that in each of his reincarnations, I’m talking about the ones revealed through the visions I’ve had, your Dad lived as a spiritual man. That’s the part of him that never changes, never has changed. Your Dad has always been a highly spiritual man.”
“You’re right about that, even though he wasn’t a practicing Catholic, in terms of going to church, I mean. That kind of Catholic.”
“I feel incredibly humbled,” Larry said with a halting pause as he tried to hold back his emotion. “While I was watching all this, I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was. What a gift I was being given. To have this contact. To be somehow deserving? I don’t know what to think. I can’t even find words to describe what I was feeling. I know this is special, to have these experiences. For him to reveal this and however it happened that I was being permitted to experience this. I can’t describe how it felt. So humbling. I was in awe at what I was seeing and the emotion I felt he was carrying with him. And then there was the anxiety I had, all going on at the same time because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold it together. I was afraid what was happening to me was more than I could take.”
While Larry described the vision I felt my heart expand beyond the great joy I already felt from an inspiring morning in shul. The emotion I felt was beyond measure for I knew my Dad appeared as much for me as he did for Larry. I had wanted Larry to walk into my Jewish world and see what it was like. To hopefully feel the source of peace I had found through an affinity with kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism. I felt encouraged Larry might begin to look more closely at this path with a greater appreciation of its spiritual value. To look at my Jewish path, not only with new eyes and a new heart, but with a knowing, a certainty, that it was good because my Dad was without a doubt conveying this. There existed an ache in me, an ache to share this with Larry as we had shared so many other significant experiences and journeys.
The ancient kabbalists were Jews whose mystical experiences seemed to be most similar to mine, who expressed an understanding of some of what I had come to understand. It was from recognizing my Jewish identity, in the deepest way, through kabbalist teachings and practice that I had felt like I had returned to my spiritual source and had finally come home. In this circle of spiritual warriors I felt I had found my kin.
It was important Larry know some of my Jewish journey, and how necessary it was for me to feel connected to spiritual seekers and kabbalists, those who I believe knew at least some of what I have experienced or were striving toward that end. With my Dad’s blessing evident by the display of his spiritual unity in all his forms, I felt Larry would be even more supportive of our daughter and Jeff who were also committed to being observant Jews.
What Larry said next was unexpected, yet when I thought about it many months later, it seemed so clear he was meant to be in shul to witness what I had already found to be true.
Larry told me he realized while in shul that he knew the Jews had tapped into something.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They have figured some things out,” he told me. “Jews have a more direct route to the spiritual source,” he said with absolute confidence.
This was what I learned while I was preparing for my mikvah ceremony, something many people uneducated about Judaism fail to appreciate. Jews have removed obstacles to a relationship with G-d, or put another way, to their own understanding of G-d. There’s nothing in the way, no hierarchical structure of priests, bishops, ministers, saints or a pope who are regarded as an intermediary between themselves and G-d. In Judaism there is no teaching of multiple deities and G-ds, as is found in Hinduism and Mormonism. Neither does the Christian trinity concept of G-d — as in the form of a father, son and holy ghost — exist within Judaism.
While Christians created a religion inspired by the life of a Jew and his teachings based in Torah, and while many Buddhists have chosen to make a godlike entity out of Buddha — some even elevating their Dalai Lama to godlike stature — the Jewish religion has no one, living or dead that holds that status. Though rabbis serve a meaningful role in conducting ritual observance and facilitating Jewish law, rabbis are first and foremost teachers, not intermediaries to G-d.
Larry said he was struck by the forceful energy he felt among the congregation. He was particularly surprised at the involvement and personal interaction of the members. Throughout the service he said he saw most people praying and singing. He understood the Jewish practice of commanding Jews to worship in community, instead of retreating exclusively to solitary worship, can help raise the vibration of those present. Not that Jews are prohibited from praying alone — they are not — but the energy created by the group’s intention with their voices was an effective way to bring them to a heightened level of spirit and strengthen the awareness of being one with each other and with G-d. Larry speculated it might have been that his own vibration was enhanced while surrounded by this group energy thus enabling him to experience the vision.
As I listened to Larry describe his new insights, I knew all of it was true and necessary for us. I was in awe of the great mystery and I understood it as bashert — this was meant to be, a part of our destiny.
— Giselle M. Massi copyright 2001 and final edits April 21, 2017; Groucho Marx quote from his appearance on TV show “What’s My Line?”; For more on kabbalah, read my Jan. 2000 column What is Kabala?