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Urban Mystic: Finding Holy Sparks in the City

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For much of my life I gazed upon the world through the windshield of a suburban car. Zooming past Midwestern strip malls, parking lots and Taco Bells, I was no mystic. A one-inch pane of glass sealed me from the outside world, and in suburban St. Louis, where the streets are mostly empty of people, it was hard to see the world as One, to feel the animating sparks of the Divine.

Still, the first time a rabbi friend told me, "the separateness is an illusion," I was ready to listen. I had just come through a frightening medical mishap and a series of sleepless nights. Stripped of whole layers of the self, I was questioning everything and was exquisitely, I can only say 10 years hence, vulnerable. Open. The separateness is an illusion -- the phrase spoke to me of an underlying wholeness and unity, the idea that these separate ego identities we manufacture to help us maneuver through our world are just a scrim. They hide a deeper truth the mystics have always known: we are one.

Then, three years ago, midlife, I moved with my family to New York City and the veils fell away. I know that New Yorkers are celebrated for their busy, frenetic paces, their ability to circumnavigate a bustling terrain while remaining locked away in their carefully constructed, individual glass towers. Just get on the subway and watch the riders concentrate on carving out the fantasy that they are riding alone.

But I am not a New Yorker. I am a Midwesterner transplanted here, an idiosyncratically observant Jew, one who sings each Friday night at synagogue the soaring notes of Lecha Dodi, a song in which the entire congregation -- 300 strong -- turns in unison each week to the back of the room to greet a Sabbath bride "that is not there."

We are performing a ritual that acknowledges the unseen, the mystic possibility that what we do here, among ourselves, has the potential to rearrange the cosmos.

And sometimes (OK, occasionally) I actually manage to carry the Shema, the cry of oneness, the prayer we are to say just before we die, out with me into the world. It is a cry that the contemporary Jewish mystic Arthur Green says is not uttered for God but to tell ourselves -- to remind us -- of the underlying unity we can perceive in and through creation.

"Each flower, each blade of grass, each human soul is a manifestation of divinity," Green says. So I'll be riding my bike in Central Park, and suddenly the cheap tin sound of the carousel, the children riding, just a blur on my left, the popcorn smell and the cyclist's voice, telling the tourist from Minnesota about the $5 million apartments for rent and pointing to the tiered towers across the park, all of it, is mine. I feel part and parcel, caught up in the movement and swell, and rushing roaring surge of it all.

And because I am not a New Yorker really, though I love this city and dreamed it my whole life, I actually manage, unlike most of the real New Yorkers I know, to get out of my neighborhood. So on a recent evening, upon leaving the theater in Times Square, there was the girl with blue mascara and her cigarette smoke drifting in a kind of almost visible haze just brushing the shoulder of the tuxedoed man and somehow, they too were connected to the homeless guy claiming his bed on Columbus, jammed beneath the Lucky store awning.

Because I make my living as a writer and teacher, I often spend long stretches of time alone. The Baal Shem Tov began his prayers each evening alone among the trees of Okopy, in Poland. Henry James has said that writers must "pay attention" to the world. Mystics too, go through their paces, meditating upon the One. We're talking about consciousness here. A concentration upon the things of the world. Sometimes, when I leave Barnard, having meditated upon "Mrs. Dalloway," I am trailed by the ghost of Virginia Woolf. Better known to have walked her solitary, isolated self, pockets loaded with stones, into the River Ouse, Woolf was also a seer. I wonder if, in that last walk, she was seeking that mystic blur in the watery depths, where boundaries become permeable, that wash that renders it all whole. On her better days, Woolf walked the streets of London, much as I do here in New York City, and knew she was part of it All.

Her cohort in mystic vision and despair, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, offers another take on unity that I try to keep in mind as I traverse this teeming city. Although many have offered explanations as to why Moses, who communed with God face to face, was barred from entering the land of Israel, Reb Nachman says that up in that lofty air of Sinai, Moses had attained a level of communication with God that allowed him Divine access 24 hours a day. Still, he had to serve the people. He was needed amid the crowd. So Moses went down. But Reb Nachman says his sin is that for an instant, he resented having to go there. Moses, the great teacher, had forgotten the most basic truth of them all. It's about service.

When I first arrived in New York, I lived at the bottom edge of the island, near the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where I taught writing. The first night I wandered into the trailer that serves as a BMCC classroom, nudged against the West Side Highway. I was missing my University of Missouri Honors College students, my classroom of 12. Here were 30 strangers, one desk jammed against another and they had just come off eight hours at Starbucks, an accounting firm, a restaurant in Tribeca. A few looked up at me -- bored, tired, indifferent, resigned. But then I told them to write about a place that was important to them, and later, as they read aloud to each other, the sparks began to fly.

We had Lorenzo Sagaro in the front row in a hot pink button-down shirt. He had written about his grandmother's apartment, where he grew up, where he could still eat the same good food (his words) and hear the Yankees game playing. Traysie described the day when her Aunt Rey died, how the orange trees outside were filled with oranges while Aunt Rey went away somewhere Traysie couldn't follow. Kareem, in tattoos and muscle man T-shirt, wrote about his first snowfall in Harlem after moving here from Belize. Quan Fang Chen was afraid to read, and Ivan from Moscow was telling her it would be all right.

The Baal Shem Tov has said, "In all that is in the world dwell Holy Sparks, no thing is empty of them." In this great city, where we live lives crushed up one against another, it is easier sometimes to turn away, to focus on the next entry on an omnipresent "to do" list. What's more, New York is a vertical city. It's tempting to forget how caught up we are in the "Sky God" metaphors that lead us astray. The mystics urge us inward, within the human, where God dwells.

Then again, at certain intersections, like the one at 71st where Broadway and Amsterdam converge, to be human could cost you your life. The other day, amidst a driving rain, a woman in heels dashed across 71st next to me. Midway, she stumbled and her heel broke off. Nonplussed, she limped across, leaving the shoe behind. A scruffy boy who'd already reached the curb leaped before the oncoming traffic, retrieved the shoe, dropped it into her waiting arms and walked on. Awestruck, I gazed after him, seeing what Reb Nachman might have, remnants of his tower, shards of broken glass.

This column was originally published as part of The Jewish Week's "Text/Context: Fresh Encounters with Jewish Tradition" series. Shelly R. Fredman's writing has appeared in "Best Jewish Writing," the Chicago Tribune Magazine and a number of anthologies and literary journals. She is currently at work on a spiritual memoir, and she teaches writing at Barnard College and at the Skirball Center.

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Text Context | The Jewish Week