Because I first met Eliezer Sobel on a meditation retreat, the first things I remember about him are his socks. The most important rule at such gatherings, where taking off one’s shoes is inevitable, is to bring good socks. But Sobel’s weren’t just the warm, wool socks that every retreat veteran has. They were loud, bright, multicolored; they were striped and polka-dotted. They were sartorial socks, reflecting not only his expertise at retreats, seminars, weekends and the like, but also his personality: colorful, wild, just a little bit outrageous.
This month, Sobel, a noted teacher, writer and former editor of the magazine Wild Heart Journal, has a new book out, a novel called “Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken” (University of Tennessee Press). The book, a series of 10 interconnected tales of mostly middle-aged Jewish men wrestling with mortality, the legacy of the Holocaust and their own emotional traumas, is not the serious tome one might expect on such subjects. It’s more a wild amalgam of gallows humor, Kerouac-style riffing and, ultimately, a sincere search for the meaning of life in a difficult, broken world. During our interview, I remarked to Sobel that the book contains a lot of suffering, yet at the same time there is both a lightness about the writing and a combination of fatalism and joy in some of the characters.
“Sounds suspiciously like my life,” he replied.
Sobel’s life has indeed been a long, strange trip. Born and raised in Fairlawn, N.J. — when I asked him about his childhood, Sobel’s response was, “Oy” — he eventually became what he now calls a “failed hippie.” “I had the ragged, torn clothes, the hair down to my shoulders,” Sobel said. “But it was only an external uniform, with none of the freedom and joy that was supposed to go with it.”
So he went searching — really searching. In his words: “I’ve been on many extended silent retreats, for up to 20 days at a time; to Rajneesh’s ashram, where I had to get an AIDS test to get in, wear maroon robes during the day and white robes at night, and get sniffed by two pretty girls assigned to protect their already dead guru from his allergies to scents; to holy spots in Israel, where I froze up on Mount Sinai, prayed at Abraham and Sarah’s tombs, Isaac and Rebecca’s, Jacob’s and Rachel’s, lay through the night atop the Ari’s gravestone, and took his icy-cold mikveh, supposed to guarantee liberation. I’ve been through primal therapy, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetics,
object relations and half a dozen regular talk therapists, not to mention endless sessions with psychics, channels, tarot card readers and body workers. I’ve participated in more than 200 workshops and intensive seminars with names like Making a Difference, Personal Reality, Conscious Love, The Mastery Course, Actualizations, Direct Centering and The Power of Acknowledgement. I’ve allowed myself to literally be beaten up by four very big guys in a confrontational encounter weekend designed to bring your rage to the surface, and then in a similar group I was held down by 10 guys so that I couldn’t move and was sure I was going to suffocate and die, and had a very, very heavy woman therapist literally sit on my head for an hour so that I could re-experience being smothered by my mother. And I promise you,” he said, taking a breath, “you have no idea how many things I’ve left out.”
With that history, I felt I could ask Sobel some deep questions. Like, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Sobel: “One of my favorite answers to this question came from Stewart Emery, the founder of Actualizations. He used to say, ‘I don’t know what the purpose of life is, but for sure it isn’t to have a bad time.’”
“What would you like your epitaph to be?”
“I’m glad that’s over.”
“What’s the most inaccurate thing someone’s ever said about you?”
“He’s so relaxed with people.”
If Sobel seems to be playing the fool, it’s partly because he is — but only in the original meaning of the holy fool, the one person who can speak truth to power and, through humor, convey some of life’s deepest truths. He couldn’t resist leaving the “meaning of life” to one quote, explaining that “I believe life, paradoxically, does have meaning, but it isn’t to be discovered through posing the question and looking for an answer, but rather is experienced directly in the expression of genuine love and caring that can only happen when the mental ‘looking for answers’ is relinquished.”
“Minyan” is based in the seeming paradox that what is most serious about life is also the most absurd — and thus, the funniest. At the heart of the book, says Sobel, is when one of the main characters witnesses someone dancing on the graves of his dead relatives in Germany. “He learns his great life-transforming lesson: If we are sad and broken, then Hitler won; if we can sing and dance with joy, then Hitler lost. This goes way beyond mere gallows humor to the point of mystical, ecstatic expression in the face of All That Is, and I felt it was important enough to feature that idea in my painting on the cover, which depicts Reb Miltie dancing in a graveyard, bringing with him a great light.”
The Holocaust haunts “Minyan,” as it did Sobel’s own childhood. In one passage, which Sobel admitted was autobiographical in nature, a character recounts: “It’s as if on the day of my birth, as I took my very first breath, I intuited — even then — the presence of something sinister and evil in the air. I was somehow aware that this was not a planet with a good safety record for Jews. I was born frozen with fear of the specter that had permeated the world, that had generated terror in the minds and hearts of all Jews everywhere, including the ones I met when I first got here. I was the world’s first paranoid baby. And I’ve been scared of everything ever since.”
These are serious themes, of course, and Sobel’s book sometimes lurches wildly — raising serious issues one moment, telling jokes the next. His prose style reads as if the book were written with him on amphetamines (it wasn’t), and Sobel credits not only Kerouac but also Zen Buddhism as a source for his method of writing. As a college student, he wanted “to experiment with nonstop, uncensored writing practice as a spiritual discipline, a sort of mindfulness meditation on paper, using the practice not to create something to be read or communicated, but merely to become aware of thought processes.”
After realizing that “99% of my output in that mode was drivel,” Sobel became more serious about integrating artistic and spiritual practice, a process that culminated in the book, course and magazine titled “Wild Heart Dancing.” As he put it: “Whether one is letting oneself go into a cathartic, wild dance; singing songs and sounds full out from a surrendered heart; or writing or painting with unbridled abandon and freedom, the principle is always the same: The arts are an exquisite vehicle for exploring the fundamental spiritual fact of life — that in any given moment, we have the capacity to drop, or step aside from, the narrow, limited, me-oriented personality and allow a deeper, mysterious expression to pass through us, one that moves way beyond mere ‘self-expression’ in that it emerges from an inner well that is interconnected and one with the Whole of existence. It is our true originality and vision, our unique piece of the cosmic puzzle that is our responsibility and mission to contribute.”
These days, Sobel has stopped going to (and leading) retreats and self-help seminars. He’s focused on his writing and on his music. A classically trained pianist, he has a degree in musicology from the University of Virginia. And now, he is concentrating on introducing his unique blend of wit, spiritual search and “wild heart” creativity to the Jewish audience. It remains to be seen whether the Jewish book-reading public will warm to a book that treats even the Holocaust with a caustic sense of humor, albeit one that is redemptive in the end. Then again, as one of Sobel’s friends (who became the basis for a character in “Minyan”) put it: “If 6,000 years of intense oppression, persecution, pogroms, Holocausts and general all-around suffering doesn’t give you a sense of humor, what does?”