My Sister and the Kabbalist



My Sister and the Kabbalist

By Kim Chernin



“Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch spent a great deal of his time meditating around ponds in order to learn the songs of the frogs. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz taught the languages of birds, animals and plants.”


In 1917 a scroll was found in a Jewish religious text repository in Cairo. It was the autobiography of Ovadia Ha-Ger, a Jewish convert who had set down the music for Wa-eda Ma, one of our oldest notated pieces of Synagogue music.

“Wa-eda ma Wa-eda ma adaber bashearim uma omar? Uma omar? Uma taan? Lamdeni.” 

“I know what, yes I know what I shall say at the gates. What shall I say? What shall I say? What will you answer? Teach me.”

When I first heard this song at a Jewish wedding in Sonoma it reminded me of my sister. I am sure she did not know this song and could not have taught it to me when I was a child. To sing me to sleep my sister sang a song with very different intentions. 

“Open up the second front, second front, second front, open up the second front and beat those Nazis down.”


Ovadia, who took his Judaism seriously, asked Maimonides if a convert would be allowed to refer to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as his fathers. Maimonides assured him that the convert who has attached himself to Israel is in every sense a descendent of Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov. To learn Judaism, to discover its sacred texts, its beautiful old songs, its rituals and practices, my sister and I would have had to approach it as if we were converts, although our parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents were all Jewish. Can Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel legitimately be thought of as my mothers? I want this to be a question my sister would have asked if she’d lived.  

Wa-eda Ma bears the signature of something that might easily have been lost; it is marked by the mysterious ways preservation happens. In the 12th century only a person trained in a monastery would have known the musical notation that made it possible to write down this Jewish music. Nine centuries later I find this song so compelling I have had to learn it by heart, I who will never manage to sing it in tune. What shall I say? What will you answer? Teach me.

When I lost my sister at the age of four I lost my first teacher. She had taught me to tie my shoes and hide the taste of spinach with mashed potatoes. I was a learned child by the time she died, knowing almost whole alphabets in Yiddish and English. My sister taught me how never to light a match. But I did. I lit a match after she'd disappeared, I stayed out after dark, I burnt my finger and blamed it on the boys who whistled below our window in the park. That was my first lie or the first I remember, or how would I have recognized a lie in this family of liars? After she died, I forgot how to read and tie my shoes and push the buttons on the elevator in our building. But I did not forget what it is like to be taught, given over to wonder, brought along to doings I might never otherwise have undertaken.

This is the story of one such journey into a new and mysterious relationship with my sister.


I have a friend called Leora; she was born in the Soviet Union and lived there during the 40s and 50s with her Jewish-American father and her Jewish-Russian mother. Leora, and I think that our parents, who were in the Soviet Union at the same time during the thirties, must have met. There were so few Americans living in Moscow at the time. 

Leora is my age. She was growing up in Stalinist Russia at the same time I had been growing up in America in the Communist Party. Sometimes, talking with her, I have the uncanny feeling that I am entering the life I would have led if my parents had remained in the Soviet Union, if I had been born there. Our families would both have been in danger, as hers was; we both would have been tainted by our American parents, feared, slighted and shunned by our school mates, as she was. She seemed in many ways to have lived my alternate life, the one that didn’t take place because my mother and sister had returned to California earlier than planned, although my father wanted to remain in the Soviet Union. He joined them reluctantly a year later, not because he’d become disillusioned with the Soviet Union or the possibility of creating a Socialist society. He came back because he missed his family, and in this way, given that he was a Jew and an American, probably saved his own life.  

The bond between Leora and me carries these mysterious traces. We knew each other in Berkeley during the 60’s, when we both took an introductory class in the Kabbalah. Then, for another thirty years, we lost track of each other. I heard from her again when she had read one of my books and sensed in it traces of Kabbalistic teachings. She had spent the years we’d been apart pursuing studies I had abandoned for a more spontaneous mystical experience. Or maybe I gave them up because my background was uneasy with them. I had written my first paper about Marx and Hegel when I was twelve years old. 

The Zohar, the most famous book of the Kabbalah, was composed during the 13th century by Moses de Leon, a Spanish kabbalist. He attributed the work to Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, a second century Jewish sage who lived for thirteen years in a cave in Lod  studying the Torah with the long-dead prophet Elijah. The Zohar was said to be the compilation of his teachings recorded by his companions when bar Yohai emerged from his cave. According to Leor, this story can be read as a parable about the divine origins of the new spiritual consciousness the Zohar brought to Judaism.          

Leora and three companions met regularly to study Kabbalah. Over the years they had grown familiar with a form of spiritual travel used by the Kabbalist masters as a way of healing troubled souls, making connections with ancestors, entering previous lives. When we were students, Leora had been interested in the mystical techniques she discovered in the texts: meditations, rituals, incantations, conversations with spiritual guides. Our instructor had tried unsuccessfully to discourage her. Now, when Leora and I began to exchange letters, we seemed as close as we’d been on our last day of class, walking out together arm in arm, whispering a meditation we had learned in Hebrew. 

Soon we were in daily contact through e-mails, phone calls, letters, gifts, photographs, ritual objects. I sent my recent poetry, she sent her memoir about her early life in the Soviet Union. We talked about her Russian mother who was still alive, and my Jewish mother who had died ten years earlier. I wished I had gone on studying Kabbalah, I wished we’d had thirty years of friendship. “We have arrived at the same view of life,” she said. “That can’t be a coincidence.”   

I loved her soft voice with its finely edged Russian accent. “My voice is not always this soft,” she said and so we talked about our daughters. She missed Russia; I longed to return to Israel, I wanted to visit Safed again. 

“Did you run into Isaac Luria when you were there?”

“Isaac Luria?”

“You haven’t forgotten Isaac Luria? The most famous teacher of the Safed school?”

“Leora, we're talking about the 16th century.”

“My friend Ari often goes to visit with them, just as they were back then, the whole community of them, wandering about the streets, dressed in white, performing their miracles. That is something you can learn. There are no walls, or none we can’t pass through.” 

“You’ve just dissolved time.”

“Simeon ben Yohai holding conversations with Elijah? You see what they are trying to say? And Luria of course conversed with Elijah.”

“Past, present and future…”

“Nothing we need take too seriously. These men, and they were mostly men, the Kabbalists of Safed, were capable of the most daring thought. They spoke about the female aspect of God, the Shekhinah. Did our instructor ever say a word about her? They went out into the fields at the beginning of the Sabbath, chanting and reciting psalms to greet her. Shalom aleikhem malakhei ha-shareit malakhei elyon… Do you remember?   We used to sing it in class.”

“‘Go in peace, angels of peace…’ I’m not sure. ‘Angels of the most high?’”

“Yes, wonderful, memory has been good to you.”

Leora had once seen her grandmother come out of the woods with a basket of mushrooms on her arm. She’d had a secretive expression on her face, as if she found it hard to return to being human. “You have to think like a mushroom,” grandmother had said, offering a mushroom for her to smell. “Otherwise they will never let you find them.”

When she lived in Moscow, my sister had gone mushroom hunting with a Russian friend of the family, an old woman with white hair made up in two braids on top of her head. Was that Leora's grandmother? My sister told me there were hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms and you could recognize them by their smell. You should not eat them because some of them were dangerous, but she would know and she would never let me eat anything that could hurt me.

“My grandmother believed that everything had a soul and of course the old Kabbalah masters taught that too. To serve God they had to speak in the languages of trees, birds, the grasses, the animals. My grandmother talked to the mushrooms, encouraging them to come out of hiding. Of course she had never heard anything about the Kabbalah but her experience of nature and the soul of nature was like theirs. One of the old masters taught that everything, the winds, the earth and sky, was the revealed aspect of God. My grandmother certainly would have agreed.”

“What did your mother think of all that? Mine would have been beside herself.    Waving her hands to dismiss anything she didn't like.  I can't even imagine telling her that your grandmother used to go about in the woods talking to mushrooms. Talking to mushrooms?”

“These ideas did not find an easy welcome in Marxism. It’s sad, but true. I struggled with them, too, but by the time we took the Kabbalah class that struggle was over. It might have been easier for me because we moved away and left that past behind but Marxism for you was never something you could leave behind; for you it was part of family life.”

“I’ve heard that my grandmother, my father's mother, could heal with the laying on of hands. This story wandered about in our family from time to time. But after she left the old country she gave it up.   Doesn't it make you wild to think what has been lost?”

“Or waiting to be discovered? My group and I take note of the old rituals and we practice them. Schula, the other woman in our group, wakes at midnight, washes in cold water, dresses herself in white and meditates on the Shekhinah. It is a very old practice. Why midnight? Because at midnight God enters the Garden of Eden.”

“When I was in kindergarten someone told me that if I could wake up exactly at midnight and look at the sky, I'd see the face of God looking down.   I never told my parents, I didn't even tell my sister, God was not mentioned in our home. But I kept trying to wake up at midnight and see God.”

“It's not surprising that these odd bits of teaching, forgotten everywhere else, come through in children. Do you remember staring at a candle when you were little? Luria studied the flame of a candle to locate the souls of the dead. He conversed with them. It’s all there, it’s there in the texts, but for many scholars it remains hidden. When they notice it, if they do, they think of it as magic, as black magic or simply nonsense. But you cannot cut off this branch of the Kabbalah and isolate it from the rest without wounding the rest. For the Kabbalists it was the most important part of their work and teaching. Those men were clairvoyant visionaries, they had developed the concept of gilgul, a theory of reincarnation that was not part of the classical Jewish tradition. They spoke of transmigration, the idea that souls could move from body to body, they could migrate from human to plant to animal. For me, transmigration, as Luria understood it, is such a beautiful idea, so respectful of every form of life, don’t you think?   This weaving together and circulation of all beings through one another, this universal wandering of souls.”

“It seems to me that they were writing poetry.”

“I would prefer to say they were living their poetry.  The Kabbalists could move without any effort, any at all, among the souls of departed people. So which came first? The idea that it was possible to converse with the dead, or the experience of it? The Kabbalah is not just something to be studied; it is a guide to mystical practice, as useful for people today as it was in the Middle Ages.” 

Her voice was quiet; the excitement was mine. Her group was studying a hidden world within a hidden world,  the most esoteric part of an esoteric tradition. It reminds me of those pictures my sister taught me to gaze and gaze at until the faces hidden among the leaves were suddenly no longer invisible.

Leora and her friends had been poring over their ancient texts for more than thirty years, hoping not to miss anything they could put to use. Everything they found that seemed practicable, they practiced. “Some of us are better at some things, you just can’t tell until you try.” Ari took seriously a Hassidic teaching requiring us to serve God in the language of the trees, the stones, the birds, the animals. He went to Safed, ancient, misty Safed, you know what it is like, looking down from its mountain on the Hula valley.   For ten days and nights he prostrated himself at Luria’s grave and he came back grinning. I don’t know if Ari learned how to speak the language of birds but if you go with him to the park you’ll see for yourself. At first we could hardly believe it, how the birds flock to Ari, perching on his head, on his shoulders, down his arms, covering his lap.

I have the phone up close against my mouth, but I notice that my voice is getting louder. “When my father was living in Moscow, I think it must have been that year after my sister and mother had gone back to California, he was friends with a man who said he knew how to speak the language of birds. I know for sure that my father told me this. But why? Why, in our household, did it even get mentioned? Maybe my mother was out at a meeting, maybe it was the time he was first teaching me to play chess. Not that I was any good at it. Odd conversations came through when we were washing dishes. My father didn't say he believed the man or not, he told me the story as an interesting fact. A man who once had said to him that he could speak with birds.”  

“If you look closely you can find these incongruous moments in every family, don't you think? People try so hard to hide them away, but they keep emerging.”

“I imagine this man picked out my father because he knew my father wouldn't laugh at him. But why not? He was just as much a Marxist materialist as my mother. Maybe more so. He studied and taught Marx. But I think he kept, even when he was an old man, a sense of wonder about the world? You could see it in the way he gardened. As if he were enchanted...not that he would have used the word.”

“Not an easy word to use.   Suddenly you feel as if you never stopped being a child. And then, with any luck, you realize how fortunate you are. Never to lose a sense of wonder about the world? In the beginning, we were all so enchanted by everything. We had trouble believing we, we ourselves, could succeed in getting anywhere with these old practices. But eventually we knew we could; it was a process of learning like any other. Schula would get into these ecstatic trances, she’d sit still with her arms outstretched, pale as the marble of the sixth chamber of God’s palace, scarcely breathing. She would pass through a series of gates into mystical gardens where the birds and butterflies were in conversation. Or she’d enter a world of pure sound, like the tinkling of a fine, silver mesh or a sea roaring or the beating of wings. She encountered angelic beings that looked like wheels. The Kabbalah calls them ofanim but Schula did not know this. We hadn’t discovered it yet, when she started her mystical journeys." 

What in the world would it have been like when I was growing up if we had been devoted to Kabbalah instead of Marxism? Instead of class-conflict and violent revolution, we would have spoken about the sixth chamber of God's palace? In this transposed family my father would have known by heart the ancient texts, he was always reciting something, quoting a poem, singing a passage relevant or not but mostly relevant to what we were discussing. For his Orthodox family his Marxism must have seemed as strange as it is for me to imagine him talking about a world of pure sound. 

Suddenly I am laughing. I can't stop, I bend over my knees, aching with laughter. I hear Leora's voice from a distance.   I grab the phone again. “I was just thinking what it would have been like to come from a Kabbalah family. Maybe, instead of my baby carriage holding leaflets for a demonstration, with me in a blue bonnet perched on top of them, my mother would have told me about angelic beings that looked like carriage wheels?”

“I see, yes.   It's like translating her into a different language, isn't it?”

“That's just what I should have done. Translated her into a different language. Oh Leora...I'm sorry. You were talking about Schula, go on, please go on, my mind just ran off with itself.”

“The next time we talk I'll tell you about Baruch.   For now, it's enough. Why should you stop laughing?”

“Schula travels, Ari goes to Safed.    You never tell me about the work you do. What is it?"

“We all have our day jobs. Ari and I are gardeners. Schula is a homeopath. Baruch, whose family is well-off and for some reason or other approves of our lifestyle, is our main source of support. He owns the house we live in…well, he’s written it over to all of us. But we know we wouldn’t be living as we do without his generosity. He’s a professor of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic…”

“I mean, what kind of ritual work do you do?”

“It’s not so easy to describe.   It’s a kind of contemplative, visualized journey with old Biblical roots. You can find descriptions of it in the Book of Enoch. Noah’s grandfather travels over stupendous mountains, crosses valleys and rivers, can move through any world and period of time. I have a guide, a Maggid, in my case a female voice with whom I can converse. Female voices are not unknown in the tradition. A female Maggid spoke to Joseph Caro, another member of the Safed community. I ask questions, I receive answers, I am shown scenes that obviously have a symbolic meaning. We have found that this type of journey is useful for helping people who feel troubled, are in pain, or have some kind of physical illness. I suppose, among the group, I am the one most directly involved in healing.” 

“I don't know what your friends are like, but it doesn't surprise me that you are the one helping other people. Could your friends do it if they wanted to? How does it work?”

 “It’s much the same, but also different when you travel for someone else.  First of all you have to have permission. It’s a journey with a guide, you never know what you will encounter, but the interpretation of it is left to the person who has requested it.   Some people see an immediate relevance to their lives, they work with the images the Kabbalist brings back, they do rituals and meditations on them. Often, they experience a lessening of their preoccupations and obsessions. For other people the journey doesn’t seem to make much difference.   They are grateful because you’ve gone to some effort on their behalf, but it doesn’t seem to help them.”

“Who is a good candidate for being helped?”

“Well, let’s see.” I could tell she was smiling. “I suppose it wouldn't be your mother? Why not someone like you?”

“How so, what am I like, what is someone like me like?”

“Someone not held back at the usual boundaries. People not afraid to cross a border. Someone who can imagine that journeys of this kind are possible and meaningful, even if they don’t journey themselves. I remember how you used to be in Kabbalah class.   Unforgettable really, the way you'd raise your hand and get to your feet and have to ask a question or make a comment no matter what was going on. I was shy and reserved, even more than now.   But I was just as eager to make a comment and it usually turned out to be very much like the one you were making. I suspect you would find no trouble entering these mysterious realms we were debating back then, if you haven’t already. ”

“What about getting back out of them?”

“That’s what guardians are for. There’s a beautiful teaching in the Zohar, maybe you remember it?   Where it says that the stars act as guardians over each individual being in the world? ‘The herbs and the trees, the grass and the wild plants. The smallest blade of grass in the earth has its specially appointed star in heaven…”       


One day I wrote to Leora about an anguish I experienced in the late afternoons, an extreme, mental turmoil that produced no images or thoughts. It brought a complete collapse of energy, a headache, pain in my joints, a feeling that someone inside me was screaming and howling as if she were being tortured. On some days it was less intense; on most days I had to grit my teeth to get through it. By evening it was usually gone, leaving me so exhausted I had to creep into bed and pull the covers over my head. For years I’d thought it was a memory of coming home in the afternoon from nursery school, looking for my sister who one day would never speak to me again.

Leora wrote to me about the first visionary journey she took for me. It took place under the protection of her Maggid: “Every single wisdom in the world has a particular chant, its own unique melody. When you chant that melody it will call forth the particular wisdom to which it is attached.”

Leora’s chanting had confirmed  two questions for her Maggid: “What is the nature of Kim’s afternoon ordeals? Can something be done to help her in these situations?” The Guide carried her over tall mountain peaks to the wooded hills between southwestern Russia and Romania. Far, far below she saw what looked like a Gypsy camp and asked to be put down there. The Gypsy group was colorful, feisty, noisy, dirty, haggard. A spirit of doom hung over them. Leora had seen a small girl of about eleven dart out of the camp and run towards the woods. She was dark, skinny, ragged, and a very fast runner. Leora ran after her but found her hard to catch. The girl turned into a monkey and climbed a dark fir tree, jumped into a lake, and started to swim away. Leora went after her. When she caught up she asked the child what she was running from. The girl told her she didn’t want to be with “them” any more, she wanted to live on her own. She said: “There is a curse on us.”

“This child was you,” Leora wrote. “You were escaping great sadness and pain. I think you may have been a Jewish child who had run off with the Gypsies. But it will be up to you to interpret these scenes.” 

Leora’s vision, as I read, traveled through me with the smoky quality of its doomed atmosphere. I couldn’t see the scene, I had no images of it, but the confusion of its emotional tension was suffocating. Standing next to my desk I started to choke on the smoke from the Gypsy campfires. The Gypsies, the curse, the frantic escape, the desperate running from a nameless dread--yes, I recognized them. The dark-eyed girl, the little girl running. How I could run at the age of eleven! Racing around the schoolyard, racing around the baseball diamond, running to the grocery store on Crenshaw Avenue, running away from anyone who tried to get close to me, running from any help that might be available. And swimming. As soon as I got to a mountain lake I had to strip off my clothes and jump into the water and swim across the lake. It didn’t matter how cold it was, who might be hiking there, how tired I had been a moment before. The lake appears; I spring into it.

In another scene of Leora's journey, the Gypsy child was attacked by a flock of winged creatures. Leora thought they might have been vultures. They ripped into her,   tearing her flesh, inserting sharp quartz crystals into her skin. I knew what these crystals were. They were knowledge, a knowing too painful for a small child. I was that child, pierced by the unknowable, running and running from a death that had never been allowed to happen because it had never been spoken.

I had met up with vultures as a child in New Mexico when we rode out into the mountains on horses. A terrible smell, a dead animal lying across the path, the startled, dark birds with their urgent hunger. We'd gallop by as fast as we could, but no one else had buried her face in her horse’s mane. Nine, maybe ten at the time, it didn't occur to me that I had just met death the devourer, the vulture who had eaten up my sister.

And the tribal curse?

My grandmother’s life, once she left the shtetl and moved to America, had all the elements of a curse. Her husband, who had gone ahead to the New World, didn’t want her or the four children she brought with her from Russia; he beat her, was ashamed of her, had an affair with another woman, spent as much time away from home as possible. Finally, some five or six years after she had arrived, he used her depressions as an excuse to shut her away in a mental hospital in Binghamton, New York. My mother never spoke of her own life as cursed, but I knew about her brooding. Her mother insane; her eldest daughter dead of cancer at a young age. She was arrested during the McCarthy period and kept in jail, threatened with the loss of citizenship and with deportation. In the late 60’s, during the Six Day War, her husband was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, early on a Sunday morning. The curse was at its worst when the vulture ate up the wrong daughter. The older daughter, the one she loved best.


Copyright © Kim Chernin 2011
Kim Chernin’s extensive body of work spans many genres, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and is frequently concerned with Jewish themes. Crossing the Border explores life on a kibbutz in Israel, discussing memory, experience, and the inevitable dissimilarity between them. In My Mother’s House tells the stories of four generations of Jewish women in Chernin’s family. The Flame Bearers describes an ancient sect of Jewish women who inherit the necessity to pass on a sacred women’s knowledge from generation to generation. Chernin’s most recent novel is The Girl Who Went and Saw and Came Back. She lives in Northern California with her life-companion, Renate Stendhal.


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