The Library of Congress cataloging system uses the letter B to label books on religion.
Most of the letter combinations in the system are devoted to Christianity which reflects the worldview of those who created this classification. It is, after all, the classification system for the US Congressional Library.
Though it may be a coincidence, something I usually don’t believe in, BM ( which in my family stands for a bowel movement or shit) is the label used for anything relating to Jewish spirituality.
I have always found this funny.
After all, Judaism is the only religion I know of that has, among its many, many blessings ( we have blessings for when you see a rainbow, when you see the new moon, when you have sex, etc.) a special blessing for when you perform number two, or, in common parlance move your bowels.
If you are constipated and want to desperately move your bowels it surely must be a tremendous relief to finally do so.
So why not thank God?
Anyway, I was browsing in the late 60’s in the open stacks of the University of Wisconsin Library, Madison, WI, when I found the BM section.
I was amazed that there were hundreds and hundreds of books, most in English since at the time I could not read Hebrew or Yiddish, that pertained to various aspects of Jewish worship of the Divine.
I thought that I knew something about being Jewish and about the religion. After all, I had been bar mitzvahed at age 13 and then, thinking that I could pass judgment on something I was totally ignorant of, condemned the whole business as not worthy of my attention nor energy.
What particularly fascinated me were the many books pertaining to hasidism and kabbala or Jewish mysticism. Hasidism, by the way, comes out of the mystical tradition in Judaism.
I found one book, Nine gates to the Chassidic mysteries, by Jiri Langer, ( 1961, translated by Stephen Jolly) to be particularly revealing. This is the diary of a secular Czech Jew who left cosmopolitan Prague before World War Two and joined a Hasidic community and basically adopted this as his spiritual path.
Because Jiri Langer was such a sophisticated and beautiful human being as well as a good writer, I read the book and drank deep from its waters.
I still have this volume in my library and treasure it.
It inspired me to investigate contemporary orthodox Judaism, particularly the Hasidic version.
There are many different Hasidic communities each with its own tradition, teachings and leaders.
The most open to outsiders was and remains that of Chabad or the Lubavitcher community. Their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who escaped the Holocaust and replanted the community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY, died not too long ago. No one has filled his shoes since.
Around 1968 or so I reached out to Chabad and was invited by a family to spend the Jewish sabbath, shabbos, with them in Crown Heights. I saw the Rebbe and was totally shaken by what I felt and witnessed.
These were people who totally were devoted to a living path of Jewish mysticism that I could relate to.
I didn’t become a Lubavitcher Hasid but I did learn a lot from them and began to observe many of the traditional Jewish laws of living.
While in Madison I met a very strange and enigmatic man who was a disciple of a tiny but very
powerful community in Jerusalem, those who followed the teachings of Rabbi Aaron ( Ahrele) Roth, or the Rov Ahrele Hasidim. Later, when I lived in Israel, I met these people first hand.
The man whom I met in Madison, WI. however, was a true mystic. He lived on a level that I had never encountered. Everything for him was holy and filled with the power of the Divine. I wanted to learn from him but did not know how.
There is one book in English that specifically presents some of these teachings. Ahron’s Heart, the prayers, teachings and letters of Ahrele Roth, a Hasidic reformer. It is translated from Yiddish and Hebrew by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Yair Hillel Goelman. R. Zalman became a very good friend. Not too long ago he died but his spirit is still very much alive in the vast amount of teachings and teachers he left behind.
R. Zalman originally was a Lubavitcher and was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe along with another famous teacher and singer, R. Shlomo Carlebach, as an outreach to secular Jews. They both inspired and brought many non-orthodox Jews to lead a more orthodox-inspired approach to Jewish life.
(to be continued)