Tag Archives: Jewish identity

Palestinian Peace Activator – Eva Dalak

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Eva Dalak. You can view the video of our conversation here: https://youtu.be/jmHc-b3oC18?si=jddkFtv0uATJwYUn or just listen to the recording on my podcast here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1827447/15086746.

Eva was born in Israel in a Muslim family and as a child, learned to think of herself as an Arab-Israeli. She moved to France to study and received a double Masters degree in International Relations and International Administration from the Sorbonne. Her skills, and the fact that she speaks five languages fluently, led her to Brussels to work with an NGO and also as a consultant to the European Union. Living there for 10 years, she took on Belgian nationality. Her work included extensive conflict resolution projects in Africa and later New York.

Eventually, she came to the U.S. and began looking more deeply into the psychological and spiritual roots of conflict and realized she needed to do the work within herself before she could help others. She now likes to use the term “peace activator” to describe what she does, rather than peace activist, noting that it is the peace within that needs to be activated and brought out into the world.

Her self exploration and truth seeking led her to embrace her identity as a Palestinian. Especially now, she devotes herself to working with both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. In her work with them as individuals and in groups, people find the common humanity they share with the people they had come to see as “others.” She sees this as getting to the roots of the conflict and a necessary part of finding solutions that will bring about justice and peace.

I found the work she does through PeaceActivation of great interest. As well, her life journey, crossing boundaries of different national or ethnic identities, seems to give her a clear vision of the role identity plays in all of us. I have found that when we recognize and accept our personal and collective identifications, we can more genuinely transcend the separative aspects of those identities and experience ourselves as fundamentally spiritual beings living in a human family. Eva Dalak seems to me to be someone who has done the work and is helping others find the way.

Eva and her partner live in Costa Rica and have a healing retreat center where they have “PeaceActivation” workshops and trainings.

Please see the links below to find out more about her work and ways to take part:

 Eva’s article on Medium – “Are You Ready..”  

Peace Activation – To register for the weekly calls https://peaceactivation.org/weekly-zo…

For individual coaching with Eva – http://www.evadalak.me 

Please feel free to share this and other blog posts from me and subscribe to my YouTube and or podcast series, Crossing the Boundary.

Seeing Wolves or Crying Wolf: Anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity

I begin with an apology to wolves and wolf lovers (like myself) for using their name as a symbol of vicious, hateful creatures. Wolves have been mischaracterized in this way in a long line of fairy tales, literature and folklore as symbols of what is dangerous and threatening to us. So I ask forgiveness from the noble Wolf Spirit for the use of this old image and suggest you see this link to help undo how humans have made wolves an endangered speciesWhat I’m talking about here are anti-Semites, racists, Muslim-bashers, etc. They are vicious and dangerous, and they evoke great fear in the communities they threaten who have to wrestle with knowing real threats from imagined ones.

For centuries, especially in Europe, the extremely negative stereotyping and hatred projected at Jews was mirrored by a basic sense within the Jewish community: “Don’t trust the Gentiles.”  This dynamic boxed Jewish people into literal and psychological ghettos; feelings of being separate and fearful of others were a major aspect of Jewish identity. My baby-boomer generation witnessed a radical reduction of anti-Jewish prejudice as the anti-Semitism some of us experienced in childhood now seems rare.

When I interviewed fourteen spiritual teachers for Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths, they shared varying accounts of confronting anti-Semitism in their youth. But they mostly observed that it was far worse for their parent’s generation and they believed it was becoming a thing of the past.  Jews in the U.S., except for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), have enjoyed assimilation into the “White” majority mainstream of Americans. This is true whether or not they maintain Jewish religious practices and whether or not they maintain a strong Jewish cultural identity.

But now, coming from two different directions, this feeling of safety for Jews in the (White) American world is being shaken. First: recent news accounts, especially frequent in Jewish publications, have noted an alarming increase in the overt expression of Jew-hatred along with threats of violence. This very old form of anti-Semitism has come up through the gates of hell where it has festered in the darker pockets of America. It’s been liberated and emboldened by the campaign of Donald Trump. Though Trump certainly didn’t create it, his rhetoric and style sent signals to those who lived in the shadows of their own bigoted belief systems, freeing them to emerge onto the public stage, especially on social media. In just the past few days, numerous journalists and radio commentators have shared accounts of the vitriolic anti-Semitic messages and threats they are receiving. (See links below). This is scary stuff and it won’t simply go away after the election.

The second concern about anti-Semitism has been strongly fueled by alarms sounded by many Jewish “leaders” and publications. From their lens, critics of Israel are, in fact, critics of the Jewish people; anger at Israel equals anger at Jews. The more strongly the expressed criticism of Israel, the more they are seen as anti-Jewish. The debate over this, especially within the Jewish community, is ongoing and fierce (more links below). Young Jews especially are playing an increasingly significant role in the fight for Palestinian rights, against the Occupation, and challenging the morality of calling Israel a “Jewish State” as opposed to a “State of all its people.” The fact that these young people are Jews might seem to contradict the argument that Israel-critics are anti-Semites. But instead it heightens the anxiety and reaction in much of the Jewish community. From the point of view of Jews who identify Israel with the Jewish people, young Jews criticizing Israel is evidence that the wolves have kidnapped their children and turned them against their own people.  With loyalty to Israel so bonded with the sense of Jewish identity, the rising tide of world-wide condemnation of Israeli policy is felt by many Jews as wolves at the door.

In my opinion, the fears and charges of anti-Semitism regarding critics of Israel are a largely disingenuous attempt to defend the indefensible behavior of the Israeli government towards its Palestinian citizens and those it holds under military occupation. Legitimate protests, calls for non-violent boycott, attempts to call attention to the daily violence and humiliation of a captive people, (which violates the most fundamental values of Judaism and the long history of Jewish humanist thought) cannot with any integrity be called anti-Semitic.

None of that is meant to minimize the reality of anti-Semitism which continues within a vocal segment of the U.S. and may reveal feelings hidden in the larger population. This may be as good a time as any for us all to look deeply at what remains of the centuries-long conditioned misperception through which especially Europeans and their descendants have regarded the Jewish people. Cultural programming is multi-generational and embodied in ways that defy easy undoing. The most overt forms of prejudice may be reduced through a liberal education. But, to use the example of racism: the more subtle forms of it arise out of the visceral and unconscious feelings of “well-meaning” White people and don’t go away without deeper processing. “Undoing White-liberal-racism” workshops and trainings have helped me in this regard to face and deal with my own prejudices.

It seems true that racism, which imprisons us in the belief that people of color are inferior in fundamental ways, infects the minds of everyone, Black and White, until it is made conscious and transformed. It is likewise pretty much impossible to escape the long history of hostile beliefs about Jews. Opinions vary, but in my view, the primary integrating feature of the Jewish stereotype is that they/we are morally corrupt (if not downright evil). It is not that difficult to imagine the next stage of this idea, seeing it as necessary to protect the larger population from contamination with that evil. The fear of this, understandably, runs deep in the identity of Jewish people and for some it is the primary emotional bond of that identification.

However, the reckoning with anti-Semitism is made complicated and more difficult when accusations of anti-Semitism continue to be leveled at people who are expressing their opinions and taking action regarding the behavior of the nation-state of Israel. We all need to distinguish between these two perceived threats to the Jewish community and understand the distorted view of one and the real danger of the other. We also must recognize that the chorus of hatred is rarely only about Jews, but rather (as with the Nazis) may include Catholics, Gypsies, Gays, the disabled. In the current American context it is much more about Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, LGBT people, and yes, women, than it is about Jews.

The mentality of the alt-right wing of the “support Trump” movement is the same Nazi, neo-Nazi, White-supremacist network that has been around for a very long time, most likely with roots in the earliest humans. It’s the fear of the “other” focused into hatred and violence. With some honest introspection, we can see that It is a meme existing in us all, requiring our direct attention if we hope to be part of building a just and free society. We are, after all, one human family, including our most truculent brothers and sisters.

Please read some of these hair-raising accounts documenting the recent rise in anti-Semitism associated with Trump supporters:

“Twitters Anti-Semitism Problem” by Ryan Lizza  from the New Yorker

The Tide of Hate Directed Against Jewish Journalists by Emma Green  from The Atlantic

Anti-Semitic Posts, Many From Trump Supporters, Surge on Twitter By Jonathan Mahler from the New York Times   

Passing as a Non-Jew Has Been Easy for Me — Until Now, by March Daalder  from The Forward  

For more on the debate within the Jewish community regarding anti-Semitism as it relates to condemnations of Israeli policy, see:

Crying Wolf on Campus anti-Semitism: The Vassar College Talk Was No Blood Libel by  Mira Sucharov in Haaretz

US Jews adopted ‘deferential’ relationship to Israel, and tabooed dissent so as to preserve US gov’t support by Phillip Weiss

Occupation denial is pushing me out of my Jewish community by Jenn Pollan

The Truth About Anti-Semitism on Campus — It’s Not All About Israel by Sam Kestenbaum in The Forward

For an Israeli peace activist view of the Jewish identification with Israel, see:

It Can Happen Here by Uri Avnery  

A Good Jewish Boy

A good Jewish boy. It’s an expression I grew up with, sometimes applied to me, often to Jewish men who made it big on the world stage of science, entertainment or sports. It evoked special feelings when we spoke about those who weren’t obviously Jewish, (e.g.: Tony Curtis, Harrison Ford, Peter Coyote). I apply it here, with a taste of Jewish humor, in speaking of the truly good man, Krishna Das. I had the great pleasure to see Krishna Das, (or KD as he likes to be called) just last night as he led a beautiful kirtan, singing Hindu and Buddhist chants at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Wappinger Falls, NY. And yes, Krishna Das, raised as Jeffrey Kagal, is (or was) Jewish.


I say “is or was” referring to a primary question in my book, Crossing the Boundary, for which I interviewed KD. Does a man or woman born to Jewish parents and raised with Jewish identity continue to be Jewish when they embrace and immerse themselves in an alternate spiritual path? Just where and when does Jewish identity cease to be relevant in describing someone (or oneself)? In writing the book I asked around for people who made that journey, crossed that boundary, knowing that I could not easily tell by names or looks. Starhawk, Sat Santokh Singh Khalsa, Krishna Das don’t sound like typical Jewish names. I wanted to know if these folks still considered themselves Jewish, that that identity still described who or what they are.


Last night, Krishna Das sat beneath a 50 foot golden Buddha statue with surrounding Buddhas and hundreds of Tibetan Tankhas depicting Buddha in his many forms around the temple. He sang chants, which are mostly repetitions of the names of Gods and Goddesses in


the Hindu tradition, and told stories of his time with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, the Indian saint who continues to be the source of divine guidance for him. The room filled with a sacred glow as people participated in the call and response chanting and sat in meditative stillness or danced to the rhythmic beat of the tabla and bells accompanying KD (who played a droning harmonium). At intervals, KD told stories of his time with his guru and offered teachings about awakening to our essential nature, opening our heart to God/Love, and honoring those great beings from many traditions who continue to guide us on our path.


KD didn’t mention Torah, Moses, Abraham, at least not last night. From what he shared with me in his interview for Crossing the Boundary, it’s not part of his repertoire and not really a significant aspect of his consciousness. Jewishness is the neighborhood he grew up in. He was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in his own family and community, went through a difficult and rebellious period, and found grace and freedom in far off India, he found a different neighborhood in which to live; he found home. He told me that he has no animosity with his family or the Jewish people, they are a part of the larger human and spiritual family he embraces. He still loves Jewish humor and the Jewish way of talking or shticking, but it just does not define who he is.


As I watched him, I thought of our (his and my) Jewish ancestors. What came to me was the very ancient ones, the mythic wanderers and vision seekers in the wilderness. I felt their presence right there. The Divine One and her/his Angels (Gods and Goddesses) that appeared in fire, sustained the people in the desert, sent messages from the mountain for right conduct in this world, are right in there with Neem Karoli Baba and KD. What more do they ask of us than to wake up and spread the Light and Love of the Divine through the world?


Thank you, KD, kirtan wallah, mensch.



Reb Zalman, The Rabbi Akiva of Our Time

searchRabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi died on July 3rd two years ago. It is a Jewish practice to honor those who have died on the anniversary of their death, their yahrzeit.

The notes below are my own thoughts on the remarkable life of this modern day sage and his intersection with many of the people I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths.

In an ancient Jewish tale told in the Talmud, four rabbis enter the mystical state of Paradise. One goes insane, one dies, one becomes a heretic and is excommunicated, and one returns in peace. The heretic is the focus of Crossing the Boundary. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, became one of the most significant founders of the Jewish religion as it is known today. To my mind, Reb Zalman is no less significant and in many ways very similar.

According to most interpretations of the Talmudic tale, the heretic, Elisha ben Abuya, was banished from the Jewish people as he became an “unbeliever.” In my book, I suggest that perhaps after his experience in “paradise” he gravitated towards the Greek mystery schools such as the Eleusinian, in which participants drank plant mixtures that induced altered states of consciousness. I further conjectured that he, Aher, and Akiva remained good friends respecting each others different paths of spirituality. Respect and tolerance would come, I surmised, from their experience and understanding that the true nature of divinity, indeed reality, and how one lives a good life is beyond the trappings of any particular religious form. (There is a chapter in Crossing the Boundary devoted to this story and the nature of heresy).

In our time, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, like Akiva, entered the mystical state and  also brought a new vision of Judaism to his people. He was the primary founder and organizer of the Jewish Renewal movement. For the last fifty years of his life he focused on bringing direct spiritual experience to Jewish individuals and groups with an open-minded cultural mindset. Steeped in his early training in the ultra-orthodox Jewish world, he opened to learn from and integrate teachings from a wide range of other spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and more.

I had the privilege to attend a number of his retreats and teachings and experience first-hand his generous, joyous and wise spirit. Several of the folks I interviewed for Crossing the Boundary shared stories of their encounters with Reb Zalman and his profound openness to their alternate spiritual paths. Some wondered aloud about whether they would have chosen a Jewish path if they had met him in their formative years. He was an honorary Sufi Sheikh and participated with an open heart in ceremonies and rituals of other faiths. In the article in The Forward, he is pictured laughing with Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), well known as a spiritual teacher who chose Buddhist meditation and the Hindu guru, Neem Karoli Baba, rather than following his family’s Jewish religious path.

Reb Zalman spoke of Jewish identity and what he called Jewish PTSD, the inherited trauma in the Jewish collective psyche from centuries of abuse, pogroms and the Holocaust perpetrated primarily in the Christian world. He reflected that this imprinted trauma and fear was a contributor to the Jewish community’s fear-based relationship to the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian people. But he mostly withdrew from political involvement to focus on his spiritual teachings for healing the psyche and soul and advancing the development of the Jewish Renewal movement. He appears to have sensed his mission to be the transmission of the joy of renewed spirituality that bridged people of all faiths, a recognition that Paradise is not for one chosen people.

Reb Zalman embraced people of other faiths and Jews who chose other faiths even though he was deeply embedded in the practice of his own Jewish traditions. As with my understanding of Akiva and Elisha ben Abuya, the people in Crossing the Boundary, (Sufi, shaman, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, etc.) walk side by side with him.search-1

For a most eloquent and factual tribute to Reb Zalman recently published in The Forward, please see:


Review of Crossing the Boundary and Upcoming Book Signing

I’m happy to say that Crossing the Boundary has received a very positive review in the independent book review journal Forward Reviews. You can see the full review here.

I continue to receive messages from folks reading the book about how much they enjoyed it and also how thought-provoking it is for them on their own spiritual journey. I recently had a wonderful time discussing the book with Alex and Allyson Grey at their Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (CoSM) center in Wappinger Falls, NY.  Allyson is featured in the book, and Buddhist teacher, Marty Lowenthal, who also has a chapter, was there for a very illuminating discussion.

My next talk and book signing will be at the Katonah Village Library in Westchester County, NY, for any of you who are in the area. Please see their listing here: http://www.katonahlibrary.org/author-alan-levin-presents-crossing-boundary/.












Published in the New Yorker!

OK, the subject line is an attention getter. But it’s true, my recent blog post, “A Jew at Maundy Thursday” was published in the Episcopal New Yorker, the official news publication of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in their recent “Love vs. Tolerance Issue.” (See it here: http://www.evergreeneditions.com/publication/?i=266826),

IMG_0638        More exciting is the fact that I now have a final proof copy of Crossing the Boundary – Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths in my hands. It looks great and having read it through one more time I am convinced that it is a valuable contribution to the awakening of spiritual awareness and the role of group identity in human evolution. As well, of course, another view of the several millennial journey of the Jewish people.

Those of you who contributed to my Kickstarter campaign should be receiving your signed copy of the book very shortly. At that time, I will officially “launch” the book and hope you will help me by forwarding the announcement to your friends and colleagues. I’ll be sending that message as soon as books are available for order.

In the meantime, below are a few more statements from folks I’ve asked to read and comment on the book.


“In Crossing the Boundary Alan Levin has assembled a group of spiritual teachers who show us that the deepest way to become authentically ourselves is to build connections with the variety of spiritual and religious traditions that we previously thought of as ‘other.’ A boundary crosser himself, Levin has much to teach all of us who seek to deepen our own spiritual lives.”
–Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor Tikkun and chair, the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Author of Jewish Renewal and Healing Israel/Palestine.

“In Crossing the Boundary, Alan Levin presents and demonstrates the restless spiritual curiosity and courage that distinguishes Jewish people everywhere. The ‘God Wrestlers’ interviewed here are not content with simply repeating prayers of the past but are part of the on-going struggle to discover the deepest highest truth alive today and imagine a sustainable tomorrow. Each unique personality, following their heart, discovered divinity that both altered and affirmed their original faith. Although meant as a study of identity, Crossing the Boundary is an affirmation of spiritual intelligence, resistance to easy answers, and universal love that renews the world.”

–Alex Grey, Artist, Author, Co-Founder CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors

“Alan Levin has written a thoroughly absorbing account of his interviews with fourteen spiritual teachers in a variety of traditions and how they have connected with as well as separated from their ancestral Jewishness. In our contemporary world men and women of Jewish family origin and religious upbringing have become not just practitioners but also teachers of Catholic, Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, Shamanic, Taoist and Sikh spiritual doctrines and practices. These individuals have not rejected their Jewish tradition but built on it and integrated its essence into their chosen life-way. Surely this is a 20th century phenomenon: from the often gruesome persecution history of European Jewry has emerged a synergistic rainbow of spiritual teachings that honors the ancestral wisdom and devotion embedded in traditional Jewish religious life. This book offers rich and moving testimony to this unique historic process.”
–Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Emeritus,California Institute of Integral Studies Author, The Unfolding Self, and The Well of Remembrance.

Who is Black? Who is Jewish? Julius Lester on Rachel Dolezal


We are all now familiar with the story of Rachel Dolezal, (the white woman who identified herself as Black for many years) and have heard many strong opinions about it. It struck me that her journey resonates with that of those I interviewed for my book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. True, there is a major difference. Religion is not the same as race. The folks in my book chose different religious paths from their birth family and in some cases (not all) chose to no longer identify with being a Jew. It was a choice they could make about belief and practice and identity. Racial identity, we are told, is a more biological reality. Black people can’t choose to identify as white, which is why the usually sober New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, was so irate about Dolezal’s behavior. (See “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal.”  But is it really so different, so black and white?
In all honesty, as a white person, I was uncomfortable weighing in on this issue. But I felt great resonance in the following article by Julius Lester in which he shares his personal experience around identity. Lester, a Black civil rights activist and writer, shocked many people when in 1982 he chose to convert to Judaism. His reflections on racial and religious identity have the ring of deep wisdom. Please feel free to comment and share your own experiences with the nature of religious or racial identity.










“My maternal great-grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul. His wife was a freed slave woman, Maggie Carson. She was so light-skinned she could have passed for white, and one of Adolph’s and Maggie’s daughters did when she grew up. In the 1870 census records Adolph and Maggie’s names appear. Everyone’s race is indicated by a “B” for black, except for Adolph. Beside his name there is a “W” for white. Even though he was white and Maggie could have passed for white, they chose to live in the black community.
Part of my childhood was spent in Kansas City, Kansas, during the time when that city, of all the ones in Kansas, chose segregation. My father was a minister, and in his church there were two women named “White.” One was referred to as “Miz White,” the other as “Miz White White.” Miz White was black; Miz White White was white. She was not married to a black man, and I do not know why she chose to live in the black community. But she did, and she was accepted as one of us.
Growing up as I did in Kansas, Arkansas, and Tennessee, I was defined by the system of racial segregation. For the sake of my survival I learned to say “sir” and “ma’am” to white people, learned to ride on segregated buses without showing anger, learned not to stare at white people, especially white women. I learned that I had to conform to what society thought was right and good, and that included the very proper mores of black middle-class life. I attended an all-black college and reprimanded by the Dean of Students because I wore jeans on campus and sat on the library lawn playing my guitar. That was not the image the school wanted to project.
But my first year college (1956) an older student introduced me to Existentialism and the work of the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. “Existence precedes Essence,” he wrote in Being and Nothingness. What that meant was because society sought to impose definitions on who I was and what I could do, the simple fact was that my existence came before the meaning society sought to impose on me. In other words, I was free to define myself. Neither whites nor blacks could tell me who I was if I didn’t let them. When the Dean of Students told me I couldn’t wear jeans and sit in front of the library playing the guitar, I continued wearing jeans and playing the guitar on the library lawn. I would live by my definitions of who I was, but to do so, I had to be willing to accept the consequences. I was.
I was around seven when I learned that my maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew. Thus began a journey that culminated in my conversion to Judaism in 1982. I was surprised by the antagonistic response I received from many blacks. The general consensus seemed to be that I was no longer black. I had people tell me that a person could not be a black and a Jew. Blacks I had known for years acted differently around me, as if I had changed personalities. Yet, I knew that if I had converted to Catholicism, no one would have cared. If I had become a Muslim, blacks would have embraced me. But I had become a Jew, and somehow, for many, that obliterated my identity as a black person.
Identity is not so simple. I learned that from a white female student in one of my black literature classes. She was the only white student in the class. She was also the only student in the class who seemed to have a visceral feel for the literature we studied. She understood things I had to explain to the black students in the class. And she had grown up in a small town in Massachusetts where there were no blacks. Yet, as far as I was concerned, she was black, even though she had blonde hair and blue eyes. She had an understanding and grasp of the black experience that went beyond the intellectual. And she went on to become a professor of black literature.
Identity is mysterious. When I was a child I used to play over and over on the piano a simplified arrangement of “Kol Nidre.” I was haunted by that melody. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant, but I loved it. Many years later I attended synagogue one Saturday morning when the daughter of a friend was being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. This was some years before my conversion, and I remember sitting in the service listening to the cantor singing the various melodies of the Shabbat morning service, and I found myself almost in tears because I wanted to pray in song as she (the cantor) was doing, and I never would because I wasn’t Jewish. It was three years after my conversion that I finally began to lead parts of the Shabbat morning service, and I eventually became cantor for the High Holy Days. That first year I was surprised when Israelis, when people who had survived the Holocaust came to me after services to say that my singing reminded them of when they’d been children in synagogue with their grandparents. I didn’t understand how that could be, and yet, I knew that praying in song in Judaism meant so much more to me, evoked a passion and love from me that singing black music never had.
Identity is unfathomable. A few years ago I had my DNA done. I was not surprised to learn that my ancestry was 70% Sub-Saharan African and 29% European. Of that 29% European, however, 19% was European Jewish. I would never have dreamed that almost one-fourth of my DNA was Jewish. But I learned something even more important that was transformative. Before the last Ice Age, what is now the British Isles and northern Europe was one land mass called Doggerland. Doggerland was unknown until some years ago, when fishermen would find in their nets, bones, pottery and other artifacts. Archeological work on the sea floor found the remains of what they called Doggerland. Ten thousand years ago, when the seas began to rise, the people of Doggerland began leaving, some to what is now northern Europe, some to what is now Great Britain. Some of my DNA was traced to Doggerland.
Identity is more than this me. The African part of my DNA traces to Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia. The European traces from western Europe through Great Britain, and there is less than 1% which is East Asian. What was transformative was realizing that I am not only the child of W.D. Lester and Julia B. Smith Lester. I am also the issue of an untold number of women and men who knew each other, in the Biblical sense, over a period of 10,000 years, at least. (I am most intrigued by the East Asian who left 0.7% of her or his DNA as part of me.)
Who am I? There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back ten thousand years and more. What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive a concept as race.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, who identifies herself as black. Her birth certificate says she is white. Social media has abused her viciously by calling her a liar; her picture has been on the front page of the New York Times. I keep waiting to hear what harm she has done to merit such scorn. But all I read says that she has done very good things in her work as a black woman. Yet, so many Americans are acting as if she has injured each of them personally. I’m sure she thought all she was doing was living her life.
In 1982 I drove my mother down to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she was born and raised. Her grandfather, Adolph Altschul, is buried in the Jewish cemetery there; her grandmother, Maggie Carson, is buried on property the family owns. Most of Adolph and Maggie’s children are also buried there. My mother was a very taciturn and angry woman, but on that trip she spoke to me as she never had, and it was only a couple of sentences: “I had a hard time growing up. White people didn’t like me because I looked white but I wasn’t. Black people didn’t like me because I was black but I looked white.” That was all she said, but it was enough for me to see into her life as I never had.
There is a woman in Spokane, Washington, being told by millions of people who she isn’t. But she knows who she is, and I hope she can hold onto her existential identity despite the anger and hatred she is being subjected to.
Identity. It is not only the color of our skins. Ultimately, who we are is as mysterious as the universe of which each of is mere dust. I hope that Rachel Dolezal will one day be able to celebrate the mystery and be who she is without anyone being so presumptuous as to tell her she isn’t.”

Crossing the Racial Divide – A Psychological and Spiritual Journey

We are here again–facing the raw and ugly feelings of bias which make conversations across racial lines uncomfortable at best. The differences in perception that align with our racial identities are stark. Fear and mistrust are on the rise. It brings me to reflect on my own journey with the boundary between the races, a barrier built by our ancestors and passed through the generations.

When I was a child there were many boundaries of varying densities that surrounded my Jewish world. The unspoken lines of separation that I feared to cross were mostly defined by religious, ethnic or racial identities. Though the schools were integrated, the neighborhoods were not, and once past the first few grades of elementary school, there was little mixing of the races.

My family had a maid, a colored woman, who came in weekly to do housecleaning. My parents and their generation referred to her and all Black people as shvarzas. When asked, one was always told that, “shvarza literally means ‘black’ in Yiddish; Jews aren’t prejudiced.” But the term mostly had the same connotation as the “n-word,” which I never heard spoken. What I was told is, “They all steal. They all lie.”

I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1962 when it admitted it’s first 7 Black undergraduate students (of about 16,000 undergrads). I was oblivious to their presence while I nervously found my people by joining a Jewish fraternity. Jewish students had a choice of three fraternities amongst the several dozen that would not admit Jews. Walls and barriers were taken for granted.

UF was situated in Gainesville, central Florida, a deeply Southern town, strictly segregated. The few Black students were not allowed to eat or shop off campus except in the Black section of town, far from the University. When a small group of white and Black students began the first civil rights protest, they picketed the restaurant across from campus and only asked that the Black students be served. Most students and faculty were outraged by this affront to the rights of private property owners. My fraternity brothers considered the protestors geeks, very uncool.

This was the setting for my first experience of crossing the psychic boundary of race identity. I made the choice to go to a meeting of the protestors, “The Student Group for Equal Rights.” I was afraid. I had the sense I was entering another world. Inside, I saw Blacks and whites talking and joking together and strategizing their next moves for pressing the cause of integration. As I write this now, it’s embarrassing to acknowledge how amazed I was by what I saw. But for me at the time, it was mind-blowing. I stepped over a line that defined my people as Jews, (and white), rather than as humans. At the same time, I stepped across a line that kept me a passive observer of events, and I became an activist involved in changing the way the world is.

Years later, I experienced a much deeper understanding of the racial divide and how it had been imprinted in my psyche. In the mid-Eightees, I had begun exploring the teachings and practices of indigenous people, the spirituality we know as shamanism. I was with a group of people experiencing a practice drawn from the Amazon region–working with the medicine plant Ayahuasca to connect with deeper sources of awareness and healing. As I entered an altered state, I had a heightened sensitivity to very subtle sensations in my body. I became aware of tightness and fear related to the man sitting next to me, who happened to be Black. The discomfort was not something I’d been aware of when I met him or when I first sat next to him. In fact, I had been fairly certain that I was free of racial prejudice, what people like to call “color-blind.”

In the shamanic journey process the agreement is to go within, not to try to engage or communicate with others during the experience. So I focused my attention within and asked for guidance. Shortly, a vision opened up and I saw my grandfather coming from “the old country” (Eastern Europe) through Ellis Island and into New York City. He was encountering Black people for the first time (in the context of the early 20th century). What struck me, what he seemed to be showing me, was the dramatic difference in body posture and rhythm. There was a vibrational difference with which he could not relate, the alien nature of which triggered fear. Faced with this, he embraced the very old European assumptions of superiority.

My grandfather was showing me this and encouraging me to see this false sense of difference and separation. In my vision, he was helping me dissolve what feelings of fear or discomfort with Black people I was holding in the very cells of my body. At the same time he was helping me, I sensed that he was clearing his own karma through healing the negativity he had passed along. This negative transmission was not only an emotional sense of separation, but of choices in behavior complicit in the exploitation of African-Americans that were part and parcel of the economic world.

In my vision, my grandfather helped me cut the chain of the “sins of the fathers” from passing to another generation. As I relaxed and opened to the flow of energy within, my feeling of brotherliness with the man next to me grew and my heart opened as if for the first time to the whole human family–all infused with the same Spirit.

As I look around now at our country and at the world, it is easy to despair at how deeply racism continues to express itself through the massive incarceration of young Black males, ongoing wealth disparity, and discrimination regarding job and educational opportunities along racial lines. So I share these personal boundary crossing stories and encourage others to do likewise. My hope is that the stories will help embolden more people to experience the joy of stepping into active participation in the movement for world harmony and justice. Likewise, to know the comfort of accepting our spirit-ancestors’ guidance and healing power which transforms the deeply embedded delusions of racial superiority and fear.

-Alan Levin


Welcome to Crossing the Boundary

This is to welcome and introduce you to Crossing the Boundary blog and website. The site is designed to focus on the book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. Here, you can learn more about the background of the book and read short passages from the chapters on each of the fourteen teachers interviewed for it. I’ve added some descriptive information about each of these men and women and links to their websites, books, and schedules for their teaching activities and workshops. You can find all this under the People of the Book menu.

This project began from an experience I had on a vision quest in the desert of Southern California in 1983. Wandering and fasting in the desert, I realized that after many years of denying it to myself, I was a Jewish man. It opened up for me a quest to understand what that meant and deepened my spiritual explorations into the nature of identity and reality itself. If it is true that I am a Jewish man, what does that mean for how I live my life? Do I need to begin observing and practicing Jewish rituals and ceremonies? Further, where do the notions of who I am and what is real come from? How much choice do I have in the matter of what I think or believe, what I feel and experience, of who I am?

As I explain in my autobiographical chapter in the book, I tried for a number of years following that vision quest to incorporate Jewish religious practices in my life. But it never felt comfortable, it didn’t fit. I continue to honor Jewish spiritual teachings, especially the mystical aspects such as Kabbalah, and I open to what they bring to me and the world. But as a daily practice, I have for over 45 years been meditating with methods drawn from Agni (light-fire) Yoga and Buddhism, and exploring the many realms of consciousness through shamanism. Jewish spirituality is one of a number of streams of wisdom from which I drink.

However, Jewish identity is more than observing religious practices. A large number of Jews, if not a majority, are non-observant (of Jewish religious rituals) yet see themselves as spiritual, or consider themselves atheists. How does the sense of Jewish identity inform their lives? Is there something in the  DNA of Jews that unfolds as a way of being in the world, as a set of inherent values? How does the connection to a common ancestry and mythical story influence the way Jews see the world? How do these issues operate in the other tribal peoples that inhabit this planet? These questions and others are themes in my interviews with the fourteen spiritual teachers of the book, Crossing the Boundary, and I continue to explore them here in a form that invites your participation.

For some folks, being on a spiritual path that is dramatically different from that of one’s family is an act of heresy. But, as I say in the description of the book, “We are walking on the precipice of a massive catastrophe coming about due to human ignorance and greed and masked by the ethnocentric blinders that pit us against each other. It is my hope that the stories and wisdom of the “heretics” gathered in this book provide keys for our collective awakening, and lead us towards not only tolerance for others, but eagerness to encounter and learn from the ways of all peoples.” My vision is that through this awakening, we will find the wisdom, courage and strength to live through these times with grace and do what needs to be done.

~Alan Levin