About three years ago, I interrupted a perfectly enjoyable pilgrimage to the Old Country (the USA) in order to fly out and visit some friends in Los Angeles, that seaside sanctum of higher culture, clean air and tasteful architecture. So there I was at LAX on a balmy Friday morning, sitting in this nondescript bar nursing a black-and-white shake, and waiting for my ride. Out of the corner of my eye, I absent-mindedly surveyed the vigorous maneuverings of a small but dedicated cadre of neophyte Hare Krishnas, who had deployed themselves in full court press formation across the central concourse of the airport. These mantra-chanting devotees of the swami-whose-name-I-never-could- pronounce—festooned in full-fledged religious regalia—were scurrying up and down the thoroughfare like human ping-pong balls, energetically hawking illustrated copies of Vedic texts to the few passers-by who didn’t ignore them, shove them aside or spit in their general direction. This was, of course, a familiar scene to me, jetsetter that I am.
I finished my shake (such as it was—they’ve never heard the phrase “black-and-white milk shake” on the West Coast, and my numerous attempts to explain this simple concept to the natives were invariably futile)—and made a beeline for the exit. I guess the old quadriceps ain’t quite what they used to be, though, because within seconds, I perceived a pair of dainty, be-moccasined footsteps easily gaining on me from behind. A young feminine voice inquired politely: “Excuse me, sirrr, but—ehh—maybe you vould like to take a loook at zis boook?”
I froze. Stopped dead in my tracks. I knew that accent. I’d know it anywhere. My heart plummeted into my duodenum. I put my suitcase down. I turned around slowly. She was petite and pretty in her saffron sari and multitudinous bangles. She must have had auburn hair, once, judging from the stubble on her scalp. And her eyes were a deep, feline green, amplified by the dab of yellow mustard smeared ever so artfully between them. She held a tiny tambourine in one hand, and with the other extended, was sweetly offering me a psychedelic version of the Upanishads. We stood there smack in the middle of that broad, bustling promenade and stared at each other for a few seconds, and when I saw she was about to repeat her practiced pitch about the book, I hastened to preempt and queried quietly: “Me’eifo at?” (Where are you from?)
“Merrramat Asharrron,” she answered, naturally, effortlessly, gurgling her “r” and eliding the “h” sound as people from her neck of the coastal plains are wont to do (Ramat Hasharon is a suburb of Tel Aviv). Apparently excited by this rare opportunity to spread the Good Word in her mother tongue, and undeterred by the intense suffering that must have been seared like a cattle brand all over my face, she warmed to her subject, and launched into a series of soundbites concerning the benefits of Krishna consciousness, including especially the need to realize… to actualize… to visualize… to harmonize… to get in touch with… to remove the walls… to blend into… to meld… to merge… to coalesce… to become one….
I never even started listening (I know the lines by rote: I’m a frequent flyer and an erstwhile deprogrammer). “Eich kor’im lach?” I asked her, still trying to get my mind and heart around this. (What’s your name?)
“Shira,” she responded, displaying no such curiosity in return. In the meantime, the other two appropriately attired and dapperly depilated members of her Maha squad had drifted over, no doubt intrigued by the seldom encountered phenomenon of someone actually stopping to converse, and lured by the heady scent of fresh, missionizable meat. Well, and wouldn’t you know it: The whole gang is from Ramat Hasharon. Meet Ofer (“Shalom!”) and Doron (“Ma nishma!”).
So the four of us stand there, chatting like old friends. We reminisce about the army like good Israelis do, talk about who served where and who spent more time “in the mud” and who hated it most; Shira, as it turns out, is a first lieutenant and outranks all of us, and I snap to attention and she laughs; Doron was a medic like myself, and we make a date to give each other ice-water infusions and joke about how the first thing we look at on a woman is her veins; I remind them of this kiosk on Herzl Boulevard in Ramat Hasharon where they fry up the biggest and juiciest falafel balls in the entire country, and all three nod their heads in vehement agreement and lick their lips in almost Pavlovian recollection: They know exactly the place I’m talking about (I’ve never been to Ramat Hasharon, but every town in Israel has a Herzl Boulevard, and every Israeli citizen from Dan to Beersheva is convinced that there is this one falafel stand in his neighborhood that makes the biggest and juiciest falafel balls in the entire country. I saw Hawkeye do this trick on M*A*S*H once, with French fries).
So we’re shootin’ the breeze, the three Hebrew Hare Krishnas and I, discoursing in the recently resurrected and unsurpassably gorgeous idiom of the biblical prophets and kings, and finally, well, I just lose it. “What the hell are you doing here?” I blurt out, diverging slightly from the pleasantly banterish tone which has informed the conversation thus far. “You are Jews! You are Israelis, for God’s sake! What the hell are you doing here, in this place, on a Friday morning, wearing these clothes, chanting those words, and selling that book?!” Now in those pious days I used to read the Tora from the pulpit every week in synagogue, and since one has to rehearse continually, I never left home without the Pentateuch in my pack. At this moment, then, amazed at the extent of my own coolness, I reached back over my shoulder into my knapsack—the way I’m positive Robin Hood used to extract an arrow from his quiver—and just basically whipped out the Five Books of Moses. (Thwack!) “That’s not your book,” I cried, indicating the decorative and abridged Bhagavad-Gita Ofer was clutching like it was a newborn infant. “This”—and I resoundingly slapped the raggedy, worn-and-torn volume in my own hands—“This is your book!”
They all looked at me sadly, with genuine pity, the way one might look at an animal caught in a trap or at someone who had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. “No, no. You don’t understand,” purred Shira, her tone managing to be both soothing and patronizing at the same time. “This isn’t a contest! We’re not choosing one book over another, or one religion over another, we’re not expressing a preference for one culture, one nation, or one ethnic or social group over another. That would mean creating hierarchical relationships between human beings. That would mean erecting false barriers between people, barriers which have been responsible for so much misery and bloodshed throughout history, barriers which have prevented human beings from reaching their true potential and destiny, from achieving inner peace—and world peace. You and I, and everyone else in this airport, and everything that lives and breathes in every corner of this planet of ours, we are all of us part of a great and wonderful unity, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all linked by the same network of indissoluble bonds—we just don’t know it yet. Krishna consciousness is about spreading that knowledge.”
Zoinks! What do you get when you combine a young socialist ideologue educated in the best Israeli schools with a hefty dose of ancient Sanskrit esotericism plus a dash of the Diggers? I tried to imagine Shira haranguing conscripts in boot camp. That must have been some show.
“Look around you, habibi,” Doron chimed in, seemingly on cue. “The world is constantly imploding, getting smaller all the time. The distances between societies are diminishing everywhere, and the borders that divide us from one another are being erased, like a thousand Berlin Walls tumbling down. The world is progressing, moving forward, toward oneness, toward mutual tolerance and understanding, away from the petty, archaic differences that have forever pitted us against each other. As the Lord says” (and here, astonished to the point of giddiness that he had actually gotten far enough with someone to be able to quote scripture, he flipped open his large-print, polychrome edition of the Rig-Veda to a pre-marked page, and reverently recited a passage highlighted in red): “‘Let your hearts be as one heart, let the minds of all be as one mind, so that through the spirit of oneness you may heal the sickness of a divided community.’”
“Open your eyes!” he preached on, the already rosy cheeks of this juggernauted Jew turning increasingly sanguine with Eastern religious ardor. “These words are coming true! We are building a new reality for humankind today, and you—you are stuck, habibi, stuck in a past of self-isolation and limitation, hemmed in by an anachronism you refuse to let go of. But the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna can help you let go of it, can help you be truly free. If you’ll just concentrate and chant….”