Imagine: On Love and Lennon

By Ze’ev Maghen

One man's tirade about universal brotherhood.

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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….”
I wondered if these guys were this good in English. Just my luck to meet up with the three most articulate initiates in the entire ashram (that they hadn’t read the books they were so zealously peddling, and were in large degree misrepresenting Vaishnava philosophy, was clear as glass. But so what? They were declaiming the world according to themselves—and no doubt according to their Israeli parents’ liberal-leaning “post-Zionist” progressivism—and that was more interesting to me, in any case. I wondered what their parents thought now).
“Yes, you have an antiquated attitude, my friend—a dangerous attitude.” This was Ofer, who was so tall that I found myself mourning his loss not just to the Jewish people as a whole, but to the Maccabee Tel Aviv basketball team in particular. He had managed to jettison pretty much every Israeli trapping that would have given him away, except the telltale Nimrod sandals and that really annoying hand gesture that means “wait” nowhere else on the planet except in our little corner of the Middle East. He used it on me now, as I tried to butt in and protest my general benignity.
“You Are A Fascist,” he proclaimed, enunciating each word with conviction and solemnity, as if he were a judge pronouncing a death sentence (that was it: No more Mr. Nice Guy. Yoga and Karma and Krishna and Swami-what’s-his-name were long gone. For the moment, anyway, I was talking to pure Israeli leftist). “What you’re preaching—it’s exclusivism, it’s discrimination, it’s segregation, it’s elitism… it is l’umanut,” he declared, employing for his coup de grâce a subtle nuance in Hebrew semantics which essentially distinguishes chauvinist from liberal nationalism (I doubted whether he found the latter any more palatable than the former).
“Why should people identify themselves according to this outmoded and flagrantly racist conception of yours?” he continued, “And how dare you define others based on such artificial and reactionary criteria?” (I’m translating freely here.) “Human beings should be judged by their individual characters, not by their national or religious affiliations! Why are you so prejudiced? Why do you play favorites? What, because I was born a Jew, and that man standing over there by the telephone was not, you should interact with me in a different way than with him? Maybe he’s the most upright, moral person in the entire city of LA, maybe he’s calling up some charity right now to donate a million dollars!” (I glanced over at the guy. He was unquestionably Jewish, and judging from his contorted visage and wild gesticulations, was probably talking to his broker.) “And because I had the ‘luck’ to be born of a Jewish mother, and he didn’t, because I got snipped a week after coming into the world, and he didn’t, for these reasons you should prefer me to him? You should care about me more than you do about him? Why, that’s SICK! It’s downright disgusting!”
I was glad he was done so I could stop craning my neck. He might very well have been arguing as much with his own internal inclinations as he was with me—I hadn’t managed to say very much, after all—but at any rate, Shira quickly laid a hand on his waist (you couldn’t really reach his shoulder) and led him aside. I wasn’t getting any closer to Krishna consciousness this way. The not-so-gentle giant inhaled half the oxygen in the arrivals lounge and rattled off three mantras at breakneck speed, all in one breath (not unlike the way we intone the names of Haman’s sons in the Purim Megilla). Then he was back, calm and cool, all smiles and ready to Rama.
Shira placed a hand on my shoulder (you can reach my shoulder) and spoke to me softly. “Don’t you see? All that His Divine Grace Swami Prah… is saying comes down to this: We must strive with all our inner strength to love all people equally. That is what these books we’re distributing teach as well, and, in the last analysis, isn’t that also the central message of that book, the one you’re carrying?” (she pointed to the Tora).
I stood there engulfed in frustration. What could I possibly answer “on one foot” (as we say in Hebrew), in the few seconds remaining to us, that would even begin to make a dent in all that? I heaved a long sigh of resignation. “When was the last time you read this book?” was the best I could come up with under the circumstances, appealing in all directions to imaginary back-up units.
“That’s not what this book says.”
My ride showed up, and was of course parked in the red zone, which as you know is for the loading and unloading of passengers only. There was a genuinely poignant parting scene—during which, among other unexpected events, Doron pressed my hand and slipped me a surreptitious “Shabat shalom, ahi!” (Good Sabbath, my brother!)—and the tantric trio from Tel Aviv went off in search of easier prey. I don’t know where my three semi-brainwashed but far from benighted Brahmins are now—whether they’ve since managed to achieve supreme bovinity, or whether they have fallen from grace and are currently putting their considerable mercantile talents to lucrative use fencing CD players on Olympic Boulevard. Either way, I sure hope I get to meet up with them again someday (yes, even if it means going back to Los Angeles). The ensuing pages contain the gist of what I would say to them, if I did.

Dr. Ze’ev Maghen, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Bar-Ilan and Hebrew Universities, is the creator of the Lights in Action student network of North America.

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