Encounter with the Trickster

No one smiles at you in Mea Shearim—the ultra orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. Signs on the buildings warn: “Jewish women—dress modestly!”  I’d been warned that girls who entered the quarter wearing t-shirts or short skirts had been stoned.

mea stIt was my first visit to Jerusalem at age 35, and I hadn’t been in a synagogue for 15 years. I couldn’t wait to flee the Reform temple in Los Angeles that my family had attended, (but only on high holidays) where services were boring and Sunday school was an ordeal. Yet I was a seeker, and in the Sixties I began exploring Eastern mystical traditions.

In 1975, when I stopped in Jerusalem on my way to take a nature tour of the Sinai desert, I was startled to find a vibrancy in Jewish practice, scholars creating fresh translations of the Torah, and mystics unlocking the Kabbalah—nothing I’d seen in West Los Angeles.  I had yet to encounter a spiritual community in which I felt at home, and wondered if I might find that here.

I met a young French woman, Catherine de Segonzac, who was converting to Judaism and wanted to introduce me to the rabbi who was tutoring her privately, the Rav Kook. (she pronounced it “coo” with a ”k”) This was Zvi Yehuda Kook, leader of the most prominent religious-Zionist yeshiva in the world, founded by his father, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, who’d been Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook

To visit him in Mea Shearim, she loaned me a blouse with long sleeves and a skirt that covered the knees. As we entered the quarter, I saw women in frumpy clothes with their hair covered, pushing baby carriages, and somber men scudding along with their eyes cast down.

As we approached the home of Rav Kook, we saw a swarm of men in long black coats, black hats, beards and sidelocks, milling restlessly on the steps leading up to the front door.

“Don’t we need an appointment?” I asked Catherine.  “The line’s so long, we’ll never get in.”

She gave a smile.  “Oh yes, we will.”

mea s menAs we started up the stairs, all the men in black looked stricken and took off like a congress of crows provoked into flight.  These men were forbidden to look at, touch, or even listen to the voices of women for fear they’d be distracted from thoughts of God. So there we were, alone on the steps outside the rabbi’s door.

After a brief time, the door opened and a tiny man of 85 with a white beard and twinkling eyes motioned us to come in.  He tottered after us, chatting with Catherine in Hebrew, as he didn’t speak English.  I sat down on the couch and he sat right beside me, put his arms around my shoulders and started kissing my cheek.

“What’s going on here?” I said to Catherine in English.  “His followers won’t even stand on the same steps with us and he’s smothering me with kisses!”

“He likes you. He operates differently from the others, or he wouldn’t be teaching me one to one.”

The Rav told me, “I knew you were coming today. I’m going to make a meal of you. (kiss kiss) You have a question. What is it?”

I did have a question. Edging away from him on the couch, I said, “I’ve lived a secular life but since I’ve been in Jerusalem, I’ve been wondering: should I return to my religious roots?  Should I study Hebrew, keep kosher, and observe the 613 commandments? I may not be able to, but should I try?”

He smiled and twinkled, keeping his eyes on mine. Then he said, through Catherine: “You don’t need to follow those rules. That’s for the people in black coats. You go straight to God.”


Catherine nodded.

Oh, joy!  I’d been absolved from all those complex and arcane duties by the one of the highest figures in Judaism. I’d been given a pass—permission to go on my own path to God.

When we left his house in Mea Shearim, I felt warmth and tenderness moving through me like a drug. Being with the Rav had lifted me to a different state—beyond words, judgments, and the puzzling kisses. I wandered the streets that I’d walked down before, but now the children, the soldiers, the yellow blossoms on the Judas trees—everything seemed to glow with divine sparks.

That night we had dinner with another teacher of Catherine’s, Colette Aboulker-Muscat, a Kabbalist who led guided meditations that she called “waking dreams.”

Colette Aboulker-Muscat

Colette Aboulker-Muscat

When I related what Rav Kook had told me, she burst out laughing.  “Don’t you know?” she said. “The Rav Kook is senile.”

“Is that true?” I asked Catherine.

She raised her arms and shrugged. He was obviously not too senile to prepare her for conversion.

As I mused on this later, I wondered, was Rav Kook like the Trickster, who changes shape and flouts the rules to spur people to wake up? There’s a proverb that if a pickpocket meets a saint, “he sees only his pockets.” To Colette, the Rav Kook was senile. To his followers, he was holy. To me, he was a cheery old man in a black gown who delivered a message I needed to hear.

Knowingly or not, he clarified an intention I hadn’t fully realized or felt sure about: to follow my inner lights. While this has led me at times to take up and glean from Buddhist meditation, Hindu advaita, and Taoist healing, thanks to Rav Kook and other independent-thinking rabbis, I’m still Jewish after all these years.

What would you make of this?  Please leave a comment.

Originally published on forward.com





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31 thoughts on “Encounter with the Trickster

  1. Jack Williamson

    Hello Sara,
    I was among the privileged who attended your session in Boulder with Reb Zalman–overwhelmingly inspiring. I was as much taken with your energy and poignancy as with his. I am a Quaker and periodically attend the Quaker meeting in Boulder. The phrase you used in your last paragraph of this article caught my attention: “…to follow my inner lights.” In our tradition we use and try to live in this reality. I am reading the December Project and loving it.
    With gratitude for you…

  2. Ilene Serlin

    Hi Sara,

    I loved your story.

    You are lucky to have found such a receptive guide….I was turned off by suburban reform Judaism as well, went to Israel and fell in love it, joined a youth Zionist socialist group, and wanted to go work in the fields and build a perfect democracy. Same age as Israel.

    Didn’t go back…got very involved with Naropa and Trungpa Rinpoche, but couldn’t find anyone to talk to about Judaism. Struggled for years with questions, confusions, and poor guides…finally went back in 1986 and have been studying/learning ever since.

    Below is a chapter published in 1986 in a book by my Jungian analyst…the only one who understood the struggle and could help.

    I couldn’t attach the pdf here, but here is the title…

    Sending warm wishes and thanks for your illuminating light,


    • Serlin, I. (1986). Toward an erotic spirituality. In J. Marvin Spiegelman, Abraham Jacobson (Eds.). A Modern Jew in Search of a Soul, (pp. 231-244). Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications.

  3. Amy

    Omg, I had to laugh Sara! I work with the elderly who are mostly in some form of dementia so I could just imagine your friend and others being “duped” by the wise old Rav Kook (btw I am a big fan of the elder Rav Kook. A brilliant man) and thinking his behaviors were in no way inappropriate because “well, he’s a brilliant Rabbi!” I am glad that you received the wisdom that you did from him (if we are open, I believe we always receive what we need). I must say though I am troubled by the naivete of so many people being duped by those who are not senile and do great damage because of their title. Call me cynical, but I think the Rav was a bit of a dirty old man (I’m going to make a meal of you? Ewww!) I have come to believe that we just become more of who we always were as we age, even more so with senility, where our filters fall away. The Rav probably never believed that hooey anyway. It was the Truth that those old black coats needed it because they were weak minded and that the truly wise were more like your Kabbalist friend Colette Aboulker-Muscat, yet we still perpetuate this absurd patriarchal notion in a faith with so much wisdom. I would love to hear what Reb Zalman thought of this story! I admit, I am not a fan of fundamentalist religious men (their wives aren’t much better just not as skeevy! I’ve been hit on by married black hats on the train in Manhattan!) I appreciate your learning and all the work you are doing. May the loud voices of fundamentalism be quieted by the light shining brightly through the Truth in our Jewish wisdom.
    Another Jewish returnee (with a healthy smattering of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Religious Science),

    1. Mindy

      Yes, I too work with people with dementia and I have to agree about the ewwwwy kissing on the couch. Not appropriate but we excuse it because of the age and the playfulness of the person with dementia. Still I do think his words were worthwhile. Not the actions.

  4. Judith Goleman

    Sara I think Reb Kook was speaking from the deepest true place in Jewish thought – it’s all about G!d and your unique path to the Divine
    Thanks for sharing this

  5. Ginger perry

    Senile is just others’ word for enlightened!
    Enjoyed hearing you on KGNU last Sunday.
    Truly inspiring!!

  6. Sherrie Phillips

    I think Rav Kook is a mystic – the true answers are the simplest ones. The people in the long cloaks trying to live up to 613 commandments are the senile ones. Trying to find spirituality in a dogma of do’s and don’ts will make you crazy if are not already. Just my experience. Long live Rav Kook!

  7. marlowe

    Lovely blessing from Rav Kook! From his lips (kisses and all) to God’s ears. Having followed similar paths, my heart also sings to his words.

  8. chuck

    Did I ever tell you that ” when a pick pocket meets a saint, all he sees are his pockets” was my favorite line from Ram Dass’s Be Here Now.

  9. Richard Kletter

    It’s a lovely story. Pithy and wise, with a highly readable admixture of sixties seeker and contemporary skepticism. It’s both knowing and wanting to know. Well done.

  10. Tracy

    Nice story Sara, and with a great twist, but I’m not sure why you keep on “seeking.” The messages that give you the most pleasure seem to say that you’re just fine without believing any particular ideology. Or haven’t I read enough of your writings?

    The December project is great — thank you for finding people like him.

  11. Greg davis

    Hi Sara, loved your story. The part that stuck for me, however was ,
    for fear they’d be distracted from thoughts of God.” How absurd! Those men should know that those are precisely the thoughts God has, He/She-“of women”…and of men. It’s what makes the world go around…literally! Vive la difference!

  12. Marian Thier

    It is so important for the conversations between The Reb and Sara to be shared with a wide, searching, intelligent audience. With appreciation and respect.

  13. Shoshana Dembitz

    Rav Kook didn’t have to function well in the physical world to have spiritual insight.

  14. Mindy

    Thanks for passing along the Rav Kook’s blessing. It’s always good to hear I’m on the right path even if I don’t follow all the rules. I too have been to Mea Shearim and couldn’t wait to get back in the car. I could have missed this and still felt like I had seen Isreal. I would havelovedto have met Colette the Kabbalist though. Would you write another post about your experience with her?

  15. Barbra

    I think that when you are ready to hear the truth, it can come from strange places, but you recognize it.
    I have followed your spiritual path almost exactly.
    There has been a Kabbalah Institute in West LA for at least 30 years. It is on La Cienega

  16. ArielJoy

    Sara, what a wonderful story. It has inspired me to respond at length and I am still not clear on “comment etiquette”. How long is too long? Most people tend to keep the comments short but I find the short comments lack substance. So what do you prefer: A couple of lines or a conversation starter?

  17. Gail Storey

    I love this story, and how Rav Kook gave you just the divine message you needed! I’m making a banquet of THE DECEMBER PROJECT–so many delicious courses to savor. I don’t want it to end, but console myself that I’ll still have your blog posts to enjoy. Thank you, Sara/Saraleh!

  18. Terry Stuart

    I think he was telling you he was attracted to you and to trust your intuition, senses, observations, etc. We all see/intuit things from our own POVs. None of us get the whole picture, but we get some of it and, if we share our insights and receive the insights of others, the picture gets clearer and our bonds with others grows stronger, and life fills with wonder until we die and then I don’t know what happens.

  19. D

    The Rav Kook is like a sunbeam direct from God. He reminds us that their are many paths to God.


    You now know, of course, of the prayer said in the morning by men: Thank God who has not made me a woman. Men have obligations that women do not.
    After reading you blog, I am reminded that often, I wish I could thank God “who has not made me a man,” so I could go straight to God, instead of navigating all the fences we put up to “protect” the Torah and Jewish life.

    Thanks for your thoughts as always. Love your new book, and especially the questions at the end. I ask them all the time…
    Good Shabbas!
    Colorado Springs

  21. Linda Pupos Newton

    Remember Micah “to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Rev Kook was pretty close.

    I went to Brandeis Camp Institute one month of one summer during college because I was interested in being Jewish and learning more. My family never went to temple. I missed out on those boring years. While so many were going away from Judaism, I was going toward it. Without stopping this quest, I realized I didn’t believe in the God of the Bible, a god “out there.” A few years ago I started going to an acupuncturist whose goal for each of us is to strengthen our immune system. We talked about God. And I told him that I didn’t believe in the god “out there.” He said that God was inside us. Made sense to me! The acupuncturist is a meditator. Of course the light is inside. And so I’ve been meditating and learning about that which all religions and spiritual practices have in common. At the same time I appreciate Judaism. I also feel it is my responsibility as a Jew to be able to answer the questions of non Jews. Living in the SF Bay Area I don’t have a Jewish community. I study Torah with a non Jewish friend because she finds religion fascinating and appreciates Jewish practices. I do miss a Jewish community; when going to my LA High reunion, it was wonderful being in that atmosphere of all the Jewish kids I had gone to school with who wore their Jewishness comfortably on the outside.

  22. Trisha Johnson

    He sounds delightful. How lucky to manifest such a charming, light-hearted inspiration.
    “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”.
    He was your teacher, no matter what others thought of him.
    Nice story, and I look forward to reading your book.
    Trisha Johnson, MD

  23. Joey Bortnick

    I see it as a gift from the Universe for you. You were seeking a message and you received one. It was delivered in a way that allowed you to stay connected to your roots while expanding your horizons. You were seeking other methods of gaining wisdom and clarity. The Trickster is a great teacher. It takes a wise person to recognize that. Well done, Sara.

    I am Jewish by birth, Celtic by heart, Buddhist by mind. I wear a star, an Irish claddaugh, and a Buddha all the time. We are multi-fascitted!

    BTW: I am so thrilled that I got to meet you in person. You are absolutely gorgeous, charismatic, brilliant, talented, and wonderful!
    Brightest Blessings, Joey

  24. Lisa Braun Glazer


    I really enjoyed your essay and found it to be softly provocative – a fine line to navigate!

    I loved meeting you at our Waters of Eden event, and do hope that we can meet again, perhaps in Aspen. Check out http://www.aspenwriters.org. I think you’d be perfect for one of the Winter Words programs or perhaps as faculty for the Summer Words, though it appears as though their 2014 workshop is already set. Unfortunately, I have no connections there, but please do let me know if anything happens.



  25. suzi rudd cohen

    Sara, once again, thank you for including me in your mailings. I have purchased 3 copies to give as mother’s day gifts. The book has generated much conversation, discussion and confrontation! Love that! Thanks. Happy Mother’s Day to you!

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