So this story starts at a hotel hot tub in Iowa. And it just gets weirder from there.
I was at the hotel with my (now) ex-wife, visiting her grandmother in Dubuque (the town with three ‘U’s!). She was taking a nap, so I left for the hot tub alone, in my bathing suit and flip-flops.
What I did not know was that the hotel was, that weekend, hosting a New Age convention.
I got to the tub. In it was an older man, also in just a bathing suit, with a long, white wizard beard. He was talking with someone sitting at the edge of the tub who just had his legs in the water.
There was another guy sitting at the edge, too, alone. So I sat in one of the only spots left, next to him.
He turned to me and said, “Are you Jewish?” Not, “Hello,” or “My name’s Frank,” but that.
I wasn’t wearing a chai or Magen David or kipah. Maybe the white hotel towel over my shoulders looked like a tallit. I was stunned by the bluntness and invasiveness of his question. It put me on guard, even though his tone was not hostile.
I decided my best reply was honesty, backed by stalwart conviction. “Yes. Yes, I am,” I stated, bracing for his response.
He seemed relieved. “Me, too.” He then told me his name — which I have now forgotten — and that he was there for the New Age convention, which is how I found out about it. He then told me that he was he was here to see his guru… quickly adding that the guy in the tub was not his guru, but that other guy’s.
At this point, I think I said something profound, like “Oh.”
I guess, to him, that meant, “So now tell me about your guru. In fact, tell me about your whole, extensive spiritual journey!” Because that is what he proceeded to do.
Now, this happened sometime in the 1990s, so I don’t remember all of what he told me, including how he ended up with a guru to begin with. Here are the parts I do recall:
At one point, the guru told him to give up sweets for him. The guy was angry, and felt this was an unfair request. “I really struggled with it,” he said, and even questioned the guru’s affection for him.
The guru assured him, “I love you as much as any of my wives.” (That line, I remember verbatim.) So he did it. He gave up sweets. And his commitment to the guru deepened.
Later, the guru asked him to give up meat for him. “This was very hard,” the guy told me. “I almost quit.” Again, he finally capitulated to the guru’s demand. And once again, felt even closer.
At this point, to use New Age terminology, I felt a change in the vibe. The energy flow had shifted, and I was feeling – recruited. So I made my apologies, dried my legs, and skedaddled.
On the way back to my room, however, I wondered what could make a person who was so assertive about his Jewishness do all that. So many Jews decline to keep kosher, and here this guy went vegetarian – um – cold turkey. So many find Shabbat to be constraining and this guy found giving up cake and ice cream liberating.
And even though he hated doing it, he did it, because his guru asked.
So why did this Jewish guy look for meaning outside of Judaism? I thought. We must not have asked enough of him.
We tend to fear that if we ask more of people, they will say “That’s too much,” or “That’s too hard,” and turn away.
Every time I think about that guy at the hotel hot tub in Iowa, well, I wonder if that’s true.