Yosef Wosk


My father’s father taught him: “If you make ten cents, save a penny, give one away, and spend the rest if you must.”

The Wosk surname was originally Woskoboynikovsky (or Woskaboinik). In Ukrainian it was Voskoboynik—for wax maker. Yosef Wosk’s paternal ancestors were merchants in Odessa, in south-western Ukraine, on the Black Sea, not far from Moldova and were traditionally descended from the tribe of Levi.

His mother, Dena Heckleman, was reluctant to talk about persecutions her family suffered as Jews in her native Poland so much less is known about the maternal side of his family. She was born in eastern Poland, in what is now part of Belarus, in the town of Pinsk, in the Polesia region, 220 kilometres southwest of Minsk, at the confluence of the Pina and Pripyat Rivers.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer, author. Photo property of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. (Click)

In response to queries, Yosef’s mother once told him about a beloved grandfather, Mordehai Lasosky Ha’Cohen, and mentioned an Uncle Archik. The Hecklemans believed they were related to the Singers, as in Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish Novel Prize-winning author. She remembered meeting him once when he came to visit the family in Pinsk.

The town of Pinsk has Lithuanian origins from the tenth century. Jews comprised approximately 75% of the population around the year 1900. German troops took possession in 1915; the Russian army took control in 1919; it was briefly liberated by Polish troops less than two months later; the Red Army took it back in July of 1920; then the Poles regained control in September of 1920. Prior to World War II, approximately 70% of the town was still Jewish.

In Ukraine, Yosef Wosk’s paternal great-great-grandfather was conscripted into the czar’s army at a young age. When he returned home after twenty-five years of military service, he was granted land by the government, a rare privilege for a Jew. Family lore has it that when he married and had thirteen children, one of his daughters, Shapsa, had a daughter named Malka who married her uncle, named Yosef—Yosef Wosk’s namesake and grandfather.

Yosef and Malka (Mary) Woskoboynikovsky had only two children, Ben (originally Ben’tsion or Benusa) and Morris (originally Moshe Aharon or Misha). The eldest child Ben was born in 1913. Morris was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1917. His wife-to-be and Yosef Wosk’s mother, Dena Heckleman, was also born in 1917—the year of the Russian Revolution. At that time, Ukraine was home to three million Jews, about 12% of the Ukraine population. The Wosk family would immigrate to Vancouver in 1928.

After the Russian czar was deposed in February of 1917 and murdered a year later, barbarous Russian and Bolshevik armies inflicted pogroms in about 500 locales within the Ukrainian People’s Republic that was established in November of 1918. Between 1918 and 1921, approximately 100,000 Jews were killed, two-thirds of all Jewish homes were looted or destroyed, and approximately 600,000 Jews were either displaced internally or forced to flee across international borders.

Cossacks routinely raided villages, shooting men and raping women. When they massacred men in the village of Yosef Wosk’s grandparents, Yosef and Mary Woskoboynikovsky disguised themselves as peasants and were spared. Their two sons were told to hide at the bottom of a haystack in a cart. Ben and Morris survived that day only because the pitchforks of the Cossacks failed to reach him in the hay. Another time these two brothers were hidden behind the oven, amid the firewood, as Cossacks searched the house.

Family lore has it that Yosef Woskoboynikovsky’s hair turned white overnight after he was lined up for a firing squad—only to be suddenly spared after a bribe was paid. Consequently, his namesake grandson in Vancouver knows these words from the poet Tagore by heart: Much knowing has turned my hair grey / and much watching has made my sight dim. / For years I have gathered and heaped up / scraps and fragments of things…

The Spanish Flu simultaneously killed millions throughout Europe from February of 1918 to April of 1920. The communist paradise imagined by Marx, then promised by Lenin, was a façade for all Jews who were forbidden to attend synagogue, pray or study Hebrew. “Most of what I remember about my first ten years of life,” Morris Wosk would tell his children, “is that I had no toys, no childhood, and that I was always looking over my shoulder. I was afraid to walk the streets.”

Terrorism against Jewish targets pained Morris Wosk deeply for the rest of his life, prompting his determination to work on behalf of the reborn state of Israel. He never forgot the many relatives who had remained in the old country and perished, as a result of Stalinist policies and purges or else during the Shoah.

It was a cousin who had first made it to Vancouver, Abe Wosk, who helped the family attain passports. Meanwhile, the family could not attempt to sell their properties within a newly communist regime, even at bargain prices, so they were forced to abandon their farm and an apartment building they had owned in Odessa.

The night before the Woskoboynikovsky family were able to flee from Russia in August of 1928, the Woskoboynikovskys burned thousands of rubles in their basement furnace. This way the money was not entirely wasted: There was dignity to be gained by assuring themselves their persecutors could not become beneficiaries of their plight. Russian authorities would have confiscated any money they had en route and to give money away would have been a sure sign that they were planning to escape.

In preparation for their escape from Odessa [a derivative of the Greek word for odyssey, meaning a long journey], the family did risk one rebellious, death-defying act when Mary Woskoboynikovsky sewed a small diamond into the lapel of the jacket worn by her youngest son, Morris, because the youngest was least likely to be searched.

“Even though we had legitimate passports,” Morris Wosk later recalled, “we knew we could be shot or turned back at any time.”

Original Jewish community centre Vancouver

Original Jewish community centre Vancouver

During the ensuing six weeks when they stayed in a transit camp in Riga, Latvia, as well as the six weeks they huddled in the furnace room of a freighter as they crossed the Atlantic, Yosef Wosk’s father-to-be served as the custodian for the precious diamond. During their 9,000-kilometre exodus, in search of the promised land of milk and honey, the family was allowed to carry with them a Shabbat candelabra and a samovar. It was this exodus that enabled Yosef Wosk to become a 200th generation descendant of Abraham and Sarah and a first-generation Canadian.

Abrasha Wosk c. 1910

Abrasha Wosk c. 1910

This journey had been made by preceding relatives in Vancouver, Abrasha and Chava (nee Nemetz) Wosk, the parents of Rose Segal, along with members of the Nemetz family, who had been able to sponsor the Woskoboynikovskys’ legal immigration to Canada in the same year that the cornerstone of the first Jewish Community Centre was laid at 11th and Oak in Vancouver. It opened in 1928 at 2675 Oak Street (now the BC Lung Association Building). An historical plaque was laid in April of 2012.

According to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, “The Jewish community’s early centre was located in the 500-700 blocks of East Pender in Strathcona. The earlier Schara Tzedeck synagogue at the southeast corner of Heatley and Pender survives today as condominiums; Jews first worshipped in a converted house at 514 Heatley Street nearby.” Abrasha Wosk later became a co-founder of the Schara Tzedeck (charity) congregation, the Achduth Society, the first Jewish Old Folks’ Home and the first burial chapel.

In 1928, when the weary Wosks arrived at an unknown port named Halifax, they were welcomed by a representative of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services who directed them to the train station for their five-day journey by rail across Canada and also unforgettably gave them a salami, a loaf of bread, some water, a few dollars and wished them luck. Such kindness from a stranger buoyed their strength immeasurably. Both of Yosef Wosk’s parents arrived in Canada, with their separate families from Ukraine and Poland, with the assistance of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada a vital organization that has continuously served the immigrant community since 1922. [Yosef Wosk published a brief article entitled “My Family’s Journey to Canada” in that organization’s newsletter of September 2006, Volume 4, Issue 2.]

Of course, acclimatization in pre-Depression British Columbia was not easy. Over-burdened with an influx of new immigrants, the fledgling Jewish community of Vancouver mostly struggled to make ends meet. Yosef Wosk’s namesake grandfather found work in an animal hide factory. His uncle Ben Wosk found a job in a broom factory. At eleven years of age, Yosef’s father-to-be spoke Yiddish and Russian. Without knowing a word of English, he was taunted as soon as he was placed into a Grade One classroom. One boy came to his aid and they would remain friends for the rest of their lives. Morris Wosk dropped out of school in Grade Six.

At first, Yosef’s grandfather, father and uncle had worked at a series of odd jobs before they started their first small business: collecting and repairing old pots and pans. These they polished and sold for a few cents profit. Soon enough they were able to afford a horse and buggy (ferdeleh und agalah) to assist with their labours. As a boy, Morris Wosk contributed by carrying broken pots in his little wagon on the way to auction on Commercial Drive. He first worked as a common peddler at age 13.

“My father always fondly remembered his bar mitzvah at the Schara Tzedeck synagogue,” Yosef recalls, “where there were barely enough people to form a minyan (the quorum required for Jewish communal worship that consists of ten male adults in Orthodox Judaism and usually ten adults of either sex in Conservative and Reform Judaism). He recalled there was one herring, one bottle of wine and a honey cake. By the time he reached Grade Six, at age 15, he dropped out of school to work full time.”

Wosk's House of QualityWhen a decision was made to open their first store on Granville Street in June of 1932, the Wosk brothers, Ben and “MJ”, started by specializing in second-hand appliances and whatever else they could find at auctions. The story goes they had one used radio for sale, no line of credit and less than $100 in the bank. “We worked eighteen-hour days, seven days a week,” Morris said. “Even on Sundays we’d be fixing old chairs and polishing and straightening old pots and pans.” Eventually, the brothers were selling new appliances and furniture at Wosk’s Ltd. where their motto promised “Nobody But Nobody Undersells Wosk’s.” Later, Wosk’s Ltd. would opt for the slogan, “House of Quality.”

They Wosk brothers eventually operated a dozen outlets in the Lower Mainland and added a store in Alberta. The Wosk’s Ltd. store at 5862 West Hastings was the location of “Mr. Ben” and “Mr. Morrie’s” offices and it was their children would gather to watch the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) parade every summer.

Wosk's House of Quality

Wosk’s House of Quality on Hastings St. in Vancouver in the 40’s (Click)

In 1940, the Wosk brothers had initially founded a small construction company to renovate an old house into four suites. As opportunities and expertise increased, they graduated to building a 32-suite apartment building. Their apartment projects would become quickly identifiable around the city due to their integration of distinctive blue Italian tiles sourced from eastern Canada.

In 1946, Morris Wosk married Dena Heckleman, a gifted violinist from Edmonton who had received a gold medal from the Royal Academy of Music in London for obtaining the highest marks in Canada in her violin exams. They would remain married for 54 years and raise four children: Miriam, Yosef, Mordehai and Ken. As a gift to her on their 25th wedding anniversary, Morris Wosk paid for the construction of the Beit Wosk Community Centre in Ashkelon, Israel, with a musicology centre, a synagogue and a major youth and arts program. As well, the Dena Wosk School of Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Centre was started in 1998 as the JCC Performing Arts School.

In 1962, at age 45, Morris Wosk announced a major rental project at 1395 Beach in the West End only surpassed locally, in size, by the 234-suite Parkview Towers, west of the Burrard Bridge in Kitsilano. “The luxury 11-storey Surfside building,” The Vancouver Sun reported, “overlooks Sunset Beach. With rents ranging from $90 to a maximum of $150, it could be a pace setter among view apartment buildings. The 90-suite block is due to open March 1.”

Morris Wosk understood media more than his brother and enjoyed making the firm’s advertisements. He also had a knack for public relations. “Vancouver shouldn’t be a hick town,” he told the Vancouver Sun. “It should show off its skyline. There’s nothing like a high-rise building to do this. Look at the B.C. Electric Building and the Burrard Building. People take pride in showing them to visitors Nobody wants to brag about a two- or three-storey building.”

His audacious project was actually financed by Albert Reichmann of Toronto who then sold it to the Wosk brothers prior to opening. The first hotel the brothers actually built on their own dime was the 100-room Blue Boy Hotel at 725 Southeast Marine Drive and Fraser Street—taking its name and emblem from the famous Gainsborough painting—in 1964. This was followed by Vancouver’s tallest building at the time—the 32-storey Blue Horizon at 1225 Robson Street which opened with 218 units in 1967. These projects were undertaken by their company Stan-Ken Investments, named after two of their sons, until the brothers split up corporately in December of 1968.

Blue Horizon

The Blue Horizon apartment building on Robson St. with a pub below.

Blueboy Motel

Blue Boy Motor Hotel at Fraser and Marine Dr., Vancouver. (Click)

Ben Wosk took charge of the Wosk’s stores and Stan-Ken Investments. Morris Wosk took charge of the Blue Horizon and the Blue Boy. The true story of how and why the two brothers parted ways has never been clearly told. Yosef Wosk was told by his father there was an attempted swindle: The brothers were fifty-fifty partners, it was common for them to co-sign a great deal of paperwork.

One day Ben brought his brother a stack of papers to sign. This had become a common practice with them. Morris swiftly signed everything, one after the other, in keeping with their trusting relationship. According to Morris, his brother Ben had inserted an agreement whereby Ben would take 51% ownership of their enterprises and Morris would forthwith have 49% ownership.

The motive for doing so, it was alleged, was that Ben wanted his son to gain access to a partnership in the company and this could only be accomplished if Ben had majority ownership. As soon as this subterfuge was discovered, Morris Wosk hired lawyers to dispute the unwitting transaction.

Enmity naturally arose, fuelled by legal costs. Ultimately, it was decided that their mutual business enterprise would be fairly split.

Newspaper article

When Ben Wosk eventually died at age 81, while on vacation in Honolulu in 1995, Morris Wosk chose not to attend the funeral. Born in Vradiavkak (near Odessa) in Russia. Ben Wosk had first learned how to fix stoves and married Lil (Levy) in 1937. The couple supported numerous organizations, both Jewish and otherwise, most significantly the Schara Tzedeck Synagogue on Oak Street, opened in 1948, where he chaired their Burn the Mortgage Campaign in 1953. Ten years later he was chairman of the Synagogue’s successful expansion to add a religious school and auditorium. He also supported the BC Heart Foundation, Vancouver Epilepsy Centre, Boy Scouts and other causes. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1978.

Old Wosk's Sign

As reported by Vancouver Sun journalist John Mackie in 2022, a ‘ghost sign’ for the old Wosk’s department store chain reappeared during renovations of a building at 700 Kingsway at Fraser where Wosk’s had a store from 1950 to 1982.

Seven years later after Ben Wosk died, on April 11, 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that Morris Wosk, 84, “a Ukrainian immigrant who became one of western Canada’s leading businessmen and philanthropists,” died Tuesday in Las Vegas of heart failure. The Times estimated he had donated the equivalent of $30 million in U.S. dollars in his lifetime to institutions ranging from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia to Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Morris Wosk HeadstoneHe was a long-time member of the Board of Trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Family funds were also allocated for the Pacific Torah Institute, Vancouver’s first yeshiva high school for boys where his grandson, Avi, became a student. It was officially named Yeshivas Tiferet Moshe Aharon Yeshiva after Morris Wosk’s Hebrew name. On the walls of his office were photos of his meetings with Queen Elizabeth, Mikhail Gorbachev, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Simon Wiesenthal, as well as other prime ministers and presidents.

In recognition of his many labours, Morris Wosk had been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1992, inducted into the Order of British Columbia and granted the Freedom of the City of Vancouver—the highest honours from all three levels of government.

In 1996, Prime Minister Shimon Peres presented Morris Wosk with the Jerusalem 3000 Award, given to only 36 families around the world at that time. A lifelong member of B’nai Brith and Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Morris Wosk served on the national board of Yeshiva University in New York and chaired the Friends of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was a director of the Canada Israel Securities, Ltd., past chairman of the Israel Bond Drive and the United Jewish Appeal, on the national executive board of the State of Israel Bonds and national vice president of Canada Israel Securities, Ltd.

Morris Wosk was invited to the White House to be among a select group of philanthropists for their contributions to children’s hospitals in North America. Organizations beyond British Columbia that also benefited from his donations included the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Museum of Tolerance, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yeshiva University of New York and Los Angeles, Beit Wosk Centre in Ashkelon, the Jewish National Fund and the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.

With two honorary doctorates from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Honorary Doctor of Philosophy 1989) and Simon Fraser University (Honorary Doctor of Laws 1996), Morris Wosk perhaps most significantly became the namesake, as a philanthropist, for the internationally recognized Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver. The Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community, dedicated by the Wosk family in 1962, also bears his name. When he was called to the Torah, he was Moshe Aharon ben Yosef Ha’Levi. Friends called him Morris. At work, he was MJ. Grandchildren called him Mo. “My father never forgot his difficult childhood,” says Yosef Wosk, “and he remained eternally grateful for the safety of Canada. All who knew my father were elevated by his spirit. He inspired the greater good of our ever-ancient and always-becoming people and my father’s blessed memory continues to inspire me. As a creative, sensitive and dedicated man, my father inspired others to loving kindness. He continuously supported the growth and well-being of his city with philanthropy and he never conducted business in any other place. He always led by example. His greatest comfort would be to know that I have followed in his own path, in my own way, with vigour and dedication. He liked to quote his own father, ‘If you make $10, you should give $1 to charity, put a dollar in your pocket, and spend $8 if you have to.’

Yosef’s style of philanthropy is intuitive and instant. He calls it Guerrilla Philanthropy.

Over the years, M. J. Wosk served on many boards, often in a leadership role as chairman. To mention just a few: Board of Trade, a director on Downtown Business Association, the B.C. Hotel Association, St. Paul’s Hospital and the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. M. J. was also a major funder of schools (three of which he helped to found), medical centres and social services agencies, as well as all forms of art and culture.


Previous to the family’s escape to Canada, Yosef tells the story about how, as children, his father and his uncle hid twice from murderous Cossacks.


I was born on March 26, 1949, four years after the Holocaust, during which Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered more than two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, including ninety percent of the children. It was also just ten months after the establishment of the State of Israel. I, and those of my generation, took the reality of Israel for granted until we learned—as every generation does sooner or later—that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

I was raised in a traditional Jewish home where we observed a number of religious practices including keeping kosher, giving tsedaka (charity) both in the ever-present pushkeh (charity box) and in the community, celebrating a modicum of Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday observance, attending shul (synagogue), and becoming active in the community.

I attended Talmud Torah, a private elementary school with a dual curriculum of both Judaic and secular studies. Some of my favourite years were nursery when the leaning adventure began; Grade 1 when I learned to read and print; Grade 3 when I learned to write and we had exceptional teachers; and Grade 7 when, once again, we had excellent teachers and it was time to graduate to the wider world beyond the walls of what sometimes felt like a self-imposed ghetto.

Seemingly shy but invariably curious, I was reading up to twenty newspapers and magazines per week by age ten. Because my mother was an accomplished musician, I was forced to take piano lessons. Drums would have been a better choice for me; I was more into hitting things, rhythmically of course. I also sang in choirs and took elocution lessons as well as instruction in tap dance, as teenage years approached, ballroom dancing.

By Grade 7, in spite of my innate reserve, my athletic talents began to mature, puberty set in, it was our bar mitzvah year, and I was appointed head of the House of David (part of the student council). Upon graduation, I was presented with the Citizenship Award, a recognition that surprised me: I favoured someone else, Kenny Garfinkel, who I thought was one of the kindest students in our class. This reflection brings to mind what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” I suppose that even when I was young I was attracted to kindness. Perhaps it made me feel protected.

During my first few years of high school, my parents compelled me to attend afternoon Judaic classes twice a week. While I was growing up—and certainly when juxtaposed to others in the community—I felt embarrassed to be Jewish. It was a vague feeling, a kind of low-level guilt, for which I did not have words at the time. I felt like an outsider, part of a persecuted minority among what seemed like a care-free, normal, secular majority population. I’m sure that I picked up some sense of justifiable paranoia from my parents’ experience with antisemitism in their birth countries that contributed to my sense of unease, fear, and of being constantly judged.

My high school years were spent at Sir Winston Churchill where, besides academic pursuits, I also participated in sports and politics. I was unexpectedly placed in an advanced class for Grade 8, one that included both French and Latin. Although I love words, my grammar in foreign languages has always been weak and there I was, at age fourteen, studying English, Hebrew, French and Latin simultaneously. The stress contributed to occasional nightmares in which I’d wake up in a sweat for not knowing the sentence structure and word order, definite or indefinite articles, male and female constructions, singular and plurals, or rules such as “if a noun or a pronoun is used as a subject it has a different ending than when it is being used as a direct object.” Similarly, “adjectives change their endings to match the noun they are modifying and that noun’s use in a sentence.” See what I mean?

“Verbs also change their endings based on how they are moved to get across who is doing the action, when it is happening, and how many are doing the action.” And that’s only the beginning of Latin grammar. I’d also confuse one language for the other and stammer to put together a complete sentence without—under pressure to get it right—inserting a word from another language. It was all Greek to me!

All this was before the advent of more enlightened learning techniques such as French immersion. Classes were intellectual torture chambers. I spent a lot of time gazing out the window, wanting to be rocked in the gentle arms of nature rather than being restricted by the accusatory discipline of nurture. Instead of glowing with the joy of learning I felt more like an inadequate idiot who could not even grasp the basic structure of language.

I thrived, however, in many other high school extra-curricular activities such as the Year Book Annual, graphic arts, music, dancing and dating. I served a number of years as an elected representative to student council, eventually becoming president of the entire school (numbering 1,200 students) in my senior year.

In sports, I was a member of the cross-country running team, and also played soccer, rugby, field hockey and was especially involved in wrestling. At one point I was ranked number three in the province in my weight class (142 lbs.). I broke my nose playing baseball and ended up in hospital a second time when I caught a floor-hockey stick on the tip of my nose and had to be operated on for a deviated septum. A third break occurred in the midst of a rugby game but, by that time, I was able to snap it back into position. In Grade 12, I finally earned my Big Letter (C for Churchill) that was promptly sewed as a badge of honour on my blue school cardigan sweater.

I remained somewhat active in sports for another year but as I got more deeply involved in university life my attention increasingly turned to intellectual, spiritual and mythical pursuits, often fuelled by the inhalation of what was then very illegal marijuana. The Sixties hippie revolution was in full bloom. Life became a great adventure: I was both the hunter and the hunted. Not everyone survived.

Early Travels

Although some of my earliest memories speak of wanting to know the world, to be the world, my gestation as a self-described psychogeographer began in 1962 at the Seattle World’s Fair. With its motto of Living in the Space Age, it opened up new frontiers of knowledge, architecture and a sense of optimism that anything was possible. Riding the monorail, ascending the Space Needle and visiting the international pavilions awakened an inner courage and emboldened my resolve to embrace all that ever was, is, or would be.

My next milestone, at age fourteen in 1963, opened the Gates of the World and presented me with its key. It was the year my father arranged for our family to embark on an eye-opening exploration of five countries, which included visits to the capitals of so many dreams—Jerusalem, Paris and Rome.

It began with our flight from Vancouver on a Boeing 707 (the first successful commercial passenger jetliner) to the metropolitan marvel of New York. I remember there being some discussion as to whether or not we should all fly on the same airplane. If, God forbid, the plane might crash, the entire family would be wiped out.

On my first day in Manhattan, I felt like an immigrant from a small town who had just been transported to a faraway wonderland. I stayed up half the night perched between pillows on the inner window ledge of our room on the 28th floor of the Americana Hotel, gazing in amazement at the world’s tallest collection of buildings and marvelling at the millions of people who inhabited them. I wanted to meet each one.

A few days later—after visiting the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre, the Lower East Side, museums, taking a Circle Cruise around the island and eating in some of her famous restaurants—we boarded the USS United States for a transatlantic voyage to Le Havre in France. We then crossed the English Channel to Southampton where we disembarked for an extended tour of London. We visited theatres and squares, museums and palaces; I recall seeing neighbourhoods still strewn with the rubble of Nazi bombing raids.

From there we flew El Al to Israel, a highlight of our expertly guided travels to some of the cradles of western civilization. The instant we stepped off the plane and I took my first breath of the Holy Land, I really did feel like we had arrived in paradise. The sensation was enhanced by the intoxicating fragrance, wafting from nearby orchards, of Jaffa orange trees in full blossom. We met wonderful people on that trip including David Ben-Gurion—the first prime minister and founding father of Israel—at his desert kibbutz of Sdeh Boker.

A week later, we found ourselves in Rome where we were ushered into a front row seat in the Vatican’s majestic Saint Peter’s Basilica for the pope’s weekly blessing. The saintly Pope John XXIII had died about a month before our visit and Pope Paul VI had recently assumed office. As he was carried aloft through the crowds on the papal palanquin, I instinctively reached up and touched the hem of his garment.

As a young non-Christian, unfamiliar with the Gospels, it was many years before I realized the irony of that action. Matthew 9:20–22, Luke 8:43–48, and Mark 5:22–43 all report the miraculous healing of a suffering woman who had surreptitiously touched Jesus’s garment as he passed by in the midst of a large crowd. “And he said to her: ‘Daughter, be of good comfort: your faith has made you whole; go in peace.’”

It was also in Roma, at a fancy restaurant in the landmark Excelsior Hotel, where I learned the true art of eating spaghetti. One of the waiters must have taken pity on my awkward attempts to scoop up the Italian national dish with a fork and knife. He instructed me to twist a few strands of pasta around the tines of my fork and then twirl them in the concave receptivity of a large spoon. After some failed attempts and much laughter, I managed to perfect the skill, tomato sauce and all. Akin to first learning how to use chopsticks, it has remained a favourite act of culinary competence ever since.

After Rome we visited the ever-enchanting Venice (ah, to get lost and loved in such a dream as this) and the French Riviera before our adventure culminated in La Ville Lumière, Paris. This indulgent journey not only shattered the limits of my youthful perceptions but made me realize that the entire world was open to exploration. I had a premonition that this larger reality would encourage me to dare to think for myself and that, in some enigmatic way, the planet was an extension of my body, or that I was a conscious, mobile appendage of the earth. The world was gradually becoming my new best friend.

“Travel,” as Mark Twain put it, “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Sacred Studies

My studies have been a pas de deux of place and professor, of content and choreography, of travelling to learn and learning to travel, of being affected by the places in which I lived as much as what I learned from books in those hallowed halls. I studied, taught, lived and worked in Vancouver, Jerusalem, New York, Toronto, and Philadelphia, as well as in Somerville, Cambridge, Everett and Medford—four towns around Boston’s central hub—before returning to the Left Coast of Lotus Land, aka YVR or Vancouver.

I have been fortunate to encounter a number of master teachers over decades of studies in many cities, multiple schools and various subjects. As my inexorable pilgrimage continued to evolve, I came to realize that I could learn from anything, anywhere, at any time. I found myself in the midst of a ubiquitous conversation not only with human instructors but also with the winds and waves, with flowers, trees, bees and birds, with rain, rocks and spiders, near earth and far-off stars.

The planet became an ally that grounded and nurtured, instructed and challenged me. I became restless in formal schools but still attended them, for it was there that I began to meet those kindred spirits who offered instruction in areas for which I was desperate for knowledge. I also developed a strong sense of personal discipline that almost destroyed me in the process of completing many courses of study.

Meanwhile, I continued to grapple with some of my uncomfortable emotions. The more I desired to embrace the Ideal, to dwell in a universe of transparent gnosis, the more it seemed to stir up the corresponding depths of darkness and reactive inclinations. The inner and outer dimensions of human consciousness are too large, too complex, for us not to get tangled up in their evolving dramas. We are both theatre and audience to our ever-unfolding dreams.

Undergraduate Studies

I didn’t really want to attend university as I was restless to meet the rest of the world but settled into undergraduate studies with my comrade-in-arms, Les Ames, when an experimental interdisciplinary program at the University of British Columbia called Arts One was offered for the first time. We also enrolled in anthropology, film, theatre, literature and geography classes.
One class, Cultural Geography, was especially meaningful. Among the phenomena we studied was how Homo sapiens had affected the world and how goods were transported from their place of origin to their place of consumption. I chose the potato, my favourite food, and traced it to its emergence in the highlands of the Andes mountains of South America. I discovered that there were over four thousand native species of the Andean underground tuber and that Indigenous tribes had eaten them for thousands of years.

When Spanish conquistadors introduced the starchy vegetable to Europe in the sixteenth century, it was greeted with suspicion and considered toxic by some, even being labelled the Devil’s food. Although potatoes were soon adopted by the famished poor in Spain, they were still rejected by most other Europeans. Royalty gradually adopted the rather exotic product of the New World, and when Marie Antoinette, queen consort of France, began decorating her hair with potato flowers, its popularity was assured. It even became a symbol of love and procreativity owing to the folk principle of “correspondence” found in Sympathetic Magic in which the shape of small potatoes were reminiscent of testicles. Because of high yields in even meagre plots, it finally became a significant source of food and helped to alleviate Europe from hunger.

Over the following centuries, however, the potato became overly relied upon as a source of food and achieved agricultural monoculture status. When the crop occasionally failed—as it did in the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849—about a million people starved to death in the “Great Hunger”. It was the cause of massive emigration of around another two million people, primarily to North America and to other locales in Great Britain.

As part of my final project for the course, I ate only potatoes for a week. I purchased and prepared them myself in ten different ways according to recipes I found in cookbooks or made up myself. At dinner, which I usually ate with my parents and siblings, they thought I was definitely taking my research too far. In any event, I was not getting along with my mother at the time and, in a fit of paranoia, I felt that she resented me so much that she might even try to poison whatever food she made. Consequently, it was a visceral relief to proceed with my independent culinary experiment.
I also wrote a mystical poem to the potato, claiming that it was originally penned by a Peruvian shaman. People do such things when their lives—or grades—depend on it.

At that time, I was becoming more interested in spirituality, particularly how it was experienced by other religions. Consequently, I studied and experimented with other religious practices including Hinduism, Buddhism and mystical teachings of all faiths. I spent my third year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Upon returning to UBC to complete my degree, I took a number of courses in the Liberal Arts before receiving my Bachelor of Arts from UBC with a major in Religious Studies and minor in Geography (1971).
After graduation, I moved from my parents’ home even if they felt somewhat forsaken. Only later did I understand that my leaving had triggered some form of PTSD, reminding them of when they, as children, had to abandon most of their families in order to escape with their lives.

I rented a one-bedroom attic apartment in Vancouver’s Kitsilano district, home of the city’s counter-cultural scene and adjacent to the beach, to the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. I was already a vegetarian at that time but now that I was preparing my own meals, I explored the health food revolution even more. I also found a job as a janitor at my father’s downtown Blue Horizon Hotel on Robson Street, also known as Robsonstrasse because of the ethnic mix of German and other European stores which had opened there after the Second World War. Then I worked in the hotel beer parlour as a waiter and bartender. I soon learned to pour a perfect pint of cold beer from the tap, one inch foam head and all.

All of this served as a precursor to a much greater adventure in learning. After graduating from university, I had given myself time to contemplate my future direction and decided to move to Jerusalem, in 1972. I would live in Yerushalayim (as Jerusalem is called in Hebrew) for six years: one as a student at Hebrew University (1969–1970); three-and-a-half years as a student at Israel Torah Research Institute—Talmudic Academy for Religious Studies, from which I received a B.H.L. [Bachelor of Hebrew Letters] (1972–1975); one year on sabbatical (1992–1993); and numerous other visits for shorter periods of time.

The City of Gold

If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue adhere to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my greatest joy.
— (Psalm 137. 5-6)

My years in Israel were hugely formative. They were mostly spent in the city referred to as Yerushalayim shel Zahav—Jerusalem of Gold—to indicate that it is highly valued as a spiritual treasure and because it is built almost exclusively of a dense, dolomitic limestone that appears golden when it reflects the sun. These complimentary characteristics make it not only the capital of monotheism but also a monolithic architectural phenomenon.

After two thousand years of exile—two millennia of living stateless and scattered in a diaspora that stretched around the world—the Jewish people were finally able to re-establish the country of Israel on May 14, 1948, just ten months before my birth. During all those long years as strangers in strange lands, the people never renounced their hope of return. They survived against overwhelming odds, thriving in some locales but persecuted and even annihilated in others. They prayed three times a day for the redemption of history and the return to the land of their ancestors.

The Torah Research Institute was at 2 Rehov Ha’Or (2, the Street of Light) in the Romema neighbourhood on a hill behind the Central Bus Station, one block from the Allenby Memorial. Known as Hartman’s Yeshiva when I attended, the school’s two main teachers were Rabbi Chaim Brovender and Rabbi Jay Miller. (The school has since moved and morphed into other institutions.)
I lived like a monk in a monastery for three and a half years at this Orthodox yeshiva (talmudic seminary) that had segregated institutions, kilometres apart, for men and women. It was there that I became immersed in traditional Judaic studies based on ancient literatures and millennia of commentary.

The more I learned and experienced, the more I accepted the accompanying slate of practices known as halakha, a term that is literally translated as “the going or the walking” but which generically comes to mean “the Law” or “the Path of Action.” Although I had moved halfway around the world to the Middle East, my studies felt more like travels in time than in space. They presented me with vast historical and religious perspectives. The geography of the soul became as familiar to me as the primordial hills and storied gardens of the Old City.

We arose early for prayer and stayed up late for study. Every waking moment was dedicated to intentional learning. We recited a hundred blessings each day, dressed modestly and covered our heads with a kippah, also called a yarmulka. Some wore a formal black hat as a second covering. Our classes were based on Torah (biblical and prophetic literature), in addition to two thousand years of rabbinic commentary that expounded upon the Oral Law. Studies included mishnah, talmud, midrash aggadah (a type of inspirational storytelling) and mussar (ethical instruction) as well as halakha. We sang, danced, drank the occasional l’chaim (usually whiskey or wine), and celebrated Shabbat (the weekly Sabbath) either at the yeshiva or as guests at people’s homes. We also volunteered for various causes and went on field trips throughout the country.

On Thursday nights, the evening before Shabbat, a few of us used to stay up all night learning. Sometimes, around midnight, we walked a kilometre or two to a bakery that was preparing tens of thousands of braided breads, called challahs, for the Sabbath. Baked by the hundreds at a time on moving shelves in large conveyor belt ovens, the fragrance of freshly baked bread drifted like incense over the Holy City and directed us to its source. We purchased a few loaves, said a blessing and ate one on the road, before rather mischievously returning to the yeshiva where one of us had a key to the kitchen. Trusting that we wouldn’t be discovered, we sat at the late night table as if it were an altar in the Temple and took out a tub of soft butter to melt on our still-warm treasure. This was usually accompanied by instant coffee to help keep us awake, hot chocolate or mint tea, the nana having been freshly harvested that morning from the small herb garden just outside the door.

Jerusalem could not have been more consecrated or enjoyable as during those midnight meals. Unless, of course, the messiah himself had joined us in our forbidden but altogether understandable pleasure. Fortified, we returned to our studies for another few hours until the kiss of dawn.

When I wasn’t getting high on warm bread and illicit butter, I was studying written and oral traditions in the City of Gold and making inroads as a writer, editor, public speaker, mentor, curator, researcher, art exhibit collaborator and a collector of books, art, and antiques.

I also volunteered to work in community gardens, in social services and at the Shaare Zedek Hospital during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. It was then that I encountered my first dead body. I will never forget the silence, the stillness, and the unexpected weight.

It seems that when we are alive, a Life Force helps to elevate us but upon death nothing remains except “dead weight.” The finality, the authenticity of such an occasion, of witnessing a last breath, is a deeply humbling experience. It is both a relief and a tragedy, a moment of mourning for lost company and unfulfilled dreams mixed with gratitude for having lived at all.
Since that time, in my role as clergy, I have visited many patients in hospitals and in palliative care, sat with the dying and held hands of comfort as the soul took its mortal leave. Many eulogies have been offered with a broken heart, prayers recited, rituals observed, burials conducted and earth reluctantly but honourably shovelled over simple coffins in open graves. Yehi Zikhronam barukh—May their memories always be for a blessing.

The war was a time of intense stress, as life in the Middle East often is and has been since time immemorial. Having been brought up in Canada, I had never experienced active armed conflict. During those days of uncertainty, I was an anxious nomad in search of my bearings. At times, we didn’t even have the luxury to consider such things. People gathered around the radio every half hour to hear the latest news from the front—the casualties, battles, advances, setbacks—and what measures we, the civilian population, would have to take such as sealing windows at night so as not to allow light to escape and attract enemy bombers.

As most men were called to serve in the regular army or as reservists, hundreds of thousands of volunteers were needed to keep the country running. Food rationing was in effect as were daily curfews. Brought to the edge by the surprise attack of a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, we wondered if we would even survive for another day.
Two months after the war, while Israel was still reeling from the aftermath and recuperating from one of its deadliest conflicts, a Hanukkah celebration and memorial gathering was held at the Israel Torah Research Institute, ITRI, located in Beit Safafa, southeast Jerusalem. Surprisingly, I was asked to represent our much smaller yeshiva at the event. My address—in English mixed with Hebrew and a smattering of talmudic Aramaic—was delivered before an assemblage of hundreds of students and colleagues as well as august rabbinical sages, esteemed military personnel (some wounded), and high government officials including the Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. Although my words were well received, I was so nervous as a neophyte before the crowd that I hardly looked up from my prepared remarks.

Beyond the city, in times of peace, I roamed throughout the Altneuland, “the Old-New Land,” exploring the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean and the Dead Seas. I climbed desert mountains, hiked through pomegranate orchards, descended to the lowest point on earth and meditated among the country’s venerable olive groves. I embraced the ancient arbors, slept upon their roots, smiled as their slender verdigris leaves fluttered beneath a gentle breeze and unforgiving sun, and climbed their thousand-year-old wizened boughs wishing for nothing more than to become an actual part of such humble nobility.

As a writer, I was first published in 1973 when I wrote “A Journey to the Heart of Tradition” in Hartman’s Yeshiva Bulletin (Jerusalem: Israel Torah Research Institute). As a nascent religious philosopher, I was then asked to edit Petach: A Journal of Thought and Reflection, Israel Torah Research Institute: The Shapell College Center for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem (1973–1975). I also contributed articles including “Torah Revelation: Then as Now” (vol. 2, p. 49–72, 1975), as well as “Can you say where I am and where I am not? Creation has arrived—It inhabits the universe” (vol. 1, p. 75–79, 1974).

Giving to support Israel, being present during heightened strife, and having been birthed there as a writer, has felt natural, not a duty.

In the following years, I arranged for the planting of thousands of trees near Jerusalem and in the Galilee, and sponsored the creation of over three hundred small libraries throughout the country including portable units for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), collections for the Ethiopian community, as well as Spanish and other foreign language branches. Donations were also made to the national library as well as to social science, neighbourhood, history and holocaust libraries. In 1993, the Yosef Wosk Computer Center was established at the Bostoner Yeshiva in the Har Nof neighbourhood of Jerusalem, and 2001 saw the dedication of the Yosef Wosk Children’s Synagogue Library at Shalva, an organization for mentally and physically handicapped children and their caregivers.

Besides personal journals, notebooks and extensive correspondence, other Jerusalem-based publications have included “Beneath the Mask: Fragments of an Estr Scroll”, an extended prose-poem in The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca, including other essays by Lilian Broca and Sheila Campbell with an introduction by Judy Chicago; Geffen Publishing House, Jerusalem and New York (2011).

My attempts to publish a digital version of the Encyclopaedia Judaica led to Research Analysis Regarding the Publication of the Encyclopaedia Judaica on CD-ROM (Aryel Publishing, Vancouver, for Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, 1994).

In the late 1990s, I first imagined a book pertaining to Nachum Tim Gidal (1909–1996)—a pioneering photojournalist—regarding our three years of correspondence between Jerusalem and Vancouver. The working title was I Don’t Need Any More Students, But I Could Sure Use A Friend: Letters to a Photoman. The voluminous correspondence was later edited and reconfigured by Alan Twigg and published as GIDAL: The Unusual Friendship of Yosef Wosk and Tim Gidal (Douglas & McIntyre, Madeira Park, 2021). It received the Western Canada Jewish Book Awards Pińsky Givon Family Prize for Non-fiction.

In fulfillment of a deathbed wish to the photographer, I also managed to curate, edit and publish Memories of Jewish Poland: The 1932 Photographs of Nachum Tim Gidal (Coordinated by Diane Evans; Introduction by Nissan N. Perez; Geffen Publishing House, Jerusalem and New York, 2020).
During my last year of intensive study in Yerushalayim, I moved out of the yeshiva dormitory and rented a small home in the picturesque hillside village of Ein Kerem—translated as “fountain, spring or well of the vineyard, or olive grove.” This biblical town just outside Jerusalem is mentioned in Christian tradition as the site of the Church of St. John the Baptist (built over a cave said to be the saint’s birthplace) and Mary’s Spring (where the Virgin Mary is believed to have drunk). I, too, entered the cave and drank from the waters.

An entire volume would not suffice to share all that I experienced in the ancient city that is holy to three major world religions. It was the locus of my dreams and for decades I thought I would go on aliyah, a physical and spiritual ascension to immigration.

The other place I fantasize about in Israel is Tsfat, or Safed, a mystical town, poet’s village and artist’s colony perched upon the earthquake-prone Galilean hills. The light there is so pristine and colours so vibrant, the air so pure and atmosphere so invigorating, the valley so deep and history so high, that every step feels like an embodiment of the six days of creation anointed with Sabbath’s Silver Crown. It was also the site, in 1577, of the first printing press in western Asia to use movable type. It has some of the best falafel in the Middle East.
I wish I believed more in reincarnation, for it answers a number of theological questions and we really do need more than one lifetime to satisfy the multidimensional desires of our constantly wandering minds and broken, or at least wounded, hearts. I know of at least two people who finally moved to Israel when they were in their nineties. One of them passed away peacefully in his 102nd year. Perhaps there is still hope for me.

Once again, the hoary head of death hovers nearby and serves as a watchful, if impatient, guide.

New York, New York

Following my years of study in Jerusalem, I was restless and eager to stretch my folded wings. Possibilities flooded my constricted mind, aching for a renaissance into new territory. I considered embarking on an extended years-long trek around the world. I also imagined moving into a one-room rental apartment and working as a janitor. After years in the academy with its weight of complicated constructs and related obligations, I welcomed such relative simplicity. In addition, I’d be supporting myself, something that would help me feel more grounded and gain a sense of integrity.

Or I could become a Buddhist monk in an Asian mountain monastery; work in a book store or library (while dedicating myself to writing); maybe go into the family business; perhaps become a graphic artist or a baker; labour in fields and gardens; or work as a porter on the cross-country Canadian trains (I’d choose between Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, depending on the routes and conditions).

I went down to the Vancouver harbour and looked into joining the seaman’s union and sailing on a freighter to a hundred world ports. Or perhaps I’d be a waiter in a restaurant (I had some experience including working a season in a Catskill Mountain resort in upstate New York). I also fantasized about dropping the burdens of life’s responsibilities and becoming a blissed-out drug addict in an old-time Chinese opium den. To help finance my projected travels, I was very close to heading north to work in the forests or oilfields for a year. It was rumoured that one could make a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time engaged in such strenuous and dangerous work. In addition, I could save up almost everything I earned because room and board were included and there were few places to spend one’s salary, though some desperate fellows lost everything to drink and gambling.

But after a few weeks of solo wandering in Europe, followed by a month back in Vancouver, then two months as a senior summer camp counsellor, I became humbled once again.
I realized two things: In many conversations, I heard the echo of my own words and realized they were empty—that is, I didn’t really understand the depths of the religious doctrine that I was representing. Secondly, I valued the sanity of study and the benefit of having a stable social support system.

Instead of discovering the beaches of Goa, I enrolled in rabbinic studies in New York—at Yeshiva University, a talmudic academy in the midst of an urban jungle. To be accepted for these graduate-level studies, I had to submit transcripts from previous universities, request letters of recommendation, and take an oral exam to prove at least my mediocre grasp of talmudic literature. If I passed the exam then I would be accepted into the three-year smikha (rabbinic ordination) program; if my performance on the exam was anything less than stellar, then I would be assigned to a preliminary year of extra learning to raise my competency.

I knew I wouldn’t have the patience for another four years of study so I prepared to drop out before I even began. In a turn of events that greatly influenced the rest of my life (and, by extension, thousands of others), I somehow passed the oral examination and began classes—sincere, apprehensive and out of my league. Following a lifelong pattern, I once again found myself in a situation in which I was a mendicant, a beggar, an imposter among more competent practitioners. I felt like a four-year-old on his first shy day of nursery or a rejected Zen student, beaten by his master, who still sat at the gates of the monastery hoping for admission so he could engage in years of diligent practice. On the other hand, if I did not dare to continue seeking then I would have rejected myself even before being turned away by others. In spite of my personal failings and intellectual limitations, another part of me pushed on. It was for this whispered, deferential but insistent, voice that I existed. The darkness of doubt could have sabotaged me; I chose, instead, the simple but challenging path ahead.

Now admitted but feeling like the least of all disciples, I arose early for prayers followed by a quick breakfast in the school cafeteria and then spent the rest of the day, and half the night, learning. I studied what I could in rabbinic classes and with my hevruta (learning partner) while also being engaged in a parallel series of classes in Jewish philosophy, history, psychology and pedagogy. I had some master teachers but suffered through other rather pedantic offerings.

While taking refuge in a scholarly environment, I was simultaneously living in New York in a crime-ridden neighbourhood, among seven million people in a metropolitan area with numerous offerings of culture, sports, media, the sound of sirens and rivers of traffic. Waiting underground for the subway, I often felt threatened as if someone was about to jump out of the shadows and mug me. I signed up for weekly karate classes with Sensei Haim Sober and though I never made it past a Yellow Belt, it—along with my high school wrestling and a year of judo—gave me the confidence I needed to defend myself. With today’s proliferation of guns, I may not have fared so well.

Every day in NYC was the equivalent of two days, or a week, in any other city. The sense of space among skyscrapers was both elevated and condensed; my perception of time was quickened and intensified. The pace was characterized by a barely contained recklessness, overflowing with urgency. Until leaving Manhattan three years later, I couldn’t fully gauge how much the level of stress was magnified in The City. I became versed in the no-time-to-waste, direct attitude that emerged from that overflowing abundance of humanity. It added another notch in my interface with the world where I, too, learned how to speak quicker, think more decisively and act more boldly when appropriate. It took me years, however, to stop completing other people’s sentences, a habit, born of impatience, that emerged when speaking with someone who took too long to express themselves. I usually saw where they were going even if they couldn’t.

I often considered quitting my studies. I remember diesel-powered city buses rushing through the streets crowned with illuminated, plastic advertisements inviting winter-bound northerners to escape to the idyllic warmth of the Florida sun. The cost was only $50 on some discount airline; seven flights a day. I had one foot out the door a number of times before somehow settling back into my academic web.

The final, written talmudic exams lasted up to seven hours each. After dedicating myself to a strict regime of studies, offering myself as a sacrifice upon the altar of academia, and following in the wake of a thousand exploits, I earned my ordination as an orthodox rabbi from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary located on the Washington Heights campus. I also received a master of science degree in education from Ferkauf Graduate School of Education and Psychology in Greenwich Village. Both schools are constituent parts of Yeshiva University. The title of my thesis that concentrated on pedagogical storytelling was “A Teacher’s Guide and Reintroduction to the Oral Tradition.”

Toronto the Good

I moved back to Canada, to Toronto, where I rented a one-room suite above a hair salon and kosher bakery, on Bathurst south of Lawrence. It was my home for the next two-and-a-half years, from 1978 until 1980. Although I completed all my course work and exams in New York, my master’s thesis in education had not yet been submitted. I became immersed in the landscape of story narrative, did research at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, took classes in storytelling at Lesley College, got involved with the storytelling community (especially Dan Yashinsky who would later receive the first Jane Jacobs Prize to honour his contributions as a storyteller to enhance Toronto’s cultural life), and attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I also worked as a teacher at two schools, led a youth group and conducted High Holiday services for seniors.

I sometimes ate at old-school delis in Kensington Market, dated occasionally and thought about sex every day while searching for someone to marry.

A few months after arriving in the city and getting to know some of the locals, I was invited to join an eclectic study and social group that met once a month. It was composed of long-time friends, including two geniuses—one a recluse and the other an eccentric who stole books from the Toronto Public Library and could remember what you were wearing when he first met you 23 years ago—as well as four other very smart people. All of their parents were Holocaust survivors and they, themselves, were born in various Displaced Persons Camps in Germany, Austria or Italy after the war. We studied biblical literature from an entirely secular and atheistic perspective. They had been too scarred by history to look at it in any other way.

Just as I was making plans for my next port of pilgrimage, I confided to a friend that I was thinking of leaving in a few months to study with a teacher and community in Philadelphia. My friend, Jack Eisner, whom I had known since Grade One, asked me, “Are you moving towards something or running away from something else?”

I was surprised by his somewhat challenging response. I thought he would be happy for me and unequivocally support my pending move. It took me a few days to recover, to respond even to myself, to his question. It was only then that I realized I was escaping from something—completing my master’s thesis—more than moving towards the next chapter in my rather nomadic life.
I took a deep breath—one that would have to sustain me for another year—unpacked my psychic bags and, with considerable discipline, dedicated myself to another year of teaching, research and writing. In the midst of a storm of emotions, I somehow completed the thesis. In the days before computers, it was handwritten, given to a professional typist, then re-edited and typed again before being couriered to my mentor in New York.

Only then did I finally leave YYZ, that largest of Canadian cities. I crammed everything I owned into my first self-purchased car, hitched a small rented trailer to the back for overflow possessions, and headed for the American border in the midst of a January snow storm.

The little car with its heavy load couldn’t make it up some of the long, steep, ice-covered roads so sometimes I had to pull over to the shoulder and patiently wait out the storm. My car—it was the only time I named a vehicle; I called her Betsy—was a compact, dark green, second hand, manual shift, 55 horsepower, three-door hatchback, Honda Civic with no leather seats (I considered such use of leather as being cruel to animals), and with hand-cranked wind-up windows (I thought that push-button electric windows were an unneeded luxury). I paid about $3,500.
Those were the days, my friend.

The City of Brotherly Love

I lived in Philadelphia for the next two-and-a-half years from 1981to 1983, where I studied with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924–2014) and others in the Jewish Renewal Movement, specifically in the B’nai Or spiritual community. I was, by now, an identifiable seeker, a lost-and-found pilgrim on the road to apotheosis. I had spent years learning text, practising ritual and conforming socially, but much of it was characterized by an emphasis on intellectual rigour and I had lost myself, once again, in the process. The real me was in hiding behind an incessant barrage of other people’s thoughts. I had constructed an animatronic mask—one that looked exactly like me—a mask that both concealed and amplified me, but I was nowhere to be found except as a caricature of society’s projections.

I thought I might rediscover a fuller sense of self in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia is a combination of two Greek words: love (phileo) and brother (adelphos). The city was named by its founder, William Penn (1644–1718), who envisioned a city of religious tolerance where no one would be persecuted. Once again, I was blessed with master teachers, not just of the head but of the whole person.

I’d first heard about Reb Zalman ten years previously when a group of us were at a friend’s mountain cabin in Whistler, in December of 1971. I was a recent graduate of UBC with no plans for the future and my whole life in front of me. I was also a drugged and drunk twenty-one-year-old, half-partying and half-searching, when someone introduced an article that spoke of Zalman’s experimentation with LSD under the guidance of Timothy Leary. I had what Zalman would have called an “ah-ha moment.” I realized that if he was doing that, then maybe there really was something to Judaism.

A few months later, on my way to Jerusalem, I decided to take the train to Winnipeg to visit a girlfriend and to meet Zalman who was teaching at the University of Manitoba. It was winter; the weather was freezing. Much of the campus was connected through underground tunnels so students wouldn’t have to go outside to get to their classes if they were in another building. I found his office and we spoke for about fifteen minutes. I was immediately attracted to the way he was able to combine traditional teaching with secular studies and to also delve deep into Jewish mysticism. He also advised me that when I was in Jerusalem I shouldn’t just be informed by one community but to daven (pray) at a different minyan (a congregation of at least ten adults) every Shabbat. “Try the Yemenite and Moroccan communities,” he said. “Learn about the Hungarian and Bukharian, Italian and various Hasidic customs. Eat their food; sing their songs.” I later learned that this was typical of Zalman’s ecumenical attitude, not just within Judaism but also between world cultures.

I found an apartment on Emlen Street in the Mount Airy-Germantown neighbourhood of Philadelphia, near Zalman’s large, old home that also served as headquarters of his B’nai Or Religious Fellowship. Over the next few years, I became an entrenched student of Zalman’s manner of teaching, thinking, celebrating and related activities. I also became the Director of Education and Outreach Programs as well as the editor of the B’nai Or Journal. We recorded hundreds of hours of Zalman’s classes both for use by his students and to transcribe for later publication. To help support myself, I also found part-time jobs at the Hillel Houses (campus organization for Jewish students) at the University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy League university founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin) and at LaSalle College (a Catholic university).

Zalman was a cosmic choreographer who celebrated multi-dimensional thinking. He was an iconoclastic thinker who navigated effortlessly through the Four Worlds, the Ten Sephirot and the Seventy Faces of Torah. I will share more stories about him in an upcoming publication on my teachers but here is a taste.
Aaron Levine, Simcha Paull, David Blank and myself were participants in Zalman’s version of the Dharma Bums. We were privileged to travel with him to some of his presentations. We often passed a joint around as we drove the many miles between venues, something that both inspired our conversation and made the distance more bearable. Once in a while Zalman had to remind us not to exceed the speed limit so we wouldn’t be pulled over for speeding and busted for smoking pot.
In this way we met Swami Satchidananda (the Woodstock guru and founder of Integral Yoga) at his Yogaville ashram in Virginia, joined with Sheikh Muzafar and his Turkish Sufis for Zikkur in New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and welcomed sunrise from the top of the Empire State Building in a ceremony (Birkhat Ha’Hama) that takes place only once every nineteen years as the sun returns to the position it occupied at the time of creation.

We also ventured to the New Jersey countryside, to the home of one of Reb Zalman’s students, for a tomato. Upon arrival on a hot summer afternoon, she greeted us and led us into her backyard where she had cultivated a lush garden. She offered us cold beers and then picked a large, ripe, New Jersey beefsteak tomato from the vine and cut it into wedges with her serrated paring knife. I said the blessing—Barukh ata Adonigh, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, who creates fruit of the ground”—and bit into it, still a little suspicious and wondering what all the fuss was about. My eyes immediately closed, my body uttered an “mmm-m-m” through my closed lips, and I realized that I had never tasted a real tomato before that moment. Its flavour burst upon me, with texture, colour and juiciness to match. Every other tomato—indeed every other vegetable (I know, tomatoes are botanically classified as fruit)—that I had ever eaten tasted like dry cardboard in comparison. We picked another and shared it amongst us: it was a manifestation of Heaven on Earth. Amen.

Other visitors came to pay respects at Zalman’s home. I especially remember one guest—the illustrious Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr who had been exiled from his homeland because of the 1979 revolution and who was then appointed a professor of Islamic studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. A woman, to whom I was deeply attached, had just broken up with me in a letter that I had received that Friday afternoon before the Sabbath. I remember being broken-hearted, my body numb. And then, when I was cutting vegetables for the Sabbath meal, the knife slipped and cut my finger. It felt like an unconscious maiming to match my emotional pain.

Later that evening, after lighting Shabbat candles and sitting down to dinner (even though I had no appetite), a visitor knocked on the door. Zalman welcomed him, introduced him to me, and then the two of them went upstairs to his office. Perhaps it was Seyyed’s Sufi training that made him extraordinarily sensitive, but an hour later, as he was leaving, he intuited my emotional state. Instead of just shaking my hand, he reached over and placed his right hand over my chest, upon my heart. I was surprised but surrendered to the unexpected gesture. I felt a great warmth emanate from his hand and the beginning not just of healing but of an immense sense of well-being. Even forty years later, whenever I place my right hand over the left side of my chest I feel noble, serene and uplifted. I often greet people, especially from Islamic countries, with a slight bow of my head and with hand lifted to heart. They know; they smile; the gesture speaks the language of the soul.
Zalman also taught at Temple University and sometimes I would accompany him to his classes. One day, as we were returning home, he popped a cassette into the car radio and said, “Here, listen to this.” I sat enthralled for the next five minutes listening to the master teacher and orator, Jean Houston. After Zalman encouraged a few of us to attend Houston’s workshop in Washington, D.C. I would remain her on-again, off-again student for the next seven years. Her words, optimism and vision continue to influence me to this day.

From 1982 to 1985, I was part of Jean’s Three-Year Training Program in Human Capacities run through the Foundation for Mind Research that she and her husband, Robert Masters, established at their home base in Pomona, New York. Along with a few other highly trained faculty, they guided us to transcend our limited personas. The program began with about 120 mature students in the first year but was winnowed down to approximately 85 by year three. We met each summer at the rented facilities of Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey for a month-long series of intensive sessions, and then again each winter for a week-long retreat in Pacific Palisades, about twenty miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Mentors kept us networked during the rest of the year.

In these sessions we engaged in topics such as depth psychology, archetypal fundamentals, the correspondence between human psyche and universal principles, the meanings of myth, interactive participatory literature, body and neural networking, body reading, hypnotism and other altered states of awareness. We learned how to access not just the five basic senses but also the hundreds of more subtle gates of perception that hover within, around and beyond us.

I became particularly interested in discussing the Earth as global mind, and translating geography—as well as the wisdom of classical civilizations—into visceral consciousness. These exploratory sessions helped to deepen my evolving engagement with what I later identified as the field of psychogeography.
At the conclusion of those initial three-year studies into the fulfillment of the extended mind and the ongoing birthing of the brain, I continued with Jean’s Mystery School for advanced training in mythology, therapeia and psychosomatic techniques.

We met once a month for two years from 1985 to 1987, at various locations in the northeastern United States. A number of us also joined an expedition to Greece and Egypt to encounter the spiritual essence of bygone civilizations, exploration of cultures, sacred and secular histories, rituals, temples and ruins. Studies and elemental experiences with this outstanding group of instructors, along with deep interactions with fellow students, transformed me into the next incarnation of my peripatetic soul.

I extended myself further by signing up for something I never thought I was capable of achieving: a doctoral degree. For those of us who wanted to pursue advanced degrees, the Foundation for Mind Research made arrangements with William Lyon University in San Diego. Under Jean’s comprehensive guidance, I proceeded to complete six years of part-time study for a certificate in Human Capacities (1983–1985) and a PhD, in 1989, in Transpersonal Psychology. The title of my dissertation was “Storied Reflections: Aspects in the Theory and Practice of Storytelling as an Agent of Psychospiritual Maturation.”

Master mentors for my doctoral studies were Father Dr. Thomas Berry (1914–2009), who taught at various institutes of higher learning including Fordham University in New York where he chaired the history of religions program, and Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who was also a professor at several other universities. Before I left Philadelphia, Zalman granted me a second kind of ordination, that of a Maggid. It is defined as “a traditional Jewish itinerant preacher, skilled as a narrator of Torah and religious stories.”

Tom Berry was the kindest man I ever met. A Catholic Passionist priest and retired university professor, he lived in a rambling home in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, on the banks high above the Hudson River where he also directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research. A great tree grew there and that is where we often met. He was described by Columbia University as “one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers.” I had requested to study with him because of his work as a cultural historian, a philosopher of world religions, his profound engagement with the nature of “story” and his spiritual understanding of the shifting relationship between the Earth and Consciousness. He referred to himself as a geologian.

Boston Years

i) Harvard Divinity School
As my studies and experiential training in Philadelphia were coming to a close, I considered finally returning to Israel to go on Aliyah (immigration). I was about to make plans when I noticed a small advertisement in the weekend New York Times Book Review. It proclaimed: “An invitation to study theology at Harvard.”

Intrigued, I tore it out but didn’t think that I would be accepted to the program so I concealed the notice for future consideration. When I stumbled upon it again a few months later, I decided to discuss it with my therapist. She led me on a guided imagery session in which I found myself dressed like a British school boy in grey flannel trousers, a dark blue blazer with shiny brass buttons, polished black shoes, and a white shirt with a striped tie. I was sitting, intimidated, in the back row of what seemed like a preliminary class at the Divinity School. The professor asked a question but no one offered a response. Realizing that I had an opinion based on my years of previous learning, I raised my hand and offered a couple of ideas which were well received.

Coming out of the trance, I was relieved and knew that I could, indeed, fit in. Emboldened but still tentative, I began preparing my application for graduate school soon after. I did so while waiting in the mechanic’s anteroom as my car was being serviced. Apparently, I still needed such a distraction to assuage my resistance and prepare me to tackle my next audacious adventure.
A few months later, towards the beginning of a New England autumn, I found myself timidly setting foot in what still felt like the mythical Harvard Yard. It was there I would learn much more about Christianity, Central and South American native traditions, African tribal religions and comparative world religions.

Some of the major essays written in the course of studies included “A Rereading of the Gospel Parables: A Second Chance to Make a First Impression,” “Aspects of Healing in Judaism,” “A Transpersonal Portrait of Moses” and “High Spots and Sacred Centres,” my continuing foray into the field of sacred geography.

I graduated from the rarefied air of that Ivy League school two years later, in 1985, as a Master of Theology— Theologiae Magistri cum laude. There was an oral exam but no graduating thesis was required for the ThM. I only had to decide what to do next.

I took a job at a corner gas station. It was the best thing I could ever have done. It put grease on my hands, money in my pocket and connected me with the street once again.
Even while working or engaged in formal studies, I continued to attend sessions with a cornucopia of inspiring teachers. Between 1978 and 1984 I was fortunate to attend seminars with three seminal thinkers of the twentieth century: Buckminster Fuller in Toronto, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.; Marshall McLuhan in Toronto; and Joseph Campbell in New York and Boston. This trio envisioned great perspective and celebrated the big picture. Fuller spoke optimistically about Spaceship Earth with first class accommodations for all; McLuhan about the meaning of technologies and communications; while Campbell, the literary mythologist, connected ancient civilizations with the present through an appreciation of underlying archetypal principles. And then, of course, there was the previously mentioned Jean Houston, a close associate of Margaret Mead, with whom I apprenticed for seven years.

ii) Congregational Rabbi, Prison Chaplain and Hospital Clergy
When a friend went on a sabbatical to Israel and needed someone to take his place for a year, I left my job at the gas station and accepted employment as a congregational rabbi.
I was reluctant, at first, to accept such a posting. I felt that I was not yet prepared; not yet married; no family of my own; no deaths in the family so how could I empathize with tragedy, loss and the vicissitudes of daily life; in addition to an entire litany of other excuses. Eventually overcoming my resistance, I took the position at Congregation Tifereth Israel and moved to Everett, a suburb about four miles north of downtown Boston.

The tail end of a hurricane blew through the deserted streets of the city on the day of the move, almost blowing the truck over. I arrived on Friday afternoon and the truck was finally unloaded just before the Sabbath. Relieved, dirty and drenched from the storm, I was about to soak in a hot bath when I heard a knock on the door of the rabbi’s house. There were three elderly congregants wondering where the interim rabbi was to lead the Shabbat services. I felt as embarrassed and as incompetent as I thought I’d be.

As it turned out, the hurricane had damaged the electric grid and there were no lights in the synagogue. Services were cancelled.

As the weeks progressed, however, I soon discovered that all the teachings of the past decades came flooding through me. It had all been worth it. What had once been a private journey now morphed into a communal caravan. We accomplished a lot that year including dedicating a library, instituting an extensive adult education program, becoming a regional venue for studies in Jewish mysticism, publishing a congregational bulletin, reaching out to the non-Jewish community and organizing adult bat mitsvah studies with a graduation ceremony for women. Healing, death and dying, funerals, weddings and counselling were also significant aspects of my responsibilities.

While in that community I also served as a chaplain at a State Maximum Security Prison in Walpole and as a chaplain for Jewish patients at the Soldier’s Home and Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts. One day, when I visited the Soldier’s Home for American war veterans, I went up to the top floor of the hospital where some of the oldest patients were cared for. Slanting rays of afternoon sunlight streamed through the tall windows of the red brick building and illuminated a few of the neatly arranged beds. Each was bedecked with clean, white sheets, grey wool blankets and the mostly comatose bodies—covered in transparent ivory skin—of ninety-year-old veterans of the First World War.

These were among the last of the survivors. I stood transfixed by the strange scene and reflected how any one of them could have huddled next to a comrade in a muddy front-line trench in 1917 and been stunned as their friend was killed by a bullet or grenade while they somehow were spared to live another seventy years.
“What is luck,” I thought, “or a miracle? And why would a miracle be performed for one but death be declared for another? Or, perhaps even more disturbing to the religious mind, it was all just chance and carries no meaning. Is chaos—and not a moral universe—the new God? Certainly of war.”

There weren’t many Jewish prisoners in Walpole. I remember two of them but forget their names. One was Black, a former member of a Chicago street gang who was in for murder. He claimed he was a Hebrew Israelite whose adherents believe their self-proclaimed Jewish faith is part of their African heritage. I didn’t question the legitimacy of his Jewishness—he was already being judged enough—and during our visits we shared contemplative conversations. I also brought him a prayer book, a Bible, an open ear and special kosher meals with a double portion for the religious holidays.

The other inmate, I’ll call him Tyler, was in his late twenties and had been in trouble all his life. We developed a respectful friendship and I arranged for special gifts—especially clothes and a good pair of running shoes—from his family. One night I received a phone message from the prison that he had escaped by hiding in the bottom of a laundry cart. Within a couple of days he got possession of a gun and was robbing homes. He shot a police officer who was in pursuit and then took refuge in a home where he held the family hostage. The house was then surrounded by a SWAT team while police psychologists tried to negotiate his surrender.

As media swarmed the scene, a policeman next to me muttered in disgust: “They’re all whores! Anything for a story!” I was called to the scene to see if I could convince Tyler to free the hostages before anyone else got hurt.

After determining where everyone in the house was and knowing that after twenty-four hours of no sleep the gunman was getting drowsy—he had already duct taped the weapon to his wrist so it wouldn’t fall if he dozed off—the SWAT team burst through a second floor window and subdued him. No one was injured; he was handcuffed and returned to prison in a paddy wagon where he was sentenced to additional decades behind bars for his desperate flight, illegal possession of a firearm, attempted murder of a policeman, kidnapping and hostage taking.

During my year in Everett, I made heartfelt friends and tears were shed when it came time to depart. At a farewell event, I was deeply moved when the community presented me with an Appreciation Award for “untiring abounding love, dedication and devotion to our congregants and the entire Jewish community”—Congregation Tifereth Israel, Everett (1986).
Attending that event was a politician from the Massachusetts House of Representatives. As we conversed and I found out that he was descended from Irish ancestors, I told him how much I appreciated Irish literary and storytelling culture. He then proudly shared some rhyming folk wisdom he heard from his mother, and she from her grandmother:
Good, better, best,
Never let it rest,
Until your good is better
And your better best.
To which I told him what my mother used to remind us when we were children: “Please, thank you and courtesy, costs nothing but gains much.”

After completing a year of substituting for my friend, three other congregations approached me to take the pulpit as their rabbi. I chose one, Temple Shalom in Medford, another Boston suburb, and home to Tufts University. Once again, working with all strata of community demographics, I was able to help revitalize the shul (synagogue).

During my tenure in Medford we received two North American-wide Solomon Schechter Awards for Excellence in Synagogue Programming from the United Synagogue of America, the Association of Conservative Congregations. The categories were “Holocaust Education” and “Judaica & Fine Arts.”

I am forever humbled to know that for our outreach efforts to other religions and denominations, I was conferred with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Exemplary Community Service, presented by the NAACP “to one who cares for all persons, regardless of their race, color, or creed; to one who is a genuinely caring human being […] a person who has been instrumental in opening paths to improve the quality of life.”

At the Temple, I helped organize a dynamic series of Adult Education programs, art exhibits, unique initiatives for the men, women and children, outreach to neighbouring Jewish and non-Jewish communities, refurbishment of the building including the chapel, office and a bridal chamber, restocking the library, producing a film festival, raising the level of participation at religious services, and hosting well-attended thematic Shabbat dinners, in addition to the hundreds of daily responsibilities of a full-time congregational clergy.

Upon retiring five years later to return to Vancouver, I was presented with an Official Mayoral Citation and a Key to the City. Medford is one of America’s earliest settlements, founded in 1630 and incorporated as a City in 1892; it was on Paul Revere’s route as he rode through the town and alerted the militia that “The British are coming!” The synagogue also arranged for me to be awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Massachusetts House of Representatives along with an Official Citation from the Massachusetts State Senate and presentation of the State Flag. The citation was signed by, among others, William M. Bulger, President of the Senate and brother of James J. “Whitey” Bulger Jr., an organized crime boss who, for a while, was on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list. He was considered the most wanted person on the infamous list only behind Osama bin Laden. Whitey led the Winter Hill Gang in Somerville, a neighbouring suburb. One brother was good and the other went bad. A modern-day recapitulation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

iii) Elie Wiesel, Boston University
While simultaneously serving as a congregational rabbi at Temple Shalom, I was accepted into Boston University’s interdisciplinary University Professors Program as a University Scholar, “a distinction awarded to a select group of students with exceptional academic achievements.” I remained a doctoral student for the next five years from 1986 to 1991, four of which were as a teaching assistant for Elie Wiesel (1928–2016), who became one of the most influential mentors in my life.

Professor Herbert Mason (1932–2017) was assigned as my academic advisor. He was a wonderful man of wide interests including ancient near east civilizations, Arabic and French translation, Islamic mysticism, as well as Irish and various world literatures and mythologies. He was also a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, a poet and someone who understood the classical relationship between guide and disciple, teacher and friend on the path. A professor of History and Religion at Boston University, Mason was an award-winning translator of The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative (nominated for the National Book Award in 1971) and of his master teacher Louis Massignon’s Passion d’al-Halaj for the celebrated Bollingen Series that published the entire works, in English, of Carl Jung and of other seminal European thinkers of the early twentieth century.

To illustrate the respect shown to poetry in other parts of the world, Professor Mason once shared with me an incredible story that probably took place in the late 1960s or early 1970s when he was visiting Iraq to further his primary academic research. As he was crossing the country on a train, it gradually slowed down and then came to a stop before reaching its destination at the next town. Curious, he looked out the window and saw hundreds of people crowding the tracks. He arose, walked to the platform between the carriages and asked someone what was happening. The person excitedly reported that the people heard there was a poet aboard and they came out to greet him, to hear him recite his poetry.

Herb (as he asked me to call him after I graduated) wondered who the poet might be until he was surrounded and celebrated by a group of people who discovered that he was the poet, the translator of the great Epic of Gilgamesh. I cry whenever I think of this story. It took thousands of years for a culture to learn to appreciate poetry to such an extent. If only there weren’t wars; then poetry and its sister arts could inspire the world.

The faculty of the University Professors Program built their own intellectual bridges between various disciplines of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The faculty included some of the most distinguished scholars at Boston University, featuring Nobel Prize laureates in Literature, Peace and Physics, MacArthur Fellows, and members of international academies. Most significant for me was Professor Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor, living memorial, and Nobel Laureate for Peace. As one of his teaching assistants, while also studying literature and religion, I came to better appreciate the realities of history, the twin angels of Life and Death, the face of kindness and the shadow of evil, communal responsibilities and having a family of my own.
I learned so much from Elie Wiesel but a short list will have to suffice for now.

• The Essential vs the Trivial: I once told him that I wanted to know everything, to absorb all knowledge. When faced with two hundred magazine titles in a subway newsstand, for example, I wanted to pour all their contents into my hungry heart. But if I did so, I might also be wasting time and engaging in non-essential information. He paused for a moment and uttered only two Hebrew words: Ikar ve’tofel. Translated as “primary and secondary,” it is a principle that discusses the tension between the Essential vs the Trivial. He was advising me to be more discriminating, to keep my attention on that which was most important and not to be distracted by all the rest.
• The importance of music, of sound and rhythm in life, writing and teaching.
• The significance of both of us belonging to Shevet Levi, the biblical tribe of Levi, the tribe of teachers and how seriously he took his responsibility as a teacher.
• How everything I needed to know could be communicated without uttering a word: I learned this during one of my private meetings with him. Cognizant of the preciousness of his time, I didn’t want to waste it with foolish questions or with something that I could probably figure out myself. I entered his office, sat on the couch opposite his chair, and suddenly experienced a wave of silent answers to my every query. After a few short moments, I arose, thanked him and left. It was a lesson in self-sufficiency forged in the crucible of respect.
• Self-worth and a fair wage: Besides being offered scholarships, teaching assistants were also paid a basic stipend. Because I was a foreign student working in an American university, I had to apply for a special visa before I could be paid. The bureaucracy, however, was so difficult to navigate that I decided not to apply. When Prof. Wiesel asked me about it one day, I told him, somewhat altruistically, that just studying with him was reward enough. I was surprised by his reaction which was insistent that I follow through with the visa and get paid a fair wage. Once again, labour laws and respect for the worker as described in the Torah had won over the day. I’ve applied that principle numerous times since then: many have benefitted.
• Do not presume to speak for others—let authenticity speak its mind: Whenever we studied the literature of another culture or religion, it was not enough that we spoke about it in a second-hand abstract manner. Wiesel made sure that we invited a practitioner of that tradition as a guest resource to educate the class and engage in conversation.
• Belief and blessings; wrestling and conversations with God.
• We are living in an age of biblical proportions: In order to impress upon us the significance of the historical moment and the role each of us can play within it, he described our age—the past one hundred years—as one of biblical proportions.
Prof. Wiesel was a disciplined but gentle mentor and an exacting but poetic thinker. He encouraged us to “think higher and feel deeper.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) describes each individual as an entire world, so whether we take responsibility only for ourselves or for the entire planet, we are all responsible for a kind of global civilization.
Other comments he made that have remained with me include:
• “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
• “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”
• “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”

Wiesel introduced me to literature as I had never known it before. He perceived it from the inside, in an intimate sort of way, because he wrote as the masters did and lived it all the more. His diligence, strength and humility, as much as his wide knowledge and firsthand experience with both the suffering and nobility of humanity, forged him into a unique individual and an inspiring ambassador.

My dissertation at Boston University—titled Two Trees Planted in the Midst of an Enigmatic Garden: A Four-Dimensional Study of a Neglected Archetype of Centre as Suggested by Genesis 2:8-9—was a multilevel investigation into the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil planted in the centre of the Garden of Eden. It focused on a critical commentary of the original biblical text, a critique of its literature, a chapter dedicated to comparative religions and mythologies, and with another chapter on asymmetry in sacred geography as a neglected archetype of centre.

The concluding section of the dissertation—written during late night sessions when I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, my eyes half closed, slumped in the chair with my nose about level with the desk—was a creative narrative imagining a return to the paradise from which we were exiled. Lost in the mists of time, protected by disbelief, fierce guardian Angels of Destruction and swiftly spinning Swords of Fire, the urge to be reunited with the Ideal is part of the eternal journey upon which we all set out but never quite arrive. The work was awarded the University Professors Alumni Award for the year’s outstanding dissertation.

Inspired by these aforementioned teachers and guides, I was gradually becoming brave enough to accept my own thoughts.

Psychogeography: Mutual Influence of Cosmology and Human Geography

Over the years, I came to realize that the various places in which I lived affected me in subtle but powerful ways. This was part of the discipline of human geography that studied how our species affects the planet and how natural phenomena shapes us in return; how we react differently if living by a river or a desert, at the foot of a mountain or deep in a valley; how the winds sculpt us and the rains irrigate our bodies; how the heat forms our character and the seasons conduct the rhythm of our deeds.
Ancient and Medieval philosophies worldwide had long ago observed another structural correspondence: that between the macrocosm and the microcosm. William Blake eloquently expressed this sentiment in his Auguries of Innocence from 1803:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

This Blakean view posits that the nature of the greater cosmos can be inferred by observing truths about the lesser cosmos, and vice versa. The ancient Hermetic teaching declares: “As Above, so Below,” meaning “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the Miracle of the One Thing.” The corresponding analogies provided a map of the universe, a divine cartography, and impregnated the universe with meaning. Since it was believed that nothing could exist without the fiat of God, everything was considered to have various types of a soul—whether rocks or waters, vegetation, animals or humans.

Functions of the Seven Classical Planets (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were seen as comparable to the physiological functions of human organs. The Moon, for example, was associated with water and kidneys; the Sun with fire and heart; Jupiter with air and liver; Saturn with earth and spleen.

Various theories arose throughout history that offered further correspondences mirroring the macrocosm and the microcosm. Every part of the human body was compared to aspects of the world: The right eye represents the Sun; the left eye, the Moon; the circulation of blood and other bodily fluids are similar to the rivers, lakes and oceans; the hair on our bodies is analogous to trees and other vegetation that covers the Earth; our lungs are the winds, while our bones represent the rocky mantle and minerals.

The Jewish Andalusian poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021–1058 [or 1070?] CE) noted in his Mekor Hayim 3:44: “If you want to form an idea of the construction of the universe, you only have to observe the construction of the human body, in which you may find an analogy.”

Such is the vehicle of correspondences, a theoretical principle extending throughout the universe. It was Job, in his suffering, who was finally able to declare: “Through [observing] my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. I will see him with my own eyes; I and not a stranger. I am overwhelmed at the thought!”

In my search for meaning and explorations into the distant shores of understanding, the world became my laboratory, the universe my companion. I learned to relate to primary texts and embrace direct encounters with nature. Reading about anything second-hand became less interesting: such mediated knowledge may have served as an introduction but ultimately it created a barrier between the phenomena in which I was interested and myself.


Flammarion Wood Engraving

In 1888 astronomer and prolific writer Camille Flammarion published L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire in Paris. What remains most notable about this work was a single wood engraved image which it published for the first time, known historically as the Flammarion engraving. Yosef Wosk discusses the evolution of our view of the Universe and how it has changed over the last 100 years–and how he sometimes feels like the figure in this illustration who struggles to see as far as possible from our earthly orb.

Just as Zeus gave birth to Athena fully formed from his head, so creative thoughts and inventive ideas came cascading out of my womb-like mind. That way, my increasingly original thoughts, words and actions became more personal. I nurtured them like children and took responsibility for their maturation in the family of applied ideas. I learned the unspoken names of each previously unborn concept, and was sometimes also gifted with the unique language that each spirited concept transported from the velvet recesses of the tumbling winds.

A virtual menagerie of information, knowledge and wisdom still dwells in the fertile Garden of All Origins awaiting our discovery. Each one—every species of thought, each burst of imagination—expresses itself in its own way. Only the limitations of human arrogance and a wounded sense of self—remnants of exiled separation from the Four-headed River flowing from beneath the Trees of Life and Knowledge—stand in the way of mutual understanding.

We are informed that some individuals, such as the Baal Shem Tov and King Solomon, returned to the metaphysical Garden where they were able to commune with nature. Solomon, in his wisdom, “knew all about plants, from the [huge] cedar in Lebanon to the [tiny] hyssop that sprouts in the cracks of a wall. He understood everything about animals and birds, reptiles and fish” (1 Kings 4:29-34). This, too, is Moses’ prayer for universal prophecy: “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). The vision was later reiterated by both Habakkuk (2:14) and Isaiah: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of knowledge […] as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).

Our technologically saturated generation is approaching the point of universal knowledge but two questions remain: what is the content of that knowledge and what do we do with it?
Whether there is a named god of cosmic history inexorably guiding the universe in a particular apocalyptic direction, or an atheistic source of accidental phenomena, it still seems that there is meaning in the moment and that each of our thoughts, words and actions make a difference, be it ever so subtle or terribly significant. Jung notes this sensation in his Red Book: Liber Novus, page 232, written between 1914 and 1917, but which was not formally published until 2009:

“My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak.
I call you—are you there? I have returned.
I am here again. I have shaken the dust
of all the lands from my feet, and
I have come to you