The Chosen One

I believed Daniel Pearl was dead all along.

Weeks before the U.S. government confirmed his death, I thought it unlikely he would return alive. I returned in December from reporting for the Village Voice from Pakistan, exhausted from being stoned, punched and chased by Islamic fundamentalists. I was burned out — and burned literally — from being pushed into one too many burning George Bush effigies, weary from having to repeatedly explain that Americans do not hate Muslims, and that "no, it’s not true that we enjoy seeing dead Afghan children on television."

I returned from Pakistan frustrated from arguing that 4,000 Jews did not call in sick to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 — explaining that Americans do not classify employees by religion, so how would anyone know?

Naturally, in the back of my mind, there was always some hope that this man — a man exactly my age, like myself a journalist — would escape death. Then a friend said, "Well, of course he’s Jewish, with a name like Daniel Pearl…." And any lingering doubts I had about his fate were erased instantly.

"My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew and I am a Jew" are the last words Pearl uttered, an instant before his throat was slashed, according to government officials who have viewed the videotape of his murder. At least one of his captors has admitted that the kidnappers were specifically looking for a Jewish victim. Curiously, government officials and Pearl’s family, as well as his employer, The Wall Street Journal, are downplaying this angle, as if drawing attention to what is clearly an anti-Jewish killing would dishonor Pearl, who was not an observant Jew.

Yet, his murderers are identified as members of "a fiercely anti-Semitic" Islamic terrorist group called Jaish-e-Mohammed. I can only wonder about what qualifies as "fiercely anti-Semitic" in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism flows as easily as water. In interviews conducted while I was there, government officials would occasionally veer off into long diatribes about the Jews; fundamentalist religious leaders, who educate hundreds of thousands of children, spoke of little else.

In Islamabad, Syed Ubad Ulah Shah, an elderly mullah responsible for the education of hundreds of youngsters, said, "To me, [the bombing of the World Trade Center] seems the design of the Jewish lobby. The Jewish lobby wants to pit Islam against Christianity." Seeking out more moderate voices, I introduced myself to a religious leader from Pakistan’s much-persecuted Shia community. He was a gentle, educated man, the keeper of a holy shrine outside the city. After we had spent some time together and I had met his family, he asked me, "So can you explain to me, why is it that America lets the Jews run everything? They run the government, the newspapers, they turn the American people against us. Why do you let the Jews spoil things between us — we could be friends." His sentiments were gentler than most.

In Karachi, the southern port city where Pearl was kidnapped, I hung out at the dilapidated Karachi Press Club and rode off to cover the anti-war rallies on the backs of mopeds with the local photographers. At one such rally, sponsored by Jamaat-I-Islami, a fundamentalist group, the crowd cheered Osama bin Laden’s image and took turns chanting, "Death to Israel" and "Death to America." Word spread that a Westerner was in the crowd and people became agitated; stones and fists flew my way before my hosts pulled me to safety. These were times you wanted to crawl out of your skin, pretend you were someone else. I tried to buy a fake passport that listed my citizenship as Canadian. Journalists routinely lied when asked if they were American. Guides and interpreters introduced their American clients as Swiss or French.

To admit to being Jewish in such a climate would have been unthinkable. On occasion, people asked me point-blank if I was Jewish. I denied it, listing instead my polyglot background, not bothering to explain that my father is in fact Jewish, but that by Jewish law, I am not. I wonder what Pearl said in response to such questions. A rudimentary amount of research on the Internet might have revealed that Pearl’s parents emigrated from Israel; his father’s name is Yehuda. Government officials now say that the kidnappers never intended to release him; that they kidnapped him with the express intention of killing him.

As is always the case, Pakistan’s anti-Semitism exists in a vacuum; with the exception of the tiny elite who had traveled abroad, no one I knew had actually met a Jew — there simply aren’t any in Pakistan. In a country where perhaps three-quarters of the population is illiterate, people take their cues from their religious leaders and politicians. Few understand the difference between Israel’s hawks and doves, or the nuances and differences of opinion between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, American Jews and Israeli Jews.

In such a climate, Pearl’s kidnappers stripped him of his humanity; the funny, creative, fiddle-playing husband and father-to-be is lost. It is replaced with the enemy, the other, the Jew.

Running With the Wolf

It used to be said that kabbalah should only be studied by the very old or very learned, otherwise it could inspire madness. In his book “Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom in Everyday Life,” Rabbi Laibl Wolf attempts both to dispel the mythology surrounding this ancient, mystical teaching and to demonstrate its necessity for those of us living in the modern world.

The Australian native recently stopped in Los Angeles during his annual world tour, the first of two planned visits here. One might expect the renowned kabbalah teacher to be a great, dark force with penetrating eyes that could gaze directly into one’s soul, perhaps or a remote, silent sage. Instead, he looks like a sweet, fatherly man who speaks with a charming Australian accent that can make someone immediately feel welcome. His voice was infinitely gentle, even when his gaze grew intense while discussing the current situation in the Middle East.

The main thing that struck, though, was how down-to-earth and essential he makes kabbalah seem.

“The Zohar itself — the Zohar being the primary work of kabbalah — predicted a time would come when the fountains of knowledge would burst open from above and below, meaning spiritually and technologically; and the resulting confusion would require us, all of us, to access the deeper wisdom to gain balance,” he began with quiet intensity. “You and I are the heirs to this radical change.”

Wolf says he feels it is time for a “paradigm shift” in the way we see the world, and his book contains exercises and meditations to help alter readers’ perspectives. The key, he said, involves making the change from a self-centered point of view to an other-centered one.

In addition to being an ordained rabbi and studying with such luminaries as the revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson and the Dalai Lama, Wolf is also an educational psychologist specializing in working with teenagers.

When not on tour, the rabbi resides in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, Leah, and the two youngest of their seven children. He is currently working on producing a documentary that will combine his meditation exercises with the music of Peter Himmelman.

Like his mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Wolf has a loyal following among the religious, the non-religious and those on the path to Jewish observance.

“Unfortunately, in the Jewish world, we were Johnny-come-latelys in terms of teaching the spiritual side of Jewish life,” he said. “Because of that, thousands of truly questing Jewish people turned eastward to Buddhism or to New Age. They were being cheated by the Jewish establishment, which didn’t offer that meaningful approach to life. Therefore it’s not surprising that kabbalah became popular, because Jewish people saw it as the spiritual side of Judaism.”

Although happy that the community has taken a greater interest in kabbalah, the rabbi admits he was disappointed to see it turn into a fad, a la Madonna.

“I’m not at all impressed by the promotion of Jewish spirituality by highlighting glamour,” he said. “The way I approach the teaching of kabbalah is much more down to earth. I want people to learn not about how they can project astrally, speak with angels or even create miracles in their lives. I’m interested in using the spiritual teachings to assist people to understand the amazing nature of who they are as a creation, their attributes.”

The rabbi also does not recommend the study of what he calls “hard-core kabbalah” by novices. Downloading the texts off the Internet or buying a Zohar at Barnes & Noble and attempting to struggle through it alone or with a few friends, as has been popular for several years are, in his opinion, a waste of time.

“There’s a difference between studying explanations of the Zohar and studying the Zohar itself, and I do not advocate the latter,” he said. Instead, he advocates learning about kabbalah through classes.

Wolf admits, however, that he is not above a bit of commercialism, hence the name for his newest methodology, MindYoga. He said he picked the term deliberately as a metaphor for the series of meditation and interpersonal exercises in his books and tapes. For Wolf, a spiritual exercise session is every bit as essential as a daily physical workout.

“We can practice daily stretching our soul, so that in the moment when the appropriate emotion is needed, we are flexible spiritually. Because at the end of the day, whether we are able to sleep well or sleep fitfully depends on how masterful we were during that day in our relationships, in our family, in our professional or business arena or with a stranger. This is the core of Torah.”

Rabbi Laibl Wolf will join recording artist Peter Himmelman at a benefit for the rabbi’s foundation, the Human Development Institute, on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. For more information, call Lisa Schneiderman at (310) 314-2213.