My Metamorphosis from Judaism to Vaishnavism
By Len Cohen
"Merciful music and Krishna’s transformative power saved me from a life of impersonalism."
What was I, a nice Jewish fellow, doing in front of the Radha-Krishna temple? I didn’t fit in there with the Indian culture. I couldn’t relate to the women in saris. I wasn’t wearing a dhoti. I wasn’t wearing tilaka. I didn’t belong there. Maybe I should have gone back to my local synagogue and looked for God there. That’s where I belonged. But I didn’t go there. I persisted in looking for my self-realization at this ISKCON Temple in Philadelphia.
My spiritual journey included Conservative Judaism, Native American Vision Quests, and various forms of Hinduism. Eventually I found true meaning in being a Vaishnava.
When I was eight years old I began going to Hebrew School to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t know what God looked like or what He did, and I didn’t care much for God at the time. At Hebrew School we studied the Torah, the holy book worshiped by Conservative Jews. But the best part of my experience there was when a man named Schlomo came to our classroom with his accordion to sing Israeli folk songs. His short red hair gleamed with sweat as he belted out his songs in Hebrew. We all sang along vigorously. Finally something in Hebrew School meant something to me: music. I could understand it.
Unable to name more than three of the Ten Commandments, I flunked my Bar Mitzvah test. I wasn't interested in religious things. My parents rarely went to synagogue. When Chanukah came around, they embarrassed me by displaying a plastic electric menorah in our front window. They were not devout, religious Jews, but like the rest of my neighbors, they liked to keep up the appearance of Judaism. They were “show-bottle” Jews.
My Bar Mitzvah
It was November 1963, and President Kennedy had been assassinated the week before. The whole country was in mourning. Kennedy pieces filled the newspapers, magazines, and television. But I had passed my Bar Mitzvah exam on retake, and I was concerned only about myself. Would I still be Bar Mitzvahed that weekend? The answer was yes.
Soon I was on the bimah, the raised platform with a desk for reading the sacred Torah. Standing in front of the congregation and next to the rabbi, I sang the shema, the most important prayer in Judaism, and took my aliyah, reading from the Torah. I enjoyed being the center of everyone’s attention, and I was excited to be so close to the holy book. At the end of the service, the rabbi handed me something packaged in an ornate box on behalf of the congregation’s sisterhood. What wonderful object could be inside? In the privacy of my home I opened the gift. It was a kiddush cup for drinking wine.
I suffered in Hebrew School for five years, I thought, and all I got for my Bar Mitzvah was a lousy kiddush cup?
That evening, with my parents in tow, I went to the premier hotel in Philadelphia for my Bar Mitzvah celebration. All the men wore tuxedos, even me. Music still appealed to me. The bandleader said it was time to dance to a tune called “Who’s Got the Bug?” I'd been looking forward to this Bar Mitzvah tradition. It had little to do with spirituality, and more to do with me getting to show off a little.
I took center stage. When the wild music started, I danced like a monkey with a severe case of fleas. I scratched and jumped, grimaced, and flung my arms out wildly – a brave performance for such a shy, nerdy kid with black-framed glasses. My braces-filled mouth grinned as I whirled around. This was fun! Eventually, I got tired and someone else “got the bug.” Music had saved me again. Thank you, Schlomo, and thank you, Bar Mitzvah.
After I finished graduate school, I worked as a counselor in many schools, but I felt I was only going through the motions in my job. There was a hole in my heart, and I didn’t know how to fill it. Something was missing.
After exploring mystical Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism, in August of 1997 I went on my first Vision Quest. I went to find out who I was and what my service to God was. The Vision Quest was a wilderness rite of passage involving purification in a sweat lodge and then sleeping and fasting on an isolated mountaintop for four days. I was badly in need of an emotional tune-up to get some direction in my life. I was forty-seven years old and firmly in the grip of a midlife crisis. I had gone through two marriages, had a daughter in California I barely knew, and had tried various drugs without finding happiness. The idea of climbing a mountain and fasting to seek answers to the question of my life appealed to my biblical sensibilities. Maybe this was what a Jew should do. I would suffer as Job did, submit myself to a lot of austerities, and hope for a mystical vision.
I flew to Telluride, Colorado, and drove past majestic Mount Wilson, my ultimate destination. Rising up 14,252 feet in a symmetrical line of jagged peaks, Mount Wilson was framed by a beautiful cloudless turquoise sky. The pyramidal snow-dusted summit reflected the silver beams of a full moon. It was a magnificent sight.
The next day, after being purified in the sweat lodge, I hefted my fifty-pound backpack and began to hike up Mount Wilson with my fellow Vision-Questers.
On the way up I wondered: Will I actually see God up there? What will He or She look like? Will He look like the bearded old man in Michelangelo's painting? Maybe God will take on the appearance of a burning bush or a cloud overhead, as in the Old Testament.
I didn’t have a clue what God looked like or how He spent His time.
I reached the summit, found an isolated place to camp, and began my fast. After four days, when returning to base camp I had a mystical experience. (Maybe starving for four days had something to do with it!) For hours I heard a heavenly choir singing in a high pitch. I didn’t know who was singing or what they were saying, but I was impressed. Gradually, this divine singing faded away, and I went back to my life in the material world.
While this “heavenly choir” was a revelation to me, in the end I found that the Vision Quest path was too impractical. I had to undergo severe austerities to achieve any result. How could I go to work after fasting and hallucinating for days? And I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life.
I was just another lost soul in maya, still searching for that elusive God. I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept doing what I had always done: I worked in the material world. Every day I passed the Radha-Krishna temple on my way home from work as an elementary school counselor, but I was afraid to go in. What would I do there? I didn't identify with the dark-skinned men who sometimes wore extra-long shirts and Gandhi-esque pants. I clearly didn’t belong.
Still, I became interested in Indian culture, so I began to take sitar lessons from a talented Muslim musician. He played sitar, tabla, and a bass sitar his uncle invented, called the surbahar. I took lessons for several years; music was still very important to me.
One day I met the head pujari of the Radha-Krishna temple. She was taking voice lessons from my sitar teacher, and she invited me to the temple for lunch. Finally, here was my in! I went to the temple the next afternoon, and soon I was going there every Friday night. We sang bhajanas, the pujari leading, accompanying herself on the harmonium. Even though I didn’t know the meaning of the Sanskrit and Bengali words, I would sit on the floor, face the deities of Radha and Krishna, and repeat with my heart what I heard. I connected with the spiritual aspect of the music. I could see God up there on the altar. He and His consort looked beautiful. Finally I knew what God looked like.
The bhajanas transported me to the spiritual realm even though I didn’t know what I was singing. For the short time I chanted, I could taste bliss and happiness. I was finally communing with God, a God with a real face, a bluish cowherd boy who dressed in yellow, played a flute, and wore a peacock feather in His turban.
The temple was immaculate. The marble floor was checkered in black and white, and the life-sized statue of Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, sat on his raised seat with a great view of the deities. He wore a knitted wool cap to keep out the November chill. His meditation bag was close at hand.
In our bhajana band I played my sitar, the head pujari was on vocals and harmonium, the temple president’s son was on tablas, and a female devotee played the esraj. Soon we performed for the entire Hare Krishna community. We sang about Krishna, the beautiful boy who is also God. In my soul, singing about the Lord seemed right.
After our performance, we joined everyone in an exuberant kirtana, followed by a delicious feast of Krishna prasada.
Surely the music and the food were central to my attraction to the temple. Through the music, I discovered I had a connection to God that we all have in our heart. I had completed my journey and found what I was looking for all of this time: Krishna. Before Krishna consciousness, I was lost in the material world, but now I felt more peaceful and had a genuine spiritual grounding. My life was uplifted.
My wife and I were married in a Vedic ceremony in my home a year later. We have now been married ten years. We have a beautiful temple room in our house and regularly read from Srimad-Bhagavatam. Chanting Hare Krishna has made me more self-realized, and I hope I can become a selfless servant of God. Additionally, I chant with devotees in public, attend Rathayatras, Sunday feasts, and major temple festivals, and I think about how best to serve Krishna. This is the story of how one Conservative Jew transformed into a devotee of Krishna. Jaya Sri Krishna sankirtana!