Confessions of a Hinjew (Hindu Jew)
An honest reflection about life and authenticity by Rainbow Yoga Co-founder Gopala Amir Yaffa.
In the Beginning
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and a million excuses… And a few other cool things too!
For me, This is where it all began… I was born in Israel; not to a religious family, but in Israel religion and culture are very intertwined.
As a Jewish nation, we are all told from birth that we are the chosen ones, that we are here to shine the light to the nations, that most of the best minds are Jewish and the best innovations are from Israel.
Chosen does not mean, though, that we are the best (even though it sounds like it); it simply means that we are chosen for a certain purpose, for a reason… We are here to do something important, something to make this world a better place. Aren’t we all?
The belief in Judaism is that the world is broken and that we are here to fix it, it’s called ‘Tikun Olam’ which means fixing the world. And that we can fix it. It can be perfect. We can bring heaven down to earth and it is our communal duty to do this, to make the world perfect like it was meant to be.
My Rabi, which means a spiritual teacher (like a Guru) in Hebrew, used to say that God created the world in 6 days, but he didn’t finish his creation. When he and Adam and Eve were preparing to take a break from it all for the Shabat (the 7th day) he said “let’s be partners and finish this creation together”. You see, each one of us has a big part in fulfilling this mission; making the world a better place.
Judaism is a very communal religion, and both religious laws and celebrations mostly serve to strengthen social responsibility and to bring the family and the community closer together.
So yes, these concepts pretty much summarize who I am…
Chosen & Perfect
First, I love myself. I don’t see it as a bad thing… If everyone did, the world would be a perfect place. I am proud of myself. I respect myself and therefore I’m determined to always do my very best.
If things did not go as expected it is because of some external circumstances; it was not my fault and I’m at peace because I know I gave it my best efforts and there is nothing more I could have done. I am committed to being the best I can be in everything I do.
Being a sinner (why dwell on the bad?), asking for redemption and forgiveness (everyone makes mistakes and mistakes are opportunities to learn and better oneself, not a bad thing either), thinking bad things about myself and other Catholic concepts as such are very foreign to me.
When I was about 12 years old I read a story in a philosophy book, I think it was by Kafka, about a person that loved his sleep. In fact, he loved his sleep so much that everything he did during the day was so that he could sleep better at night.
He made sure that every deed was one that he would be proud of. He never did anything that he would regret, anything that would keep him awake at night. Doing his best and having absolute integrity in what he says and what he does was the most important thing for him. And of course, he did sleep well at night!
This was one of the most influential few pages I have ever read in my life, and I have tried to live my life by this principle of doing my very best and doing everything with integrity. No doubt, I have failed at times, but still, I was always led by this principle.
When you do your best you can relax even when things are not completed yet or are not going to plan or people are upset or displeased because you know you have done everything in your power to make things right. You have done your very best, the rest does not belong to you.
It is not easy to do your best though. You can’t be lazy, you need to be thoughtful and mindful, you need to make an effort, you need to be brave, you need to give it everything you got! Otherwise, it is not doing your best.
Doing your best is also focusing on your strengths. You can do your best at everything, but you can’t be the best at everything. So focus on what you are good at, and be happy for other people to be the best at what they do.
This is also opposite to what is called here in Australia The Tall Poppy Syndrome, which means that if you shine, too many people will make sure to remind you to not shine as much. But no, please shine on!
Let Me Shine
Yes, the chosen people… but chosen for what? According to the Tora (the Hebrew scriptures), it is to shine the light to all the nations. To be the leaders in making this world less dark. Not that we always do a great job of it, but that’s what we are here to do.
So bringing it back to me as an individual; I’m here for a purpose. I have a mission in life. I know I can make a difference. And therefore I want to be heard. This is because I have something important to say. I am important. I’m not nothing and I’m not disposable. I am chosen; chosen for something important, something that will make this world a better place.
So hear me world! I can help. Let me help.
Do you want to make a difference, too? Great! I’m here to listen. Let’s do it together, or let’s take two different parallel paths, but for God’s sake, let’s get into it and do it!
Waiting is not my thing.
Fixing the World
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; it is the reason why I do everything that I do... It is not easy to admit it, but it is a lot about trying to prove myself. Whether it is proving myself to others or to myself, I have to have a feeling of self-worth.
I feel unsettled if I feel that I don’t count for something, that I’m disregarded, that I don’t make a difference… that I have no purpose. If there is a problem I have to fix it. It is my social responsibility to fix it. If I don’t do something about it and just let the issue persist, why am I here anyway?
Did I mention that I’m a man? In addition to this being a Jewish thing, fixing things is also a male thing. Double whammy! Have you read this book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus?
It is not easy for me, or nearly impossible, to accept things in their imperfection. It can be perfect, and if it is not perfect yet we still have work to do to make it perfect.
Oh yes! I’m a Leo too.
Suffering, And What the Hell Should I Do with It?
A few years ago I found the fact that I take on the shit of others and hold on to it for what seems to be generations (this is also a Jewish tradition), to be a challenge. In some ways, it is hard for me to know exactly where I end and others start. I need to make some clearer boundaries to stay sane. I have to stop trying to fix others or circumstances and focus more on fixing myself.
This reminds me of a story that my Rabbi used to tell often. He said “when I was young, I wanted to change the world. When I grew a little older I realized that this is impossible, so I thought that at least I should change my country. When I grew more I saw that this is not very practical as well, so I decided to change my family. And now I have recognized that even this is not doable, so I decided to change myself.”
Teaching through stories is something Judaism and Hinduism have in common.
And like yesterday I just learned a new lesson: Don’t let other people’s behaviour make you be something you are not or act in a way that is not authentic to who you are or what you want to be.
And that is even when we suffer…
You know, when someone is upset it is easy to get upset too; when someone shouts naturally we feel like shouting back; when someone is down we start feeling down too; when the whirlpool of emotions is making havoc all around you it is so tempting to just be carried away by it all. But this is a weakness and it is not helpful for the other person in distress either.
My young son, Indigo, has been telling me in the last few weeks about a child in his class that is bullying the other kids. Indigo was saying all of the weaker characters in the class, all of them having been terrorised themselves, are now following that bully around copying his behaviour and harassing other children.
It takes a lot of strength to be true to who you are. To be authentic, to be who you want to be, rather than bending down and just trying to keep yourself out of trouble.
A Hinjew in Australia
I live in Australia now and there are some major cultural differences that I find really confronting.
Of course, there are the usual non-Jewish things that people here don’t think highly enough about themselves and are many times lacking a real purpose (both a total opposite of my culture), and also that they don’t say it like it is and try to smooth it out with words instead of actually doing something to make it better (have you ever had an Israeli friend? Oh! We say it as it is. Not going around the bush with us). But here are a couple more:
In Judaism learning is worship and the desire to grow and to do something with your life is intense. And we all help each other with that (only slightly against each other will). Here in Australia, if I give someone a bit of friendly advice, they feel like I’m trying to control them rather than being receptive to learning. There is a fear of being told what to do, almost a fear of change. Maybe it has to do with Australian ancestors being brought here as convicts.
And what is this Aussie need to forget (but they don’t really forget) which maybe alcohol is related to? In Judaism, we believe in remembering. That’s how we grow wiser.
One of my favourite sayings, and I learned this from my wise wife, is “the grass is greener where you water it”. Learning and moving forward are very much related to this for me…
Bad shit happens to everyone:
So the secret is not to run away, not to forget, but instead, make lemonade from the lemons we get. It is just a change of focus; focus on the lesson, not on the action. Don’t look at other people’s grass - Care for your own grass and water it where it will help you grow. If you water it focusing on the problem you will wilt.
In Judaism, there is nothing more sacred than life itself, and a religious Jew takes the time (by Jewish law) to bless and sanctify every activity and every beautiful thing they see. Wine is sacred too and is being drunk on special occasions and always blessed. But here in Australia people destroy their lives and scare relationships every day by abusing alcohol. It’s a shocker for me to see it being so “normal” here.
Sounds very pretentious, right?
Look, I like to party too… But if I do it every day it is sure to bring me out of balance.
Yes, maybe I’m unknowingly some kind of a moral snobbish elitist and think that I’m better than everyone. But really, it is rare to find a social interaction in Australia that does not involve drinking. I just want to know that when I’m talking to you you are you and not some watered (wined) down version of yourself, and I also expect you to remember our conversation tomorrow morning. Is this too much to ask?
Something that I do like about Australian culture is the “no worries mate” attitude. This is a very Hindu outlook on life, kind of like nodding your head and saying “karma” in an Indian accent. “No worries mate” is the final conclusion of many conversations here. I love it… it just needs to be transferred more often from talking to doing.
We have a similar saying in Hebrew… our response to “how are you?” is not usually “good” or “bad”, but “Hakol Beseder” which means “everything is in order”. This acceptance of things as being ok as they are is again very Hindu and not typical to the general Jewish mindset.
The famous saying goes “in Rome act like a Roman”. But the Romans did both beautiful and horrible things... So yes, act like an Australian, but not with everything. Take the good and make it a part of myself and learn from the bed. Get wiser.
I’m becoming an Ausraeli.
Really, how dare I complain. Coming from a country riddled by war, Australia is the promised land. Really it’s a beautiful land with beautiful people, inside and out. Do you grow more under conflict or surrounded by peace and plenty? The truth is that there are lessons everywhere. It is not what’s on the outside; learning is an inner job.
The Hindu Side of Me
OK… Judaism is not the only thing I am. I became a Hindu monk when I was 16 and have been wholeheartedly devoted to this path for 10 years.
During those years of intense practice of meditation, yoga and service I gave my whole trust to my Guru. I believed in him, drank eagerly from his wisdom and followed his every word religiously.
After 10 years of trusting someone else, I finally learnt to truly trust myself. I left the Ashram (yoga monastery) when I was 26.
The patterns and grooves that this practice made within me are deep. Even now, 18 years after leaving the Ashram, sharing this “Hindu” knowledge is my passion and my livelihood.
Being a monk was easy for me. I only needed to focus on one thing at a time, had a lot of time to introspect and figure out where I stand in this world, and with all of the intensity of the practice I did not have to carry with me worries about anything. Those are things that my mind does easily and that I get great satisfaction and bliss from.
Well… I’m not a monk anymore. Now I am married to a beautiful, wise and passionate woman, have 4 children, a very busy and fast-changing business and an animal sanctuary. Wow! Life is busy. Time to go within is scarce. Being able to do one thing at a time is almost impossible… I’m challenged to say the least.
I love circus arts, and juggling is something that I like experimenting with. 24/7 life juggling is what I do now, trying to make it all flow seamlessly without thinking about it too much.
Having a big family with young children and a wife that is as stubborn and strong-willed (and I love her to death) like me, there are a few things that I have to start to accept: I will not always be heard, and hardly ever when I want to be heard, and it will not be perfect… Or maybe it is all perfect in its imperfections.
Messy is kind of my new perfect… in theory. Inside I still struggle with it and find it hard to accept. The concept of acceptance is definitely more Hindu than Jewish. What? No fixing?
Staying Authentic While Still Mixing It All Up
Now, Hinduism is very different from Judaism. While in Hinduism the focus is on ‘Self’ realization, enlightenment being a goal that an individual achieves; in Judaism, the emphasis is on the community, and how we can bring TOGETHER as a community through our good deeds and prayers the Messiah here, or the era of perfection and peace where lions and lambs and us all live together in perfect peace and prosperity.
Hinduism is about going within and working on yourself as an individual. Judaism is more concerned with the community, with expanding, with social responsibility, with working together to fix this world and make it a better place (I’m not saying that Judaism is perfect, especially when mixed with politics. We are talking about concepts here).
In Judaism we say “if someone tells you that there is wisdom in the other nations, believe him”. I have learnt so much from Hinduism. I have learnt to introspect, to get to know myself, to trust and listen to myself, to centre myself. But I’m not Indian and I’ll never be accepted as a Hindu by Indian people.
For me being a Hindu is not totally authentic. I can learn the lessons and still be genuine to where I came from and the truths of my ancestors. Even if I took on a Hindu name and did all of the Hindu practices of worship and meditation, my heart is still from where I was born.
Let me tell you a true story… About ten years ago I took a 2 weeks Thai Yoga Massage certification course in California. I really enjoyed the training, but after a few days, I started to doubt some of the elements in it. All of the trainers at the course and most of the students were wearing Indian Curtas (especially long Indian shirts) and Japa Malas (Indian prayer beads), were greeting each other with Hindu blessings like “Om Namaha Sivaya”, “Hari Om” and “Om Shanti”, and every day started and ended with communal Kirtan (singing of Hindu Mantras and prayers to the Hindu Gods).
At first, I thought that this was normal, but then I realized the absurdity of it all: Thai Massage is not from India, it is from freaking Thailand!
So why do we all want to be Indian? What do we get by having this Indian façade?
Is it just fashionable and cool?
I think that there are true Hindu concepts we all wish to imbibe in our lives. We live such an extroverted life… so busy, so fast. We feel that we need to go a bit more Shanti Shanti.
My Supermarket Religion
We live in the age of supermarkets where we can get whatever we want, whenever we want; it’s the same with religion and spirituality.
I think it’s a good thing that today we do not have to accept blindly what was handed to us from our forefathers, but that we can pick and choose, from an amazing array of traditions, those things that speak most clearly to our hearts and apply most practically to our lives.
In the supermarket, when we buy ready-made food, if we look at the little letters at the back of the package, we will see that it contains some ingredients that are not good for us such as preservatives and additives. In the same way, there is no one ready-made religion that is perfect for us and that is free from extra toxins that were put there to preserve it and make it look good.
Each religion contains an array of philosophies and techniques; some of them may be outdated (like expired food packages in the supermarket) and others might not be beneficial for us at a certain period or situation and can even cause harm (indigestion).
I believe that for modern cooks like us, it is better to choose ourselves, according to our knowledge, ability, and taste, the good ingredients to create our own amazing feast.
There is even a better option than buying a variety of ingredients in the supermarket; you can grow your own food in your backyard. The human mind is very fertile, so I have no doubt that by careful care, or even by letting it grow wild, it can produce the most marvellous ideas. All we need is to spend some time in our own gardens, observe the magic happen and pick up the fruit when it is ripe.
It is too small of a space here to write about all the things my basket is full with; a bit of Buddhism, some Native American traditions, a little of Sufism… So how would you say it? A Hinjewbu?
Did I tell you that I’m dyslexic? Putting more than 3 words into one is too overwhelming for me :-)
Take the best from everything, leave the rest behind.
Back to the Roots
Yes, I’m a Hinjew. I live my life and teach yoga in a very Jewish way (check out my unique communal style of yoga called Rainbow Yoga) thinking that I am a pretty good combination of Jewish, Leo, Man, and a Hindu Yogi.
But lately, I am finding more and more depth and comfort in my original roots… Judaism is about family, about keeping it all close and connected. After the destruction of the big Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, the family table became the altar where most ceremonies and prayers are conducted. Tradition, family and values are all blended into each other.
The work I need to do from here is in some ways still about me as I learnt in Hinduism. But it is even more as I learnt in Judaism; it is about a bigger unit, it is about the family. As a family, we need to be strong and work together as a complex one to make the next bigger unit, our community, strong, and healthy. From here the path to fixing the world and making it a perfect place seems very achievable to me.
Only recently, worldwide, it is cooler again to be authentic to your own roots, whether it is in cooking or in spirituality. A full circle for me… I’m excited to see what the next turn of the spiral of my life brings!
So closing a circle here, I do feel that this article is really all about authenticity... How can you be more true to yourself? What’s authentic to you?