Meditations on mother
When I was a junior in high school, I decided to skip my senior year and go straight to college. No one questioned my decision. Everyone thought I knew best for myself, in large part because the world perceived me as a really smart kid. Which was true, up to a point. I was also unsure, unclear, with no path before me and no real idea who I was.
So I applied to college, without anyone advising me where to go or what to look for. Harvard told me to wait a year. Amherst and Yale turned me down directly. The University of Florida begged me to come and offered me a full academic scholarship. Instead, I chose the best university I got into – Brandeis U.
I didn’t know what I wanted to study, what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I might be a writer, maybe a lawyer like my dad. But really, I had no clue. I didn’t identify with being Jewish, nor did any of my friends (though we all were). I had no idea that the school I was going to was 90 percent Jewish, barely larger than my high school, that I would be considered a minority because I was a southern Jew, and not from New York or New Jersey. I’d never officially visited, never taken a tour, didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
At Brandeis I tried on every façade I could, anything other than something Jewish. At my roommate’s recommendation I started playing saxophone, but I’m no musician. I called myself a writer, but I’d written very little of a serious nature, and didn’t get into the one writing class I applied to that required writing samples for admission. I tried smoking a pipe (the tobacco kind, in this case), wore tweed jackets, had a massive Jew-fro, pretended to be worldly and sophisticated even though I wasn’t even close.
As a freshman I lived in the old Ridgewood dorms, cranky, dilapidated two-story buildings with spacious double occupancy rooms on the first floor and tiny singles and double occupancy rooms on the second. I, of course, was in one of the cramped upstairs rooms with a piano-playing roommate named Steve Wininger who chain-smoked and always seemed to have girls sleeping with him, which meant I had to find somewhere else to go. Most of the time I hunkered down with my two buddies below me, Eric and Gene. And we were all under the watchful, if slightly off-kilter eyes of our residence advisor, Rick, who lived in the single next to me.
Rick believed, rightly or wrongly, that everyone should do as he did. He was a black belt in karate, so he thought everyone should take karate. And he was into transcendental meditation, so he thought everyone should learn TM.
TM had just exploded in popularity across the country, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was making his first trip to the United States. As part of the celebration, the big TM center in Copley Square had a special introductory offer going on. Rick talked us into going. Eric and Gene went first and started meditating twice a day, twenty minutes each time. Steve and I went the following weekend.
The initial seminar took place in a large room that seated well over 100 beginners, where the rationale behind TM was explained. Then we were each assigned to a teacher, who would show us how to meditate and give us our special mantra. I waited my turn, then followed my teacher up to a small room in a distant corner of the building. “Close your eyes,” he told me. “Breathe slowly and deeply. Repeat the mantra over and over in your head without trying. If you drift off and start daydreaming, gently bring yourself back to the mantra. And your mantra is….ee-mah’. Say it with me, with an emphasis on the second vowel. Ee-mah’.”
Eemah. My mantra was eemah, the Hebrew word for mother.
Ohmygod, what was I going to do? Here I was, a Jewish boy from Brandeis by way of Orlando, and my mantra was eemah. Talk about ridiculous. Talk about reinforcing whatever mommy neuroses I had. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do. Could I ask for a different one? Could I start over? I was upset, terrified to question what I’d been taught. I was only 17. What did I know? After all, this was my mantra, selected especially for me. What did that say about me anyway? When I was given a mantra that was supposed to be mine and mine alone, I didn’t know enough to say, “Please, in Hebrew that’s mommy. Please, give me something else to meditate on.”
What did I do? I got up and walked out, eemah rolling around in my head.
I didn’t realize it then, but years later I understood that I’d been taught a lesson, an important lesson, and a Jewish one. Did I find my way through meditation? Did I spend years meditating on my mother, and figure out why the universe had asked me to meditate twice a day on one of the people I thought enough about anyway?
No. I sucked it up and asked Rick what to do, who laughed out loud and gave me some good advice. Finally, I’d run into someone who assumed I didn’t know everything, someone who thought they knew better than me.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “You can’t meditate on eemah. Pick your own mantra.”
And that’s what I did. I found one that fit me, and in that simple process, I took the first baby step toward becoming who I am. Meditation, for all its benefits and calming ways, may have been a misstep. I was running from my Judaism, running to anything exotic, anything extreme. And it didn’t fit quite right. I was able to say no, that’s not me. I’ll find something that is. And it was that question that ultimately led me back to my roots, back to embracing my Jewishness, though that path, that discovery, took many more years.
So-hahm. I am that that I am. My mantra for life.
And that’s the good word. The opinions in this column are those of the writer and not the Heritage or any other individual, agency or organization. Send your thoughts, comments, and critiques to the Heritage or email firstname.lastname@example.org.