I GREW UP in a Jewish Orthodox family and my first memories of Kabbalah flow from my childhood in the early 1980s. Kabbalah seemed like Salome – an alluring silhouette blurred by seven mysterious scarves. It was so available, in the next room, where my mother was bent over a typewriter wearing her own (head)scarf, translating the kabbalistic book The Thirteen Petalled Rose. It was also so forbidden. The name of the book smelt of flowers and I wanted to touch, but my mother was very clear: “It is sacred.” And I still carry her message: “Kabbalah drives people mad. You have to be ready to study it and even then learning its secrets can be dangerous.” I remember waiting behind the closed door, listening to the click-clack of her typewriter, holding my breath and waiting for my mother to go mad.
It is the late 1980s. I follow my father on a visit to a famous kabbalist in Jerusalem. The fear of going mad is sweet like a rosy fragrance. The sensual angels and demons of Bashevis-Zinger fill my head. We enter a spacious office with long leadlight windows and I think about my mother’s tiny workroom lit only with a bedside lamp. Somehow it seems a more appropriate setting for the secrets of the universe. The fat kabbalist is seated next to a huge computer. My father explains, “The rabbi invented a computer program to read the hidden Torah messages. It selects Torah letters and words in a particular order, then reconstructs them into new sentences.” Both men show me printed lists with numbers and letters. “Look,” my usually quiet father grasps my hand, “here is the word ‘Hitler’. And here ‘atomic bomb’. It was all predicted hundreds of years ago.” The rabbi smiles at me but talks only with my father. In the bus on our way home I ask, “Can we read the future in the Torah, too?” “Yes,” says my pensive father, “but it’s not for everyone. It takes years to get close to God’s mystery.” The bus click-clacks like my mother’s typewriter, carrying me towards my own future with the fairytale promise of great secrets yet to be discovered.
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