My Way or the Yahweh


On Faith

A Jewish-Hindu connection

Talk about a crazy commute. After a spiritual encounter, a stranger and I spent the next 90 minutes discussing the nature of the universe.

Jeffrey Stanley, 7/23/13

Not so long ago after nearly 25 years as a hidebound New Yorker I moved to Philadelphia for my wife Pia’s career needs, inadvertently becoming part of a popular regional migration known to urban statisticians as the 6th borough phenomenon. She’s Indian-American and we’re raising our child in a bilingual home. I’m a writer and professor. She’s a scientist by day and an Indian classical dance professional by night. Religiously we are at best agnostic but culturally we are Hindus, and will identify ourselves as such when pressed, like on the hospital intake form the first time we took our baby in for a routine doctor’s visit.

This identification sits well with me. Despite growing up Nazarene in the Bible Belt I had long ago developed an affinity for Hindu philosophy—ever since I’d come across a used copy of the Bhagavad Gita at a flea market in high school and realized how similar it was to the New Testament. I still remember the perplexed look on my Sunday school teacher’s face the morning I brought the Gita to church. I had marked the sections that reminded me of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount with an orange highlighter and asked him why Hindus were all going to Hell and we Christians weren’t. Suffice it say I quit going to church not long after that. Christianity just wasn’t speaking to me. When I met my wife-to-be years later while canoeing in Brooklyn’s fetid Gowanus Canal I fell in easily with her cultural worldview. We were a match made in moksha.

Imagine my surprise when, on a recent Friday afternoon while returning to Philly on a crowded New Jersey Transit train out of Manhattan’s Penn Station I came face to face with the power of YHWH.  I have regular writing and teaching obligations in New York City so I typically commute between the two cities once or twice a week. The pre-rush hour train was unusually packed and it was running local but that was fine with me. In fact I had chosen the local on purpose, adding an hour to my travel time to get as much work done on the typically placid ride as possible before reaching home and hurlyburly.

Still awaiting departure from Penn I sat alone next to the window of my three-seater bench, opened my netbook, and sank into writing comments on my university students’ movie scenes. This was my Screenwriting II class and the scripts weren’t half bad. I had barely made a dent in my work when a rocker in a long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans and two black triangular ear studs plopped down next to me. I felt mildly annoyed by the disruption as he took off his coat and tossed it on the overhead rack along with his bag, and I was relieved when he settled into his seat, took out a paperback and began to read. Hallelujah, he’d be quiet like me instead of yammering away or playing videogames on a so-called smartphone. I continued my work in peace but couldn’t help noticing that he was reading a book on Hinduism. Another time I might have struck up a conversation but I had a lot of work ahead so I kept my nose to the netbook.

Continue reading “My Way or the Yahweh”

Deliverance, Brooklyn Style

[caption id="attachment_1787" align="alignleft" width="207" caption="Jeffrey Stanley canoeing in New York Harbor near the Brooklyn Bridge; 2003"][/caption]

As some thrilled tourist once said when he overheard a local complaining about the odor of the canals of Venice, we should all be so lucky as to smell that putrid odor every day. The first

Jeffrey Stanley canoeing in New York Harbor near the Brooklyn Bridge; 2003

As some thrilled tourist once said when he overheard a local complaining about the odor of the canals of Venice, we should all be so lucky as to smell that putrid odor every day. The first time I stood on the banks of the Gowanus Canal the dreadful effluvium indeed put me in the mind of Venice. But I never saw floating fields of garbage and dead rats in Venice, and of course there was no stunning Venetian architecture in South Brooklyn to soften the sensory blow. Could I paddle through this industrial wasteland and learn to love it? Dragging a canoe to the edge of  a three-foot drop and staring down into the filthy, brackish liquid, I was determined to find out.

 My goal had to have a rip-roaring, outdoorsy, inexpensive summer right here in New York City, and being on some kind of watercraft was for me a must.  I am an experienced fresh water paddler and have J-stroked my way safely through many treacherous and boulder-laden river rapids, but I am a starving playwright and teacher who by choice lives on nickels and dimes, so escaping to a rustic river for a few days was out. 

 Sure, there’s the image-conscious Hamptons crowd.  These are my smug lawyer and investment banker friends who quietly vanish every weekend from June to September to their upscale getaways along the south shore of Long Island.  If I promise to behave, and if I’m willing to wear the right deck shoes, they will invite me along with them periodically to frolic in their artificially perfect paradise. But the occurrence of such trips for me is unpredictable.  I never know for sure whether they’re going to come through with a last-minute invitation to tag along on a Friday afternoon to hop on the Hamptons jitney or not.  No, I was going to have to find a way to get out onto the mercury-infected waters right here around New York Harbor or be stuck sweltering on dry land all summer.

 My exploration began with a free kayak lesson at a pier in lower Manhattan which I discovered while jogging one June morning. Ultimately the kayaking subculture turned out to be a bust for me. The hardcore kayakers who go out on longer trips seemed militaristic. They liked barking orders, and there was never time to relax in a kayak.  The hobby was also potentially pricey, with literal bells and whistles and flashlights hanging from fancy life jackets, and wetsuits, and funny rubber skirts, and nowhere on most  kayaks to comfortably put my macho fishing tackle or a big sandwich, so I decided to look for something in the way of a nice Cadillac of a canoe. 

 A five minute search on the Internet turned up the Gowanus Dredgers, a canoe club Continue reading “Deliverance, Brooklyn Style”