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.
The train quickly filled. A few moments later a third passenger plopped down next to us on our bench. I could guess from his dark coat and black hat that he was an Orthodox Jew. Despite his conservative dress and wireframe glasses I could tell he wasn’t much older than 30. The train pulled out.
Almost immediately he started in with our mutual seatmate. “Excuse me. Are you Jewish?” A ha! A Lubavitcher. Here comes the proselytizing, I thought. I’d been a New Yorker long enough to have at least a vague understanding of the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement and to know that they were some kind of Jewish mystics. I’d been there in the early ’90s when their leader, the Rebbe Schneerson, had died after a prolonged illness while his followers had gathered in great numbers to keep vigil, many of them believing he was the moshiach. I had also been in New York long enough to know about their prowling Winnebagos dubbed “Mitzvah Tanks” that periodically stalked through town blasting Hebrew songs. They would pull over and set up camp on street corners all over Manhattan to go fishing, asking nearly every male passerby, “Excuse me. Are you Jewish?” Occasionally they’d snag one who nodded and they’d usher him inside their miniature rolling synagogue. For what purpose I wasn’t exactly sure other than some kind of counseling or offer of salvation. I had been tempted more than once to lie about my Jewishness and go aboard and find out what exactly went on in there and get whatever blessing they could lay on me. But they never even asked. A friend told me it’s because they could look at my Elvisy Appalachian face a mile away and tell I wasn’t Jewish. I refused to believe that. If they could tell just from looking who’s Jewish and who’s not then why go around asking everyone before launching into their spiel?
So now, sitting there on that fast-moving train I pricked up my ears at the conversation unrolling before me. How would our seatmate answer? He said yes, he was Jewish, but quickly put up his hand. “But I’m not interested, I just want to sit here and read.” The Lubavitcher introduced himself anyway. His name was Lev. The reader was Dan. Dan sighed and put down his book, realizing he was cornered.
Lev wanted to know all about Dan’s history as a Jewish man in New York and what led him to fall away. Had he gone to a yeshiva as a child? Yes. In fact, he had been on Long Island that very afternoon visiting a friend. He had taken a wrong train and wound up in the middle of nowhere. When he realized his error he hopped off but had no ready cash to pay for a return ticket. He took to the streets and asked a rabbi parked in front of a yeshiva the way to the nearest ATM. The rabbi instead gave him money to buy a ticket, no questions asked. Dan had refused at first but the rabbi insisted, telling him he could repay the favor by promising to do one mitzvah, or good deed, for some other stranger on the way home. Little did Dan know I was about to become that stranger.
Did Dan ever go to synagogue, Lev wanted to know? “Rarely. But I’m still interested in G-d,” Dan explained. “That’s why I’m—” he gestured to the book on Hinduism. “My mom just brought this back to me from India.” At that I was boiling to become a busybody and jump into the conversation. I’ve been all over India by now and had just come from my most recent trip there a few weeks before. Where in India had his mom visited? How long had she been there? Had Dan ever been to India himself? Stay out of it, Stanley, or you’re not going to get a damn thing done, I told myself. I bit my tongue and kept working.
Lev couldn’t understand how a hippie book on Hinduism was going to supplant the teachings of the Torah. Dan tried to explain it to him. “I believe all religions are kind of saying the same thing and all pointing us toward the same truths. That’s why my mom got me this. She knew I’d like it.”
Now I couldn’t help but avert my eyes to his book and burn holes in it, scouring the cover to see exactly what it was he was reading. I could tell it wasn’t the Gita. I checked the fine print at the bottom and damn if it wasn’t published by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest, as I had learned about Sri Aurobindo on my most recent trip. Aurobindo was an Indian spiritual leader, philosopher, playwright and anti-British political activist in the early 20th century. In fact my niece and nephew attend a school in Delhi founded by one of his main devotees, and their school has a store for fundraising at which they sell handicrafts made at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I had brought some of these items home with me to give out to friends and colleagues.
Lev tried desperately to find some commonality with Dan to get him off this Hindu trip and back on the right track. He explained that as a Lubavitcher he too believed in the oneness of things, and that he had been taught to see only the goodness in people. That mystical approach did the trick and got Dan to open up to him a little more. Meanwhile I continued doing my best to tune them out and slip back into my own world. The train was now rolling out of the dark tunnel underneath the Hudson and emerging into the New Jersey swamps speeding toward its first stop: Secaucus.
“Would you like to use the Tefillin?” Lev eagerly asked him, presumptuously unzipping his satchel.
“Um, no, that’s cool,” Dan insisted, seeming a little embarrassed. Lev wasn’t about to take no for an answer. He was already reaching inside his satchel and pulling something out.
Tefillin. I’d heard the word before and I knew that it was some kind of Jewish religious article but that was about it. Is it the thing you hang on your door, I thought? No, that’s a mezuzah. A dreidel? No, that’s a spinning top used at Hanukkah.
From the corner of my eye I saw Lev take a small, dark object from his bag and insistently hand it to Dan, trying to convince him to take it. This was now getting Jewish enough that they were leaving me in the dust. I thought I was finally free of temptation to join the conversation when I heard Dan say, “Tell you what. If you can convince this guy sitting next to me to do it, I’ll do it.”
Peripherally I could see Lev lean out past Dan to get a look at me and think it over. “Excuse me?” He tentatively began.
“Don’t ask him if he’s Jewish. He’s not,” Dan intervened, trying to do me a favor.
I feel Lev studying my face, trying to decide how to proceed.
“How can you tell?”
“Because if he was Jewish he would already be talking to us.”
Lev continued full steam ahead. “Do you know what Tefillin is?” he asked me. I knew his mission wasn’t to save me. It was to save Dan. But this was too good to pass up. I lifted my head.
“Not really,” I said. “I’ve heard of it.”
“Do you know what the Torah—?”
Dan, embarrassed for Lev, impatiently cut him off. “Of course he knows what the Torah is, he’s not stupid.” He then turned to me. “Look, he wants me to do the Tefillin and I’ll only do it if you to do it.” Dan was using me, a total stranger, as his surefire excuse to not do it. He also had something else going for him: Lev was getting off in Secaucus which was about 30 seconds away. The train began to slow as we approached the station. Time was up.
“Oh, too bad,” said Dan. “But thanks for asking.”
Lev reluctantly stood up and lingered in the aisle, looking back at me. “Will you do it?”
I slapped my netbook shut. “Hit me.” I reached across Dan’s lap and shook Lev’s hand. “My name’s Jeff, I’m wide open, lay it on me.” Both of their eyes widened, neither of them sure whether to take me seriously. “Go ahead and do him,” I said, nodding at Dan. “You can do me next.”
Lev was elated. He plopped back into his seat like a schoolboy and missed his stop on purpose. That still only gave him a few minutes to work this miracle before the next stop. Out from his bag flew both Tefillin boxes attached to leather straps. I asked to see one and he tossed it past Dan into my lap. It was a black leather cube about 2 inches square with Hebrew characters emblazoned on the sides in gold paint. One side of the box was open and covered with a white film. “That’s parchment,” Lev explained with pride. “And inside are lots of pieces of paper with verses from the Torah written on them.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sort of like a Buddhist prayer wheel with scraps of paper inside with ‘Om mani padme hum’ written on them. And then you spin it and–“
Dan smiled. Lev looked stymied. Unsure whether he was offended or confused I handed the box back to him. Dan rolled up his sleeve and held out his left arm while Lev commenced the elaborate wrapping procedure around his fingers so many times and then up and around his arm in just a certain way. To me, it looked like Dan was about to shoot up heroin. Once the wrapping was completed, Dan held his bicep against his chest so the box touched his heart. Lev then strapped another box just above Dan’s forehead to be near his mind.
I’m telling you right now there’s no way anyone can sit on a commuter train at rush hour and do Tefillin and not have everyone and his sister noticing, because notice they did. The entire car was listening in on our conversation by this point. I had never seen so many people sneaking peeks at me in my life. Lev coached Dan through reciting a prayer in Hebrew, most of which Dan remembered on his own from his yeshiva days. Then it was my turn. I waited while they worked together frantically to beat the clock as the train rolled on, untying the works from Dan and strapping me in for a beautiful trip that would leave me craving more. Finally everything was in place. “I don’t know Hebrew! What do I say!” I blurted as the train decelerated.
They hesitated, looked at each other. We were pulling into Newark station. Dan finally spoke. “Just say you believe in the oneness of the universe and why,” he said urgently. Lev eagerly nodded.
The train doors opened. I thought for a moment and said slowly and thoughtfully, taking all the time in the world, “I believe in the oneness of the universe because of this thing with two total strangers that is happening to me right now.”
“Great.” Dan tore the Tefillin off me and thrust the boxes back at Lev who shoved them into his satchel, shook both our hands and bolted off before the doors slammed shut to wait in the cold and backtrack home.
Dan and I sat back and chuckled. “That was really cool of you,” he said.
“You’re not going to believe me,” I told him, “but I’m a Hindu.”
“I know you are,” he said, beaming.
“Okay now how on Earth can you possibly know that?”
“Because you knew about Buddhist prayer wheels and you believe in the oneness of the universe. And because I saw you staring at my book.”
He had me there. I smiled out the window thinking how I couldn’t wait to get home to tell Pia all about my ride. Talk about a crazy commute. Dan and I spent the next 90 minutes discussing the nature of the universe. Turns out he’s a biologist like my wife so we had much to talk about as we delved into a deep blend of science, philosophy and mysticism en route to post-industrial Trenton where I would make a final transfer to the City of Brotherly Love. At one point around Princeton Dan fell back into his seat looking suddenly drunk. “Whoa. I feel high, like we just took some powerful drug.” I knew what he meant.
Surprisingly for such a short time we had come to some pretty definite conclusions about G-d, or Brahma, and the meaning of life, but I’ll keep all these things and ponder them in my heart. You wouldn’t believe me anyway. You must experience it yourself, not read about it. I’ll let you in on this much though: a week later I stumbled upon this verse from the Rig Veda that summed up our conclusions:
Man, shining light in the City,
Has a thousand heads, eyes, and feet,
He covers the earth on all sides,
Rules supreme over inner space.
We both got off in Trenton and went our separate ways. I considered asking for his email address and I suspect he had the same fleeting thought but we both skipped it. Some people you’re only meant to meet once and glimpse briefly, like trains speeding past each other in the darkness.
Jeffrey Stanley is a playwriting and screenwriting faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, as well as at Drexel University in Philadelphia.