People have asked me how it was that I came to write a novel about the Baal Shem Tov. I’ve never told anyone the whole story. I shall now.
One afternoon almost twenty years ago, alone in my apartment, I felt called by the Baal Shem Tov to write a book that would transmit his teachings, a book that I apprehended immediately was to be a vessel of Love.
The call came out of the blue and it also didn’t. I will return to that very intimate moment of being called, which is the heart of this sharing. But, first a little context and why I say this call did not come entirely out of the blue.
My parents were Eastern European Jews, survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, who had immigrated to the US shortly after World War II—my mother pregnant with me. I do not know how far back my lineage goes in that part of the world. But I suspect that it may go as far back as the 1100s when Jews began to stream into a land they called “Polin,” hailed as a paradise to end the exile of the displaced Jewish people. Poland was a place where Jews would be allowed to live according to their own customs and beliefs.
My mother spoke often with longing and sorrow about the influence of rebbes in the day-to-day life of her village and other Jewish communities in Poland. The Rebbe was a wise man and often a healer, a spiritual leader to whom people came for help with all manner of practical and spiritual concerns. I occasionally heard the name “Baal Shem Tov,” a rebbe who had lived almost two hundred years earlier, spoken of as if he were in a class of his own.
When I was eleven, I began studying in a Hebrew parochial school, a yeshiva, where my teachers were rabbis and rabbis’ wives in the Lubavitch Chasidic tradition. The Baal Shem Tov was revered as a rare, exalted and pure teacher.
Two things stood out in what I heard about this unusual rabbi: one was the Baal Shem Tov’s deep respect for women and children; the second, his vast joy. Neither was evident in those around me—especially joy, given the tragic, traumatic memories that always hung low and heavy over our family.
For the next many years, I did not think much, if it at all, about the Baal Shem Tov. Then one day, I saw a book about him, a translation of Shivhei HaBesht, “In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov,” the only book in English about the master at that time. I bought the purple volume, which I would later pull from its place of honor on my bookshelf to read of the miracles this rebbe was said to have brought about or inspired.
I was enthralled by the stories, which reminded me of fairy tales I had read as a child in which justice enters the lives of the innocent, the humble and the poor. This Rebbe treated all as equal, the illiterate, paupers, people of all faiths, women and even children. It made me happy to know that someone like him had actually existed.
I kept the book on a prime shelf, always knowing where it was, even if months or years passed without me opening it.
So now, fast forward to the day the Baal Shem Tov came to visit me—as incredible as that may sound.
It was 1998 and I was working on completing a novel based on my parents’ experiences of surviving the Holocaust. I paused, feeling a sudden urge to meditate. The moment that I closed my eyes, I felt a strong pull from within, my consciousness drawn so deeply inward that all around me dissolved. I felt myself inside a vast, still and silent void.
Suddenly, I sensed the presence of the Baal Shem Tov and, simultaneously, his unspoken invitation to write a book about him. I cannot explain in a rational way how I knew this to be the great teacher’s subtle presence. I just did.
I kept my eyes closed. My breathing slowed as I allowed the experience to unfold.
I somehow knew, right away, that this was not to be a scholarly book. It was to be a story, a novel. I comprehended, also, that the Baal Shem Tov wanted his teachings to come forth at this time. Through this book, he would reach across time to touch countless hearts and lives.
I said YES! A resounding, silent yes. It would be more accurate to say that every cell in my being pulsed with YES.
Until now, whatever part of my mind that could have been second-guessing all this and judging had been turned off. Then, as if I were suddenly whooshing up from the bottom of the ocean to its surface waves, I felt my mind stir.
“Why me?” I asked. “You could do so much better than me.”
I tried to think of examples to offer, as if the Baal Shem Tov had not really done his research and might benefit from a tip from me to steer him towards some famous, accomplished, contemporary novelists who would likely serve his purposes much better than I.
This next is hard to describe (well, all of this is). It was as if a conversation were happening in the recesses of my being, without either me or the Baal Shem Tov speaking out loud.
“Because you said yes,” I heard in response to “Why me?” This was accompanied by his amusement. I sensed the Baal Shem Tov smiling.
I was then offered further explanation, probably for the benefit of my mind. Three more reasons:
“I need a mystic.”
I sensed instantly this had to do with experiences, since childhood, of ecstasy in nature.
“I need someone who knows what it is to be the disciple of a living master.”
I had been a disciple of living meditation masters for the past eighteen years.
“I need a poet.”
When I realized that this book was to be a novel, I had also seen that it was to be beautifully written and crafted, an exquisite book. (Although, I did not consider myself an exquisite poet, a poet I was.)
I had my doubts about my capacity to serve as an adequate vessel for this work, but it did not seem that the Baal Shem Tov had any.
Despite feeling my unconditional YES and surging joy at the prospect of writing this book, I protested one last time. What if there was a better candidate to create this work? I should get out of the way.
“I am not an observant Jew,” I said. Surely, a deal-breaker.
Silence. My protest met with no further response.
It had been agreed.
THE PROMISE HAS BEEN FULFILLED
There were stops along the way as life’s other calls summoned me: earning my livelihood, both my parents dying, critical passages in my children’s lives, and more. But the book never let me go, even after a three-year hiatus, from which a loving mentor helped me emerge and return to the book.
Now, almost two decades after my sacred and mysterious encounter with the Baal Shem Tov—and with my own heart—the promise has been fulfilled. The Tremble of Love: A Novel of the Baal Shem Tov has been completed and is making its way in the world.
You, the book’s readers, are also vital to the fulfillment of the Baal Shem Tov’s call. You are part of the book’s destiny. By entering The Tremble of Love: A Novel of the Baal Shem Tov, and allowing it to lead you deeper into your own heart, you, too, become a vessel of Indomitable Love in our world.
As the tune says: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love…” It’s what we’ve always needed.
Perhaps now, our collective yearning is strong enough and we are becoming ready for love to transform and unite us as never before.
May it be so.
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