A Brief Spiritual Autobiography

A Brief Spiritual Autobiography

by Ethan Genauer

November 30. 2009

I was raised in a Jewish conservative, strongly pro-Zionist family, the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Poland and Russia. As a child and young adult, I always felt impatient with and rebellious against the formalistic and stoical, stern brand of Judaism that I was generally exposed to in synagogues, but I attended Hebrew School several hours per week from early childhood until the end of high school. During my last year in Hebrew School, a class in Jewish meditation helped me begin to see a more contemplative and mystical side of the religion.

As a teenager, I learned about my grandfather’s courageous escape from a Nazi work camp, after which he miraculously hid and survived in Eastern European forests until World War II was over and he was able to emigrate to the U.S., where he lived in Brooklyn, NY until his sudden accidental death in 2007. His story – which I edited in English – had a deep impact on me, along with my trip to Poland at the age of 20 to tour Jewish cultural and Holocaust remembrance landmarks. In the freezing cold of winter, I remember walking through Auschwitz’s terrifyingly stark snow-covered landscape, and seeing the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw with beautifully artistic gravestones overgrown by dense forest. “The same forest that saved my Zaide’s life now watches over virtually all that remains of Poland’s once-magnificent Jewish culture,” I thought.

The words “Never Again” were deeply meaningful to me, but I could never apply them nationalistically only to the Jewish people. I believed that our essential lesson from the Holocaust must be to struggle universally against all war, hatred and injustice, in order to eradicate the very conditions that could ever cause genocide against any people. Only then could Jews too truly be safe.

Throughout the 1990s, with a large number of relatives living in Israel who I could visit, I embarked on many trips from New Jersey to the “Holy Land,” a few times with my parents but usually alone or with school peers. Until I was 20, when I stayed in Israel one full year for the junior semesters of my college studies, I was too immature or naïve to recognize that the well-known, historic “conflict” between Israelis and Arabs had really degenerated into a case of national Jewish colonial and militarized oppression and occupation over Palestinians. When this truth became clear to me, largely as the result of my openness to visiting occupied Palestinian communities and my sheer intellectual commitment not to turn a blind eye to what was plainly obvious, it propelled the “radicalization” of my political awareness and my subsequent engagement with non-violent peace, global justice, indigenous rights and Palestine solidarity activist movements. And although my spiritual identity has since grown beyond Judaism alone to embrace a multiplicity of other experiences and perspectives, I still feel it is fundamentally necessary to speak out as a Jewish person – from our deepest ethical and prophetic tradition – to say that this situation of systemic apartheid, violence and ethnic cleansing that the Jewish state has perpetrated is, unquestionably, wrong!

In Israel, I also interned with the Tel Aviv-based environmental activist group Green Action, and I spent a semester as a student at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Meanwhile, I fell in love with the stunning, ecologically diverse landscape of the country, even as I could see suburban sprawl and industrial development destroying and polluting so much of the environment. From then on, nature itself became my primary source of spiritual meaning and inspiration, and I dived boldly into American environmental activist movements when I returned to the U.S. Taking time off from college, I joined the “tree-sit” movement to protect old-growth redwood forests in northern California. Nothing could prepare me for the horror of seeing massive clear-cuts and gigantic lumber factories, or the joy of sitting hundreds of feet above the ground in the canopy of pristine forest! Next, I walked hundreds of miles across the U.S. Southwest, through the sovereign lands of a dozen indigenous nations, to call for an end to nuclear weapons and energy with the native-led “Family Spirit Walk for Mother Earth.” This was my first time in the Southwest and it was a very intense spiritual journey for me, including my first experience of a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. (My essay about it is posted at www.nmyoungfarmers.wikidot.com/familyspiritwalk )

After returning to New Jersey and graduating from college, with my senior thesis focused on original research tracing the history of American Christian evangelical support for Jewish colonialism in Palestine, I returned again to environmental activism. I was employed by the Institute for Social Ecology to coordinate a mass mobilization, including a conference and a day of action, opposing an international biotechnology industry convention in Philadelphia and its support for genetically engineered agriculture. Then in Washington DC, I was hired to organize the city’s first national conference about “peak oil’ and post-petroleum sustainable living. Both of these eco-conferences were held inside Protestant Christian church facilities; and by organizing them with assistance from progressive Christian individuals and groups, I began to more fully appreciate the positive impact and potential of Christian movements for peace and justice.

Then, I was struck by an epiphany –“Y’chai’el Ganor.”

These words are my Hebrew name. I was 26 years old before I realized their meaning in English: God Lives in a Garden of Light. At the time, I was writing my application to receive a grant from a Philadelphia-based Quaker foundation to study the relationship between permaculture – a philosophy and practice of ecological design that naturally integrates humans, animals and cultivation of food – and Christian mysticism.

I wrote then: “I am drawn to permaculture because I envision it as a primary way to "rewild" the earth (that is, replenish wild ecosystems), heal the alienation of human culture from natural life, and restore our original and sacred, God-given inhabitation of the "Garden of Eden." In the biblical creation story of Genesis, we are told that God punished the first humans by expelling them from their Garden paradise of natural abundance and compelling them to adopt arduous, labor-intensive forms of agriculture. Gradually during the millennia since that early mythologized shift of human existence from hunting and gathering to domestication of plants and animals, our agriculture has become increasingly unsustainable, disconnected from natural rhythms, and devoid of spiritual care. Today, scientists can literally "play God" by using biotechnology to create immensely profitable but inherently dangerous new species in laboratories for industrial agribusiness. Countless acres of American cropland have been denuded of biodiversity, planted with millions of identical replicas of a single genetically engineered corn or soybean genotype, and showered in petrochemical pesticides to kill all other species. This disregards and annihilates the basic biblical (and also permacultural, albeit stripped of religious dressing) principle that humans, "made in the image of the Divine" and acting in accord with God's covenants, must be responsible caretakers of the earth (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) and protectors of all species (Genesis 9.9).”

From that moment until today, my Hebrew name has been my spiritual bedrock, my core mission, and my ultimate destiny. When I feel discouraged or confused, it reminds me to keep faith and continue working to manifest Light in this world. When I have a choice of alternate paths to follow, it instructs me to pursue the highest route that best embeds and embodies this garden-dwelling way of God’s earthly being.

After the heady work of organizing two environmentally themed conferences in East Coast cities, I wanted to return again to a more visceral, immediate and hands-on engagement with nature. For the next few years after I received the Quaker grant, I delved deeply into learning and practicing spiritual agriculture. I completed a course that fused permaculture with environmental activism and nature-based mysticism, and then I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I apprenticed with a biodynamic farm and studied herbal medicine during the first year, and stayed for a second year to volunteer with a culturally and spiritually rich South Valley community farm named La Placita Gardens whose motto declared, “Grown with Love!”

I learned that plants really are alive and sentient beings that are powerfully responsive to human care, and that understanding and working harmoniously with cosmic rhythms and forces of nature – from the sun, moon, stars, planets and seasonal cycles to terrestrial influences like building healthy soil and compost, adding vital minerals in appropriate forms, cultivating beneficial micro-organisms, and integrating animals – helps create amazing, delicious crops and thriving farm communities. I learned that indigenous American cultures possess sophisticated knowledge and spiritual practices that honor the sacred dimensions of agriculture, and that these ancient traditions are now being revived and conveyed by native communities to new generations, both in Albuquerque and throughout New Mexico and the world. But most important of all, I learned that good nutrition – with a fresh, organic, locally grown and ideally vegetarian diet – itself is a crucial foundation of human spiritual awakening and growth. As biodynamic founder Rudolf Steiner explained, “Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. A bridge can no longer be built from thinking to will and action. Food plants no longer contain the forces people used for this!”

In Albuquerque, I also spent a good deal of time living and volunteering with Trinity House Catholic Worker. I had known Marcus Page from his role in 2002 as an organizer of the Family Spirit Walk for Mother Earth, and I was very excited to meet him again in Albuquerque. In addition to spending a number of months as a guest living at Trinity House and participating in some of their collective spiritual prayers and rituals, I joined many of their vigils and actions witnessing against nuclear weapons, and I frequently assisted their efforts to feed the city’s homeless and hungry people. Yet while I love the people at Trinity House as friends and I greatly respect their tireless missionary work in the community, ultimately I felt that their particular version of Catholic spirituality is too narrow, rigid and eclectic to synchronize with my own spirit.

In 2009, after spending one winter month herding 120 sheep for a family of Navajo elders in the remote mountainous coal-ravaged area of northern Arizona known as Black Mesa, I returned to the West Coast for the first time in 7 years. Part of my intention was to reconnect with my Jewish roots, which I had more-or-less neglected to nurture while living in New Mexico. In Berkeley, I attended a class about “Food and Spirituality” taught by a female rabbi. I also read a number of fascinating Kabbalist texts that illuminated the esoteric meaning of the concept of “Light” in Jewish mystical thought, and I discovered a book that became like my personal bible, “Spiritual Nutrition” by New Age rabbi, Ayurveda master, modern Essene teacher and live foods aficionado Gabriel Cousens. In this book, Cousens persuasively advocates for a pure diet of vegetarian and living foods as the best way for individuals to develop spiritual connectivity and strength, awaken the Kundalini energy, and attain personal awareness and experience of God.

Then in July, while living in the Bay Area, I encountered another group of peace walkers, the Buddhist-led “Trinity to Trident Interfaith Peace Walk for a Nuclear-Free Future.” After walking with them in Berkeley and San Francisco, I decided to join the remaining three weeks of their walk in Oregon and Washington. Chanting and beating drums the whole way, we walked in Portland, OR, the tri-cities region of eastern WA, the Puget Sound area from Tacoma through Olympia to Seattle, and (after boarding a ferry across the water) from Bainbridge Island to Kitsap Peninsula. We met many diverse spiritual communities along the journey, including a Vietnamese meditation center and an international gathering of traditional indigenous canoe-traveling cultures. Being my first time to visit the beautiful Northwest, and through the intense discipline that it takes to walk 15 to 20 miles day after day, this was an incredibly rejuvenating spiritual experience for me.

When the walk ended in mid-August, the timing was perfect for me to travel a few hours south from Seattle to attend the “National Essene Gathering” in rural Oregon, located at the Essene Monastery and Garden of Peace in the middle of the mountain forests west of Eugene. After recently reading about Essene spirituality in the book by Gabriel Cousens, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to meet living Essenes. At the blog www.foodyfaith.wordpress.com, I have written in detail about my experience there; suffice it now to say that I felt perfectly at home. The Essene spiritual tradition, in its modern resuscitated form, bridges and alleviates what had been my continual flux between Jewish and Christian spiritual modes, solves the historical anomalies and oversights that are replete in conventional interpretations of the life of Jesus and of his times, and is completely and authentically consistent with my eco-centric paradigm and my desire to practice “spiritual nutrition.” It meshes with much of what I appreciate in Jewish mysticism, while simultaneously accentuating the positive threads in Christian liberation theology that I also value.

By participating in the evening program in 2010 and 2011 at the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics, I intend to add the next crucial chapter to my spiritual autobiography. Becoming skilled with bodywork, massage, phys(iolog)ical healing, and other therapeutic modalities that are taught at NMSNT will flesh out and enhance my existing practice of spiritual nutrition, ecological agriculture and environmental activism. All together, I feel this will enable me to truly embody and live my spiritual identity of “God Living in a Garden of Light,” in ways that positively transform and empower myself, other people, and the world. I believe that the work internship and group living at the Center for Action and Contemplation will be invaluable in giving me a grounded, stimulating, supportive and healthy place in which to live and work while I pursue these part-time (12 hours per week) studies at NMSNT.

Ethan Genauer

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