How would I have known about Gan Eden if I had not seen it with my own eyes? It was a torrential expanse of beauty that hit me like a flood, and my eyes closed by reflex. With my eyes shut, I smelled the sweet mixture of woods and flowers, and I heard the soft chirping sounds and a low buzzing of the wild life that flourished there.
My eyes opened to see a hummingbird sip nectar from a tree blossom. I had seen that once before, but here it was happening all around me. I appreciated it deeply, but I was also troubled by certain questions. I had found the Garden of Eden and it seemed logical to ask myself who had made it in the first place, and who kept it running. And why did I deserve to be here after living all my past life previous in one of the ugliest suburbs on the East Coast? I had come here from a gray landscape of supermarkets, diners, and bars– iron and asphalt trimmed by ribbons of flashing lights.
In short, I was stunned by the existence of this Garden of Eden in the world and my existence in it. It seemed that I had stumbled on it, and now I could never leave it. How can a person return to Route 46 and the Lincoln Tunnel after a sojourn in the Garden of Eden?
Eden Street was the address of the small environmental college where I was teaching English Composition. Apparently, the city fathers back then had made the same connection as I did.
On my way to my class at the college, I passed small stores and houses that made up the bulk of the city life. In easy walking distance from these houses and stores were the glorious fields and forests. In the other direction was the harbor which is a whole other aspect of this Garden of Eden and its magnificence: the sea.
The harbor was the most eastern point of the continent, and when I looked out of the top floor of my house, I saw an infinitude of sea. A vast depth and length that I tried to comprehend. Up close, the rocky shore was a virtual aquatic Garden of Eden with gorgeous mosses draped over the boulders and vast populations of crusty sea creatures. I would sit for hours on one of those boulders and watch the seaweed swirling in the shallow waters. The perpetual sound of fog horns punctuated my sleep all night long, and on foggy days, all day long. That was the sea.
At the environmental college, they were busy debating how long the Garden of Eden would last considering the terrible toll that human negligence was taking. I heard the predictions–no more clean water to drink, astronomical amounts of plastic that had never decomposed, and dying wildlife. According to the experts, our days in the Garden were numbered, and the small heroic efforts we might make to stay would never be able to keep back the tide of destruction.
The doomsday statistics were prefaced with “by the year 2000,” and at best, we had until then to get our act together. Considering the state of global consciousness on the subject of saving the world, I would be lucky to reach the ripe old age of fifty.
I tried to do my part. I hoarded my vegetable peels as if they were precious commodities, and I constantly fed the compost heap in back of the house. I never threw out a plastic bag. I ate whole grains and ground my flour with a hand grinder to save on the electricity. I burned wood in the potbelly stove, and when I used the central heat in the house, it was turned down so low that it barely kept me warm. While the college people designed solar heated houses and compost toilets, I taught them how to write grant proposals and reports.
But the whole thing continued to be vast and incomprehensible. When I zeroed in my focus on the trees or the stones or even one tree or stone, I felt the emanation of a spirit or life force, and then when I looked back at the whole thing standing before me– expanses of woods and glacial lakes and vast seascapes– then the whole thing thundered with a life force which was the sum of all its infinite parts.
I felt my connection with it because I was also alive as it was alive. But where did all this life come from? Who was juicing it up? On a cold winter’s night, I would walk on the shore path next to the icy waters and feel as if this question without an answer would kill me as sure as if I lay down on one of the rocks and let the sea carry me out.
In short, I couldn’t live without an answer, and no one that I knew had it for me, not one of those massive intellectual minds at the college, and not one of those brawny lobstermen or sunny storekeepers who lived in the town. The lobstermen were busy setting out before dawn, hauling in their catch, and living their lives, while the intellectuals at the college were considering solutions to the practical questions of how to live in the face of these grave predictions for the planet.
Meanwhile, one summer came and went. In late September, the leaves began to turn, and the trees flared up in fiery shades of red and yellow. The background hum of summer was replaced by a thunderous rustling. There was a blast of crisp air as I opened the front door. Then, after the colors had peaked, the first snow gently came down.
And then came winter.
Winter was forbidding, but it had its own exquisite beauty with fields of pristine snow and a profound silence. The cold was intense, and I learned to dress in several layers of clothing, followed by a down parka and down mittens. I was careful to keep my car well tuned with a full tank of gas because of the real danger of frostbite in case I was stranded.
And then spring came just when we thought we couldn’t take winter a day longer. The cold ebbed away, and the life force surged forth everywhere. It was mighty and exhilarating. I spent the early morning hours standing in the seabed at low tide and hoisting up one pitchfork after another of seaweed. When my wheelbarrow was full, I pushed it over to the garden and carefully made a garland of slippery strands around each tiny seedling that was coming up.
Then summer came again. I went grazing on wild blueberries and picked them to put in jams, muffins, and blueberry ice cream. My pantry shelves were lined with cans of blueberry syrup, stewed tomatoes, and other preserves for the months to come.
I was living with the cycle, and might go on with that indefinitely as others had done. Here I was a creature in the Garden of Eden and could not imagine living in any other spot after being spoiled by its breathtaking beauty. My friends in the City might wait until they retired to settle in the Garden and begin a sylvan existence. But time seemed to be running out, and I didn’t want to postpone it in case the statisticians were right with their gory predictions.
I read the books about “just being” and “being at peace with being.” I practiced my Zen meditation exercises and struggled with my thoughts. I lay prone for long moments in the corpse pose as all the cells in my body relaxed and relaxed yet further. I tried to be at peace, but the question always surfaced again.
If I didn’t have the answer to that question, then I would never know what to do with my life besides just enjoying the gorgeous beauty and physical highs of sailing, cross country skiing, sitting next to the wood fires, and eating my own fresh tomatoes. Excuse me, but I had to know.
I needed that answer in order to handle all the other tributary questions that haunted me. Where should I direct my efforts and for what causes? Should I get married? Should I have children? And on a more mundane level– what style of clothing should I wear, and what should I eat? Should I even bother to worry about the threat to the whales and sign the petition to save them?
All these secondary questions also became unanswerable without the answer to that first question. I felt myself becoming paralyzed with doubt. How could I make everyday decisions when I didn’t know what in the world I was living for and why I had been put on the planet and by Whom?
I had a great job at the college and a perfect view of the sea. But life in the Garden was killing me, and there was no one to understand my misery.
The people at the college were primarily concerned with the material world and its survival, and all those measures towards conservation were really just another form of materialism and the worship of things. They organized conferences on solar heating systems and wouldn’t think of serving the potluck suppers on plastic plates, but where were the spiritual dimensions of life? Here were the smartest and the nicest people I had ever met, with many of them ten or even twenty years older than me, and yet these scientists, engineers, and philosophers didn’t seem to know any more than I did abut the underpinnings of reality.
My best friend and her husband designed a tiny and highly efficient house on the edge of a pond. I admired how it contained everything necessary for human existence at the least expense to the environment. Slowly, I was also working to reach my goal of growing all my food organically and sewing all my clothes from natural fibers. I made plans to build my own little house, but I knew that even once I was planted inside it next to the wood stove on a cold winter’s night, I wouldn’t be happy.
At best, I was living an animal life of the highest caliber because I was trying not to hurt anything or anyone around me. But the animals, themselves, were doing it better than me, and even better than the animals were the plants, and at the top of my list of enviable entities were the stones whose impassive acceptance and zero toll on the environment were more laudable.
I found myself walking around the Garden and envying the stones at my feet. I would lie on the boulders that lined the shore path and try to feel as they felt– unmoving and mute witnesses to the changing tides and the changing seasons. In perfect agreement with their portion in the universe. I could feel the stony aspect of myself communing with them, and I would lie there trying to experience their timeless state. But then I would always get up, be human again, and move on.
Then something happened that seemed haphazard and even insignificant. One Sunday morning I was going through a box of books that I had never unpacked when I had moved to the Garden. There was an old Jewish prayer book that I had fished out of the mahogany sideboard and hastily thrown in with the other books as I packed to leave.
I picked it up from the pile and opened it. It had a musty smell, and the English words on the left-hand side were full of “thou” and “thy Lord” in an old-fashioned style. I looked at the Hebrew side. I had a distinct memory of reading the Hebrew words as a child. They had a certain integrity, and I felt that I could succeed in pronouncing them if I put my mind to it.
It was another glorious summer’s day, and the sun was still high in the sky. I took the book in hand and drove the few miles to the National Park that bordered on the harbor city. After parking the car at the foot of one of the mountains, I started to climb on a national park trail.
Half-way up, I stopped and sat with my back against one of the pine trees. I had a hunch that this old prayer book might have some part of the answer to my questions. I read a few lines out loud– “Let us now praise, extol, exalt the Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
I looked around me. I was sitting smack in the middle of this heavenly Earth, and I knew instinctively that there had to be a Maker. It was too perfect and too beautiful. Even the tree that I was resting against had a certain integral grace and wholeness the way the branches were turned towards the sun. And when I looked closer at the minute details, the delicate moss that covered the tree trunk, I had a sense of perfection in every moment of its growth and every aspect of its existence. Just looking at its shade of green was healing to my eyes.
The Maker of Heaven and Earth. This Maker must also be a Maker of me, and unlike the mosses, I felt an insistent desire to know more about this Maker and connect with Him.
There were no thunderous accompaniments to my thoughts and no blinding lights. It was not what they call a breakthrough insight or flash of illumination. I continued to read the prayers out loud, and I clearly sensed that these words were a fitting complement to the stunning beauty around me. I had seen what the Maker of Heaven and Earth was capable of doing. These years in the Garden had been a crash course in appreciating His handiwork.
At this point, I was still not calling this Ultimate Artist and Master Builder by the name I had known in my childhood. In my circles, that Name had fallen out of usage. It was not until a few months later that His name came to my lips in the middle of a sleepless night.
It was at the height of my intense feeling of isolation which was literally driving me out of the Garden. I was suffering from insomnia, and I experienced a very distinct “plunk” as I hit rockbottom. Then I cried out “G-d!”
I cried out the word from a place deeper than my intellect because it was certainly not part of my vocabulary and not mentioned in any of my books on meditation, healing, and Eastern philosophies, at least not in a serious way. From the instant I called to Him, I felt a subtle shift of my being. Now I was pointed in a totally new direction, one that I hadn’t even known existed.
At first, I walked forward blindly, and then I began to recognize forms looming in the darkness. There was my new-found and infinitely precious relationship to G-d, and then there was something called Yiddishkeit which carried with it a way of life centered around the observance of the Torah.
Yiddishkeit would take me into a societal framework and a distinctly Jewish culture. There was nothing wrong with that, just that it took me completely by surprise. I had never imagined that this G-d I had finally found through my apprenticeship with anguish and existential loneliness, where I was literally wandering in the backwoods and on coastal islands, would eventually lead me back to people, and not only individuals, but a veritable society.
But that would come later. Back then, when I was taking my first steps in the darkness, it was still unpopulated by real people. There in the very beginning when darkness lay over the face of the waters, and the light was still hidden away, I became aware of other realities and other times. I immersed myself in reading Jewish history: Poland during the Holocaust, the Chmielnicki massacres in Russia, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella who were better known for their role in supporting Columbus’ voyage to America.
Places and historical figures that I had associated with culture and enlightenment became tainted by their complicity with Jewish suffering. Even in England at the height of its Golden Age of civilization, there were numerous incidents of persecution and slaughter. Throughout history, tens of thousands of Jews had chosen death in the face of conversion to other faiths.
One book written by a non-Jewish sociologist was a study of life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. I was riveted by the accounts of the spiritual grandeur in the midst of grinding poverty, and the material sacrifice these Jews were capable of making in the pursuit of learning their Torah.
It was not the first time that I had heard that word. I had memories of seeing Torah scrolls in the synagogue as a child and marching with flags around the Torah on Simchas Torah, and my father reaching out to kiss the Torah with his fingertips as it passed by.
It was the same Torah, but this was something else. I was reading about people who chose to die rather than transgress the laws that were written there. And I read about scholars in the shtetl pouring over books with titles like “The Light of the Eyes.” They were not academicians or professors, and not even intellectuals. Most likely, they had never set foot in the universities. This was clearly something else. They might live crowded into the ghettoes, but they soared in spiritual landscapes, their Garden even more exquisite than mine.
They studied every letter and every word, every nuance in the Torah, but they had nothing in common with the Bible Critics I remembered from my required course in Religion as an undergraduate in college. For these scholars, the Torah was a gift from G-d who was not a historical Entity who had once created the Universe and then disappeared. Their on-going relationship with Him through study and prayer was the central focus of their lives.
I saw in their thirst for G-d the urgency I had felt in my longing to find answers. I understood their thirst for G-d, because of my own compelling thirst. Here were my fellow travelers.
There was really no one among my friends who could sympathize with my obsession with Jewish History, and there was certainly no one who shared my enthusiasm. One of my students had suddenly been inspired to find his Jewish roots, but he had quickly gone off to Israel.
Meanwhile, the College had invited a well-known Theological Figure who organized a dance event expressing the cycle of life. At its conclusion, everyone put their bag lunches on the altar, and then picked at random one of the bags brought by someone else. It was an attempt to bring people closer and create new rituals for the New Age.
I didn’t think of my interest in Yiddishkeit as a search for New Age rituals and just one other way up the mountain. I knew instinctively that I had stumbled on the Truth, and I believed unequivocally in those forms I saw in the darkness — the people of the shtetl, their holy books, and the long corridors of time called “history” that were peopled by Jews dedicated to their love of G-d and His Torah.
I might be the only interested Jew for miles, but I had connected to Jewish history. I felt myself at the tail end of a long stream of people and events, and I was holding onto that continuum for dear life.
The last season that I experienced in the Garden was late Fall and the first snows of the winter. There was one incident especially that precipitated my leaving.
I met an individual whose alienation seemed similar to mine. He was an ex-lawyer who had become disenchanted with just about every scene he had encountered, both in the Establishment and the Anti-establishment. His last frontier was a few acres of land about an hour’s drive from the coast where I lived.
He had purchased the land in order to build a house with his bare hands, digging the foundation and hewing the logs without the benefit of electrical tools. It might take him years before he moved into his house, but he was determined to finish it. In the meantime, he lived in a dirt floor shack with an old wood stove and no plumbing.
This ex-lawyer was quite articulate when he spoke, but the many long hours and days of solitude that he spent in building his house had affected him, as well as the other knocks and disappointments in his life that I knew nothing about.
He seemed to enjoy the company of the people who had grown up in these backwoods, and it was to one of these families that he invited me to come for Thanksgiving. There was a lot of drinking, and a television set blaring in the background. I was feeling like a visitor from another planet where the food, the conversation, and the basic tenets and foundations of life were alien to me.
I tried to be friendly because they seemed to be good, decent people. But the sadness that I was always just keeping back came flooding over me. My ex-lawyer friend had drunk a few beers, and whatever searching we had in common — he had taken the edge off his pain with alcohol.
Now they were clearing the table so they could serve the ice cream and pie. They would see that I hadn’t eaten a thing on my plate. Awkwardly, I stood up, thanked the woman of the house, and excused myself. My ex-lawyer friend walked me to the door. It was the last time I ever saw him.
There was a family that lived nearby whom I had heard about from a mutual friend. I drove over the few miles and found their spacious log cabin at the end of a dirt road.
They had come from one of the big Eastern cities and homesteaded for a number of years. They drank fresh goat’s milk and wore hand knit sweaters handspun from the sheep in their backyard. They also raised cows and chickens, but their main source of income came from raising bees and packaging the honey which they sold throughout New England.
The husband was Jewish and full of dreams of making things happen on a psychic level. Clearly, his non-Jewish wife had shared his vision as far as being totally self-sufficient and developing a home-based industry. But she had stopped following his line of thought years back, if she had ever really understood him, and she stood aligned against him with their two teenage children. When he left the room, she turned to me and confided that lately, he had become very strange and was always talking about his grandfather.
They had worked hard together to realize their dream of living off the land. But now the Jewish half of that couple had begun to feel a longing for his Jewish past, as I had, and the dream had lost its meaning. He had begun to feel his roots reaching deep into the past and reaching even deeper to the Source.
There was no use trying to talk about it with him. He was still firmly entrenched in the Garden, and I was just beginning to feel that powerful thrust of escape velocity. I observed the drama of this estranged family in the light of my own deepening isolation. My last few words had run out, and I was just waiting to drive back to the Coast early the next morning.
Their log cabin had a wing with a guest room, and I lay in bed waiting out the night. I followed the soft outline of the mountains against the dark velvet sky. In my state of mind, I was desperate for even a small measure of peace, and it couldn’t be any more jarring outdoors than it was inside that room. I got dressed under the warm down quilt, quietly made my way downstairs, and opened the front door. There was a full moon and a foot of pure white snow on the ground. I stopped at the end of the driveway. To the left, I would be passing houses every few hundred yards. I turned to the right and took a footpath through the thick woods.
At this time of night, there was a stillness, more still than I had ever known. I knew that I had gotten as cold as I could get in one lifetime. It wasn’t only the deepfreeze of zero below. It was so cold that my heart was turning to ice. I felt as if it had been years since I had felt any real warmth or real nourishment for that matter. Here I had been living in the Garden, and it had turned into a veritable wilderness for my soul.
I must have walked for several hours, just hearing the sound of my boots cracking the snow. I felt that with each step, I was making a pact with the Creator of this existence, that it was only Him and me from then on. The part of me that was more than just animal and alive, the part that was me, what I was beginning to think of as my soul, was pushing forward with the only way it could express itself at that time, the movement of me walking in the stark coldness among the shivering spines of trees.
The next morning, I drove back to the Coast. The whole way my car was making strange noises and finally ground to a halt as I pulled into my driveway. When I turned on the ignition, it wouldn’t start up again. I took that as a sign.
Without explanations to the college administration or my friends in the Garden, I packed up some of my things and left on the Greyhound bus a few days later.
This article first appeared in WELLSPRINGS. Reprinted with the author’s permission. Varda Branfman has been living with her family in Jerusalem for the last 22 years. A former Director of the Maine Poets-in-the Schools Program, she now runs workshops in using writing for healing and reaching breakthrough insights. She is the author of I Remembered In The Night Your Name, among other works.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.