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Finding a Kabbalah Group and Teacher - One Man's Story

For many students of Kabbalah their introduction to the subject will be surrounded by what appear to be co-incidences, unexpected meetings and a touch of magic. Issy Benjamin recounts how he first encountered Kabbalah in the article below.

In 1983 I came across the teaching (and the teacher) that was  to change the course of my life forever…and I use that word “forever” advisedly, and with conviction …  transformed me from an individual trivialising my life away with anecdote (and as a boring man who led an interesting life, I had plenty of those) … to someone searching for the ultimate anecdote … the meaningful connections between the apparently random happenings throughout my life.

It happened like this. Whenever I came to London from Spain, I stayed with Mike and Hannah Levin in Little Venice. At the instigation of Hannah I signed up for a two-week Summer School of Art … two blissful weeks of drawing from life, painting, clay modelling, sculpting … a period which confirmed

Issy pic oval.jpg

Issy Benjamin

1925 - 2015

for me the difference between “looking “ and “seeing” … and the role that memory plays in the process. And then, on the never-to-be-forgotten last Thursday of the course, during the morning coffee break, Ramos Poqui our Catalan course tutor, welcomed a stranger who wandered into the studio, a woman carrying a flat package under her arm wrapped in cloth, obviously a painting of some sort. 

“This is Gila Davis” he introduced, “greatest icon painter in Britain. Show us your latest, Gila!”

She unwrapped and revealed a painting, oil on board, of what, to my eye, appeared to be the two halves of a shelled walnut with a pattern of small circles superimposed.

“That looks like the Tree of Life,” I said.

Surprised, she asked, “what do you know about the Tree of Life?”

“Nothing,” I replied, “It’s just a Jewish thing.”

She gave me a sharp look but nothing more was said.

That afternoon, the last session was an overview of everything we had done over the previous days.

“Scatter your drawings and paintings randomly on the floor of the studio, we’ll make a great mosaic … then we’ll stand on the stage and have an overview of your collective efforts!”

It was a pretty impressive sight … black and white drawings contrasting with watercolours and oils of different shapes and sizes, a multicoloured tessellation.

As we stood on the stage assessing our own and each other’s works, Gila reappeared and joined us on-stage surveying the collective scatter.

She pointed. “I like that one … and that one … and this one … and that one over there … whose are they?”

They were all mine!

She looked at me in surprise.

“Come to tea. I’d like you to meet my husband,”

Anticipating a British exchange of far distant diary dates, I asked, “When?”

“Now! I live around the corner.”

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Isipingo Beach in South Africa where Issy had a beach house. The Kabbalah groups led by Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi always had an international flavour. In a room with fifty students it was quite likely that at least fifteen had been born outside the UK. The need to leave the land of one's birth in search of spiritual growth is shown in the command given to Abraham although this can be taken at the psychological as well as he physical level.

So, gathering up all my work, I accompanied her to a block of nearby mansion flats. In the back garden we encountered a burly bearded man, spading great clods of rich black earth.

“My husband, Glyn [Davies]

After the usual salutations I examined the rich dark loam and we compared notes about the rich dark soil in my old long abandoned Isipingo Beach home, deposited over the centuries from the fertile Natal uplands, in which I had cultivated the full gamut of vegetables from lowly radishes to seven and eight foot maize canes with correspondingly large cobs.

As a fellow cultivator, he was sympathetic and understanding of my anecdote about my difficulty in following the advice of a visiting Israeli kibbutznik who had asked me why I spent time weeding and clearing the beds.

“Work with the weeds” he had recommended. “Dib the corn seeds without turning over the soil. The weeds will shelter the shoots … when they are big enough they will overshadow the weeds which will die and fertilise the ground again … leave the worms to do their job undisturbed”.

 Glyn the Englishman fully understood my difficulty in following that advice even though it worked … my mother had made me an Englishman too who loved neatness and order … in other words, a “control freak” who had to keep the beds weed free.

Having exhausted agricultural topics it was time to go up for tea. As we entered the flat I was confronted by a large mural, again with that mysterious pattern of circles,

the diagram I had first seen that morning on Gila’s icon.  

(Years later I could appreciate the triumph of a Spanish security official who while searching my suitcase at the French border came across my travelling Tree of Life, and Jacob’s Ladder diagram and was convinced that this was “una carta de metro de Paris” indicating that he had in his hands a terrorist with a plan to blow up the Paris Metro … until a more senior colleague pointed out that it was only a “religious artefact … let him go!”)

“That looks like the Tree of Life” I said.

“What do you know about the Tree of Life?” Glyn asked.

“Nothing! It’s just a Jewish thing,” I replied.

We settled down to tea and, with my love of anecdote, I began to recount my recent trip to Spain.

“I’ve just come back from Spain to do Ramos’s Art workshop.”

“Where were you in Spain?”

“Visiting my ex-wife in Catalunya. We went to Girona to buy schoolbooks for her students and I came across the House of Isaac the Blind.”

“Girona! House of Isaac the Blind? A friend of mine would be interested in meeting you. I’ll just give him a ring.”

“Warren, I’ve got someone here just back from Girona, House of Isaac the Blind. Come over for tea.”

Glyn looked disappointed as he put the phone down.

“Warren says he can’t come now because he’s preparing to give a class tonight. He says why don’t you come over tonight.” He gave me an address in St Gabriel’s Road [Kilburn].

So, at six o’clock in the evening I was having tea in Maida Vale … at eight o’clock that night I entered the world of Kabbalah.

I was greeted at the door of a neat suburban house by a man with a piercing gaze and a neatly trimmed greying beard,

“Warren Kenton”.

“Issy Benjamin”

“Glyn tells me you’ve just come from Girona. We’ll talk later after the class!”

The upstairs room was hung with pictures whose significance I didn’t recognise and … those diagrams again … Tree of Life … and longer diagrams of four Trees partially superimposed … I was later to learn, a representation of Jacob’s Ladder.

I was enchanted with the group. I did not recognise then that

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Astrolabe at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona. Issy Benjamin became deeply involved with the setting up of this institution in the early 1990's. He also helped to organise a number of trips which Halevi ran to Girona and other centres of Kabbalistic interest.

they were to become my spiritual companions for the rest of my journey known as Life. As much as I had enjoyed the companionship of the art workshop, this felt of a different order, As Henry Miller put it, that had been plexus … this was nexus.

I could sense that it was a group bound by a common purpose even though I could not fathom what it was. And the teacher (who always modestly claims to be a mere tutor) was a teacher such as I had never encountered before … erudite but with a lightness and a deftness of touch and a great sense of humour. And I realised I was familiar with this universal spiritual tradition as it was based on the Hebrew tradition in which I had been brought up, reinforced when I later learned that his real name was Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi.

That evening, as a newcomer, Warren had cautioned me that for three sessions I had to keep silent, “shtum and klum” so I listened in rapt silence as a whole new world was unfolded to me … or more accurately, Four Worlds, Jacob’s Ladder … Atzilut, Beria, Yetzira and Assiya. (the worlds of Nearness, Creation, Formation and Doing).

The homework that night was enchanting. “Write a four line verse about one of the worlds!”

Now in South Africa, in both Johannesburg and Durban, there were hilltop suburbs I had lived in called Berea, so this was just my cup of tea! I was struck by the coincidences … it was only later that I began to perceive that there are no “coincidences” … merely strands of a life being woven together,

I took as my theme a concept gleaned from one of Laurens van der Post’s novels, a book about whaling set in the home port of Durban and the Antarctic oceans, and used my four line verse to describe the young hero’s journey from Ridge Road, where the wealthy lived, down through Berea where the middle class whites lived, down through the Currie Road area where the Indian community weren’t allowed to own property, down to Somtseu Road the lowest level where the barracks for black labourers were located, the world of doing and making … all on his way down to the harbour  to join his whaling ship … somehow managing also to weave in the four elements, light, air, water, earth.

Poetry is so rich and concise … and I felt very proud to read it out to the group the following week.

Ego! Ego! I can’t remember anyone else’s effusions … but it drew a lot of attention to this newcomer. After every meeting I used to give a lift home to a wonderful woman, Hannah Nyman. I had always been attracted to feminine beauty, but here in the group I found a new inner beauty hitherto unperceived.

© Estate of Issy Benjamin 2015

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