A Dream Journey in Sefer Yetzirah

Betsy Shevey

About Betsy Shevey

I am a writer, a professor, a producer, and presenter of theater. I am a seeker. I have been studying Judaism for many years with wonderful teachers I have been blessed with and this has informed my life and my art. As a member of Romemu, I have been deeply involved there, and I study at Hadar, MMJCC, JTS, Skirball/Streiker and ALEPH. I appreciate the diversity of points of view. I inhabit Judaism as a creative process, which is to say, I use the methodologies of midrash, mysticism and mystery in my work and believe in theodicy. I read books on Judaism including history, novels, philosophy, poetry, biography, memoir and religious studies. As a theater gypsy, I have lived all over the United States designing and devising programs for diverse groups racially, politically and culturally in the South, the Midwest and the Northeast. As a pioneer for women in theater, I founded Women’s Project and Productions and advocated for the rights of women, LBGTQ and BIPOC artists and audiences. I have published several articles on this issue, most recently in Variety. I believe in creative community as a way of building a creative culture that nourishes its citizens.

About A Dream Journey in Sefer Yetzirah

This is a novel about one girl’s journey through the land of Sefer Yetzirah. In the novel, the Sefer is a place of magic and mystery. This mystery is both elemental; air, fire, water (and earth) and formed by letters. In Sefer Yetzirah words are engraved, inscribed, carved everywhere. It is a land of lived language where words do things. Where words are channels to/of the divine, protected by sacred seals and sacred space. Saying and doing are not separate acts. Imagination has material dimensions; as material has imaginal dimensions. This is a Jewish girl’s “Harry Potter” adventure set in the land of Oz, over the rainbow. Its relevancy to Shmita is as a guide. Once we separate from the mundane, what’s left? Who are we? What is our purpose? The Sefer Yetzirah offers us a territory for living Shmita. We inhabit fully and bodily the dimension of spirit in the time/space of Jubilee. But this dimension is not ephemeral, just as Shmita is not. It is a dimension of radical connection of each to all. The transformation of one element affects the transformation of the land of Sefer and all her inhabitants. This causes both light and shadow, birth and death, good and evil. The girl, our hero, experiences that her adventures, choices, laughter, and tears have an impact. Just as the elements are all connected and affect each other, she is an integral part of that system; not only in action, but in thought, feeling, memory, dream, and desire. She meets challenges, adversities and blessings; friends, enemies, demons and angels in her Shmita journey. It is her journey of running and returning that we all have the chance to make during Shmita, a journey of rebirth through higher consciousness. This book is a fantasy of making Shmita a reality.

A Journey in Sefer Yetzirah

By Betsy Shevey

In the Greek and later, the Roman epics, the hero comes of age in the middle of the story, when he goes down to Hades, the Underworld to meet the shades, the ghosts of his past. That’s when he realizes that his day life has a shadow that comes from in his night life, and that he lives in two worlds at the same time. This knowledge changes him forever. It gives him a sense of purpose. It sacralizes his journey and blesses its outcome. This happened to me when I was ten.

The bare bone foundations of that heroic dynamic were born in the lives of women and girls, just like me. The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Sumerian myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal. Before the men co-opted the trip, women descended into the underworld, by choice in the case of Inanna/Ishtar, by abduction in the case of Persephone. The earth and her inhabitants experience winter when they are underground and spring when they surface. And so began the human oscillation between the dark and the light, the descent and the ascent, the underground world of the dead and the springtime rebirth and  renewal world of the living; with a girl’s journey.

I first discovered Sefer Yetzirah when I was ten. We had moved from a tiny apartment in a housing project in Bayside, Queens to a magnificent house in Riverdale. It was incredibly theatrical, which was typical of my father, High, who had spent his early life on Broadway, or so he claimed. The house was stucco with a red tile roof and a front door and balconies of exquisitely wrought iron. The windows in the living room were of colored stained glass which reflected rainbow patterns on the floor when the sun shone through them. There was a massive fireplace as tall as I was in the center of the room.

I called it The Little Manse because I compulsively read nineteenth century British novels. The ones I loved were Gothic, and that was my feeling for the house. A young girl was the governess or secretary or the orphaned ward or niece of a moody, passionate, deep eyed landowner who had dark secrets that frightened the girl but that only she could understand; that only she could heal. That was how I saw myself in The Little Manse. Daddy High was the passionate landowner who possessed dark, troubling secrets and I was tasked with his healing.

The piece de resistance of the house was the staircase. It was a wide, curving staircase that swept into the living room in the mood of the staircase in Gone with the Wind. Not the love scene staircase, but the one Scarlett descends when she first meets Rhett. Or rather, Rhett’s eyes and sardonic grin envelop Scarlett as she floats down the staircase, daring her to avoid him in a kind of inverse foreshadowing of his ascending another staircase with her encased in his arms.

At the foot of the stairs was High’s folly. This was a huge chandelier that was in the shape of a wrought brass coronet of white candles with crystal glass bulb filament flames, embraced by vines of climbing gold leaves that twined around each candle and encircled the coronet. It was inspiring and inspired. My dream was to descend that staircase on my wedding day, in a flowing white gown encrusted with pearls, a veil embroidered with pink silk hearts and love knots, trailing a bouquet of red and white roses. The guests gathered below, bathed in the light of High’s folly, would look up at me with awe. The wrought iron doors to the garden would be open with the sweet smell from the lilies of the valley perfuming the air.

As I was only ten, I had a few years to wait. But I couldn’t resist the chance to make an entrance, to rehearse my wedding day. I saved up my allowance money, supplemented by money I had saved from baby-sitting in Jeffrey Gardens, our former home which was completely garden-less. In fact, there was absolutely no green to be seen, only vast acreage of black tar roofs and broken cement pavements. I was frugal. Stoically resisting the treats, I adored from Katz’s drugstore; the paper strips of colored dot candies, the small wax bottles of sweet cola syrup that flavored the wax as I chewed, even my beloved Good and Plenty candy that saw me through two feature films, cartoons and coming attractions at the Bayside Movie Theater on Saturdays. I knew I would need the money for something special when we moved into our new house, where for the first time in my life, I would have my own room.

When I saw that magical staircase, I knew at once what I wanted to spend my savings on. A white gown, a white peignoir. I was enamored of the frilly, ruffled, feminine sleep dresses that I saw in 1950’s films. I had worn flannel pajamas all my life. I hated them. I don’t know where I read the word “peignoir” but I liked the sound of it and I thought it fit perfectly to the dress I imagined.  I took my crumpled dollar bills to a second hand clothing store next to the used book shop on Riverdale Avenue.  I stopped into the bookshop to say hello to the owner, whom I had met a few weeks ago when I was looking for books. He sold all kinds of books for less than a dollar. He was a strange looking man. Very tall and thin, with high cheekbones, huge eyes and a lovely smile although with crooked teeth. He wore a long black coat like a judge or a graduate.

“How’s Charlotte Bronte?”

“I’m not Charlotte Bronte. I don’t even look like her. She was tiny like a bird with a narrow face and dark straight hair in a bun. I’m the opposite.”

“It’s the spirit that counts. The inside stream of experience. The outside can change anytime. You don’t know what you’ll look like when you’re grown up.”

“Well I know I’m not going to look like a little bird woman from the Yorkshire moors. I know that much.”

“I believe you. I think you’ll look like Emma Goldman.”

“Who was she?”

“Oh, she was a great lady. Very smart. She cared about people. She changed things. And she was a great cook.”

“Was she pretty?”

“Oh yes, She was beautiful.”

“Okay. Then I don’t mind looking like Emma Goldman. Do you have a good book for me? I’ve finished everything you gave me last time.”

“So soon?”

“It’s been a few weeks. Can you find me one that will last longer?”

“I have a book just for you.”

“What is it called?”

“The Sefer Yetzirah.”

“What does that mean?”

“The Book of Creation. It is full of  mysterious secrets.”

“These engraved gold letters are beautiful. Aleph, Mem, Shin. Is it in Hebrew?”

“Yes. But I have translated it. It’s a hobby of mine. Translating old books into modern languages so the mysteries and secrets can be passed on, generation to generation.”

“As long as it lasts me for awhile.”

“Oh, it will. I promise you.”

“How much is it? I need to buy something in the second hand clothes store, so I can’t spend a lot.”

“No, no. Put your money away. It’s a gift. I’m eager to know what you will think of it.”

I thanked my friend for such a wonderful present. Daddy High loved old books but he kept them locked in a glass bookcase in his bedroom. I wasn’t allowed to read them. Or even touch them. He was very possessive of his books. He said they were rare. Mommy Low got all her mysteries from the public library. She rarely invited me to go with her. When she did, I stocked up, but then there was the problem of returning them and not having to pay overdue fines if they were late. Owning my very own book was a total pleasure and I took it for a sign that I was going to find the perfect dress.  Sure enough, after going through a few racks of old fashioned dresses with wide starched collars and stiff taffeta skirts that rustled like dry leaves, I found a soft white summer dress with cuffs pinned with pearl buttons and a long red ribbon at the waist. It was the dress for my wedding journey, the jewel for my trousseau.

The living room into which I descended on which the exquisitely ornate chandelier shone that evening was nearly empty. High had scraped together enough money from his odd jobs to buy the Little Manse in Riverdale, but not enough for furniture. In a wild burst of optimism, except for our beds, a few lamps and the blonde Dumont television that was the center of my fantasy life, High had insisted we leave our worn and torn couch that had lost her stuffing and our broken mismatched kitchen table and chairs in our cramped apartment in Jeffrey Gardens for the new tenants to enjoy. The large living room with the huge fireplace, stained glass windows and wrought iron doors was home to two lawn chairs that High had bought at a garden store sale for us to sit in. The moving barrels that contained my mother, Low’s wedding present dishes, the white ones with gold trim that we ate off only on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, became our kitchen table.

That night, Daddy High was in his lawn chair in front of the Dumont television. Mommy Low was on her lawn chair, sitting next to the open door to the garden, smoking one of her ever-present Taryton cigarettes, blowing the smoke out the door because High was allergic, and it made him sneeze.  Low was reading a mystery. Low had a few passions in life. Cigarettes and mysteries. She loved solving them and she loved not being able to solve them even more. The only sound was the inhale and exhale of her cigarette and the voice on the television. I sang  one of my songs in full voice to alert them to my presence. Neither Mommy nor Daddy paid the least attention to my glamorous entrance. Low finally looked up and said, “Put your slippers on. The floors are rough. You’ll get splinters in your feet” before going back to her book. We had left our ripped rug in the Bayside apartment and the floors were chipped and dry like old trees.

High slightly shifted the lawn chair over, making room for me beside him in a sign that I should feel free to sit down on the floor and join him watching a program that he was absorbed in. It was important always to read High’s subtle signs correctly. His moods fluctuated rapidly. If he didn’t want me to bother him by sitting next to him and I read the situation incorrectly, a dark cloud descended on the evening that was hard to dispel . I sank down next to him in a cloud of white tulle like the dying swan in the ballet and was immediately transfixed by what I saw and heard.

The blonde Dumont television had two cabinet doors. When they opened to reveal their magic screen, it always reminded me of the opening of the arc to reveal the Torah in the small, shabby synagogue High and Low and I attended in Bayside on the High Holidays. It was probably sacrilege to see television as sacred as Torah, but they both told stories, so to me that was about as sacred as you could get.

This night though was different. “Why is this night different from every other night?” I heard a voice asking that question. It wasn’t Passover. We didn’t have Low’s roast chicken and potatoes for supper, we had the usual hot dogs on white wonder bread and potato chips. So where was that voice coming from? From the Dumont Story teller? When I looked up to the screen what I saw was wondrous. That’s the only word for it. There was a magical image of crystals hanging in glass curtains, waterfalls that seemed to be made of diamonds, trees that were etched with words, thousands of words. Had one of my books come to life? Which one? Only these weren’t in English. They were in Hebrew like the words in the siddur of the shabby synagogue. And then everything started dancing. The words, the diamonds, the crystal curtains, everything was dancing to a strange sounding music, if it even was music.

I looked over to High’s phonograph that he had brought home one night to play one his beloved Benny Goodman jazz records, but it was closed tight. Where was the music coming from? Suddenly Daddy High’s folly began to glow so brightly, I had to shield my eyes from the light. I wondered how High and Low were feeling. The room was spinning and the light was blinding. Were they okay? I had to find them, to take care of them. I rose from the floor in my white gown and I felt lifted by a wind, a breath, a force I had never felt before. It was pure love. I don’t know how I knew that because I don’t remember every feeling pure love, but I must have, because I recognized the feeling. It was blissful. That was the beginning of my journey in Sefer Yetzirah and like the ancient heroes, I was never the same afterwards.