It’s hard to find a notary public these days, as anyone who’s gotten divorced, applied for public housing, sold a house, or executed a complicated financial agreement with their dad can tell you. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time during this past legally exciting year tracking down notaries. I’ve also spent some time pondering what an odd job a notary has: authenticate that you are who you are, and that you’ve signed a document in front of them. The document could state that you promise to eat more fiber or that you will love clowns for ever and ever. The notary does not care what it says.
I was glad to find a notary within walking distance of my new home. At the rear of a vast, old-fashioned stationery store on Court Street in Brooklyn, past ledger books and hole-punches, two portly Orthodox men work behind a glass counter. The younger one, clean-shaven with bright red payes, answers the phone and does Xeroxing. The older one has short hair and a gray beard; he wears a yarmulke and a handsome, rumpled suit. That is Yitz Ring. He takes the authenticating-who-you-are thing to a new, unfamiliar level: on my first visit, he examined my signature—a series of concentric loops—and pronounced, “Nelly, your head is too much in the spiritual realm.” Then he looked at the phone numbers and addresses on my documents and muttered something about “so many 8s” and “chaos.”
The next time I went in he told me that in a past life I had helped a lot of Jews during the Holocaust and that I was a reincarnation of Eve. With most people, I would not have found such unsolicited psychic pronouncements charming—I would have found them intrusive and possibly creepy. But Yitz is charismatic and funny; he radiates good will and I got curious: Where did his pronouncements come from? Were they religious? Was he totally nuts or a savant?
I’m not sure I got an answer during the conversations that followed, but I did learn that Yitz truly embraces his own cosmology. Most of the people I talk to acknowledge, maybe without even being conscious of it, that there is an element of subjectivity in their theologies. Yitz believes that his beliefs are truth for all of us.
What role do religion and faith play in your everyday life?
I’m not religious in the slightest. Faith, on the other hand, I have used. And I use it, I must admit, for selfish reasons. In Hasidic philosophy there’s a Hebrew expression which means “In the first place, you do above.” If you have an opportunity to do something, you should always try for the best. You jump over the fence first, you don’t try to go under. So how does a person get the energy, the chutzpah to do that in life? To always be able to jump? Faith, Nelly, faith. When you feel faith that you can do it, and someone is helping you, and success is on your side, it’s a transcendent dimension that gives strength.
When you say faith, you mean faith in God?
Of course. There can be a transcendent aspect to everything you do. Faith is a pair of wings that raises you higher so you can see solutions. People can accomplish things without the holy—well, the Godly—aspect. But if you connect the things you do to a good source, you wind up feeling more satisfied. The bottom line is to have faith in the soul, which is part of God.
And what would you say your religion is?
I try to be an observant Jew. But observance, when you understand why we fulfill certain commandments, is more scientific. And that’s really sad. Because when you understand why, it loses its sparkle.
Keeping kosher, wearing a yarmulke, not working on the Sabbath—there are explanations for these things, and explanations that are very satisfying. So it’s terribly important for people to connect to the higher level, because the religion itself is too satisfying intellectually. You have to imbue these deeds with emotion. You have to realize that it’s not just science, there’s spiritual aspects to it—the mitzvahs, the deeds that a person does.
By “science,” do you mean, for instance, the health reasons for keeping kosher?
Well, there’s that, but I’m talking scientific on the spiritual level. Let’s analyze being kosher. In Hebrew there are two words, one is assur (prohibited) the other is mutar (permitted). Foods are one or the other. Assur also means imprisoned, so kosher laws are somehow connected to imprisonment or liberation. The scientific-spiritual explanation is as follows: the job of all people is to elevate the world. God took the spiritual and turned it into a physical world; our job is to take the physical and turn it spiritual. Something that’s not kosher is imprisoned by physicality; no matter how hard we try, we cannot unlock its holiness. That’s a scientific explanation that satisfies the religious intellect. But we’re not just intellectual beings; we need to transcend the intellect. We need to feel good. Dig it, mama.
Wow, for me that is a totally new kind of science. A minute ago you were talking about jumps that we all must take, and that we need faith for success. Can you give me an example of such a jump from your own life?
Waking up in the morning. For most people it’s nothing: “Eh, I wake up, no big deal.” But somehow, for me, when I’m sleepy…so sleepy…I just gotta push myself. I use faith. Each morning, a person is considered a new creature, totally new. You know, the soul goes up at night, gets recharged, and comes down—and literally, every morning you’re a new person. Sometimes your soul doesn’t want to come back to Earth. It’s been so nice and comfortable up in the spiritual realm. But we have to be here on Earth and hustle; we can’t have constant enlightenment.
Is this a Kabbalistic idea?
Everything I speak about has its basis in the Kabbalah. But this is also in aspects of, the Bible, too—the Psalms. The leap of faith is not something for the big things, to be able to lift up a car when the car is, God forbid, covering the tail of a kitten. No, no no. A leap of faith is for little things. That’s what people don’t realize. You need power, those extra abilities for everyday life, because when a person can deal with everyday, then the big things come naturally.
Were you raised with this understanding?
I have an interesting family. They are survivors from Poland and Lithuania. I am half-and-half. In Poland Galicianers are the Southerners, and they’re more coarse, more earthy; the Northerners are from Vilna, the intellectuals. And my parents come from those two places—one from each. My mother’s family was rich, and she completed a high level of education at gymansium; my father was a hustler and an actor. They met doing theater in a DP camp and I was born in Austria in 1949. They both came from a Jewish tradition, and even though they weren’t practicing religion, they sent their kids to yeshiva. We moved here when I was six, and I grew up in Deep Brooklyn: Coney Island in the early days, and later Sheepshead Bay. My sister, Marlene Ring, didn’t go continuously to yeshiva; she went to college and became a modern dancer.
So where did I discover this stuff? Even though I went to Jewish-oriented schools all my life, I wasn’t really into it. That wasn’t the source. They say the soul extends to all points in the universe, spiritually and physically. The soul is continuously aware of what goes on. We’re not aware of our essence that much, and at times the soul gives us a kiss of awareness. And then it comes down to us on a conscious level—whether it’s an emotional conscious level or even an intellectual conscious level, so we become more desirous of spiritual things.
How old were you when you first had that kiss of awareness?
Around four. I never had a childhood; I was always too aware. When you’re too aware, you can’t play. You don’t feel that playing has any real purpose. I wanted to, but I understood too much. I was always a little psychic, meaning I saw things other people didn’t see, could predict certain aspects of the future, see certain things in people’s pasts. I went to Yeshiva University High School, but in my senior year I started to try to find out more about the mystical realm. I ended up in a Hasidic cult.
Well, not really. Lubavitch. After high school, I went to rabbinical college in Crown Heights. That’s where the action was. I moved out from my parents’ house and lived with a bunch of guys who were also studying there.
Are you still connected to the Lubavitchers?
I can get you anything you want wholesale.
Look, I don’t want to talk about my failures, but I was never really connected. I didn’t want to bother anyone, if you really want to know. I felt everyone has enough problems without someone asking them for lessons. I’ll just plod along, and try to understand it myself without bothering people—which was a stupid, dumb mistake of youth, because you have to ask. That’s the only way you can learn! And the only way the deeper mystical tradition is passed on is through a teacher. You can’t get it from books.
But your lack of connection didn’t prompt you to leave the community.
Well, I finished school, I did become a rabbi. But I didn’t have certain abilities that being a successful rabbi requires. I really had trouble with authority. I didn’t like discussing my career plans with my elders. I had opportunities and I didn’t take them. Imagine, right now I might have been at some synagogue on the Upper East Side, and when you approached me, I could have said, “talk to my secretary.”
What did you do after rabbinical school?
I studied liberal arts at Kingsborough Community College. And then I did various things. I was the mashgiach at The Cauldron, a macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village.
I remember that place!
The owner was hanging around the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights. They didn’t have enough money to have a full-time mashgiach, so I also did everything else: waited tables, some cooking, dishwashing. I wound up in retail.
Another great Jewish tradition. My family sold lighting fixtures—it was a big jump from being bagel bakers. How’d you get into the business?
I was always in retail part time, starting at age seven in my father’s grocery store in Coney Island, then his supermarket. I worked through rabbinical school, selling children’s clothes, and then I got into women’s designer clothes (selling, not wearing them!). Then onto The Cauldron. After that I got into office supplies and parachuted back to the capitol of the world, Brooklyn.
Do you go to synagogue now?
When I said I wasn’t religious, doesn’t say I’m not practicing. I do as much as I can. I used to live in Borough Park, where there’s a synagogue every block. Now I live in Flatbush, and there’s a synagogue every five blocks. It’s necessary to join a group to pray, rather than praying alone, for the simple reason that everyone helps each other to “bring down” the blessings—that’s Hasidic street talk for manifesting, revealing and internalizing spiritual force. No matter how much we think we have the ability, man is not alone, man is not an island…neither is woman, by the way. You know what I’m going to tell you? A mystery. Ready?
Have you seen studies that show there’s so many singles, whether in divorce or never got married? It’s not by accident. Think about a bunch of mystics hanging out, drinking beer and eating pretzels and talking, this is what they talk about: We’re supposed to be in the messianic age already, a time when there will be total peace, wealth, and people will see, within the physical, the spiritual. They’ll see the goodness of everything, and since everything is good, they’ll act better. Diseases will be as if nonexistent; people will live longer because of the increase in spirituality. It’s the prime goal and duty of our generation to manifest a utopian world idea. The messianic age is supposed to be the age of Aquarius—This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.
In mystical terminology, there are two concepts of the Almighty that we can talk about: the imminent and the transcendent. The imminent is the life force that we all have inside of us, that the earth has, that gives us life. The feminine. Mother Earth. We call it Shekhina, the divine presence. The transcendent aspect of godliness is the masculine, and it surrounds us in all aspects of the physical universe. The messianic age is the marriage between the transcendent and the immanent aspects of godliness. But the forces, whatever they may be, are preventing it. Everything that happens in the physical is reflected in the spiritual, and the spiritual is reflected in the physical. So male and female can’t get together here on Earth either.
Yitz, how much of what you are telling me has to do with your being from the hippie era?
Everything! Everything. I’m a mystical hippie.
How does the way you see the world relate to the fact of mortality?
I’ll explain to you how I understand it from the Torah. There’s no such thing as death. The person’s soul is forever, with different aspects of awareness. There’s an expression in Hebrew that’s used in Midrashic literature: histalkut, which means removal. The soul removes itself from the physical body. It doesn’t mean it’s a good or bad thing. It’s just a different place. While we’re in a physical realm—according to our tradition—one can accomplish more than the spiritual realm.
It’s all here, heaven is on earth, but we just can’t experience it.
Does knowing this make you less afraid of dying?
Nope. I’m chicken. I understand it, but I’m not interested in experiencing death. Of course, no one should experience it. It only occurred because of the tree of knowledge. You girls gave us the apple. Adam and Eve tried to elevate evil to holiness by eating from the tree—but they weren’t successful, and the entire universe became intermingled with Good and Evil. Prior to that act, Good and Evil were separate. Mortality is a product of man’s exit from Eden. Knowledge is difficult because if you are aware that God’s all over then how do you even go to the bathroom? I know—not polite.
You feel that God is all over the place?
Oh, sure. The thing is, you need a sense of self. If you think about God being everywhere, it can feel like having your parents sitting in the backseat whenever you’re on a date. But you can’t be robots. And worse—you know what we can turn into worse than a robot? An angel. An angel’s a perfect creature. Total perfection. And that’s not a good place to be. (Don’t tell an angel that; they’re very powerful creatures.)
One time there was an analogy given as to why we are the way we are. Rebbe Schneerson wrote a letter to someone who asked a question about why life is so hard, and why doesn’t God make us perfect. So he says: This is the difference between a photograph and a painting. You take a picture of Niagara Falls and you can sell it for a dollar. But if you make a painting and it’s beautiful you can sell it for $20,000, $100,000, there’s almost no price for a painting. Why? A photograph is a perfect reflection of reality. But a painting is in the image of its creator. It’s not perfect at all, it’s how the person envisions something. Somehow, with all of our foibles and darknesses, we do what we do, and we create a painting.