Olam Qatan: Bridging Jewish, Sufi spiritual beliefs

Jewish Sufi seeker Ya’qub ibn Yusuf, born Joshua Heckelman in New York City, studied with great spiritual masters before opening Olam Qatan a generation ago.

YA’QUB IBN YUSUF, Jewish Sufi, at the First Station: Holding the door open for spiritual seekers in Jerusalem for 23 years. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
YA’QUB IBN YUSUF, Jewish Sufi, at the First Station: Holding the door open for spiritual seekers in Jerusalem for 23 years.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ever since he met his Sufi teacher on the Mount of Olives, Ya’qub ibn Yusuf has poured his love and attention into building bridges of understanding between two great spiritual disciplines – Judaism and Sufism. 
Born in Brooklyn as Joshua Heckelman, he sought out a spiritual master and found Sidi Sheikh Muhammad Al Jamal, who led him on the Sufi path. As COVID-19 restrictions ease, visitors to First Station can now pick up the latest book he produced, The Gift (Hamatana), a Hebrew translation of the poetry of Sufi-master Hafez.  
The Olam Qatan (Small World) bookstore has been an important center of Jewish and non-conventional spirituality in Jerusalem for a generation, helping seekers find just the right books, music or teachings they need.
“I see my job as that of keeping a door open,” ibn Yusuf explains. “One of my Israeli clients once said a great thing to me. I was apologizing to him about my poor Israeli accent. He stopped and said, ‘Don’t apologize. You American Jews have a very important job to do here in Israel. Because you have the chutzpa (nerve) to pick and choose what works for you.’”
What the man meant, ibn Yusuf points out, is that Israeli society is deeply divided. Those who are brought up secular can be hostile, almost allergic, to Jewish spirituality. Those brought up religious can, at times, be very rigid in their outlook. Years ago, when he was active in the House of Love and Prayer established by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in San Francisco in the 1960s he used to ask fellow-seekers, “How do you decide what to follow, and what not to?” Their answer was, “What do you mean? We’re baali teshuva (non-observant Jews who embrace a religious lifestyle), we do everything!” His response was, “Friends, you’re more creative than that!”
Having been brought up within a Conservative Jewish family with a tradition of asking questions at the dinner table, that answer wasn’t good enough for ibn Yusuf.
This refusal to settle for ready-made answers led him to Winnipeg Canada to study under Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and later join some friends in opening Prairie Sky, a spiritual bookstore that is active to this day. He then went to Hebrew University, where he studied under noted Kabbalah scholar Moshe Idel. He studied with living Sufi master from 1976 until recently, parting from them with thanks when he felt the path was taking him in a different direction: first Sheikh Sidi in east Jerusalem, then Murat Yagan in Canada, and Baba Selim in Istanbul.
His translated and published works include Lev HaKabbalah, based on the English translations in The Essential Kabbalah by his friend, noted Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt. To go along with the spiritual books, he sells oriental and east-west music CDs from Israel and Turkey. Five years ago, he also created Judaism & Sufism – A Spiritual Conversation social media group with some 4,000 members.
“My parents fought in the War of Independence,” he told In Jerusalem, “something of which I am immensely proud. Then they wisely moved to the US, because they felt Israel at the time was unable to accept individualists. People in Israel were either Orthodox or secular.” His parents, Joe and Tzipi Heckelman, returned to Israel in 1976 and established a conservative synagogue, Kehilat Shalva, in Safed.  
“When I was growing up, Judaism was the alternative culture to the mainstream American one outside the house,” he said, “I am of the generation that grew up reading MAD magazine and totally got it.” Consumer-oriented 1950s American culture, he argued, needed a wake-up call and it got one with people like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). 
“I was a Jewish hippie,” ibn Yusuf shares. “When Leary advised people to ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,’ I really did! I hitchhiked back and forth between Boston and San Francisco. All the people I knew in the Boston Chavura [Jewish spiritual community] were graduate students.” 
He would later become a graduate student as well, writing a thesis on the function of the tzadik.
WHILE STAYING with friends at the Boston Chavura for Erev Shabbat, he saw a copy of Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now. An instant classic when it was released in 1971, the story of how an accomplished Jewish-American academic finds a living saint, Neem Karoli Baba, and turns his life around, inspired countless people around the world for decades – ibn Yusuf included. He was deeply impressed by the presentation of mysticism in personal terms. 
After hitting San Francisco and realizing he needed something more, he sent a cassette tape to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with a question. 
“Is God Jewish, and in this case haval for the goyim (too bad for the non-Jews), or is God ‘Goddish?’” Schachter-Shalomi responded by saying that God is indeed Goddish, but “God is also a verb I got Jewishly.” He suggested ibn Yusuf come to Canada and join a group that was focused on God, but mostly in Jewish language. 
The importance of using the right language is crucial here because powerful symbols are not always easy to figure out. For example, what is a spiritual master, exactly? Ram Dass was deeply impressed by Neem Karoli Baba being able to correctly reflect to him, like a perfect mirror, what was going on in his own mind. He also said, publicly and often, that after visiting India he is convinced that there are beings who are able to bend reality and perform what others would regard as miracles. 
In Islamic Sufi tradition, the concept of Al Insan al Kamil (the complete man, the perfect man) is discussed. Is he (or she) a Kunstsnmaher (a wonder-maker) able to make rain fall and heal the sick? Maybe. But it seems that the main role of such people is to help other people in completing themselves, to help others to find their inner connection to the Divine. 
“I needed a map,” ibn Yusuf said, “and I found it in Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who spoke to my heart and I found it at Zalman’s table in the teachings of Reb Nachman.” 
ONE CONCEPT, that of behinat hatzadik (the archetype of the tzadik, the spiritual master) proved to be especially important – the idea that the world needs such souls in order to keep connecting to the divine and that such people must exist, somewhere. 
What Ya’qub found in the teachings of Reb Nachman was a description of how the universe exists in a void, in an empty space within the Infinite Light of God.
It is the absence of God in this void which accounts both for the physical sciences, and for the philosophies of nihilism and despair. However, Reb Nachman describes two main paths to get past the void to connect with the Infinite Light of God, faith in the Ein Sof, which could be described as light encompassing the world and seeking out a living tzadik. Reb Zalman’s translation of Rebbe Nachman’s Torah of the Void fits well with Rabbi Arthur Green’s idea that, in Judaism, the tzadik is an axis mundi, a pillar of the cosmos that is keeping things together. Yet, neither wonderful teacher claimed to be a tzadik.
The search for a living master eventually led him to Israel, the country his parents left before returning to it later, and on the plane he wrote a poem about his desire to meet the dark side. By that he did not mean the “Left-Hand Path,” but to uncover the traditions that, up until now, were left in the shadows, just as a person might keep some aspects of his or her inner reality unexamined for whatever reason. The spiritual master he found ended up being an Arab Muslim Sufi sheikh. 
When he met his first Sufi teacher and accepted this new path he also welcomed the name change. Ya’qub was his grandfather’s name and Yusuf his father’s. 
“The son is the father of the man,” he jokingly told me, making me think of The Beach Boys song. “It made perfect sense for my path in Islam to mirror my Jewish biography.”
His road in Islam, as can be easily inferred by anyone with a passing familiarity with the political tensions in Jerusalem and Israel, was not an easy one. Many Jewish people and people who wish to become Jewish come to Israel and walk a spiritual path. Few willingly take on another tradition.
“I prayed five times a day and kept Shabbat,” he shares, “fasted during Ramadan and kept Jewish holidays. Islam, especially Sufism, is meant to be a path of surrender. Yet true to my name of Ya’qub (Yaakov/Israel) I kept wrestling with the angel.” 
While his own teacher had been patient and kind, at some point he felt there is an unspoken demand he would become a convert to the faith, which he declined to do.
Thanks to a Polish-American Sufi friend, Kabir Helminski, he was introduced to Murat Yagam, a Sufi master from the Turkish tradition. While Helminski isn’t Jewish, ibn Yusuf had some fun when he learned his friend’s family is originally from Chełm, a town in Poland famous among Jews as a “town of wise fools.”
Helminski is very well regarded as a sheikh on the path of Rumi, wrote many books of Sufism, and is the author of one book on Holistic Islam. Rumi was a Persian mystic and poet who wrote in Farsi. When ibn Yusuf was introduced by Yagam to the works of Yunus Emre, he felt that this earthy mystic could speak to him. 
The result was the 1995 publication of Dervish Yunus Emre (translated by Refik Algan and ibn Yusuf himself). Thanks to his deep spiritual commitment to the Sufi path, ibn Yusuf was able to offer the translator of the recent book of Hafez, Dror Amit, guidance into this complex cultural landscape. 
Amit, in his own preface to the work, admits to being so much intoxicated by the poetry he allowed himself the liberty of inserting Yiddish words when he felt the heart calls for it. The book, it should be noted, is based on an English translation by Jewish-American poet Daniel Ladinsky, a disciple of Meher Baba. 
While his translations gained worldwide appreciation and have proven to be very popular among readers, Persian poetry experts pointed out that these are, in fact, original poems presented as the works of the Sufi master. To put it bluntly, the poem “The Sun Never Says” does not have a known Farsi version and was likely penned by Ladinsky. 
AS YA’QUB understands things, Meher Baba served as a Point of Contact for Ladinsky with the 14th-century poet Hafez. In Sufi discourse, the concept of the point of contact is very important. It’s not just the text or the lecture, many people can read books and people can write books, it’s the point through which the message is entering the world. The Baal Shem Tov, who also spoke about haadam hashalem (the complete man) is not Reb Nachman, just like Rumi is not Hafez. Each soul, each moment, each culture – has its own part to play.
“At some part of the path I was in a crisis with my teacher Murat,” ibn Yusuf said. “He asked me, ‘If you leave me, what do you keep? You have a point of contact with the divine, inside yourself. If you stay with me, what do you benefit? You have me to reflect to you a point of contact with the divine inside yourself.’
“I felt a great sense of relief,” ibn Yusuf said, “I said ‘thank you Murat, I’m out of here.’
“When I had a Shabbat meal with friends after that conversation, I asked if the term ‘micro-cosmos’ appears in Jewish literature. My host answered, ‘Why use that? Rabbi Isaac of Acre said, ‘Every human being is an olam qatan (microcosm) and the world as a whole is adam gadol (a macro-human being).’’
“I made a promise right there and then that I will print this concept, Olam Qatan, on every bookmark and sign in my bookstore. I kept that promise to myself.” 
Ya’qub then met Baba Selim, a Turkish Sufi mentor from Istanbul, which is a lot closer to Jerusalem. Baba, he felt, really accepted him as a Jewish Sufi. But he kept in touch with Murat and collaborated with him on putting together a new edition of the book of his teachings he had edited, called, The Essence of Sufism in the Light of Kebzeh, the Tradition of the Caucasus Mountains.
His hopes for the near future are to complete and publish Rebbe Nachman’s Universe, The Archetype of the Tzadik and Tales of a Jewish Sufi: the Spiritual Autobiography of Ya’qub ibn Yusuf.
“I’m still there for seekers who want to know about the difference between the approach of Chabad and Breslov, between yoga mediation and Buddhist meditation, between the poetry and music of Rumi and of Yunus Emre, helping people find their way... baruch Hashem,” he said. 
Olam Qatan can be found on the bike path at First Station in front of the pop-up store near the Butke Bar. Open Sunday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Ibn Yusuf can be reached for questions about books, music, teachings and events at: [email protected] The Facebook group is: Judaism & Sufism – a Spiritual Conversation.