This offbeat heartful account takes the reader on a journey of life, death, and freedom through the eyes of a devoted yet independent daughter, showing how an alternative spiritual path can affect families immersed in traditional religion.
From his birth in the slums of Chicago to his passing in North Hollywood, Aaron Oscar Zaret (1927–2008)—nicknamed Zeke by his Navy cronies—sings, story-tells, and dances his way through his last days. A subtext woven throughout the book is the author’s complicated father-daughter relationship, which for both of them, turned out to be “just what the doctor ordered.” From Bagels to Curry (hence from Judaism to yoga) will touch the reader with a singular universal message: that living and dying are chapters of the same divine mystery—love.
Walking Off to Heaven
- My Father’s Smile
- The Heart of a Patriarch
- The Backstroke Goddess of the Waves
- Tennis Whites on the Celestial Courts
- Kerfuffle on the Treadmill
- Mental Arm-Wrestling with a Working Girl
- Chemotherapy Poker Chips
- Voting on Election Day
- You Are My Sunshine
- Bombs and Battles in the Yeast of the Psyche
- A Hymn-like Hotline to Divinity
- A Bum Like Me
- The Hugs in My Back Pocket
- A Seamstress’s Lament
- New Sheriff in Town
- Matzoh Ball Soup Forever
- Keeping Chicago Great
- Pretzels, Pipes, and Inner Peace
- On the Escalator to Higher Realms
- A Sugar-Coated Childhood
- The Brothers Four
- Getting the Plants In for Winter
- My Mother’s Crayons
- That Scrabble Game in the Sky
- Epicenter of a Wok
- The Chemo Two-Step
- Beef Stew, Wedded Bliss
- She’s Buying Me Towels?
- The Great Medication Mystery
- The “Unfinished Business” Sandwich
- Hebrew School Doldrums
- Astral Ascension
- Jump-Starting the Life Force
- Sabbath Candles, Scrabble Tiles
- Good-Bye, Linnie
- A Rocky Road
- In the Hands of Ashem
- Torn Black Velvet
- Eternally Yours—All Aboard!
- Putting the Ball Away
- The First Yartzheit Flame
Glossary of Jewish/Yiddish Terms
Glossary of Yogic Terms
This is one of those books that gives away the ending fairly quickly—in fact, in the title’s byline. It’s neither a “whodunit” nor a gripping thriller with perilous twists of plot and theme but rather a simple tale of the stunning mystery of life, death, family, and freedom. As you will see, Dad was such an amazing character that it would have been impossible not to write this book.
Aaron Oscar (Zeke) Zaret passed from this world on September 14, 2008, eight days shy of his eighty-first birthday. Truly he was in the prime of his life with more songs to sing, dances to dance, stories to tell. As unwilling as Dad was to leave this world, his sojourn on earth seemed to have reached its completion. His skills as a surgical supply salesman ensured that his telephone calls were always succinct—professional yet courteous, friendly though not chatty. He was never one to overstay his welcome. Neither on the telephone nor in this world.
My decision to join a yoga community could have had the power to tear our family apart much like kariya, the symbolic tearing of clothing of the mourners at an orthodox funeral. But it didn’t. When all is said and done, what endures is the love. Isn’t it so that people tend to remain their parents’ children no matter what their age? This is true of my four younger brothers and myself. After my mother Harriet left this world seven years before Dad, he cared for us without exception—remaining interested, engaged, and interactive in our lives. He left each of us with many endearing memories of our times together. As I sat at his bedside a few weeks before his passing, savoring those moments when daylight hovers on a thinning horizon before disappearing into paler shades, I said to him, “Dad, you know you’ll be my father for the rest of your life.”
“No,” he said, correcting me with slow and deliberate speech. “I’ll be your father for the rest of your life.”
From Bagels to Curry first began as a journal written during Dad’s last days. It has since grown to something more universal—beyond a comfort for my family and a healing process for me. Even as he hoped to immortalize his life by telling his tales, I wanted to do the same by recording his words. I also wrote this book for my brothers. At the unveiling ceremony of Dad’s gravestone six months after his death, I handed each of them a plastic-bound hard-copy version. This book is “rated G for grandchildren” so that Dad, in the role of Jewish grandfather Zayde, can be known by his children’s children and on into future generations.
The original journal preface reads:
Until his last breath, Dad remained a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, husband, partner, brother, son, uncle, cousin, friend, neighbor, salesman, singer, dancer, storyteller, humorist, artist, card and Scrabble player, restaurant patron, tennis player, sports enthusiast, and all-round lover of life. Enclosed here are threads of those last days with our father—the times he laughed, struggled, and overcame. But most of all, the times he loved and was loved in return. His passing was courageous, valiant, victorious. May these words help your heart to heal from loss and be filled with the joy of his spirit. To my brothers and their families, to my mother and, after her passing, his girlfriend Jackson: Please enjoy this compilation of treasured times with Dad. My hope is that in some small way this journal will give you a part of him as you knew and loved him, and know and love him still. It was written in loving service to Dad. May he live in our hearts forever.
My father was his own best story. Not only was he the epitome of outrageousness, but he could have patented it, distilled it, and made a small fortune from it. Often the finest dramas are the ones that don’t proceed with saccharine smoothness—but rather those filled with conflict, challenge, and hard-won victory much like the rocky drama of our father-daughter relationship. Oddly enough, Dad and I were perfectly suited to each other. I wasn’t the boy-child he’d hoped for, nor was he the doting father I craved. Which made us an ideal match. Through the rite of passage of birth, we enter this world from a higher, more spiritually refined realm. Call it Heaven or the astral world. My innate mistake lay in assuming that a heavenly harmony would continue— which through Dad it didn’t. I landed in this world expecting a fairy-tale father. He wasn’t. In truth all I had to do was come to a better understanding of this person who played his part so well. I caught a glimpse of that higher reality in his last days. As you are about to discover within these pages, my father’s biography is interspersed with tidbits of my own life—and fittingly so, since the life of a parent is by nature entwined with those of his children.
Some years after graduating from the University of Michigan, I reconnected with a former college friend. “You struck me as someone who was ‘always looking for something,’” he said. My friend was right. I eventually found that “something” in my spiritual path. I was in my early twenties. A copy of Paramhansa Yogananda’s spiritual classic, Autobiography of A Yogi, caught my eye at a neighbor’s home. So deeply did the author’s photo imprint itself into my consciousness that a few weeks later I read the book. Unable to put it down until I’d finished it cover to cover, I lay reading on rock outcroppings in the sketchy sunlight of northwestern Montana where my meager earthly dreams had reached their fruition in a free-form back-to-the land lifestyle. This work, I recognized instantly, held the key to what I’d been seeking. In so many words Yogananda described his mission: to bring to the world a new dispensation in the purest forms of original yoga and original Christianity.
Less than a year later in December of 1976 I made my way to Ananda Village, an intentional community in Northern California comprised of like-minded people who followed the teachings of Yogananda. Ananda was founded in 1968. With its branch colonies and meditation groups scattered across the globe, it has become one of the most successful communities of its kind in the world today. Yogananda answered my own
heart’s calling in his mission statement: to “spread a spirit of brotherhood among all peoples, and aid in establishing, in many countries, self-sustaining world brotherhood colonies for plain living and high thinking.”
The founder of Ananda, J. Donald Walters (1926-2013), was Yogananda’s direct disciple. Swami Kriyananda or Swamiji as we called him, lived with the great Indian master at his Los Angeles headquarters for the last three and a half years of Yogananda’s life. I can say with inner certainty that Swami quickly became, and has remained throughout my life, my guiding light and best friend even after his recent passing.
My father went to his grave certain that Ananda had taken advantage of me. Whereas I felt I’d reached a zenith in my yet-green life, he was convinced that I’d sought out Ananda from a sense of need, only to be warmly welcomed and then insidiously robbed of both my identity and my money.
Instead I felt I’d attained the peak of my fulfilled desires. Though not exactly what one would call worldly goals. I worked as a kindergarten teacher’s aide for the children of cattle ranchers who finished nap time with their thumbs in their mouths for comfort, lived off the land as one did back in the hippie era, ate organically from the garden, and ground my own flour to bake many dozens of loaves of bread in a stove heated with firewood that I’d split with my own hands until they blistered and calloused over. My companions included a fine circle of spiritual friends and a small herd of milk goats. Often I’d fumble through the basics of meditation after completing the evening chores. Securing the goats in the barn for the milking, I would rest my head against the flanks of my capricious livestock, the warm white liquid with its goaty scent clacking rhythmically into the stainless steel bucket.
It was hard to imagine life could get any better.
With a rolled up sleeping bag strapped to my backpack and a handmade dulcimer under my arm, I arrived at Ananda Village. I’d either be gone a week, I told my backwoods friends with no uncertain drama. Or forever. It’s beginning to look like forever.
My parents were not just heartbroken by my decision to move to a “cult.” They were devastated. In leaving Judaism they felt I’d betrayed their ideals, yet as the years passed my mother warmed to my lifestyle choice. Judaic tradition says it’s one thing to be born a Gentile—these things simply happen—but quite another to be born “one of the chosen” into what Judaism considers the only true religion. And then to leave it?
Jewish law would say I’m still Jewish. So does my own heart. To this day I hold dear the memories of my upbringing, even though in many ways our home was only peripherally religious. We were neither orthodox nor conservative nor reformed. We were simply Jewish. I cherish to this day the memories of the deep love of family, the devotion and prayer, the God-reminding significance of the holy holidays, the honoring of the many
traditions that mark the Jewish calendar year.
The decision to step away from Judaism and thus from my birth family was for me both agonizing and liberating. That my parents were so self-blaming about my choice didn’t make it any easier! As their firstborn, I was the child on whom they felt they’d made the most mistakes. Oy vey, they would say, if only we’d raised her better, this NEVER would have happened! Leaving my birth religion was a confusing but necessary step in my evolution, as though in so doing I was somehow “not right in the head.” If I couldn’t find Ashem in the religion into which I’d been born, then where did I expect to find Him? Add to this the subliminal pressure: “How could you do such a thing?” Or even less subliminal: “How could you do this to us?” Contemplating the fifth of the Ten Commandments gave me cause to reflect: “Thou shalt honor thy father and mother.”
Yet what exactly does “honor” mean?
Like most children, of course I wanted to please and not disappoint my parents. But at what cost? Where does one draw the line? What is a child’s responsibility to his progenitors, and do they want to see the fulfillment of their offspring’s dreams—or their own? By following what I believed to be my true calling, was I not honoring them in the highest possible way? Ancient yogic scripture promises that one who finds God blesses his family both before and after his own life for seven generational incarnations.
Indeed, most parents want the best for their children yet problems can arise when they assume that they know what “best” means. Parental love by nature is well-intentioned. Yet how often does that love contain undercurrents difficult for the child-turned-adult to break away from? I’ll love you if you behave a certain way. I’ll love you if you live your life according to my wishes. And I will love you forever if you make me proud.
For all my father’s dearness I saw again and again that his children’s successes were measured by what made him the most proud. Not that I fault him for his attitudes. The yogic doctrine of karma and reincarnation has helped me to understand that I chose him as my father, not the other way around. Nor by some random, cosmic coincidence (the tenets of karma being too vast to delve into here). I must say that the tensions between us caused by my leaving Judaism are only now after Dad’s passing beginning to dissolve.
One thing I do know: My choice of this family was ideal. My desire for a perfect childhood in some ways affirmed my resistance to the very people I’d deliberately drawn into my life. Acknowledging the divine perfection of our bond in the last days of my father’s life was a great blessing. His courage to face his death helped me to cultivate the stamina to write this book.
I sometimes ask myself how I happened to land in this family with these souls. My wonderment remains unresolved to the point of sometimes questioning, who are these people? My younger brothers—with whose lives my own entwines like a tapestry in parts colorful and fluid, in others knotty and unraveled—are listed here in order of descending age.
In Philip David, my father had the boy child he wanted. Dad’s oldest son is a handsome man named after his own father who left this world many decades past, Jewish tradition decreeing that a newborn be named after the deceased, not the living. Phil became the doctor, an osteopath, a profession that Dad deeply desired for himself; but it remained unobtainable due to the harsh circumstances of his early life. My brother and his wife Patty have three children: Olivia, Emily, and Zachary. Dad sparkled when Phil called and visited. He loved what Phil has accomplished in his life and bragged about him unceasingly.
Jack Leslie too made his father proud. As the top salesman of thirty at one of Los Angeles’ finest car dealerships, Jackie absorbed his father’s ability to connect with people and to rise to the top in his field, along with his mother’s gift to see deeply into life’s subtleties and to articulate them poetically. Jackie has the heart of an artist.
Daniel Michael who became the orthodox Moshe Dovid sensed his life’s calling when barely into his teens. Dad practically doubled in size bragging about his-son-the-rabbi. He and Bracha have blessed Zayde with four grandchildren: Devorah Leebah, Shmuel, Chana, and Sara. Leeby and her husband Akiva gave Zayde his first great-grandchildren: Yehuda, Chaim, Chaya, and–several months after Dad passed—their fourth child, a boy named after my father, followed by a boy and girl, Ytizchak and Elconon.
Thomas Cary shares with Dad the role of youngest in a large family. According to my father we weren’t complete without a lawyer to form the perfect Jewish family: the doctor, the lawyer, the rabbi, and the Indian chief. Tommy and Liz have three children: Perri, Tess, and Noah. How proudly Dad asked his youngest son when a need arose for legal advice!
Then there’s me. His firstborn and only daughter. Whereas my brothers were supposed to become successful doctors, lawyers, and rabbis, I was supposed to marry one. They did what was expected of them. I didn’t. Oh, on occasion he bragged about me too. But to one of the hospice aides once his illness progressed, he mentioned only his sons.
“Say, Dad?” I cleared my throat though it didn’t need clearing. “What about me?”
“Yes,” he said by way of introduction, “this is my-daughter-the-midget.”
It is with great joy that I now introduce you to Dad. And to this book. (Please refer to the glossaries at the back for explanations of Jewish and yogic words and phrases in order to avoid the formality of footnotes.) Perhaps you too have a father, a close relative, or a loved one who has passed on or is nearing transition. Maybe you are struggling to smooth out the gruff edges of a less-than-ideal parental relationship or have set out on your own, leaving behind a time-honored familial tradition, religion, or culture to follow your own path to truth. Sometimes we learn about love in ways that test us greatly. Ways we think are beyond our ability to endure but that ultimately bring us to a glorious place within our own heart’s vastness. Such was the glad resolution I found with my father. From Bagels to Curry is his story and his daughter’s. It’s my song, my dance, my offering to you.
On your own perfect journey, may you find the joy within you.
My Father’s Smile
The hot sun burrows into the cracked pavement of Chicago’s slum district as a young boy weaves between pickups and cars of the mid-Thirties: Flathead V8-engine Ford Coupes and Sedans, Chevys, Buicks, Cadillacs, and an occasional Bugatti making its way to more upscale neighborhoods. With eight years to his name and as many coins in his pocket, Aaron is already honing the skills of an astute salesman that will someday help him provide for a wife and five kids. The boy flashes a perfect smile. Getting down to business, he rolls up the sleeves of his threadbare shirt with button holes that outnumber its buttons—though no buttons ever seem to be missing.
Keeping time with the predictable thump of a poorly syncopated two-step, the wagon cart careens from side to side, heaving a sigh beneath its cargo of frosty soda pop cartons. Wheels squeak and bottles clank. There are no coolers, no refrigerators, no soda machines to chill the drinks. Aaron buys several bags of ice while people all around him melt into the heat in a frothy slow motion. Nothing beats a frosty drink in the scorching squalor. Everyone loves the sodas.
What a treasure on the grimy Windy City afternoons!
To keep food on their table, Aaron’s parents brainstorm the business idea while across the nation banks fail and stocks crash, riveting into the black hole of the Great Depression. The global woes preceding the next World War are barely half-spent. At twenty-four bottles to a case, the boy’s mother and father buy the sodas at two cents each. Aaron vendors them at five cents a bottle. A single Sunday might earn them a hefty ten dollars in loose change that clatters like the thick-necked bottles, with the sale of as many as twenty cases.
Life’s rhythms, full of possibilities and promises, sprawl before the young boy like a board game with new moves, clever strategies, and endless challenges. He will tackle them all in the years to come without missing a beat.
I can almost hear the squeaky wheels on the blistering pavement and see the bottles bobbing in the melting ice water. I can see Aaron’s big smile as he sells his wares to the grateful patrons, his shirt pasted with dampness across the bony hollow of his chest.
“That was a lotta money back then,” Dad says with a grin.
Forever in my heart is burrowed my father’s smile.
I highly recommend From Bagels to Curry. It weaves together two different worlds by showing the underlying unity. In the process, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the human heart. In From Bagels to Curry, Ms. Devi’s Jewish family and yogic community are blended together in a delightful way. It is a little like wandering into a slightly bizarre delicatessen with bagels and lox interspersed with curries and samosas.”
—Nayaswami Jyotish Novak, author, including Meditation Therapy, and spiritual director of Ananda Village
“From Bagels to Curry is a gem of a book that is destined to help this weird and wonderful world we live in. A story of love and acceptance of others’ faiths and cultures of which there is such a dearth in our society. In a week where we have planes being shot out of the sky and revolution and terrorism, we need simple stories like this of trust and love between all people worldwide.”
—J Michael Fields, author of Nature Feels and Nature Heals and CEO of Inspirations International
“If you’ve ever experienced the joy and sorrow, the laughter and tears brought about through the enduring love of family, this book is for you. Though it tells the true story of a particular family, it is an experience that we all share. Beautifully written, sensitive, and perceptive, this book was a joy to read. Don’t miss it!”
—Nayaswami Devi Novak, author, including Faith Is My Armor, and spiritual director of Ananda Village
“A heartfelt tribute by a devoted but independent daughter to her remarkable father, From Bagels to Curry is at the same time a story of how alternative spiritual paths have affected families of traditional religions—in this case, Judaism. In the end, the old adage proves true: love conquers all.”
—Richard Salva, author, including Walking with William of Normandy
“The power of Yogananda’s teaching shines through Ms. Devi’s personal story, gently expanding our horizons. Most of all, an undercurrent of love is felt throughout her book, which is the highest teaching life has to offer. As she writes: ‘When all is said and done, what endures is the love.’”
—Jayadev Jaerschky, author, including Respira Che Ti Passa, and yoga and meditation teacher
“Approaching death, as described in this book, is always a time when superficialities are stripped away and shared humanity comes forward. The story of the passing of a dynamic and much loved father of five children is uplifting, instructive, and entertaining as we get to know the father and the family through the eyes of his only daughter.”
—Asha Praver, author, including Loved and Protected, and spiritual director of Ananda, Palo Alto
“This is a very well presented memoir. It’s a beautiful, compelling story. As one who spent plenty of time caring for both of my cancer-stricken parents before they died, it brings back a lot of memories and is both therapeutic and heart-rending.”
—Robert Yehling, co-author of The Champion’s Way and author, including Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write
"Lila Devi has done a masterful job with a very tricky subject. How does an author reveal the process of stepping out of her regular life into the role of primary caregiver during her father’s last months, especially given his larger-than-life Jewish influence on everyone around him? Yet she does it beautifully, gracefully, and never with self-pity or sadness. This book is impactful and triumphant–a loving tribute to a man, who no one (including you, the reader) will soon forget.”
—Savitri Simpson, lecturer and author, including Through Many Lives and Chakras for Starters
“Ms. Devi weaves spiritual insights into her relationships with her father and family. This read is filled with wisdom, humor and compassion.”
—Diksha McCord, author, including Global Kitchen
“This is a wonderful inspiring book! Spiritually uplifting, and not lacking humour, Lila Devi has interestingly covered ‘the mystery of life, death, family, and freedom’ in this simple and fascinating tale of her father and her own spiritual awakening and journey to finding true joy and freedom.”
—Stephen Sturgess, author, including The Yoga Book
“An honest-to-God account of the beginnings of the author’s spiritual quest, reminiscent of a Socratic apology and equally convincing and moving. She refreshingly flouts normal literary conventions, making her varied and pacey narrative a joy to read.”
—David Connolly, Professor of Literary Translation and author, including Deadline In Athens
Praise for From Bagels to Curry by the author’s brothers (in order of descending age)
“In this totally insightful book, my sister uncovers the essence of our father’s zest for life and the unwavering strength with which he struggled through to the end of his life here on earth.”
—Phillip Zaret, Physician
“Our sister writes with an unprecedented and infectiously inspiring viewpoint about our loving though sometimes chaotic upbringing. With a Jewish-flavored secularism, our father osmotically taught us to make others feel welcome; that life is beautiful; that time is not meant to be wasted; and above all that nothing is more important than family. He had a dancer’s passion for life! This book will take you on just such a dance.”
—Jack Zaret, Consultant
“From Bagels to Curry captures the struggles for purpose and meaning in life as my father approached his passing. His challenge in maintaining his dignity when confronted with inevitable death became an amazing legacy handed to the children he loved so much.”
—Moshe Dovid Zaret, Rabbi
“From Bagels to Curry is a truly inspirational story of our father’s handling of his impending death from the time of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer through the end of his days. He lived with an unwavering positive attitude and zest for life. In his deep hazel eyes, the glass was ALWAYS half full. This special outlook on life never wavered from the time of his fatal diagnosis through his last breath. Thanks, Sis, for writing such a wonderful story!”
—Thomas C. Zaret, Attorney at Law