Where many go to retire and die, ironically, is where my life began. I was born in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1951. My young Jewish parents, each the child of wealthy, successful families, sought each other as escape from their controlling families. After five years, my mother became increasingly unhappy and divorced my father. My mother, sister Susan and I moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland. Not long after, mom re-married a successful young Jewish ophthalmologist—a widower with a daughter about my age.
The two families merged and thus began phase two of the long, emotionally challenging period of my life known as childhood. My new dad was a type A, hard charging, brilliant doctor. Great bedside manner, but not as great at an intimate father-son relationship. I loved having a new dad, but in many ways we just didn’t mesh. I was artistic and athletic—a free spirit dreamer—he was all about medicine—disciplined and controlling. I never felt like I was a first class son to him—my blood father was more emotionally available and loving, but I was legally adopted and prevented from seeing him after the age of ten. My new father called me a ‘wild Indian’ that he had to tame. He set his sights on that goal, and I guess on some level I appreciated his interest in me, if not his approach. He was a man of excellence and I appreciated that. But inside I began to rebel against him and some of his values, setting up a conflict and a discontent inside I would hide and struggle with my entire life.
Is that God?
I went to temple the first time when I was about six years old. An impressive sanctuary with plush seats, balcony, and two ten-foot high marble doors (with the Ten Commandments engraved in gold Hebrew lettering) that magically slid apart revealing the gorgeous velvet-draped Torahs within. When the rabbi strode onto the dais, equally impressive with his blue velvet gown and flowing white hair, I whispered to my father, “Is that God”?
I was soon enrolled in Sunday school, graduated to Saturday school, became the president of the temple student council and had a ‘standing room only’ Bar Mitzvah. The great rabbi called my father not long after and asked if he could meet at our house—he thought I was destined for the rabbinate and wanted to discuss the possibilities.
Such was not my destiny, however. I was not encouraged by my father, who thought I should become a doctor, and I was more interested in girls and sports than studying Torah for the rest of my life. Besides, there were some unanswered questions that had been bothering me for years—questions about life after death that Judaism failed to address sufficiently. My grandparents all died within several years of each other before I turned twelve. Each time we went to temple I asked the rabbi what happened now that they were dead? Each time I received a vague response.
Not quite twenty years later, my older sister was killed in a car accident in Washington. I remember the chill that went through me when my father called me in New York that night to tell me the news. I was numb. A hollow feeling. I braced myself against the overwhelming emotion that I knew my family would share and traveled home the next day in a stupor. Why had this happened? What would become of my sister Susan? Was this it? Was this all there was to life? Where were my grandparents? Once again, why did the rabbi not have a good answer for me?
Over the years, in high school and college, I had been introduced to other religious mindsets. I considered what Buddhism and Hinduism had to say about life and reincarnation. My family was very materialistic and I never saw much happiness in my mother, father or sisters. There was constant bickering—my mother had everything—looks, money, beautiful home, athletic and artistic prowess—but she was never satisfied. My father was a hard worker but fought with my mother and was seldom available. My sisters fought with each other and with my parents. I tried to be a peace maker—a diplomat—but I hid my true emotions and led a life behind a mask. I hated the tension. I missed my father in Florida and felt ashamed whenever he called—guilt by association—he was not spoken of highly in our ‘family’ circle.
So, I searched for something meaningful. Something to answer the questions—What was the meaning of life? Why were we here? Was there a way to peace? What happened after death? With no real grounding and looking for escape, it’s no wonder I got into hash, pot, beer and girls.
Transcendental Meditation began yet another search for peace and “cosmic truth” while I was in college. I remember the “secret mantra—just for you, John.” How exciting! Could there be a special word only for me? I started the practice. For a guy like me, it was not easy to sit still for five minutes, let alone twenty. But I tried and got pretty good at it, falling asleep often and waking up kind of refreshed. Nothing dramatic happened, and I remember talking to a friend about how it was going—so-so for him too, but I found out something, he and I had the same ‘special mantra.’ That was a little disappointing, but I stayed at it hoping for revelation. After years, I dropped the practice. I needed something more dramatic.
Those early ‘70s were full of excitement, promise of a “new culture”—free love and high times. I tried it all—sex, alcohol, drugs. I kept searching for something. I just couldn’t quite find it. I moved to Manhattan for grad school. More girls, a little less pot, more alcohol and then cocaine. I met a psychic who was a friend of a friend, and I became kind of dependent on her for my sense of security—what would my future be? I found a book of spells once and fooled around with them—trying to get some sense of control over my life! I read Carlos Castaneda—and for a while I was fascinated by shaman witchcraft.
After a few years of working in the film business, I got into advertising and worked for a big New York agency. On one of my many trips to LA, I met a beautiful girl named Sophia, who was a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda. Next stop, Self Realization Fellowship (SRF).
Exploring the SRF
Sophia gave me Yogananda’s book, Autobiography of a Yogi. I read it voraciously. It didn’t hurt that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met, and I would have read the Yellow Pages cover to cover had she asked me to, but the book spoke to me. This was it! All the answers wrapped up in one book, one philosophy, one man. I was hooked by Yogananda’s world view and the obvious connection he had to the supernatural! Why he could transport himself all over the world at will—without an airline—or at least that was the claim made. He explained everything. And the girl, well she had the ‘best of both worlds’—looks and spirituality.
I tried SRF—I meditated daily. I drank in the philosophy—that my Self had all the cosmic things it needed inside to be ‘fully realized’ and that I could find ‘God.’ Kriya Yoga, the basis for SRF philosophy, explains in its literature, “Self-realization is the knowing in all parts of body, mind, and soul that you are now in possession of the kingdom of God; that you do not have to pray that it come to you; that God’s omnipresence is your omnipresence; and that all that you need to do is improve your knowing.”
Paramahansa Yogananda also said, “The true basis of religion is not belief, but intuitive experience. Intuition is the soul’s power of knowing God. To know what religion is really all about, one must know God.”  This was heady stuff. It seemed like a good path to peace and spiritual enlightenment. There was a desire to know God, and a seeming path to get there. What was wrong with that?
After a few months back and forth between New York and California, I went to the Visitor Center in LA. I wandered around the grounds, drinking in the good vibes. I visited a sort of chapel that had a line-up of painted portraits hung on the main wall. I stopped to drink in the moment. There was Yogananda, his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, Mahavatar Babaji, and the other major yogis of the group, and right in the middle of the mix was a classic portrait of Jesus Christ. I stared for a while at the paintings, thinking it was a kind of Hall of Fame with a ‘Last Supper’ feel. At that point in my religious understandings, I wasn’t sure how Jesus fit in with these men—but there he was among the yogis. (Here is the link to that picture .)
Yogananda wrote about Christ consciousness. And reincarnation. For quite some time I had thought reincarnation was cool—a great explanation for the ‘circle of life.’ I looked around and saw that people lived on different energy levels—at the extremes were criminals who would spend lives in and out of jail or homelessness—low energy people with lot to learn about how to get on in life. Then there were the more successful people—those who had great jobs, families, positive outlooks. ‘Saints’ like Mother Teresa and ‘self-realized’ yogis were at the top of the heap. The low energy folks would reincarnate at a higher level (hopefully) each time around, and the higher energy folks got closer and closer to Nirvana. When they attained it, there would be no more need to cycle through the earthly birth and death routine for another try at perfection.
It seemed like a great explanation for existence. Life either was, or wasn’t, cool. But like it or not, life was school. Keep taking courses until you graduate. That explained so much. I remember being really excited and passionate about Yogananda and his explanation of how life worked. There was enough practical to seem sensible and enough mystery to seem spiritual. But was it truth?
I thought so for years. I kept meditating waiting for ‘cosmic consciousness’ to overwhelm me. It made for cool conversation and my girlfriends liked it. I read Sri Yukteswar’s book, The Holy Science, hoping I could get even deeper and more self-realized. I should say I tried to read his book. It was almost too much and hard to comprehend. (I was an English major with an MBA to boot—I had read plenty of tough stuff in my life, but this was positively Gordian.)
Besides, nothing ever really cool happened. No out-of-body experiences, no flying through lower Manhattan where I lived, no face-to-face with God. I figured I was just not there yet. I wondered a lot what my next life would be. Hopefully, one with more answers and less struggle. I hadn’t started yoga postures yet—maybe that was part of the reason I wasn’t getting along as much as I had hoped. Who knew? There was a lot that I had to perform in order to achieve oneness with God. It left me feeling vulnerable and unsure whether or not I would ever attain full self-realization—could a Jewish guy from Bethesda, Maryland, become a real Yogi?
Yogananda explained in one of his books, “The Kriya Yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upward and downward, around the six spinal centers… which correspond to the twelve astral signs of the zodiac, the symbolic Cosmic Man. One-half minute of revolution of energy around the sensitive spinal cord of man effects subtle progress in his evolution; that half-minute of Kriya equals one year of natural spiritual unfoldment.”  Wow! I honestly did not know if I had the mental capacity to direct my own life energy. And I became uncertain how many of the other would-be yogis could either.
At one point in my wanderings at the SRF Center, I stopped a devotee wearing distinctive garb denoting her special standing in the organization. I was so excited to be able to ask her some deep meaningful questions! Was I meditating correctly? Would something special happen soon? And I remember to this day her inability to connect with me—hello, anybody home? No answers, no warmth, really. I needed help and I felt I was getting the brush off. I remember a vague sense of fear—of being lost and alienated as I found my way through the grounds to my car. Something was clearly missing here. Where was the love? And once again, too many unanswered questions.
The Next Phase
Not long after the Sophia-phase of my life, I began to get serious with a woman I had known for a number of years through work—a disaffected Catholic looking for love, truth and a good man. Together, Susan and I began ‘married life’—zipping out to Santa Fe on our honeymoon, following in the footsteps of Shirley MacLaine! She took us both by surprise—and we thought her view of spirituality was what we had been looking for. It was esoteric, interesting, captivating. But in the end, like all the other New Age philosophies and Eastern religions, for me, unsatisfying.
And then we had our first child. Lucy was the game changer. We settled into domestic bliss for about a month, then we faced the challenges of a colic baby. Not long after that we had a head-on collision with AIDS—Susan’s younger brother became infected and died a pretty gruesome death after six months. We survived. Barely.
We bought a small house outside the city and left Manhattan. Life in the suburbs was OK. In one of our many deep conversations, Susan and I had made a commitment to never divorce, no matter how bad things got. And things were growing rough between us. She fought depression and I fought my upbringing and some career choices. I was not the perfectly responsible, bread-winning, chore-doing husband. And Sue was not the happy suburban housewife.
My career was OK, but I struggled for stability. I had gone from producing to directing commercials. A whole new ballgame—exciting, adventurous. I was thrust into new levels of artistic challenges I wasn’t totally comfortable with. But I relied on my talent and persevered, unwilling to ever give up on what I knew to be my life’s work. I wanted all the good things in life. I had grown up entitled and was now facing how to achieve for myself and my family. Lots of pressure to succeed and to succeed big! Even though my life-long self-confidence was being challenged, I was still a dreamer.
I wanted the magic of life, but was constantly upended by my short fallings and my wife’s growing criticism. We moved from the city to the country. We beautified our house, mowed the lawn. Sue grew flowers. We loved each other in spite of the growing tension. But unhappiness and restlessness hung around me like a dinner guest who wouldn’t leave and wouldn’t do the dishes either. I was still looking for escape, still looking for answers.
When Lucy was about two, we hired our first nanny. Helen called in response to an ad, and after hearing her voice on the phone, I immediately knew she was the one. Sue looked at me flabbergasted when I told her, “She’s it. We’re hiring Helen.” And we did. Helen changed everything. It was through Helen that I met the Lord. Here was a young Irish-American woman with barely two nickels to her name, a five-year old daughter and no husband. But as soon as we met, I saw the joy radiating from her. Not fake, real joy. What a world apart from most everyone else I had ever known!
Over the next six months, we had many discussions when I was home between jobs. She talked about truth and absolutism. I had trafficked in relativism. She talked about God like she knew Him personally. I barely knew myself. But I was intrigued by this woman with no formal education, who talked about God, Jesus and the Holy Scriptures, like a college professor. One day, we got into a long conversation about Jesus being the Savior. As a Jew, I had a hard time even saying the name, Jesus. I didn’t know much about Him, but had learned somehow that He was forbidden territory.
I found out he was a Jew. Really a Jew! And the apostles were Jewish. Amazing! More conversations. Is there truth? Is truth absolute? I was barely hanging on to the false starts with so many paths in the world of relativism. And I still had no answers that truly satisfied.
Two Prayers; Two Answers
One day, Helen asked me if I believed in God. I stumbled in my own thoughts. Yes, I kind of believed in something greater than me, but I didn’t know for sure. She said that if I truly sought God, He would show Himself to me. I was intrigued. She said before I went to bed that night, that I should pray and ask God to show me who the “true God” really was. I had a feeling this was something to do with Jesus, but I wasn’t sure.
I thought it was some kind of trap to get a Jew to believe in Christ, but I decided to ask God anyway. If there was Truth to be found, I was beyond caring if a man or a myth named Jesus had anything to do with it. The last time I had really prayed to God was when I was four years old. I had a wart on my thumb. My mother told me one night that if I prayed to God really hard and asked Him to take away the wart, He would. The next morning, even though the instructions came from a woman who was not a religious person, that wart was gone.
After thirty-three years, my second prayer to God. Helen began bringing some literature and tapes for me to check out. I read books about Christian theology. I was intrigued. I was open. As I read, I began to put some pieces of the puzzle of God and religion and life together. I started to understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It became less about the labels of religion, than the truth of God who transcends these labels.
It was a six-month intellectual pursuit. I read books. I read the sinner’s prayer. I started to understand things that I never could have embraced before. Now much more than warts disappeared—the veil of darkness began to be removed. I wasn’t sold yet, but things were happening. It’s easier to see now looking back. God was doing a work inside me, preparing me for each step of the journey. A number of unusual events occurred for me in that year—one of which was the true turning point in my spiritual search. Susan was invited by a co-worker to go to a church near us in Bedford Hills. I had been to some black gospel churches as a boy and Helen had taken us to a very charismatic church in the New York area. Music and soul. Bring it on.
But this church we visited that Sunday was different. We walked in, sat in the back. I looked around at the sea of ‘wasp’ faces and felt kind of uncomfortable. I wanted to leave. No Jews, no gospel music, no thanks. But as the service began and the music started, I glanced over at Susan and she looked happy. She had a look of relief on her face, and out of respect for her, I stayed. For some time now, I had been struggling with being a Jew and believing in Jesus. The New Age stuff was clearly not cutting it for me. Judaism had something but was missing the security of the afterlife. And what about the Messiah? Were the Christians right? Had He already come and the Jews were wrong?
I intellectually understood the idea of the Savior, but I could not braid the threads entwining “Christ” (the “Messiah” celebrated by so many Gentiles) and this Jewish guy from Miami Beach. I listened to the pastor. He had a slight southern accent. He seemed smart and he was funny. The music was kind of different—a little folky and a few hymns. I was still uncomfortable and a little disappointed. I was kind of hoping I’d found THE place, THE thing, THE final answer to my search. I was hoping that this invitation was going to lead me to the big cosmic solution.
What was with me? I was really having a hard time being surrounded by this sea of white, Christian, non-Jewish faces. I looked out the window. A windy, sunny day. The stark trees were leafless after a long hard winter. I checked out the beige handout I had been given when we walked in. Order of service, worship, message, etc. Some names, some announcements of upcoming basketball games. On the back, there was a notice of a special event. That evening, at 7:30, David Mishkin, from Jews for Jesus, presents “Christ in the Passover.” Please come.
David Mishkin’s presentation ended the last moment I would walk the earth as a New Age, Jewish relativist. His presentation of Jesus in the Passover connected the dots between Judaism and Christianity. He helped erase years of ritual shrouded in mystery and misconception. He opened my mind to the Scriptures, and to the One Helen called “the true God.” Later that evening I stood near him waiting my turn to ask some questions. We introduced ourselves and then I remember him asking me if I would like to receive my Messiah that evening. I was scared—what would my parents think? What was my life going to be like? Was this yet another path in my search for truth?
Susan, standing nearby, saw my doubt and nodded her head. “Do it,” she was intoning. I turned to David and said, “OK.” We prayed. He then asked me to tell a couple people who were sitting back a few rows in the emptying sanctuary. I didn’t know what he meant, but I did what he told me. I went back to a guy with a beard and told him I’d just prayed to receive my Messiah. He and his friend’s face opened up in a warm beautiful smile. They stood up and embraced me—“Welcome, brother. Praise God! That’s the best thing you could have ever done!” A far cry from the robed gal at SRF wishing I hadn’t interrupted her walk.
I was beginning to understand that God was a loving, personal Being, independent of me, yet wanting to live inside of me. He had the answers I was looking for. But I needed to ask Him. I needed to come to terms with my imperfections—my unholiness—my ‘sin.’ I began to understand that I needed an advocate to help me in this process—that alone, I could not bridge the gap between my imperfect, fallen nature, and a holy God. I needed a Savior.
My New Walk with God
My walk with the Lord has indeed been life-changing. I stopped cursing the day I received the Lord into my heart. Just stopped. I couldn’t make those words come out of my mouth. Sue and I joined a church, started in a small group which we both loved. And Lucy, our beautiful little girl, began Sunday school and listening to praise tapes. Life had drastically, remarkably changed. We began a honeymoon with Christ and Christianity. However, I was terrified of what my parents would think. I didn’t know whether I was a Jewish Christian, or a Christian Jew, I had years of labels and cultural stigma to unravel.
I read the Bible. From beginning to end. Days I would stay in my home office room and read and not be able to work. I was compelled to get the whole Scripture into my head. Yet God provided. The Master said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). This is true and unfailing.
He saved my marriage. He showed me through His Word, as I sought Him each day, that before I could have my marriage, I had to seek His love. I needed to be filled with His love in order to give of His love. I am in a process now in which I see God in the midst of issues and problems. Through watching Him work in them, in me and in others, I grow in my dependence, reverence and awe. Time after time in the Bible we see God bringing certain people to the brink and then saving them out of their distress. We see His timing—always perfect. It gives us a sense of awe to witness similar events in our own lives.
My journey with the Lord is still very much a work in progress. I entered into relationship with God more through intellectual reasoning than feeling. Mine was not a ‘leap of faith.’ God approached me the way He knew I’d respond. This is how He works with everyone. No two individuals are the same and God knows each and every one of us perfectly—He knows what we need, when we need it and how to give it to us. We simply need to have hearts that truly seek after Him.
The wonderful thing about God’s promise is that relationship with Him, salvation, eternal life, is not dependent on my doing something to gain God’s favor. I don’t have to jump through hoops or somehow get my aura to line up with my third chakra in order to KNOW that I am a child of God, that my spirit has been re-born, and that the Holy God communes with me. Here is a powerful passage that sums up my story:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 NASB)
One of the great gifts of my faith in the Messiah pertains to life after death. The concept of reincarnation has a lot of holes in it. For instance, where did the first person, or bug, or microscopic protozoa come from—to die, then get reincarnated? What or who runs this process? Who decides whether one ‘gets to go to the next level’ or not? Where do all the people now on earth come from since the world’s population has almost always expanded? If souls reincarnate one life at a time, the numbers don’t seem to work unless a lot of people come from ants or cows…and (aside from the Scriptures repudiating that) where do the ants and cows come from?
The Bible is clear about how many times a person lives:
“It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NASB).
The Scriptures are also clear where the rabbi of my youth was vague.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NASB).
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father…The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (1 Corinthians 15: 22-24, 26 NASB)
Yogananda’s teaching had some good and peace-seeking elements, and there were references to Jesus Christ and Christ Consciousness. But there was so much in conflict with what Jesus called “the Truth.” Only one can be right. Settling for a half-truth was not acceptable to me.
In the past, I was floating in a sea of relativism, unsure of my standing with God, and where I would end up after this life, I now have the security of knowing the answer to the question Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (Yeshua) before he delivered Him to be crucified, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Pilate wasn’t really looking for an answer, but for those of us who are, Jesus, the (Jewish) Son of God, said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). There’s a world of discovery waiting for anyone who delves into that short sentence alone.
About the Writer
John Alper is an award-winning director of television commercials and documentary films. He received his BA in English Literature at Williams College, and an MBA in Marketing from Columbia University. He currently lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, Susan, and dog, Ella. He is blessed with two wonderful children, Lucy and David, and an awesome grandson, Jonas.
 www.ananda.org/ananda/lineage/yogananda.html, a quote of Paramahansa Yogananda, accessed July 28, 2010.
 www.anandayogaportland.com/SelfRealizationTheOneTruth.htm, a quote from Paramahansa Yogananda, excerpt from the book, Essence of Realization posted online, accessed October 31, 2010.
 Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi (Los Angeles, California: Self-Realization Fellowship, thirteenth edition, 1998) pg. 279