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    Olam Qatan: Articles

    Articles No 1:

    Adapted from the Jerusalem Post, “Cityfront,”

    by: Abigail Radoszkowicz July 14, 2000

    Every Man a Microcosm

    Having studied both Jewish Renewal and Sufism, Ya’qub ibn Yusuf opened the Olam Qatan bookstore three years ago as a spiritual and cultural meeting place

    “I get excited when I see a customer in a knit kippa [skull-cap] pick up a book of Sufi poetry by the 13th-Century Muslim mystic, Rumi,” says Olam Qatan owner Ya’qub ibn Yusuf. 

    If you haven’t been to a New Age bookstore recently for fear of being confronted by Shirley MacLaine-type sagas about past lives, you’ll feel safe at Olam Qatan. Instead, you’ll find pocket versions of the I Ching and the Tao te Ching, books by the Dalai Lama and all sorts of classics of Oriental literature in English and Hebrew, not far from the shelf containing Sexual Secrets: the Alchemy of Ecstasy, which is opposite Avivah Zornberg’s magnum opus, Genesis: the Beginning of Desire. Unlike many other ‘New Age’ bookstores in Israel, there is an extensive collection of books on Jewish spirituality. There is also an entire section on alternative health, and should one of the books suggest healing crystals, there is a handy display of them in the window.

    The store’s name (which means “small world”) is derived from one of the main teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov: that each of us is a microcosm, reflecting the whole world around us in the ‘world’ within ourselves. It is a theme which is reflected in many of the books in the store.

    Proprietor Ya’qub ibn Yusuf says, “I get excited when I see a customer in a knit kippa (often the symbol of a religious Zionist) pick up a book of Sufi poetry by the 13th-Century Muslim mystic Rumi, or when I can interest a secular customer in a Jewish book like Arthur Green’s Seek My Face. The Essential Rumi (in English) and Seek My Face (in Hebrew translation) are in fact the store’s two best-sellers. Ya’qub notes that the latter “points to a relationship to God ‘within’ – within yourself, and in the face of your neighbor – expressed in the language of Jewish tradition.”

    Many customers come to the store looking for Rumi in Hebrew, and as it happens Ya’qub’s friend Alexander Feigin has been translating the poetry of Rumi directly from Persian to Hebrew. Ya’qub hopes to make a collection of these poems Olam Qatan’s first publication (five years later, the book was finally published.)

    Ya’qub, born Joshua Heckelman, comes from a family of religious innovators. His grandmother was among the first Jewish women to get a college degree in Jewish studies, graduating from the Teachers’ Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1916. His father switched careers in mid-life, leaving the business world to get smikha (rabbinical ordination) the same year that Ya’qub had his bar mitzvah. His father served as a Conservative rabbi in an America for ten years. Then, in 1976, his parents made aliyah to Israel, establishing the only non-orthodox synagogue in the mystical city Tzefat. Ya’qub recalls that growing up in America, he was exposed to “the best that the Conservative Movement had to offer.” As camper at Camp Ramah in the 1960s, he saw many of the counselors and staff he knew go on to become founders of the Havurah movement, which seeks to combine a personal religious search with a pluralistic approach to group study, prayer, and community life.

    It was in the radical Judaism in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that Ya’qub began his own spiritual search. Hitch-hiking back-and-forth between the East Coast and West Coast, he spent time both among the “holy beggars” at Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s “House of Love and Prayer” (a Jewish hippie community in San Francisco), and at the more academically-oriented Boston Havurah. Seeking to integrate elements of both an intellectual and an experiential approach, he eventually made his way north to Winnipeg, Canada. There he found himself at home in a small community of seekers who had gathered under the tutelage of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the former Habad emissary who went on to become the leading light of the spiritually-oriented “Jewish Renewal” movement.

    Studying with Reb Zalman, Ya’qub discovered Rebbe Nahman’s idea of the tzaddiq as an archetype representing the human connection to God – an archetype which is embodied by certain people, but which exists as a potential within everyone. This for Ya’qub was the culmination of his search for the “universal essence” of Hasidism and Kabbalah. After endeavoring to pursue Buddhist Vipassana meditation in Canada, he decided that he needed to find a living Tzaddiq to whom he could apprentice himself. It was at this point, in 1976, that Ya’qub made his first pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And rather than a Kabbalist or a Hasidic Rebbe, the spiritual master he found was a Sufi Sheikh living on the Mount of Olives. In Sufism he found “a natural bridge between the values and warmth of Judaism, and the more objective approach I had encountered in Buddhism. And I found that the Sufi idea of the Complete Human Being is very much the same as the Hasidic idea of the Tzaddiq.”

    Sufism is the spiritual path which developed in Islam, and its teachings emphasize that the place to find God is within the human heart. His Sufi master gave him a new name, as he did with all his students. First he called him Yusuf. When he protested that this was his father’s name, he gave him the name Ya’qub – which had been his grandfather’s name! So after some hesitation, “Ya’qub ibn Yusuf” accepted his new name in Arabic, reflecting his Jewish roots.

    Ya’qub studied with the Sheikh on the Mount of Olives over the course of seven years, making annual trips from mid-western Canada to East Jerusalem. But he found that he could not fully embrace the kind of Islamic Sufi path he had been offered. In Canada he found a secular Sufi master originally from Turkey, who conveyed the spiritual essence of Sufism in more secular, scientific terms.

    Ya’qub pursued the teachings of Murat Yagan, which he employed as the leader of a Sufi group. Applying skills he had learned interpreting Hasidic texts, he became the compiler and editor of his book: The Teachings of Kebzeh: Essentials of Sufism from the Caucasus Mountains. Murat points to an esoteric “Sufi” tradition in the Caucasus which predates Islam, going back before the meeting of Abraham with Melchizedek.

    Ya’qub still relates to these essential Sufi teachings, but with the passage of time he came to feel that “just as I would never be Muslim enough for my first Sufi Sheikh, I wasn’t secular enough for Murat. I was too much attached to my Jewish roots.” After moving to Israel he met Mehmet Selim, a teacher from the “Melami” Sufi tradition who lives in Istanbul, and who fully accepts Ya’qub as a Jewish Sufi. Recently we heard the friendly and warm “Baba” Selim speak at one of the weekly evening lectures at Olam Qatan. His respect for Israel as a democratic state was surprising in its forcefulness. Baba acknowledged that Israel fulfills the basic Islamic requirement of protecting human rights, such as the freedom of religion of all its residents – Muslims and Christians as well as Jews. And he spoke of the need for a civil society such as Israel to defend itself from terrorists, who don’t respect those human rights… “and we know all about terrorism in Turkey!”


    Back in the years when he was living in Winnipeg, Ya’qub joined with several friends and opened a spiritual bookstore. When he came to Israel 10 years ago, it was to pursue graduate studies on the idea of the Tzaddiq with Prof. Moshe Idel, the well-known authority on Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University. Three years ago Ya’qub opened Olam Qatan. A couple of months later, Arthur Green, who was one of Ya’qub’s early mentors from the Havurah in Boston, came to Israel to launch the Hebrew translation of his book, Seek My Face. “I invited Art to come to the store for an informal evening to speak about his book – which I see as the Jewish book about the Sufi idea of ‘God within’. And some 50-60 people appeared, cramming themselves into every possible corner of the bookstore! That night we discovered a feeling of community – a community which is comfortable both with spirituality and with Judaism, and feels at home in my store.”

    Ya’qub decided to continue to offer weekly evening lectures reflecting the books in the store – introducing various healing methods, and various approaches to spiritual practice (including Jewish ones) … and oriental music. In addition to books, Olam Qatan offers a wide selection of CDs of spiritual and ethnic music from around the world. They specialize in Israeli artists creating a new fusion of East-West music combining Jewish/Israeli and Arabic/Oriental elements. Ya’qub is currently preparing a website which will offer this music for sale outside of Israel (this was a long time in coming!). He will play any of the CDs in the store for customers, on request.

    Ya’qub points out that in the Middle Ages there was a lot of sharing between Jewish and Islamic cultural and spiritual traditions. “I see my bookstore as a kind of crossroads, where all kinds of spiritual sharing can take place in Jerusalem, today, without trying to promote one religious or spiritual ‘brand-name’ to the exclusion of the others. This is why the new East-West fusion music coming out of Israel is so appropriate to our store. We are a place where many secular, religious and even haredi (ultra-orthodox) Israelis cross paths – all of them walking through the door in search of  resources for spiritual development and wholeness. The store is a sort of community which integrates English and Hebrew speakers, sabras and new immigrants and people from all over the world.”

    While Olam Qatan specializes in spiritual and holistic topics, it provides a service for English readers of all kinds of books. Book shipments come by air-courier from the US on a weekly basis, and Ya’qub is happy to take Special Orders for books on any topic. As the books arrive in less than week, the Special Order service at Olam Qatan is usually faster, and often cheaper, than ordering in Israel from Amazon.com. And at Olam Qatan the customers can sit at the counter, or in a comfortable chair at the back of the store, and listen to the music – or sit with a book on the terrace outside, and check out the action on trendy Emek Refaim.

    Articles No 2 : Why There Is a ‘Q’ in Olam Qatan 

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