Member of the Tribe

When I mentioned to Shawn Price that there probably weren’t many full-blooded Navajo Indians around who had converted to Judaism, he chuckled good-naturedly and assured me there were some others. Two, in fact.

Price was one of the people I was most interested to meet in Albuquerque, but it took a while to get him to respond to my emails and phone calls. We finally met for lunch on this, my last day in Albuquerque.

I’ve met my share of people with interesting stories of Jewish awakening, but this may well be the most improbable. Price was raised in Arizona to Navajo parents who had embraced Pentecostalism, the religion of Sarah Palin. Pentecostals love Israel, and Price heard a lot about this country as a kid. A minister returning from a mission to Israel gave him a photo of men praying at the Western Wall that became a prized possession.

Price was a little circumspect in response to my questions. Come to think of it, so where many of my interviewees in New Mexico. Maybe it’s a southern thing, or a Western thing, or maybe I’m just a pushy jerk. But more than once I felt that people were measuring their words in a way I’m accustomed to from folks who don’t want to disclose too much.

Price was a little hazy in answering the most obvious question put to him: How on earth had he wound up converting to Judaism? He noted that his religious journey had many dimensions, but the only one he cared to discuss was the one about the Pentecostals and the Western Wall photograph.

I did learn though that he converted in 1999 with Isaac Celnik, a much-beloved Conservative rabbi in Albuquerque who made national news when he took his lawsuit against Congregation B’nai Israel to the New Mexico Supreme Court. (If you must know, read this.) That he makes beautiful tallises in the Navajo style. And that he knows something about Breslov Chasidim.

Before we tucked into a bread-less, vegan lunch, Price recited Hamotzi and Shehecheyanu. "It’s not every day you meet a big city New York journalist," he said by way of explanation. He told me he was an herbalist and studying Navajo healing rituals, which led him to note one of many similarities he observed between Navajo spirituality and Jewish traditions. Like the Breslovers, he said, the Navajo believe that sickness is a message that the sufferer is on the wrong path. "The herbs don’t heal," Price said. "The body uses them to heal itself."

Price first entered a synagogue in 1998 and felt an instant draw to Judaism’s tribal nature. I found that amazing. I had been to the same synagogue five days before and found little to hint that I was in the presence of a tribe, mostly just a group of middle-aged men and their wives, several — the rabbi included — wrapped in one of Price’s tallises.

"I embraced everything," he said. "I embraced it as if it were my own."  

Before we took leave of each other in the parking lot of the restaurant (side note: This place is rather awesome. And if you show up between around noon on any given weekday, you’ll likely meet half the Jewish professionals in Albuquerque) Price gave me two arrowheads to secure me on my travels. Then he took some corn meal from his pocket, dusted some on my feet, and handed me the pouch.

Seven hours later I was in Winslow, Arizona. I stupidly thought that because a town was mentioned in a rock song it would be a cool place to spend the night. Lesson learned.

Tomorrow, Phoenix. If you know anything about this city, speak up.

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