Voodoo Dialogue


In Haiti, the Other World is this one. Everywhere in the night are the dead — the gede — and their spirits.

In the wreckage of the earthquake, in that heavily Christian-Voodoo nation surely some whispered Psalms, words born in Hebrew, now shared, a crying from “out of the depths.” It is an island punished by nature but not God forsaken. Many Haitians believe that even before the rescuers arrived, God was with the mourners on the mattresses in the dirt, and on the pieces of cardboard that pass for mattresses.

Amidst the Voodoo, there was heard by visitors to Haiti, a song of renmen, like the Holy Remembrance invoked on the Days of Awe, which fell this year in January.

There is Jewish-Christian dialogue; Jewish-Muslim dialogue; Jewish-Hindu dialogue; Jewish-Buddhist dialogue; rabbis have met with the pope, the Dalai Lama and imams, but Voodoo dialogue is the ecumenical stepchild. An informal round of phone calls to rabbis turned up nothing. Voodoo gets a laugh; to most Jews it’s a punchline.

Even Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an organization that, decades ago, was one of the pioneers in serious interfaith understanding, has yet to meet its first houngan, mambo or manbo (Voodoo priests).

And yet, out on the street, there is more of a Jewish-Voodoo intersection than one might think.

Up in the Bronx, on Webster Avenue, Jason Mizrahi, son of a Turkish Jew, sells around 100 Voodoo dolls each week at his Original Products Corp. The emporium, founded by his father in the 1950s, sells potions, amulets, herbs, oils and varied accessories for the occult, on the site of an old A&P supermarket.

“We sell books on kabbalah,” says Mizrahi. “In Spanish.”

We telephoned Martha Ward, professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans. Are there Jews involved with Voodoo in America’s capital of Voodoo?

She laughs out loud. “The largest [Voodoo] congregation here in New Orleans, La Source Ancienne, is headed by a nice Jewish girl from Maine, Sallie Ann Glassman.”

Glassman, who also operates a New Orleans spiritual emporium, fittingly on Piety Street, didn’t return our calls, but her Web site says she was ordained as a manbo in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1995.

“She got into this out of the kabbalah,” says Ward. “Mysticism crosses all artificial boundaries. The Spirits choose whom they will, it is said, picking out people with special abilities and qualities and the Spirits contact them.”

Ward, a Methodist who practices Voodoo, explains that Voodoo, though a braiding of African shamanism and Catholicism, allows dual citizenship with other religions and doesn’t require conversion.

Ward is the author of “Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau,” and is an expert in Creole folklore, referred to as “gumbo ya-ya” according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Voodoo was made to seem foolish and demonized, Ward explains, because “in the New World it was associated with women, and in the initial stages, enslaved women of color. It served the pro-slavery establishment to make [Voodoo] something evil, of the devil, to keep control of the slave population, making sure that no one took [the spiritual women] seriously.”

It was a religious demonization heavily rooted in the “racial and sexual,” Ward continues. “White guys were quaking in their boots over these women who had access to the spirit world.”

Even now, in 2010, “it’s very hard for me,” says the professor, when people play up the “whoo-whoo music and scary stuff, evil images and graveyards. That’s not a big part of Voodoo.” Graveyards? “People die and you go visit your relatives. You bury them with dignity and honor. Part of the human condition, all over the planet, is that there are always some people who have a strong connection between this world and the Other World. It’s an altered state of consciousness. This is a shamanic religion.”

And the dolls pricked with needles? “It’s part of being human to sometimes wish bad things to happen,” says Ward, “to feel blessed or cursed, or to wish to curse others, or to bless others. Voodoo is just a beautiful and dynamic way of doing that.”

“Come on,” says Ward, “we all want to get even. I mean, get real. If you never felt the urge to get even then you are not living, my dear. Ever tear up a photo of an old boyfriend or girlfriend after breaking up?

“I participate in the Voodoo stuff,” says Ward. “I trust them to help me, and they’ve helped me routinely. They tend to help women. For example, New Orleans is a Catholic city, and [Voodoo] is a way women can get divorced from a bad husband. And I found a husband through the auspices of Voodoo.”

Ward was assisted romantically by Priestess Miriam Chamani at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on Rampart Street.

“She’s the dean of the practitioners here in New Orleans,” says Ward. “She’s African-American, but her mysticism could come straight out of the kabbalah — number-based, word-based, as well as utilizing old African methods for divination.”

Has she met Voodoo Jews other than Manbo Sallie? “My God,” laughs Ward. “Are you kidding? Of course, I meet Jews” in Voodoo. “Half my relatives are Jewish! Hell, this is America!” They practice Voodoo “on various levels. Some are curious, some are sweet tempered, nobody says awful things to my face.”

“Above all,” says Ward, “is a God who looks exactly like the one you might have heard about in synagogue. When you write about us,” she adds as if praying, “do us well, and kindly.”

Clal’s co-president, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who just returned for a meeting with Islamic leaders in Indonesia, said, “Do you want me to tell you Voodoo is magic and forbidden and contrary to Jewish tradition? OK, I can tell you that.

“But I can also tell you that there’s a deep theurgic impulse in kabbalah, meaning attempts to manipulate the Divine. There’s a distinction between magic and ritual, which is that ritual tries to influence God; magic believes that it can influence God, whether God wants to be influenced or not.

“Now, that’s a very fine distinction,” says Rabbi Hirschfield. “So I don’t make fun of Voodoo, because anyone who prays to God in the hope of shaping what God does shouldn’t be making fun of Voodoo.

“We all love to tell the story of the Golem. If that isn’t shamanic,” continues the rabbi, “I don’t know what is. Some guy goes into an attic, recapitulates the Genesis story, making a person out of dirt, slaps [the Holy Name] on its forehead and it comes to life. Change that ever so slightly and you have a guy with a doll in Haiti.”

“Voodoo is one more spiritual mechanism for both bridging worlds, between life and death; for people to feel empowered in their relationship with God,” says the rabbi. “We shouldn’t confuse the rituals we reject, and the theology we reject for the underlying human impulses that are part of all of us.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of Clal, adds, “Does Voodoo help people get through the night? Does it give them hope? Does it let them still believe that it pays to be good and to love, though at any moment the earth can open up under your feet? Does it give them a sense of continuity with generations at a moment in which all seems lost?

“If the answer is yes, then I am all for Voodoo, and the onus is on the interfaith specialists who see Voodoo as pagan, demonic, heresy, to look at their own systems.

“My tradition,” says Rabbi Kula, “teaches that the moment when the dead are still before us is not the time for theology; it is the time for kavod hameit and nichum aveeilim,” respecting the dead and comforting the mourners, “two acts that trump theological differences.”