Enlightenment Lite 

click to enlarge art13_book_zobel_100.jpg

Eliezer Sobel and his wife, Shari, live in an unassuming neighborhood in the Fan. Their lawn is well-groomed, the paint isn't peeling and you can't smell the incense until you get inside. The home is colorful and full of paintings and books; it is tidy and organized.

You'd never guess you were sitting across from a man who's been held at gunpoint by bandits outside Nepal, who's done the hokeypokey while taking Ecstasy during an Easter-morning service conducted by monks, who's required students in his creativity workshops to look each other in the eye and say "doody."

Sobel, the author of "The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics, and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments," redefines the word irreverent (he said "f -- you" to Ram Dass!). You can't swing a Schrödinger's cat in the new age, Eastern religion or Judaeo-Christianity isle of the local bookstore without hitting someone that he has danced with, studied with, passed the peace pipe with, meditated with or revealed the angst of his soul with. It was his job as a spiritual journalist and publisher of the Wild Heart Journal to know them, but it's also clear that Sobel's mission is to keep seeking no matter what he finds.

As a self-proclaimed "resistant little putz," Sobel, 55, does not mind looking the fool. He quotes Seinfeld as readily as the Dalai Lama, and his knack for marrying humor with an often-terrifying world are apparent in his observations: "Dachau was a breeze compared to wearing a yarmulke in a Denny's outside of Kansas City."

Sobel began writing his memoir, "The 99th Monkey," in 1999, but was hard-pressed to find a home for it outside of his desk drawer. "No agents picked it up — including my own agent," Sobel says. "Everybody was scared of this book. And the press hasn't kicked in yet. If it ever will."

It's not the same as his novel, "Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken," loosely based on his crazy Jewish friends in New York. "My novel is my pride and joy," he says. "It was published to critical acclaim from my friends and family."

Sobel has lived in Richmond, leading out-of-town retreats, painting, writing and dancing, ever since his wife "dragged" him away from their one-room barn in rural Batesville more than a year ago to complete her doctorate in social psychology and mindfulness research at Virginia Commonwealth University.

When they moved, Sobel brought his studio with him on the back of a truck, leaving behind the isolation tank he bought the day after his engagement. But so far he hasn't really made any connections in Richmond. "Basically I'm lazy and shy," he says, though he has friends all over the world. "Friends develop organically or not at all."

So it's both funny and not surprising when suddenly it dawns on me that this probably isn't the first time Sobel and I have met. I'm quite certain we were at the same Jewish renewal workshop in Charlottesville with the Zen rabbi Rami Shapiro back in 1999. We were told to repeat, "Who are you?" while staring into the eyes of the partner across from us, and as we sit and talk in his studio, on his couch, with his cats, I ask that question again. S

Eliezer Sobel will read and sign "The 99th Monkey" at Chop Suey, 1317 W. Cary St., Sunday, April 6, at 3 p.m. 497-4705. You can visit him on the Web at www.eliezersobel.com.

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