Drug dealer becomes a spiritual leader

Tempting The Devil in the Name of God: The Heavy Hand of Fate by Howard Beckman; Inspire on Purpose Publishing; 2012-2015; ISBN 978-1-941783-24-8; 373 pages, $19.99

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Tempting the DevilSAN DIEGO – One of my favorite apocryphal stories concerns the Jewish woman who traveled to India to see the guru.  She was told that before she could actually meet him, she had to spiritually cleanse herself in the ceremonial pool, fast for a full 24 hours, dress in a ceremonial robe, hike to the mountain top, and confine whatever she said to the guru to three words.  This she did without complaint.  When at last she stood before the crossed-legged guru and he nodded for her to speak, she responded: “Sheldon, Come Home!”

It’s not Sheldon, it’s Howard who wrote the autobiography, Tempting The Devil in the Name of God: The Heavy Hand of Fate, a story of a man who survived a troubled and unenviable drug-using and drug-dealing past and became a respected exponent of ayurvedic gem therapy and vedic astrology.

The tale begins with his arrest and imprisonment in Thailand for heroin possession.  Beckman has a wonderful gift for description and through the power of his writing you can experience how soul-crushing drug dependence and state-sponsored violence against prisoners can be.  The story then flashes back to his rebelliousness as a youth; his introduction to sex and drugs, his first marriage to 16-year-old Rhonda, their involvement with the Hare Krishna movement and his later disillusionment; the birth of his daughter Debbie; his estrangement from his wife; his heroin dealing in Asia, Hawaii and California; and his jumping bail in Hawaii and fleeing to Thailand, where his dependence on heroin got him into far more serious trouble.

A soul in turmoil, Beckman had flashes of regret for lives that he might be ruining by selling heroin, but he needed the income to support his own drug habit, so pushed such considerations aside.  His life was one of a self-centered, pleasure-seeking hedonist who was caught on the hamster wheel of drug use; getting high, coming down, needing another fix, and in the process dealing with an ever widening circle of criminals.

There’s a saying that you have to hit bottom before you can climb back up, and Beckman certainly hit bottom in a Thai prison, where he almost died from an overdose of impure heroin.  From that point on he started rebuilding his life.  After leaving the Thai prison, he served his prison time in the United States, and once a free man, parlayed his knowledge of gems to become a successful wholesale salesman to jewelers around the world.

But though he had achieved material success, spiritually there was a void in his life, and in later chapters we read about his own visits to India seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Although the book had been sent for review to San Diego Jewish World, I was not 100 percent certain that Beckman was Jewish.  He never declared himself as such, although he mentioned that he and Rhonda were married by a rabbi, and that in prison he befriended a French Jew whom other prisoners had picked on.

However, for all I knew, Rhonda’s parents who arranged the shotgun wedding also had arranged for  the rabbi, and there was no hint in Beckman’s description of Henri, the French Jew, of any particular empathy for him.  I assumed that author Beckman was now a Hindu, but wanting to establish whether he was of Jewish background, I posed that question to him by email.  I’ll close this review with his response:

Thank you for writing. I was born a Jew and still am. I was bar mitzvah’d at 13, but quit Hebrew school before confirmation. I’d had enough hypocrisy, and did not feel like continuing. You see, Don, I have always been a thinker and some kind of philosopher. I asked questions, some of them that the rabbi, cantor and others didn’t like. For instance our rabbi lectured us constantly about discipline, prayer and dedication to the Jewish faith in practice. He taught us to lay tefillin and spoke about morals, staying away from drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc. However, they themselves practiced the “do as I say, but not as I do” philosophy when teaching Hebrew school students.

I asked the rabbi why he then was a chain smoker. He literally often lit one cigarette from the last, even sometimes lighting up and forgetting he’d just put one down in the ashtray. One day when he was lecturing myself and another boy (we’d been caught smoking) I asked if I might ask him something that was bothering me. (This was after he’d finished giving us a dressing down.) I asked him why he chain smoked cigarettes, when he seemed to be against us smoking them, and recalled so many health and other reasons he had cited why we shouldn’t smoke. Rather than addressing my question, which was asked politely, as well as addressing him reverentially, he got angry. That’s just an example, but I asked many questions that he would not answer, about Kabalah, about the different names of God and their meanings in the tree of life and so many things.

Most kids just wanted to get through Hebrew school to satisfy their parents and be done with it. I wanted to at least try to understand the philosophy behind Judaism. So I wasn’t getting much, except in my reading on my own, which back then meant going to the library. There was no internet. However, I kept going to Hebrew school. Until the day the rabbi and the cantor lectured us about morality, marriage, having children, bringing them up as good Jews and about the community of families.

Don, the cantor at that time was on his fourth marriage! I raised my hand and (I know, I know, it was considered a bit impudent as I was only 15) asked him why he had been divorced and remarried so many times. Although this was a “reform” synagogue, I didn’t understand why the basic moral codes that he was preaching weren’t followed by the temple leaders. So I was told that maybe I should leave Hebrew school. I did. But I studied Judaism and learned more about the Talmud and Kabalah than anyone I knew. I found the mystical texts fascinating and they grabbed my heart.

But I am not someone who believes that God has some kind of great joke, that only Jews can go to heaven, any more than I could accept that Christians could mouth a few words about accepting Jesus, yet live a life seemingly without real spiritual principles, but go to heaven anyway. It just seemed plain foolish. This was not a spiritual philosophy, but just an exposition of belief. So I searched and searched. I studied Hinduism (it has many facets and at the core is monotheistic, just as Judaism is), and Buddhism, a read a bit of Taoism and other lesser known religious doctrines. I found that yoga as a spiritual process, was unparalleled by any other system. The texts Bhagavad-Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam impressed me with their knowledge.

So there you have it. I am a Jew, Don, and nothing changes that. I can still remember more from the Torah and the Kabalah than almost any other Jew I have known. I celebrate the Jewish holidays with family, but I speak, think and breathe spiritual philosophy 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I want to know God, my relationship with him and with transcendental knowledge try to understand the depth of the spiritual reality that is within us. I found that yoga and mantra meditation brought realizations within my heart for the spiritual doctrines (including Talmud and Kabalah) that I was studying with my mind and intelligence. To have any kind of prejudices in this regard would only serve to cloud my higher sensibilities. You see, Don, I empathize with all sincere people of every race and religion, but when it comes to practice I see very few people actually consider having a “spiritual practice” of importance, including my fellow Jews. In India I found many answers to what I could not fully understand in the Kabalah. You’d be amazed how close Judaism and Vaishnav Hinduism are.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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2 Responses to “Drug dealer becomes a spiritual leader”

  1. Fascinating!

    –Dorothea Shefer-Vanson, Mevasseret Zion, Israel


  1. […] Drug dealer becomes a spiritual leader – The tale begins with his arrest and imprisonment in Thailand for heroin possession. Beckman has a wonderful gift for description and through the power of his writing you can experience how soul-crushing drug … […]

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