Itzhak Beery Keeps the Shaman’s Fire

ArticleBryan GiemzaComment

We’re only fifteen minutes into the interview when Itzhak Beery spits rum in my face.

First he takes a swig—well, a trago—of rum.

Then he watches me closely.

Wiry of frame, glasses, and hair, Beery is undeniably charismatic, even a shade puckish. He sits relaxed in his homespun, dressed in a simple long tunic or alb, as comfortable as a businessman in his suit. There is the glint of mischief in his eye, the mischief of a man who proposes to put you off balance, if only for the sake of rebalancing you.

The sound Beery makes next is a bit like my five-year-old daughter’s imitation of an elephant. And then, after a few beats, the expelled spume of atomized rum descends in a cool mist across my face, passing over me like a spirit. There follows a change of temperature, if not a change of state; the cooling effect dissipates almost at once. Beery would call it “energy cleansing,” and might use it, along with smoke and flame, in the customary limpia cleansing ceremony that begins one of his shamanic sessions.

What remains in the mist’s wake is a sense of the interrupted arbitrariness of the order that we come to expect, from one moment to the next, of daily life. Of interviews. Of ourselves. This was just one sign that Itzhak Beery was a different sort of man, and that this would be a different sort of interview.

It’s no accident that the terms “trickster” and “shaman” are deeply entwined, culturally speaking. For those steeped in scientific rationalism, the relationship of the terms reflects an ingrained, instant skepticism toward the shaman’s legitimacy. Ever since the earliest colonial encounters, Europeans demonized and depicted shamans as mad. Of course, other cultures revere the shaman precisely as the one who reveals the tricks played on us by what we mistake for reality.

Whatever gimlet-eyed scrutiny you might bring to it, you can be sure that Beery’s life, to a degree unimaginable to most of us, has been a study in justifying himself to others. How else to explain the unusual position of an apparently sensible, irreligious, self-described skeptic and Israeli American who, in the dark forest of middle of life, becomes a practicing shaman? Beery first traveled to Ecuador in 1997, where he met Don José Joaquin Pineda, the Quechuan shaman who would become his mentor. It marked the first step in Beery’s transformation into a “bird man”: “a man who can fly like a bird to bring knowledge from the upper world.” Beery prefers the Siberian origins of the word shaman, noting its original register as “the keeper of the fire.” “And I kind of like that, because it gives a bigger role for the shaman,” Beery said. “He’s responsible for wellbeing of community: for songs, traditions, wealth, health.”

If this was the sort of pillar of the community that Beery needed to be, it was not the sort his wife and three children might have expected in the late 1990s. They were among the mystified. Freshly returned from Ecuador, Beery was ripe with talk of visions, and of ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic tea common to many Amazonian healers. An impending identity crisis was exacerbated by his inability to “see the world in the same way again.” “For the first few years, it was really tough,” Beery told me. “They didn’t understand why daddy was going crazy. He's nuts, he's a drug addict.”

In some sense, Beery was an early pilgrim on an increasingly well-worn path. The rise of “ayahuasca tourism” over the past fifteen years or so has generated controversy, and the rising global appetite for this element of South American shamanism has apparently led to such oddities as the importation of Amazonian shamans to Costa Rica, where there exists no native precedent for ayahuasca ceremonies.  A smattering of religious groups within the United States have condoned the tea’s use as a means to spiritual enlightenment, reviving a debate familiar to American culture, and, for that matter, the Supreme Court.

For his part, even if  ayahuasca was part of Beery’s awakening as a shaman, he is quick to say that he doesn’t deal with it now. “In this tradition, we don't do that, because the belief is that we train the brain to get to the same visions without any assistance. You don't have ayahuasca all the time—but you have your brain, your ability to connect with spirits.”

For those who have not had an ecstatic religious experience, by whatever means, the notion of bringing spiritual order or genuine revelation to life through a boutique travel experience might sound a bit facile. But Beery would describe his engagement with shamanism as anything but easy, and says that its healing properties demand long-term commitment from the healer and the healed. The unlikeliness of his position can scarcely be overstated. Beery’s own international upbringing, on the face of it, wouldn’t seem to lend much support to his pursuit of shamanism. His parents came from Poland and Belarus, and lived on a kibbutz on the slope of a mountain in Israel. They raised Itzhak to be a son of Zionism, communism, and atheism. But like many sons, he seemed to find his way through his own waywardness. Notwithstanding parents who “were very much against any kind of religion,” Beery would learn that his great-grandfather, Rabbi Mordechi Zundel Margolith, was a Kabbalistic rabbi and a man who, like Beery, viewed the world in terms of the forces of good and evil in contention for the spirit.

Flash forward to Itzhak’s arrival to New York in the 1970s, and his travels to Ecuador in the 1990s, where he first encountered shamanism. Here, again, Itzhak Beery seems like an unlikely participant. By his own account, shamanism pursued him (to use a culturally misleading metaphor) the way the hound of heaven might pursue a reluctant priest. “I went there a year and a half later, and I had this vision when he was doing healing for me—it was an initiation vision—and that's how I became his apprentice.  Even then he was telling me, ‘You have to start doing healing,’ and I never really thought it was me. I fought it. I didn't really want it. I was afraid of the responsibility, that I'm not good enough. There are a lot of people who want to be healers. I am a healer, but I never really wanted to commit to it.”

Eventually, though, Beery acquiesced, while retaining his day job. (Shamanism cannot be described as a full-time occupation in Ecuador, either). Today Beery works not just as a shamanic healer, but as something of an emissary for shamanism to non-animists. Through his website and the classes he offers, he has become a globetrotter, with annual travels to Israel, Istanbul, Italy, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Krakow, not to mention return trips to Ecuador and Brazil.

Some part of the international interest in shamanism, Beery says, might stem from the way that modernity prompts us to lose touch with our essential humanity, and deeper memories, including our intuition of what he dubs the sixth sense. “We lose the memory. We lose the memory of our ancestors. Where we came from. And that's really what this work is about, because who you are is really not just the DNA of your father and grandfather and great grandfather and all that. It's a lot more. It's your essence, this past. And a lot of things that you do now, and the choices you make now, are related to these ancestors, and they are continuing to influence. Now if we shut this down and we think that we are one of a kind . . .” Beery chuckled. “This is what happened. I thought that I'm inventing working with evil spirits. But my great-grandfather was doing it a hundred years ago. I'm not unique. I'm just one pearl in the whole necklace. And this sense of continuation, of ancestry, is incredibly important.” That understanding, Beery says, is part of his quest “to bring people back to their own proportions,” and to help them understand, without diminishment, that they are no different, and no more important than other things in nature—whether animal, plant, or mineral.

Frequently getting back to true proportions entails a confrontation with past lives. When Beery asked me if I believed in such things, I balked. He smiled. “I don't believe in it,” he said, leaning back, “I know it. I experienced it. I'm a very skeptical person, cynical and skeptical. In my own experiences, if someone told me stories like this, I would probably dismiss them. But since I experienced them I have to take them as reality.” Beery explained how a vision of one of his previous lives, as a nineteenth-century woman who committed suicide in Vienna, was later corroborated in minute detail with historical materials describing the life and demise of the woman he had seen. Had been.

I asked Beery to clarify the relationship between shamanism and words that seem to connote something similar—like curandero and brujo.  “Every shaman is also a curandero,” he explained, “but not every curandero is a shaman.” A curandero might work exclusively as a herbalist, for example, without much thought to spirit-healing. A shaman is not likely to be so specialized, though he shares the same healing aims, fulfilling a variety of functions and roles that anglos might parse as doctor, spiritual guide and counselorpsychologistBrujo, on the other hand, connotes something closer to “witch-doctor” or “sorcerer,” and encompasses a type of shamanism that Beery acknowledges the existence of, but expressly rejects. A brujo is as capable of applying a curse as striving for healing. Beery told me of one brujo in particular who offered to kill his enemies for $100. Beery only works from the light, he said and added, “The danger of the darkness is that the darkness can come back to haunt you.” Beery also explained, matter-of-factly, how the expulsion of evil spirits is a matter of routine in his work, much as it had been for his teacher. And once again, when he says he sees evil spirits, red in tooth and claw, after extracting them, he means it.

How in the world does someone prepare for that experience? I asked “When I was ready to deal with it, it appeared,” Beery said. “I believe that it happens to all of us. The teaching comes when you need to learn it.” Yet Beery was also careful to explain how shamanism, so closely tied to spirit, isn’t exclusively about spirit, nor is it religion in another guise. It cannot be learned instantly, and contrary to the essence of popular belief, he said, “Shamanic healing or shamanism is not a spiritual practice. It is a very result-oriented system of many proven tools that induce positive changes in a person’s life. One of the tools used is working directly with spirits.” So what are the other “tools” of the shaman’s trade? “Energy, sound, diet, body work, aromas, oils, prayers, hallucinatory plants, dreams, rituals, ceremonies and other natural means.”

This mash-up mentality is reflected in the accoutrements Beery keeps on his office table, from such familiar fixtures as a bottle of Agua de Florida and carnations, to Asian imports like finger cymbals. African stones are as likely to come to his hand as the volcanic rock of South America. Given that many shamanic traditions use animal sacrifice, what were his thoughts on that topic, I wanted to know. A legitimate part of the tradition, Beery said, but not one he practices, preferring to use eggs to extract and contain negative energy. Magic words?  Not needful, he explained. Asked if he learned the incantations in Quechuan, per his teacher, Beery acknowledged that he “sometimes had to do different prayers. Prayers are not as important as the intention you put in. Many shamans do a language that no one speaks—just sounds. What's important is intention and vibration, and not so much the words.” Besides, he says, healing requires a personal journey not just on the part of the shaman, but on the part of the one who would be healed.

In short, a jazz aesthetic—if it works, use it—seems to be the prevailing ethos here, and Beery points out that this is true of his mentors, too. Likewise, Beery’s apprenticeship, by his own reckoning, was more experiential than intellectual. And I was surprised that such elements as divination by candle wax and flame, and palm-reading, were part the inheritance of his Quechuan training, since they are more broadly familiar as the stock-in-trade of fortune telling. Other elements of what he described—auras and the like, the power of certain minerals—seemed more generically New Age. But similar elements indeed recur among the shamans of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil.

When Beery sized me up by examining my palm, he noted my potential to see spirits (I’ve certainly seen things I can’t account for), my two children (accurate), my indifference to materialism (accurate), my defining curiosity and creative drive (accurate, but perhaps also to be expected), my captivity to a restless mind (ask my wife)—and then added that my daughter resembled me and that my son favored my wife (Google-proof, very accurate, and a little uncanny). But when he said that I was a writer, we both had a good laugh; it was the purpose of my visit, after all. Or so I thought.

Photo by Pako Dominguez

Photo by Pako Dominguez

Like so much of what I would come to understand of shamanism, it seemed to exist in a world between worlds, a world that could not be codified, quantified, or even described. And if shamanic healing required an intensely personal journey for the shaman, it was clear that it required much of the person seeking to be healed. As Beery would say, “Shamanism is the only spiritual practice that comes from you, not from anybody else. It's your connection to spirit. There's no right and there's no wrong.”

As to the relationship between shamanic healing and conventional western medicine, Beery sees them both as complementary and necessary, and draws a comparison to gardening: “Like a gardener, medicine is attempting to clear the weeds from the garden by spraying chemicals or nipping the leaves and stems above the surface. Shamanic healers will look for a long-term solution by searching for the root of the illness and pulling them out from within the ground.”

One of Beery’s great aspirations is to “take the mystery out of shamanism, to take the primitive tug out of it, and make it available to everybody, and to really bring it back to the mass of people.” Eventually he hopes to see it take its place beside acupuncture, reiki, and other alternatives therapies, once ridiculed, that are now finding acceptance in western hospitals. He cites the successes of his healing work as his point of greatest joy: “When you are in the presence of magic, of the energy shift, it's—what can you say—I can see how people shift when they stand here. It changes.”

If it works, why should Beery be choosy about what constitutes an “authentic” Latin shaman? His borrowing, he said, came from respect, and of course, authenticity itself has a certain rationalist aroma about it. Beery has no qualms about it, seeing shamanism not as cooption, but as a global and democratic phenomenon. He is also plainspoken about the legacies of racism and colonialism, and the way that they have opposed shamanism in native culture with genocidal ferocity. And he hopes to play some part in healing the vestiges of colonialism: “These are the keepers of the wisdom, and what I'd like to really do is to have the young generation of shamans adopt that. That they would not be so disappointed with their parents. If we show appreciation for that, if we adopt that, it will encourage the indigenous people there to practice it. Their work is to save us all from the destruction of a culture.” Ultimately, Beery says, what we owe South American shamans is, foremost, gratitude: “Gratitude for those people who refused to die. That they kept these secrets in hiding for so many years. They kept the connection between the heart and the sky. They understood the magic of that. The essential part. Of not being disconnected.”

The territory we explored was not the stuff of small talk, and the otherworldliness of it was matched by the curious world of Beery’s studio. In the mild light of an Greenwich Village office full of the artifacts of Beery’s careers and travels—original artwork from advertisements, an astonishing sun-shaped shield made of tropical feathers, a set of handmade spears—the depths of his eyes were intermittently rendered a dull, indeterminate shade of hazel by the unsparing lightning of flash photography. The effect was similar to the moment when the lights are turned on in a barroom, and the flatness, the everydayness of things is laid bare. And then shaded again.

Why, I wondered, did I have this strange sense of having met Beery before, this nagging sense of acquaintance? I told myself it owed simply to the fact that in appearance and manner, Beery reminded me of no one so much as my Polish-American ancestors, from the angles of his face right down to his accented English. But at other times—and this is where it becomes unaccountable—in his familiarity he seemed someone else altogether, and I had the fleeting impression, however indistinct, of being seated before the Ecuadorian healer who had taught him. I could not put my finger on precisely why. It might have been his perfect comfort with human physicality. Or his matter-of-factness about how entirely mistaken most of us are about the true nature of reality. Even more difficult to express: the sense that he was, both entirely present, yet quite literally not altogether there, a comforter looking at you from across the threshold of an altogether different realm.

Photos by Pako Dominguez.