JERUSALEM — Wearing a full and graying beard, khaki trousers and a woolen vest, 66-year-old Ya’cub ibn Yusuf puttered around his little shop. Sufi-inspired sounds played by an Israeli musician piped from the speakers above. “Spiritual Books for Sale,” read the sign outside the door.

A middle-aged Orthodox woman wearing a colorful headscarf milled about the shelves of books on Sufism, Kabbalah and other mystic traditions. “This is one of my best customers,” Yusuf said.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “But if my rabbi found out I came here, he’d have a heart attack.”

Yusuf doesn’t have the same worry. His rabbi at the alternative synagogue he attends knows that Yusuf runs the Olam Qatan bookstore in the old Ottoman train station in Jerusalem. Yusuf is an observant Jew, but he also considers himself a Sufi. “He is everyone’s favorite Jewish Sufi,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a prominent Jewish advocacy organization based in Jerusalem.

To be clear, Sufism is an ancient Islamic mystic tradition that emphasizes the reduction of ego and the purification of the heart as paths to meeting God. There is a significant interest in Sufism among Israelis today, but its popularity among Palestinian Muslims has declined. Much of the interest in Sufism is among Israeli Jews. Later this month, (April 19 to 21), some 1,000 Israelis are expected to gather in the Negev Desert for the seventh Sufi festival. A promotional piece in secrettelaviv.com advertises “a space where music, dance and silence become a language.” Yusuf will be at the festival selling books and CDs. He will also give talks on the famous Sufi scholar Rumi and on the essence of Sufism.

(Godland News / Fergus Tuohy)

Yusuf believes that Sufism is popular with Israelis because it provides a bridge between East and West, between the secular and the religious. Many young Israelis go to India after completing mandatory military service and become more interested in spirituality. As Sufism is based in monotheism, it is more familiar than other Eastern traditions, he said.

Yusuf, who is originally from Brooklyn, first encountered Sufism while living in San Francisco in the 1970s. While others there seemed most interested in the spiritual music and poetry associated with the tradition, Yusuf began to pursue Sufism in earnest. He studied under a Jerusalem-based Muslim Sufi master for seven years. During that time, he struggled with whether or not to convert to Islam, but ultimately decided to remain a Jew. His master gave him the name Yacub. The name is appropriate, Yusuf says, as Jacob was the “God-wrestler.”

But Yusuf said he expects few, if any, Muslim Sufis will attend the April festival. “It will be mostly secular Israelis,” he said. “Too many half-naked women there dancing for the Arabs.”

Some Arab Sufis come to the festival as well. Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, a Muslim Sufi originally from Nazareth, taught classes at the festival in the past. He spoke well of the event, but said because it is mostly secular, he no longer attends. Manasra, who referred to Yusuf as “one of my best friends,” is an ordained Sheikh in the Qadiri Sufi Order in the Holy Land. He leads conferences, workshops, meetings and instructional webinars for hundreds of Sufis in the Holy Land and around the world. Among his students, he counts not only Muslims, but also Jews, Christians and Baha’is.

“Sufi is not a religion, it is a style of religious life,” Manasra said. “When I say Sufi, I mean spiritual.”

Manasra noted that Jews embracing Sufism is not a new phenomenon. He pointed to the son of Moses Maimonides, the prominent twelfth century Jewish philosopher and scholar. Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon succeeded his father as the head of the Egyptian Jewish community and embraced Sufi practices. “He was a Sufi,” Manasra said. “They were great Sufis.”

Manasra doesn’t try to convert his students. “They need to be Jews,” he said. “We have enough Muslims in the world. We need them to be great Jewish Sufis.”

As for Muslims, Manasra estimates before the 1948 war, most Palestinian Muslims were Sufis. But these numbers have diminished significantly. Today, Palestinian Muslims are largely Sunni. Manasra pointed to poverty and radicals as reasons for the decline in the spiritual practice. “When you are free, you can do many great things,” he said. “The fear of the occupation and the radicals on both sides can create a feeling and bad behavior and bad thinking. They cannot relax and cannot see the window of the horizon.”

Manasra no longer lives in Israel. He said that he had to flee the country because of pressure from Muslim radicals opposed to his devotion to interfaith work. They were beating up his son on a daily basis, Yusuf said. Manasra now lives in Florida, but serves as co-coordinator with Abrahamic Reunion, an interfaith organization which works for peace in the Holy Land.

Yusuf believes Sufism has gone underground among Palestinian Muslims. “I think the fanatics have really had an impact,” he said. “For Israeli Sufis like me, it’s not a problem. I’m part of a free pluralistic society, thank God. Also, I’m not a convert.”

As published in The Media Project.