Shems Friedlander – a young man’s account of 1950-60 spiritual America



Shems Friedlander: A friend of ours, Ellen Burstyn who’s an actress was doing a play in New York City. At the same time, she was up for an Academy Award for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it was a film. So, she lived out in the countryside. It was quite a ways for her to go home.

So, on the eve of the Academy Awards which the time change in California, she finished her play on Broadway and ran up to our house. We all watched on television and she actually won the Academy Award sitting in our living room. So, that was kind of remarkable. Within the next three days, Jack Nicholson came to the house and a number of other people were coming to take her out somewhere or to go to some party or something like that. So, that was kind of on another level was interesting. A lot of artists, I was very involved with the art community and poets and artists would come.

It was a very interesting house in New York city because it was a coach house, so it had air on all four sides and it was behind another building. So, you walk through a corridor in a building, came to a courtyard and there was a small house in front of it.

It was a stone house two stories high with a double skylight in the top floor and a sort of corridor kitchen on the top floor and there was this one big room and I painted that room and it was a living room and I built a loft to do design work off of it because it was very, very high ceilings.

And then downstairs, which was even a little bit below the surface of the ground, it was on a flat stone there was no basement or anything there was a bedroom and a bathroom

                                    Amina:                    Where is the house? Do you remember the address?

Shems: It’s on 84th Street between New York Avenue and East End.

It is still there.

Narrator: It may seem like this is a story about a house, in new york and in some ways it is…and it isn’t.  it’s about a man who lived in the house and how he would invite different kinds of people to stay with him.  His name is Ira Friedlander, which he would later change to Shems Friedlander, who is 73 years old now and is a renowned artist, photographer and author. He describes himself as someone who was always in to art, and poetry and meditation.

He would be a seeker—always searching for something in his life. Much of that search for that something would start like this

Shems: I had read a poem and it was just two lines, I didn’t know who wrote it, it was anonymous and it left a mark. It just struck a note in my heart and stayed with me as I was young and through my teens and actually through university years, it’s through my whole life.

It went, “I cried because I had no shoes and then I met a man who had no feet.”

Narrator: he was 9 when he read the poem.  But there was no author and no origin to the poem. But it peaked his interest.  Over the next few years he would also develop his own poetry.  But that poem would stay with him for years, wanting to know what it meant, where it came from, who wrote it.  Over the rest of his life, he’d lead a journey that was very Santiago in Paulo Coehlo’s the alchemist…searching for the soul of the world and what his personal legend may be.  would in some ways be a search for the heart of this poem.  It would take him several decades and many out of this world experiences that would finally lead him to know where this poem came from.


We all know that today in America it’s almost like it’s hip to go to a Buddhist temple or to do weekly yoga or tai chi or attend meditation…but it wasn’t always that way in America…and learning about those roots is a study of its own.

Shem’s life journey adds a touch of knowledge and insider experience to that part of Americana, that alternative religious and artist scene that was erupting in American life during the 60’s and 70s, at the convergence of the the hippie movement and lax immigration laws.   In fact his own parents were immigrants to this country too several decades before that.

His father came from Russia to Montreal and worked selling sandwiches on a train that went between Montreal and NY. He couldn’t speak English at the time, but was able to learn enough to know the name of the sandwiches and how much money they needed to pay.

Shems:  One day he just got off in New York and didn’t get back on the train and he went and found a cousin of his in Brooklyn who was an electrician and he took him in, taught him the trade actually and I think in the late 1920s got him into the union which was a big deal in those days to get into. An electrical union or any kind of union in those days was a big deal. It afforded you a job and money.

Narrator: Then he met Shems’s mother, when he was back in Montreal, visiting.

Shems: Actually an amazing story. My father was walking with a friend of his in Montreal and he saw this beautiful woman in the second storey window of the building across the street, and he remarked to his friend that there is a very beautiful woman there and his friend sort of coyly said, “Well, are you interested in her” and he says, “Well, I could be.” He says, “Well, I know her. She is the sister of a friend of mine.” So, they were introduced and they courted and married.

Narrator: And then Shems and his sister were born in New York.

Shems:  I had a lot of questions in my youth, in my teens and especially — and I was writing a lot of poetry and I was searching. I was on a search I think for as long as I could remember, I was a seeker

Narrator: He graduated from college and then eventually started working at a design studio in NY, and when a colleague moved out of his rental home, Shems moved in.  that’s the coach house that those famous actors came to.  But he’d essentially open his home to anything that seemed poetic or artistic at that time.  And among them were spiritual gurus and teachers coming to American and especially new york.

Ram Dass met Pir Vilayat Khan in my house. I brought the two of them together and they sat for hours, I remember on the couch to talk to one another and bring in those two traditions into cohesion. I remember Swami Atmananda who came from India one time who used to do a puja and we did a puja in the bottom floor in the tiny room.  I worried sometimes whether the house would burn down because puja has to do with fire and Hindu prayer.

There were just these things happening all the time. It’s just a very common occurrence in those days for somebody to come and say, “Oh, I met somebody in India and they said I could stay with you.” I wouldn’t even know who they are. I said, “Well, okay if there was room I’d let them stay for a night or two or three and if there wasn’t, I would send them somewhere else that they would be taken care of

I just felt I was sort of like an innkeeper spiritually, innkeeper so to speak that they could come and hang out.

I met a lot of very important spiritual teachers. I was fortunate enough to be in the west at that time when the spiritual energy from the east was being transferred to the west and many, many teachers of many different paths were coming. I was in the heart of at all in New York City at that time and very involved with it.

I met a lot of Buddhist masters and a lot of Tibetans and there was just an influx at that time. It’s hard to explain because it didn’t exist before in America and all of a sudden, all of this energy came in one fell swoop, as if the spirituality of the planet had to move in order to balance it.

                                        Amina:  In the ’60s?

This was in the ’60s and ’70s. Very few spiritual masters actually came from the east to the west before that. Then all of a sudden, there was an enormous input of energy was brought to the States and it changed a whole generation and generations to come. I was just part of that. I was right in the middle of that for whatever reason.

                                      Amina:  If you were to give a theory as to why that is, what would you say?

I think the planet had to be balanced in some way. We were overly – after the Second World War, this country was overly directed toward things and losing any kind of inner values. Unfortunately, I think it’s gone back to that to a certain degree but not with everyone. So, I think that on a level that we don’t understand, this energy was being moved to balance the planet in some way and to bring a certain essential necessity to the livelihood of people in the west.

So, I met like Swami Muktananda who was a guru from India.  It was in upstate New York in a place called Big Indian.  I sort of did a sort of Namaste, I put my palms together and greeted him that way and I thought that was sufficient.

He looked to me like Thelonious Monk. I mean, this dark guy with a funny hat, funny woven colorful hat and a swagger stick he was walking with and twirling around.

He grabbed my arm at the forearm and he just greeted me.

He had left something when he had held my arm and I didn’t realize that but I realized there was something happening between us.  I went in, took my shoes off, went in the room I sat behind about maybe 12, 15 people were sitting on the floor in front of me. He was sitting on a bed, cross legged in front of everybody and I just sat there, you know cross legged and he was talking answering questions of these people and then all of a sudden — I mean, he just looked at me, he didn’t say anything to me and touch me or anything and I just felt another presence in my body. I felt like he was there.

By then I was in a deep meditative state. I couldn’t even move on my own.

I felt that was going further and further outside of myself, myself, me and my body and at a certain point my hands just fell down into mid-air I wasn’t there anymore and I felt there was a tiny, tiny reference of breath that existed, that gave me the confidence that I would be back, right? But I was out seeing amazing colors and beautiful things and Buddha and Christ and all these amazing figures and I looked to my side and Muktananda was flying next to me.

After sometime I have no idea how long it was but I’m told later that it was like at least over an hour and a half, right? I sort of felt almost like you know when you look at a cyclone how it kind of comes in to a point, I felt that all kind of came back into my chest and like with the thud and like a jolt and I felt that was in my body again.

I had heard prior to that music in a very, very long distance away, like it was in the woods somewhere distant and when I came back and I — I saw there were like 15 or 20 people dancing and singing 10 feet away from me, but to me it sounded like a great distance away. And Muktananda was standing right next to me, put his hand on my head and I just grabbed his leg and hugged his leg and he lifted me up and he said to me

“You’ve just been reborn, you will never lose what you’ve just been given no matter what happens in your life, it’s yours. It doesn’t belong to anyone else, it is yours.

Narrator: One day Shems heard that the Whirling Dervishes were coming for a show in Brooklyn.  He had heard of these Mevlevi whirling dervishes because of his fascination with the poet Rumi, who founded this Sufi order.  and he would, naturally, have them over his home.  And this would be the moment that would bring him closer to learning the origins of that poem he read..

The Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I just went naturally. They did a sama and I went afterwards backstage so to speak, and introduced myself and brought them back to my house, all the people that were there from Turkey.

They all came back and I’d give them tea and we’d send out for food or pizza or something and drink tea and they’d play music and we’d make zikr and got very friendly. We did this every night for 10 nights while they were here. When they left, they said, “You are just like us. We’ve been all over the country and you’re the only one that’s invited us to their home and this is how we are. So, when you come to Turkey, please come and see us.”

It turned out, this was around October and December is the Orders of Mevlana, the remembrance of the day Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi passed. There’s a big sama celebration in Konya.

So, a friend and I decided we were going to go, and we went. When we got there, I realized that everybody knew me. I said, “How could this be?” But they had come back and talked about this guy, Shems who lived in New York. I go on the street and storekeepers would come out and wave at me and say, “As-salamu alaykum, Shems.” It was amazing and I was allowed to come in when they were dressing and right in the back while they were preparing and I started to photograph. I was a photographer also and I started to photograph the event and the whole thing, which later developed into a book. At that time, the only things about Rumi that existed was what Nicholson and Arbury had written, maybe three, four books in the market.

I did this book on the Whirling Dervishes and now of course there are hundreds –many hundreds of books on Rumi. But in those days, it was not that much.

Then one day, this burly guy with three or four guys with him in overcoats because it was winter, and white hats, came in to the hotel lobby and everybody that was a Dervish ran to them to greet them. This was a Sheikh, Muzaffer and Halveti-Jerrahi, a Sheikh from Istanbul.

I went over and greeted him, he greeted me and that was it and that night, he was going to lead a zikr in an apartment in Konya. So, of course they invited me. It was a tiny apartment, 70 or so people were scrunched into this, like literally shoebox into the small area and I was pasted against the wall and it was so hot in there.

Several of the Sheikh and his Dervishes were in a circle.  I said, “I can’t stay here for hours like this.” So, I don’t know what led me to do it but I went and sat down on my knees beside the Sheikh and his khalifa, in between the two of them. Not invited, I just went and pushed them aside and I sat down. I don’t know why, I can’t answer that question.

They started making a zikr and I followed in the zikr and it was very natural for me to do it. It became part of me.

They went through various manifestation of this very, very long zikr and it went for hours and hours and after it was finished, the Sheikh looked to me and he says, “You make zikr like us” and he kissed my eyes. He said to me, “I want you to come and see me in Istanbul.” and I said, “Insha’Allah, I’ll be there.”

I went and he told his khalifa “Take Shems, give him some dinner and bring him to the teca tonight.” He brought me to his house and we went to the teca afterwards. As I entered, he got up and he said something with his arms raised.

I didn’t know what he said for 10 years, but from that day on I was like part of the whole thing.

I found out what he said on a bus, 10 years later, a bunch of Dervishes were going somewhere and one of them turned to me and said, “Have you ever wondered why you’ve just been so accepted here and you’ve been one of us since the day you walked into the teca and you’re our brother?”

These are people that never asked me what I did. They didn’t know my last name, they didn’t care what my position was in life at all. I said, “Well, I guess I was curious for a while.” He says, “Well, when you came in, Sheikh Muzzafar stood up and said, “This is our brother. You will treat him as such. He is one of us.” I found that out 10 years later.

Narrator: Through his getting to know the Sufi order in Turkey, he also then learned where the poem that he read at 9 came from.

Shems: I found that this was a poem written by the great Persian Sufi poet Hafez.          

Narrator: I cried because I had no shoes. And then I met a man who had no feet.

Shems’ life shows the great story of a global spirituality coming in to an American scene and how it impacted millions of Americans just like him.  He joined the Sufi sect and continues to be on a mystical out of this world journey across the world that incorporates wisdom from across time, space and spiritual movements.

Shems: When somebody asked the Buddha what’s wrong with the world, he said, “There’s never enough.” If people clamor and dig for the gold, they may have gold in the end but that’s all they’ll have and it’s a passing thing and it doesn’t mean very much.

You don’t remember something that you were in memory off. So, it’s a constant play like that and I think those who have gone astray and are involved in the world, the magnetism of being drawn into a world that’s temporary. My Sheikh used to say that life is a bridge and who in their right mind would ever build a house on a bridge?

                                                      Amina:  Where did you end up? Where did you go?

Shems: I haven’t ended up yet, I’m still here.


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    Amina Chaudary - The Editor's Desk

    Amina Chaudary is the Editor in Chief of The Islamic Monthly

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