Almi (Eliyahu Hayyim Sheps, 1892-1963) was a journalist on the staff of Montreal’s Keneder Adler. In 1921, he published Di Tsveyte Existenz (Second Existence), whose subject was spiritualism, a belief that it is possible to communicate with the dead through mediums. The book was advertised as the first-ever book on spiritualism in Yiddish.
Almi wanted to expose the Jewish public to the “scientific” basis of spiritualist teachings. He understood that readers would be skeptical and that many regarded the subject as a sham. He admitted that much criticism of spiritualism was well founded and that fraudulent mediums abounded.
He assured his readers that he did not wish to convert them, but wanted them to understand what drove renowned scientists to think spiritualism was a science. He highlighted the spiritualist convictions of the British Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Oliver Lodge, in order to present his readers with a “scientific” spiritualism. He wished readers to be open to the possibility that the immortality of human individuality is “scientifically” possible.
In his book, Almi refrained from presenting his own extensive experiences in spiritualist communication, fearing readers would think of them as hallucinations. Elsewhere, however, he recounted some experiences for which, try as he might, he had no rational explanation.
The most striking occurred in 1917 in a séance conducted by an Irish Christian woman. In her trance, the woman cried out: “Yitzhak Leibush Peretz is here.” At that moment, Almi saw a ghostly image of the Yiddish writer Peretz, whom he knew from Warsaw and who had died in 1915. He instinctively leapt from his place, cried out, and the materialisation vanished.
Almi was far from a simple spiritualist believer. He strongly resisted the allegation of critics that he came to spiritualism because, though he rejected the doctrines of Judaism, he wanted to salvage a “world to come” through spiritualism’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
However, there was some basis for his critics’ standpoint, Almi admitted. Since his childhood, he had been obsessed with death, and that initially led him to investigate spiritualism, in which he discovered “scientific” evidence for immortality.
He later wrote: “What right-thinking man can now candidly claim that the existence of spirit without body is an impossibility, that immortality is a fantastic theory only because it is not evident to our senses? Indeed it is at the present juncture presumptuous – nay unscientific – to disclaim the possibility of the existence of anything.”
Almi depicted the incident of the woman in En-Dor summoning the spirit of the Prophet Samuel (I Samuel, 28: 3-25) as a séance. He also claimed that Rabbi Jacob Gordon of Toronto believed in spiritualism, and that therefore these ideas not only were not heretical or harmful for Jews, but could explain many mysterious stories Jews told about chassidic masters, kabbalists and spirit possessions.
After Tzveyte Existenz, Almi commenced a multi-volume project to convey the spiritual teachings of world religions. These included Di Khinezishe Filozofye un Poezye (1925) on China, Di Reyd fun Buda (1927) on Buddhism, and Oyfn Veg der Geter (1929), which dealt with ancient Egypt, India, Japan and the American Indians.
Almi understood that he was attempting to do something for which the Yiddish-reading public saw no need. He was pointedly asked, “Are we all of a sudden Chinese? Write about Jews.”
It was this sort of intellectual provincialism in which religious and even secular Jews had metaphorically surrounded themselves with a “[Great] Wall of China” that he sought to combat. His goal was to create a synthesis of the cultures and religions of East and West in which each had something to give to the other.
Almi felt that the world was on its way to the development of a new consciousness in which there would be no room for the materialistic, fatalistic and dogmatic “religion” of atheists, for whom science served as a sort of magical formula explaining everything.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose story The Séance demonstrates familiarity with circles of Jewish spiritualists, referred to Almi as a mystic comparable to Hillel Zeitlin, whom Almi knew and admired. Almi was, Singer concluded, a God-seeker, not a God-finder.
Ira Robinson is a professor of religion and chair and director of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.