During Yanir Kolinsky’s search for meaning, he never expected that his personal journey to truth and contentment would be so long and winding, taking him through many countries and cultures. In the end, he came full circle, and found what his soul was thirsting for.

From Argentina to Israel and Back

Yanir was born in Eilat in 1981 to parents who had emigrated from Argentina. When he was four years old, they decided to return there. “They’d fled because of the junta,” says Yanir, “and when the situation got better, they decided to return to the country they were used to.”

Growing up in Argentina, they were completely estranged from Judaism. They didn’t know about Shabbat, kosher or the festivals—even Yom Kippur was just nominally celebrated. “Yom Kippur was like a regular day for us. Everybody went to work and gathered in the shul at the end of the day to eat. In Israel, my father learned about the Passover Seder, and he wanted to introduce it to his family, but they were against it and he gave up.” The only mitzvah that Yanir saw in his house was his father putting on tefillin every weekday and reciting a short prayer.

“As far back as I can remember, I was looking for meaning, for spirituality. Something was burning in me, and I knew there must be more to life. This inspired me to become an activist for the good of animals, the world, the green movement, and other things that I thought would provide meaning, but the meaning wasn’t there, and I was left feeling empty.”

Looking for the Meaning of Life in India

Yanir returned to Israel when he was 19, living in an artists’ village in Ein Hod. “I spent time helping a local artist with his work. When he murmured some words before eating, I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that he always said a few words of thanks to the Creator of the world, who gave him his food. This was when I realized I was on track to find the meaning I was searching for, that I was about to touch the vast, hidden well that gave life its purpose.” Yanir’s friend explained that he had lived in India for a long time, and there he had learned about the purpose of life.

Yanir says that he did have religious friends, but he didn’t believe that Judaism had the spirituality he was looking for. “I saw things through the perspective of most secular Israelis; I thought they were ignorant and that the mitzvahs they did were primitive mumbo-jumbo, without any real connection to true spirituality or the higher meaning of life.”

But Yanir’s encounter with his artist friend inspired him—enough that within a week, he was on a plane back to Argentina to ask his parents for money and permission to travel to India. They refused, worried about his safety in such a big country that suffered from poverty and disasters. But with little argument, they agreed to let him travel to any eastern country except India. Yanir opened a map, saw a large country, pointed to it and announced that he wanted to go there. When his parents saw that this was China, they agreed.

Yanir landed in China with no knowledge of the country and no one to show him around. “I walked straight into the streets. I gave myself the freedom to get lost in the different planet that was China and to search for myself.” This wandering led him to the some of the more far-flung places in China—monasteries, Buddhist temples, distant villages. He thought he had finally found the meaning he was seeking. He accepted Buddhism, dressed as a monk, studied meditation and offered incense. His time in the monasteries also revived his childhood love of music.

But after a time, he started to feel that, in spite of the sense of peace and spiritual meaning it gave him, “this wasn’t it. Buddhism teaches you to separate yourself from everyday life, and I wanted to integrate spirituality into my daily life.”

Exotic Instruments in India and Studying the Koran in Cyprus

Yanir began wandering again, crossing the border from China to Nepal and traveling to Laos and Thailand. In the end, he decided, in spite of his parents’ wishes, that he had to go to India. He lived for a while in Varanasi in northern India—the holiest site in the world to Hindus—and there he connected deeply with Hinduism. Here, too, music helped him connect. He learned to play the sitar, and was so good at it that he was asked by the Hindu priests to play it during religious ceremonies held on the Ganges River. After a period, Yanir decided to return home as a Hindu priest. But this only lasted a couple of weeks, as he realized that Hinduism also involves disconnecting from the world and the inability to live a regular life, especially with regard to having a family.

“But I didn’t give up. I was convinced that there must be a religion that I could live with in the real world. Another period of searching brought me to a tribe of Indians living in southern Argentina. I felt a strong connection to them, with their belief in a simple life and connection with nature. Even though in the Far East I had also met people who believed in these things, this felt more real, more pure. But very soon I realized that I hadn’t found what I was looking for with the Indians either; I found myself more connected to the land, and less to the spirit, and I continued my search.”

Then he met a Muslim Sufi. “We’re talking about a sect of Islam that believes in reincarnation, mystical dances and a lot of special music. What really grabbed me was their remarkable music, a type of music that I hadn’t heard anywhere else, a music that gave me a feeling of very high spirituality, of connection to G‑d. When one of my mentors realized that I was Jewish, he told me that according to their tradition, this music came from the Holy Temple, and that was why it was so special and holy. Much later, I connected this with the fact that the Jews were exiled to Babylon (modern-day Iraq), and after that to Persia (modern-day Iran). The non-Jews in those places had borrowed this music from us.” Here, too, Yanir learned to play various exotic instruments, and after a short while he flew to northern Cyprus, the heartland of the Sufis whom he had connected to.

The Wake-Up Call

In Cyprus, Yanir lived in a mosque and spent a good part of his time studying the Koran. He repeatedly traveled back and forth between northern Cyprus and Argentina, spending some months in religious studies in Cyprus and other months among the Argentinean branch of the Sufis who had introduced him to Islam. “My parents were extremely frustrated, and I think they were in despair. I had already converted to Islam, and I wore a Muslim cap and white clothing. I was only willing to marry a Sufi, and was certain that I would die a Muslim.”

But then things changed: “On that day, I was in the Sufi mosque in Argentina. I was learning the Koran and I reached the chapter where it’s written that you can leave the Jews alive, but you have to subjugate them until they accept upon themselves the religion of Islam. This shook me up. I told myself, ‘I can live as a Muslim, but what about my parents, who aren’t willing to accept the Muslim religion? Do they have to be subjugated and oppressed all their lives for it, and by my very hands?’ Several days later, I came to the chapter of the Koran that describes how the trees and stones will give up the Jews who hide behind them, calling out to the Muslim pursuers, ‘There is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him!’ At that moment—the first time in over seven years of traveling and searching for myself—my mind conjured up the image of my father wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin. I realized that I might have gone too far, and I decided to think carefully before I took a step from which there was no return.”

And then another thing happened to bring Yanir back. On his way to Cyprus, he stopped in Israel for a family event. He was hitchhiking to some relatives but dozed off in the car and woke up in the Golan. “This was the first time I had ever been to the Golan, and despite having seen any number of breathtaking sights, at that moment I saw beauty beyond anything I had ever seen before. On one side were the green hills of the Golan; on the other side, the blue waters of the Kinneret. I was completely blown away. There are no words to describe how beautiful it seemed. For the first time, I decided that I wanted to live out my life in this land.”

This experience, together with his earlier experience reading the Koran, gave him a desire to learn more about Judaism. Yanir remembered what he had been told about the “theft” of the music from the Jews, and now it began to dawn on him that many elements of other religions had been borrowed from the Jews, and so it was worth going to the source. He decided to speak to a rabbi. The rabbi spoke and spoke, but Yanir quickly lost interest. “He tried to persuade me, and it turned into an argument. I ended up leaving in anger.

“The rabbi saw that we weren’t speaking the same language and asked me to speak to a Jew in Jerusalem. So I found myself in the home of Chabad chassid Rabbi Yonadav Kaplan. I was very suspicious of him and we barely spoke, but I did observe the running of a Jewish household and realized that I’d found what I was looking for, a life of holiness, where spirituality and belief infuse everyday life. When I saw Rabbi Kaplan saying a blessing before eating, it gave me shivers. I realized I had come full circle, back to where I was when I began my search almost eight years earlier. I thought through all the religions I had seen during all those years and realized that only here, in Judaism, was there complete integration of spirituality and physicality, the ethereality of religion with the humdrum details of everyday life.” Rabbi Kaplan directed him to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg. They spoke heart to heart, and Rabbi Ginsburg supplied him with answers to his many questions.

Harmony of Marriage

One of the things that especially attracted Yanir to Judaism was the harmony between spouses. “Buddhist priests don’t marry; Hindus generally do marry, but they focus mainly on the spiritual world and not so much on their wives. The Muslims do not have very much respect for their wives, and the fact that they allow a man to marry several wives makes it almost impossible to form the special, close relationship that makes a successful marriage. The only place I found true, mutual respect was in Jewish marriages—a firm and loving marriage that dovetails the spiritual pursuits of both husband and wife. Only Judaism showed me how you could combine spirituality with daily life.”

But like many who are attracted to the way of Chabad and admire their daily efforts to bring the light of Judaism to all the Jews of the world, he realized that he still hadn’t completed his mission. “I saw many teenagers, including religious ones, who were bored with life and seeking adventure. So I started a series of performances called ‘Stories of the Way’ to tell about my search for meaning and truth. Another reason I did it is that there’s a religious obligation to spread Jewish knowledge and spirituality.”

Part of what is special about these performances is the many instruments Yanir brings, several from each country and culture he encountered on his journey. The instruments include a sitar—a Hindu instrument made out of pumpkin and fruit trees, with 20 strings; a rideau—a primitive instrument from Thailand made from a eucalyptus tree that’s been eaten by termites, and only makes one sound; an erhu—a Chinese violin with two strings that sit on a snakeskin, which produces unique sounds and can also be used to imitate animal noises; an avloosi—an Indian harp made from squash and bamboo, which produces touching melodies in three tones; a sentor—a sophisticated wooden instrument the size of a small table, with 66 strings; a nye—a flute made from ordinary reeds that sounds a distinct call; a kamchatka—an ancient Turkish harp used to play a special, rare melody; and a duduk—an Armenian pipe that has been called the father of the clarinet.

“The different melodies bring my spiritual journey alive for my listeners . . . It’s amazing how perfectly each instrument and tune typifies the spiritual outlook of each culture, faith or country. It helps me to show that what we have here, our Jewish birthright, is the best thing in the world and there is nothing like it anywhere else, neither in religion nor land.”