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Yosef Wosk journeys to the top and bottom of the world and deep inside his soul in Naked in a Pyramid

Wosk
Yosef Wosk's Naked in a Pyramid reveals a man of boundless curiosity.

Naked in a Pyramid: Travel & Observations, by Yosef Wosk. Anvil Press. 224 pp. Softcover.

Vancouver scholar and adventurer Yosef Wosk chose an unusual title for his most recent book. In Naked in a Pyramid: Travel & Observations (Anvil Press), the former rabbi reveals that 40 years ago, he spent some time alone inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.

After removing his clothes, he donned two leather straps—one around his head and the other around an arm—with amulets bearing words from the Torah. Then he meditated underneath this monument, according to the book.

“It might have been the only time in history this was done in a pyramid—certainly by a man as naked as Adam,” Wosk writes. “It connected me to the heritage of my birth tradition as a member of the biblical tribe of Levi, and to the Exodus from the very civilization that built this extraordinary structure.”

Wosk, the son of a prominent Jewish businessman and philanthropist, dishes up many more surprises in Naked in a Pyramid, writing evocatively about his ventures to the North and South poles. He also shares his experiences in the historic city of Carthage, at a difficult-to-access airport in mountainous Bhutan, and at the gravesite of Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is not simply a travel book. It’s a memoir of making human connections, told by an erudite friend unafraid to share his foibles.

Wosk writes with humility

In one compelling section, Wosk reveals what he learned as a teaching assistant to Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Another memorable chapter revolves around Wosk’s imaginary conversation with the 19th-century Russian novelist Dostoevsky. Their discussion about writing is riveting and revelatory.

“There I was, a delusional man of sixty-two, deliberating with the remnants of a great talent’s spectre who died from a cacophony of ailments when he, himself was only fifty-nine years old,” Wosk discloses in the book. “When alive, Dostoevsky had used his days to gather words in a bountiful harvest whereas even if I had stumbled across a flowered phrase or inspired idea I often let it wilt, foolishly promising myself that I would remember it, that I would return when ready, when I was in the mood to arrange each flowered word as a bouquet of perfect prose.”

There’s the “official” Yosef Wosk who’s been honoured with countless awards, including Freedom of the City and the Order of Canada, for his extreme philanthropy. In Naked in a Pyramid, we meet the real Yosef Wosk, a curious, compassionate, and open-minded soul who’s tried his best to seek meaning in the world and comfort others, even while plagued with self-doubt.

After reading Naked in a Pyramid, I feel like I’m a lot closer to understanding this enigmatic figure who has done so much for Vancouver. It’s one of those rare books that you wish will never end.

Wosk

Shattering a stereotype

It’s easy to typecast the children of the wealthy. The rich are often perceived as more selfish, arrogant, hypocritical, and less considerate than others, according to social-science research. Wosk, on the other hand, demolishes this stereotype by going in the exact opposite direction, elevating his consciousness through scholarship and engagement with the world. He’s a learned man who manages to quote Rumi, Carl Jung, and Rabindranath Tagore—as well as leading theologians—while remaining devoid of pretense.

“I was always serious and dedicated to fulfilling what I could, and yet I often felt inadequate to the challenges at hand,” Wosk writes with characteristic humility. “I stumbled as much as strode; ruined as much as repaired; made as many mistakes in thought, emotion and action as I was able to bring about good, even noble, results.

“I am an imperfect messenger who learned from imperfect teachers,” he adds. “No more; no less.”

That may all be true, but he’s still written a wildly entertaining, thoughtful, and, some might say, perfect book.

The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival will present Yosef Wosk and novelist and poet Gary Barwin in conversation with Alan Twigg in Essays As Life Stories. It will take place at 4 p.m. on February 11 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. Tickets are available here. The festival runs from February 10 to 15.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.