HAD she received a better Jewish education, Marianne Williamson believes she might have become a rabbi.
Instead, Williamson has become one of America’s best-known New Age self-help gurus.
Now Williamson, the author of a dozen books, wants to extend her influence to the highest office in the land: she has announced a bid to run for the Democratic nomination for president.
Should she win, the 66-year-old would not only be the first woman president but the first Jewish one.
Williamson claims to have raised two-thirds of the $300,000 needed to run a campaign in the first few days since MarianneForAmerica went live.
Williamson ran for a California House seat in 2014, coming in a respectable fourth place, though she ran as an independent without party backing.
Her book Healing the Soul of America has just been reissued in an updated 20th anniversary version. In it she distills her vision of spiritually aware politics, covering topics from the Constitution to economics to racial reconciliation.
A commitment to social justice causes goes back even longer.
In 1989, in the early days of the AIDS crisis, Williamson established Project Angel Food in Los Angeles to provide meals to seriously ill people.
In 2004 she co-founded The Peace Alliance, a grassroots educational endeavour that teaches peace-building skills.
She is no longer affiliated with the latter organisation; she recently hosted a fundraising event for Project Angel Food and was honoured at its 25th anniversary gala.
Following a talk by Williamson, as part of her Integrative Politics series, a young woman said that she was raised without any religion and attends Williamson’s talks because they give her something she needs but can’t quite name.
At Williamson’s home, there is a mezzuza on her doorpost and a large golden Buddha inside.
Being Jewish is something Williamson references frequently, if fleetingly, in public appearances.
Still, there are times and places that she identifies strongly as a Jew.
On November 4, her keynote address to several hundred Muslim and Jewish women at the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom conference in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was a departure from her usually controlled style of speaking.
Just a few days after the murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh, Williamson made an emotional call to political arms.
“I am speaking to you as a Jewish woman.Where fear has been turned into a political force in America, we must turn love into a political force,” she declared.
“With the history of Muslims and the history of Jews and of blacks and of immigrants, it is time for something fierce to rise up out of us.
“To say ‘you did it to my grandparents and you are not going to do it to my kids'!”
Williamson grew up in Houston attending Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue that was hit hard by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.
She went to Hebrew school there while attending local public schools, and recalled joining a Jewish sorority while at Bellaire High.
At synagogue in her mid-teens, Williamson heard Rabbi William Malev preach against the war in Vietnam.
“I was very impressed how relevant he was. It was my first experience of the pulpit used as such a powerful force for social commentary,” she said.
At California’s Pomona College she read theatre and philosophy before dropping out in her junior year.
She moved to New Mexico “to live in a geodesic dome,” she said, then to Austin, Texas.
She spent her 20s leading what she calls “a nomadic existence”, moving between San Francisco and New York, where she worked as a waitress and cabaret singer.
Her career as a spiritual mentor began at 31 while living in Los Angeles and teaching A Course in Miracles at a centre for metaphysical study; she had talked her way into a job there. People started showing up to listen.
Williamson was the first to popularise A Course in Miracles, an overtly Christian, God-focused self-improvement book written by Helen Schucman and first published in 1976.
Soon after the book was published Williamson, who was then in her 20s, picked up a copy in a New York City apartment where she was attending a party.
“I saw Christian terminology and, being Jewish, I put it right back down,” Williamson said.
A year later, Williamson’s then-boyfriend gave her a copy. This time she read it through and began doing the accompanying workbook exercises.
She continues to do the exercises daily during the time she sets aside for meditation and reflection. She also practices Transcendental Meditation.
Williamson has been God-focused since she was a young girl in Houston, and though her family was culturally Jewish rather than religious, she said the Shema every night.
“I’d have a conversation with God,” she added. “I’ve always had a thing about God.”
Since she was a teenager, she’s had an interest in religion “whether it’s Eastern or Western, traditional or esoteric”.
Williamson gave birth to her daughter, India Emma, in 1990, at 38. While Williamson was briefly married to a man she has alluded to having been a heroin addict, she has never publicly identified India’s father.
Now 28, India lives in London and is pursuing a doctorate in history.
India “is very involved in her synagogue,” said Williamson, and has a more traditional Jewish practice than she does.
On the High Holidays this year, Williamson went to an Orthodox synagogue in New York's Chelsea suburb.
Williamson’s career really took off when she wrote A Return to Love.
After its publication in 1992, Oprah Winfrey read it, bought 1,000 copies and had Williamson on her television talk show. In the years since, Williamson has continued to be one of Oprah’s frequent guests.
Williamson was 60 when she made her first trip to Israel, and said she’s been back four or five times in the past six years.
“It is very emotional to be in Israel,” she said.
Williamson said she has visited the usual tourist sites and the West Bank.
She’s also spent time at a Hand in Hand School, where Israelis and Palestinians are educated together.
“I don’t think the ultimate answer will be about settlements or checkpoints,” she said.
“The work of the genuine peace builders must be on the level of the heart.”
She also said that “until America returns to where it can be considered an honest broker” by the Palestinians, as well as Israelis, it won’t be able to play a constructive role.
Williamson quoted Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, saying: “It is true that we aspire to our ancient land. But what we want in that ancient land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit.”
Williamson said she admires Herzl.
“He was a whole person thinker, addressing the spiritual as well as the political aspirations of the Jews,” she said.
“And that’s what the new Zionism needs to concern itself with.”
Williamson added: “I don’t believe in traditional politics.
“They must be overridden. We need a more inspiring and compelling conversation about our democracy and our future. The foundations of our democracy are being eroded.
“We need a whole-person politics that speaks to emotions and psychology.
“The American people are not the problem. Our broken democracy is the problem.
“The fact that money, rather than the will of the people, dominates policy, that is the problem.
“The problem is that we have a tyranny by the minority. The policies of this administration do not represent the consciousness of the American people.”
And, Williamson said, “it would be nice to have a new chapter”.
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