What is a Fly Fishing Rabbi?

On Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, you can find me leading prayer services, giving sermons and blessing the congregation. I am a rabbi at a Jewish Temple of 750 families in New York. But on a Sunday afternoon in the summer months, you may have trouble locating me at the Temple. For then I am waist-deep in cold water, casting my dry flies to those mysterious and hidden trout of upstate New York. In my congregation they call me, Rabbi Eisenkramer. But when on the stream, I prefer this name: The Fly Fishing Rabbi.

At first glance, the idea of a Fly Fishing Rabbi may seem a bit strange. After all, what does fly fishing have to do with being religious? I chose this name because it reflects two of my great passions, being a rabbi and spending time on cold-water trout streams.

It turns out that I am not the only religious person who loves to fly fish. As you can probably guess, one of my favorite movies is: A River Runs Through It. I remember seeing it in 1993 at the Hi-Pointe, a tiny independent movie theatre in St. Louis. Up to that time, I had never tried fly-fishing. Watching the film, I was captivated by the wondrous scenery in Montana, the graceful casting and the excitement of the rising fish. To put it simply, I was hooked. (A terrible pun.) Not long afterwards I purchased my first fly-fishing rod, a St. Croix 5/6 weight 8’6″, that continues to serve me well to this day.

Based on the autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It is a memoir that interweaves fishing, religion, Montana and early 20th Century life. Norman begins the film by saying: “In my family, there was no clear division between religion and fly fishing.” The father, a protestant minister, teaches his two sons, Norman and Paul, about the beauties of God, nature and the dry fly.

I discovered a kindred spirit in the Reverend Maclean. There was much about us that was different. He was Christian, I am Jewish. He grew up in the 1920s. I grew up in the 1980s. Yet we both dedicated much of our adult lives to searching for trout and for God. And both can be equally elusive. In my life too, there is no clear division between religion and fly-fishing.

I suspect that the Reverand Maclean would agree with me that fly fishing is a spiritual experience. When I am on the stream, waist high in 50 degree water, the only sounds I hear are the gently flowing water and the crickets and rustling of the trees through the wind. When I am fishing, it’s just me and the water and the fish. There is nothing else in the world. On the river, all of the other parts of my life disappear: all worries, all stress, all thoughts of work, of what I have to do tomorrow or the next day, they are all gone. Fly fishing is about living in the moment, being so caught up in your casting and search for trout, that everything else disappears.

The trout stream is not the only place to find those precious moments of peace. They are also there when I am praying with my congregation. In a Jewish house of worship, the room where one prays is called the sanctuary. The name of the room describes its purpose; a sanctuary is a place to escape from the outside world, to be protected, shielded and safe.

Even during a prayer service, when the sanctuary is filled with hundreds of people, there are still moments of solitude. During each service, I invite everyone in the congregation to pray silently. I often say: “Take a moment to close your eyes. Feel the air coming in and out of your lungs. Listen to your heart beat. And then offer a blessing for all that is good, holy and precious in your life.” I am blessed to have two sanctuaries in my life, the cold-water streams of upstate New York, and the sanctuary in my Temple, where I find inner-peace.

Fly fishing can also create another powerful feeling, a deep connection to nature. On one fishing trip in rural Missouri, I decided to hike up to the source of the river. I discovered a beautiful spring that was coming right out of the rocks. It was a powerful spring that created a large circular pool, perhaps ten feet wide and twenty feet deep. And from this pool, the river flowed down for miles. I was amazed by this Missouri spring. Every second of every day, thousands of gallons of pure, cold water flowed from the ground. It never stopped or took a day off. The well-spring that fed the river is eternal. At moments like these, when seeing a beautiful spring or a sunset with streaks of purple and orange or hearing the soft sounds of the river flowing over the smooth rocks, I feel in awe of nature. I ask myself: How is it that we came to live in such an amazing world?

Feelings of appreciation and connection to nature are a doorway that can lead to the divine. One of my favorite stories tells of a doctor who watched a solar eclipse. He was overcome by the beauty of this natural event. When the eclipse ended, he clapped and cried out: “Encore, Encore!” And then upon reflection, he added: “Author, Author!” When fly fishing on a beautiful stream, I feel that same desire, to acknowledge the power or force or presence that made all of this possible. In Judaism, the way to express appreciation of nature is to offer a blessing. And so sometimes when I am on the stream, I feel moved to speak these words: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who creates all.”

And so what is a Fly Fishing Rabbi? This is a person who fishes to find peace and sanctuary along with rainbow and brown trout. One who feels awe and humility in the beauty of nature at every bend in the river. A Fly Fishing Rabbi is one who fishes not only to catch fish, but also to find those precious parts of himself and the world in which we live. One need not be a rabbi or priest or minister to unlock the spiritual possibilities of casting a dry fly. We must only open our eyes to the beauty, awe and peace that can be found on every cold water stream.

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