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Interview With Rachel Pollack

I have long been drawn to the work that Rachel Pollack does. Through her books (including "78 Degrees of Wisdom"and "The Forest of Souls"), and her decks (the "Shining Tribe Tarot", as well as text for the "Haindl Tarot, Salvador Dali Tarot and Vertigo Tarot"), she has shared her wisdom in a manner that has expanded what the Tarot can be for many, many people.

In 2003 I had the opportunity to attend "The Reader's Studio" in New York City (co-sponsored by Llewellyn International and The Tarot School), where Rachel was one of three presenters. I also had the very good luck to attend with someone who had attended seminars with Rachel before. The advice that was given to me was to pay attention and take notes from word one - which I certainly did!

Rachel is a very evolved lady - on both the spiritual and the mundane levels. She does not get caught up in wisdom, yet she sees wisdom everywhere. She wastes no words, nor does she talk down to anyone. She is a shining example of how vibrant life can be when lived well.

Her latest book, "The Kabbalah Tree", is a joint project with Hermann Haindl regarding the living nature of the Tree of Life. The work is based on Haindl's artistic interpretation of the Tree of Life, and is ecstatic in its own right.

Now is the time for me to let Rachel share her thoughts.


BC: Rachel, Tarot has been a part of your life for some time now. How did you come to this path, and how has it affected your life path?

RP:I first found the Tarot, or the Tarot found me, when a colleague where I was teaching English offered to read my cards if I gave her a ride home. I don't remember the reading, just that I was fascinated with Tarot as a kind of art form, mysterious and suggestive pictures with a book that did not really explain them but seemed just as mysterious as the images. i tracked down a deck (not so easy 35 years ago) and began to read for my friends, to search down what very few books I could find, and especially to ponder and play with the pictures. The Tarot has been my greatest teacher, opening my mind and my life in powerful and unexpected ways. It has led me to spiritual and intellectual traditions as well as providing a means to ask questions about people's lives and about the world.

BC: It is clear to me, after reading "The Kabbalah Tree", that you have a very deep seated understanding of Kabbalah. How did the path of Kabbalah come to you, and how do you see it in relation to the field of Tarot?

RP: Actually, I never heard of Kabbalah, never heard the word, until I began to look into the Tarot. Considering I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, that shows how alienated from mysticism Judaism had become (but that was the 1950s and early 60s, the Dark Ages in America). But once I discovered the connection between Tarot and Kabbalah I gravitated to the Jewish form of the tradition, which has not really been the direct line of Kabbalaistic influence on Tarot. So perhaps I have helped in a small way to cross-fertilize the field yet again.

BC: How did you first come to work with Hermann Haindl, and how is this project different from the work that you did for the "Haindl Tarot"?

RP: Hermann's publisher had done the German edition of 78 Degrees of Wisdom, and so knew of me. They called me and asked if I would like to do the text for a new deck. I assumed they meant a Little White Booklet, and said sure. The project ended up as a 500 page book,published in two volumes. Quite some years passed, and then Hermann asked if I would do a book for his Tree painting. I hesitated, since many people have studied Kabbalah far longer, and in much greater detail than I. But Hermann felt that I knew his art better than anyone, and really wanted me to do it. The book was different than the Tarot work because Kabbalah is such a wide subject. A book on a Tarot deck is very tight, really, you go card by card. But a book on Kabbalah demands that you find your focus. I had the painting but I thought it was very important to give people a sense of history and context for the symbolism.

BC: Hermann Haindl's interpretation of the "Tree of Life" is absolutely stunning in both its simplicity and its complexity. I showed it to my mother, who knows nothing of Tarot (although both of her daughters read the cards), and you could see the joy that it brought to her. Can you tell us a little about how Mr. Haindl came to interpret the Tree in this manner?

RP: All of Hermanns' work attempts to connect spiritual symbolism to the ancient power of nature and the traditional ways of many cultures. So it was natural for him to include images of animals, and eroded rocks, and suggestions of Goddesses and Gods. The style of one image blending into another comes partly from the way he works. He tends to stand above the canvas and drop paint here and there to see what images emerge, then he consciously works them into forms and a unified whole. in a way, it's a little like scrying, or tea leaf reading (I'm answering these questions the day after reading leaves at a bridal party).

BC: I am very impressed with the work that went into this book (and the artwork, needless to say!). You have presented many ideas, and opened many doors, in a very gentle manner. What would you like your readers to take from this book?

RP: That the Kabbalah means something in their real lives, and not just by a kind of dumbing down on the concepts. I think you can delve deeply into the tradition and its images in their most powerful form and still discover it's all about life as people live it. The Tree of Life should be just that, and I think Hermann's painting reminds us of the life in the Tree.

BC: I was very impressed with the spread that you presented in reference to the four worlds. An amazing amount of information comes out of those eight cards! In what ways do you feel that Tarot and Kabbalah can best be applied for personal/spiritual growth and understanding?

RP: For one thing the ideas of each tradition can inform the other. For instance, we can learn a good deal about the High Priestess if we think of it as the card that goes on the line that runs from the top of the Tree to the center. There is a very powerful teaching about that line, and its symbol of a camel. But we also learn more about Kabbalah and that line in particular when we apply the image of a High Priestess to it. On a more personal level, we can use the Tree pattern for readings,and even place the cards directly on the Haindl painting, using the poster that comes with the book.

BC: Is there any chance that you will be doing seminars or lectures based on the work that you have done on "The Kabbalah Tree"?

RP: Well, I certainly hope so! In the recent MARS (Mary And Rachel Seminar) that I teach with Mary Greer each year in California, I used a number of ideas from the Tree, including the 4 Worlds reading. And I will be working with it in upcoming classes,. including the weeklong class that Mary and I do at the Omega Institute in July. I'm also hoping to do some storytelling about the symbols on the Tree. And I will be using material from the book in my monthly classes in New York City and Rhinebeck in the Hudson Valley.

BC: What role does teaching the Tarot play in your life?

RP: A very important role. Not only do I travel a great deal to do workshops and presentations but I alway learn from the need to develop new concepts in teaching. I call my New York class, which has been going for 12 years now, the Tarot Laboratory, because of all the concepts I've tried out there.

BC: Your work in "The Forest of Souls" opens new pathways for working with the Tarot. What was the impetus for this book, and how do you see work like this affecting the Tarot world?

RP: I felt that we were all missing great opportunities with the Tarot. By focusing only on personal readings we were missing the chance to ask questions that were both radical and deep, such as how we talk to God, or maybe how God talks to us. In the Book of Job God challenges Job out of the whirlwind, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" People usually take this as a sort of taunting rhetorical question, as if God is saying "Big shot! Think you know so much? Well, riddle me this." But suppose we take it as a serious question. Where were we when Creation happened? This may be an impossible question but with the Tarot we can let a random selection of symbols challenge our minds to consider it in radical ways. So that was one side. But I also felt that too often serious study of Tarot revolved around fixed sets of correspondences and "official" meanings. So I wanted to try to open that up as well. As for influence, it seems to me that some people may have opened up their practice somewhat from reading the book. For instance, James Wells in Toronto now regularly does Wisdom Readings, the kind of spiritual questions asked in The Forest of Souls.

BC: Earlier this year you did some work with Caitlin Matthews. I so wished that I could have gone, because it sounded very exciting! Can you tell us a bit about that?

RP: We called it Tarot and the Gods, using the cards to discover our relationships with the deities and traditions important in our lives. Caitlin is a practicing shaman of great experience, working with nature, and she brought in that dimension. There's nothing quite like doing Nature Auguries in a gale force wind!

BC: Rachel, this is your time. What would you like to say about the Tarot, about Kabbalah, or about life in general?

RP: Well, that's a huge question! What comes to mind is to remind us all, myself included, that Kabbalah, like all spiritual traditions, concerns life itself. Its powerful ideas can and should expand our sense of truth and reality, but unless it affects how we live, and understand the world, we have not really learned it.

Rachel, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Whenever you share your wisdom, you open doors that people were not even aware were standing there in front of them.

RP: Thank you, Bonnie! I've enjoyed this a great deal. you ask good questions

More of Rachel's work can be seen on her site,

May 2004
Bonnie Cehovet

The Tarot Connection - The Tarot Podcast dedicated to the traditional, historic and modern Tarot.