I first met the Buddha on a cruise ship. I was 20, touring the Alaskan coast with my parents and sisters. Friday night we departed Juneau, bound for Skagway, which was a relief. As Sabbath-observant Jews, unable to participate in Saturday’s offshore excursions, we agreed that if we had to miss one port of call, it ought to be Skagway. Skagway? Better to stay aboard and play gin.
Neither my father nor I wears a yarmulke on a daily basis, other than to pray or study Torah. For me, at least, this is due not to fear or a desire to pass so much as to a slightly perverse drive to balance competing identities. Nestled among Jews, as I often am, I become my most secular self. Cast out into the broader world, I cling to my Jewishness. Travel above all raises in me a frenzy, as I arrive in some far-flung place and immediately begin scouring the hotel map for synagogues and cemeteries.
So it was natural that, finding ourselves at sea, we would consult the ship’s schedule for Sabbath services, even though we rarely went to shul on Friday night when on land. Walking into the chapel at 5:00 p.m., before the early dinner seating, I sensed the same amiable shiftiness. Of the 800-some-odd passengers, about 30 had turned out. I recognized a few faces from the hallways or the pool. Nobody else had been wearing a yarmulke, either.
Mumbling negotiations ensued. The schedule called for “Shabbat services” but had failed to specify a denomination. There were no prayer books provided, although a handful of folks had thought to bring their own. There was no rabbi. Who should lead? Should men and women sit separately? One thing everyone could agree on: Buddha had to go.
He was about two and a half feet high, made of concrete painted metallic gold, smiling out from within a spotlit alcove along the starboard wall, his palm up in a gesture of peace. Presumably some well-meaning interior decorator had stuck him there to lend an otherwise sterile space the patina of spirituality.
The Judaism of my youth sliced the law thin, along seemingly arbitrary lines. Eating in nonkosher restaurants was not something to celebrate or advertise, but it was understandable, even justifiable, given Los Angeles’s shortage of decent kosher dining options. You stuck to dairy or fish; certainly you didn’t order nonkosher meat, and the consumption of pork or shellfish was inconceivable. Likewise the Sabbath: To drive in a car or play Nintendo would have been humiliating and indecent. But we laughed when our rabbis at school tried to forbid us from playing basketball at home, on the grounds that sweatiness was not in the spirit of the day. This was at the height of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. Fool, please.
Amid our hierarchy of taboos, two stood out for severity coupled to sheer improbability. The first was intermarriage. The second was idolatry. While the former felt dizzyingly remote—I attended religious all-boys schools—the latter struck me as just silly. Why in the world would anyone supplicate before an inanimate object? What possible attraction could that hold? The Torah’s continual harping on the subject puzzled me; the deity, I thought, doth protest too much.
To explain this hang-up of His, a number of solutions were advanced. We studied the ancient Israelites’ historical position, lonely monotheists among the Molechs and Baals of Canaan. More obscurely, we were told that the pre-Talmudic Sages had successfully petitioned God to excise the idolatrous urge, unlocking a theological cheat code that had spared my friends and me from a once-devastating temptation and rendered it preposterous to the contemporary mind. Oftentimes the concept of false gods was recast from the pulpit as a warning against frivolous pursuits. Materialism was an idol, as was television.
As a fan of old-school, blood-and-fats, sacrificial-cult Judaism, I never cared for these feints at relevance. The plain meaning of the text was and remains clear: Don’t bow down to a statue, a tree, the sun. How hard could that be? Not until I stood in the ship chapel, smiling back at Buddha, had I confronted an idol in the wild. While the other passengers debated what to do with him, I waited for some dormant pagan yearning to burst forth, throwing me prostrate in louche veneration. Honestly, he looked like a fun guy, someone who would share his snacks.
The consensus formed that we could not pray in his presence. Never mind that we would not be praying to him. Merely to have an idol—a literal idol—looking on as we recited kaddish was beyond the pale. At the same time, nobody wanted to be the one to remove him. What if we picked him up and an alarm went off? What if a steward spotted us schlepping him down the hall? Someone could think we were stealing him or, worse, being disrespectful. Not to mention that he appeared quite heavy.
In the end we left him there, a tallis draped over his beatific face.
Why are so many Buddhists Jews? To be precise: Of the Americans who practice Buddhism in one form or another and whose ethnic origins lie outside traditionally Buddhist geographies, why are so many of them also Jewish in one way or another? In American JewBu, her examination of the American Jewish-Buddhist encounter, sociologist Emily Sigalow cites anecdotal evidence suggesting that Jews constitute up to 30 percent of Western Buddhists in the United States, far out of proportion to their number in the general population. (Living in Berkeley, I tend to regard 30 percent as overly conservative. Spend any time here and you could easily conclude that Buddhism is no less a Jewish creation than special relativity or babka.)
American Jews’ particular fondness for Buddhism is difficult to account for. Among the theories Sigalow reviews and rejects are religious or cultural overlaps, such as “a shared focus on suffering” or an emphasis on text study; Jewish overrepresentation in “the segments of society to which Buddhism appeals most strongly: the highly educated upper middle class, intellectuals, artists, and bohemians”; an innate attraction toward the “body-based practice” of meditation; identification with “the Buddhist approach to the elimination of war, poverty, racism, prejudice, environmental pollution, intemperance, and drug abuse.”
To Sigalow, each of these explanations is incomplete. Other systems offer body-based practices: ecstatic dance, capoeira, Rolfing. If Jews and Buddhists share that much common ground, why have so many Jews become Buddhists while so few Buddhists have become Jews? Ultimately, Sigalow “repudiate[s] any claim of an intrinsic affinity between these traditions,” locating the point of contact between the two in “the historical and social webs that connect them.”
Her chronology of interaction moves through four phases. The first two span roughly 80 years, from the end of the 19th century until the 1950s, encompassing the stories of individual American Jews whose seeking led them to Buddhism—people such as Charles T. Strauss, a lace importer who became the first convert to Buddhism on U.S. soil, or Julius Goldwater, second cousin to Barry, who received ordination as a Buddhist priest on no fewer than three occasions. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
These opening chapters are the most interesting part of Sigalow’s book; they are also the least relevant to the present-day state of affairs. Gamely she draws a historical throughline, but it’s evident that Strauss and Goldwater are notable primarily as outliers. What’s true for the Jews holds for American Buddhism more generally: Only in the latter half of the 20th century does it truly begin to assume its current shape. Here, in the liberalization of the postwar era, we come to the Zen of the Beats and the rise of the counterculture, currents fairly swimming with Jews. We witness the absorption of a specific ritual practice, vipassana (insight) meditation, into the standard psychological armamentarium in the form of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), or more simply, “mindfulness.”
More than any other aspect of Buddhism, it is meditation that has taken root in our national consciousness. A 2018 Pew survey found, somewhat dubiously, that 40 percent of Americans claim to meditate at least once a week. The popularity of MBSR no doubt arises in large part from its uniquely American character: freed of metaphysical encumbrances such as rebirth and repackaged as a utilitarian commodity that promises to ease burdens, heighten concentration, and enhance overall happiness. Teachers often compare the process to exercise, encouraging lay audiences to strengthen their “mindfulness muscles.” There are well over a thousand mindfulness apps available for download. Many are salutary. Few if any make direct reference to the tradition upon which they ostensibly draw. One might further compare the difference between traditional Buddhism and its most highly digested variants to that between aged cheddar and Kraft singles. And, as with the counterculture, American Jews such as Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, and Jon Kabat-Zinn have been foremost among the homogenizers.
The second time I met the Buddha was on my honeymoon, when my wife and I traveled through Southeast Asia. One of our first stops in Bangkok was Wat Traimit, home to a five-ton Buddha made of solid gold. Sammy, our guide, explained that for years the statue had been hidden under a cement coating, until a crane dropped it and a piece of the exterior chipped off, revealing the breathtaking gleam beneath.
Sammy handed me a small piece of gold leaf and invited me to place it as an offering. My initial reaction was to feel that this was very much gilding the lily, or the Buddha, or whatever. Then I shrugged and started forward. Then my heart began to pound as I realized what was happening. At last the moment had arrived: My latent pagan nature had, somehow, come to fruition.
As is common in Thailand, Sammy had spent a brief period during early adulthood as an ordained monk. He was a gentle, funny man with a warm smile, and it felt unbelievably gauche to turn to him and stammer that I could not, unfortunately, do that. I apologized. I meant no offense. I just couldn’t.
Sammy laughed graciously. He told me not to worry, then went and placed the offering on the altar himself. Returning, he said, “Let’s go to lunch.”
Over green-papaya salad, I sat in a cloud of dissipating adrenaline, trying to work out my degree of culpability. It was my fee to the tourist agency, after all, that had covered the cost of the gold leaf. I might not have physically worshipped, but I had subsidized worship—the idolatrous equivalent of sponsoring kiddush. Meanwhile, my wife chatted with Sammy about his family. He appeared to have forgotten the entire incident, if he had even noticed it to begin with. Why would he? How could he have known that he had dragged me right to the edge of the existential pit? To him, it was one small part of the day’s activities.
The third time I met the Buddha, he wasn’t even in the room. I had signed up for a nine-week introductory course on MBSR, held on the psychiatric campus of an Oakland hospital. Guided by a retired engineer with a hypnotic baritone, we meditated for two and a half hours, broken into chunks of 30 to 40 minutes. We meditated sitting in chairs or lying on mats spread atop a high-traffic carpet that smelled of stale coffee. We performed the walking meditation and basic yoga. Someone sneezed. Someone groaned. My nose itched. I tried to resist scratching it. Instead I strove to experience the itch fully as it happened in the present moment, to recognize it as a bodily sensation, to regard it with detachment, and then to let it go. It didn’t work. I scratched my nose. I had to consider myself among the lucky ones. My classmates brought with them debilitating chronic pain, severe psychological trauma, lifelong depression. My chief complaint was fatherhood.
For the past five and a half years I have maintained a spotty practice. I wish I were able to claim, as does a more consistent friend, that I do it every day because I do it every day. Meditation serves a straightforward function in my life, and there are periods when I need it more or less. I sit in the morning, before my wife and children have woken up, seldom for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. Sometimes time runs short, and the choice is either to meditate or to pray. Sometimes the baby starts screaming and I can do neither. Sometimes I get distracted and spend 45 minutes answering emails. While many Buddhist principles resonate with me deeply, others stir a deep discomfort. At no point have I thought of myself as anything other than Jewish.
In dissecting the present-day landscape of American JewBus, Sigalow faces a familiar problem: Who is a Jew? She opts for the big tent, including “anyone who identifies as such, even if they are also an ordained Buddhist priest who maintains little to no Jewish practice.” There’s an added twist: Who is a Buddhist? By necessity, she must adopt the same standard, and thus her subjects range from “prominent communal leaders (e.g., ordained monks, lamas, and roshis) to…casual meditators with little to no involvement in the Buddhist community.” The book is an ethnography, more descriptive than normative, and it would be odd and unworkable for Sigalow to play gatekeeper. But it is worth nothing the asymmetry such a methodology creates. It’s one thing for born Jews to self-identify as Jews, another for them to self-identify as Buddhists.
For the most part, Buddhists-from-birth appear to have responded to this massive crashing of their gates with remarkable equanimity. To be sure, there is grumbling in isolated corners. But as one practitioner put it to me, a central tenet of the dharma is that attachment leads to suffering. It follows that adherents relinquish all claims of possession—even with respect to their own heritage.
I admire this attitude. It also makes me sad. While I gag at cries of “cultural appropriation,” it’s equally fatuous to insist that simply calling oneself something makes it so. My freshman year of college, I lived on a hall with nine occupants, four of them Sabbath-observant Jews and five non-Jews, one of whom approached me midsemester in a state of excitement. “It’s cool how you guys do Shabbos,” he said. “I could really use that in my life.” He then informed me that he and several of the other non-Jews had decided to undertake a Sabbath of their own: no email, no phone.
On the one hand, how validating; how flattering, that another could see the beauty and value of a practice that hindered my social life and marked me as aberrant. On the other hand, hang on a goddamned second. That’s mine.
You don’t have to subscribe to the dharma to realize that such kneejerk possessiveness is wrong, not to mention pointless. And the desire for a non-Jewish Shabbos is infinitely more benign than, say, the antics of fashion designer John Galliano, who declared his love for Hitler before stepping out into the streets of Manhattan dressed in Hasidic garb and fake sidelocks. Good faith is what distinguishes homage from mockery. Besides, I’m grateful to live in a society where Galliano’s entitled to be a bigoted prick.
A religion that fails to transfer—to other locations, other times, other minds—is not a religion; it’s a lone weirdo shouting on a streetcorner. Everywhere Buddhism has traveled, it has molded to the shape of the place: Thailand, Burma, China, the Park Slope Jewish Center. Diaspora Judaism arguably provides the best example of survival through its peculiar combination of rigidity and adaptation. At the same time, I cannot and do not want to deny the melancholy of deracination. The terror I felt in Wat Traimit, that sudden threat of loss of self, ought not to be suppressed. These tensions strengthen us; they remind us that identity is local, temporal, and antifragile. Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, under the Bodhi Fig Tree. My ancestors, the Levites, stood on the Temple steps, singing psalms while the priests waded barefoot through blood and sacrificial smoke.
I acknowledge that this sort of thinking is nostalgia, and a false one at that. I recognize its futility. Many days all you need is a slice of American cheese. There are days, too, when I stalk the supermarket aisles, searching product labels for kosher certification and craving the stink of singed fat.