The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist Indiaby Roger Kamenetz
Kamenetz, a poet and a Jew, was invited to attend and write about a historical meeting between a delegation of American Jews and a group of Tibetan Buddhists that included the Dalai Lama. This interfaith get-together was inspired, in part, by the increasing number of Jews who have become Buddhists as well as the Dalai Lama's perception of Jews as 'survival experts.
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Kamenetz, a poet and a Jew, was invited to attend and write about a historical meeting between a delegation of American Jews and a group of Tibetan Buddhists that included the Dalai Lama. This interfaith get-together was inspired, in part, by the increasing number of Jews who have become Buddhists as well as the Dalai Lama's perception of Jews as 'survival experts.' The Dalai Lama felt that the Jews, experts in exile and the preservation of faith and practice, would offer advice and comfort; participating rabbis were intrigued by the surprising similarities between the two religions, including esoteric traditions and a profound awareness of suffering. Kamenetz not only chronicles the resultant discussions, which proved to be enlightening and emotional, but also profiles a number of Jewish Buddhists, including Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass. As his investigation throws his own beliefs and assumptions into high relief, Kamenetz is amazed and humbled by the intensity and altruism of Buddhism. Kamenetz defines and comments upon these complex matters with skill, personableness, and a welcome dash of levity.
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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 21, 1990, FRANKFURT--DELHI
I joined the stream of disembarking passengers in the Frankfurt airport, bumping and jostling in the narrow corridor to the main concourse.I was nervous, nothing new in itself. Nervous is my religion.
On previous visits to Europe I had always avoided touching down on German soil. Now I knew why. Seeing German on posters put me on edge. So did the voices of German citizens around me. This was nothing I could help, an involuntary reaction, a stubborn prejudice.
The mass of travelers surged into the main concourse and split up in all directions. I wandered around, hoping to bump into other members of my party, who were arriving from New York, Boston, London, and Israel. We were all to meet at the New Delhi departure gate. Near a ticket counter, a man with a briefcase was berating a clerk. My ears pricked up at the sound of his voice. A few syllables of German spoken in anger and already the grainy newsreel was unwinding: Hitler at a podium, the crowds at Munich, goose-stepping soldiers, the crowd responding with a massive Heil Hitler salute. And then, inevitably, the stacks and stacks of bodies ...
But these businessmen and tourists hurrying through the concourse were not storm troopers, and it would have been a stretch to imagine myself as a Jewish victim in striped pajamas. I am a grandchild of immigrants, Jews with the luck to get to America soon after the pogroms opened the long twentieth-century European Jew-killing season.
So I had no rational reason to feel uncomfortable in the Frankfurt airport. Surely these good German citizens would wish me no harm. Why hold a grudge withghosts?
Yet, despite my ongoing turbulence about my Jewish identity, my discomfort was visceral. German posters, German language, German people made me nervous, and I wanted very much to find the other members of my group. I wanted to be with other Jews.
That's when I saw the Torah.
In a crowd of German students, a tall man held it to his chest like a father clutching a chubby toddler. He was balding, with a fringe of wild hair and a thin goatee. With his wire-rimmed glasses and blue serge jacket, he looked like a cafe revolutionary. He was, in fact, Paul Mendes-Flohr, a distinguished professor of Modern Hebrew Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
What surprised me was my surge of joy upon seeing Paul's Torah. It wasn't particularly pretty. It wasn't even familiar-looking. This was a Torah in a tin case, used by the Sephardi Jews of southern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and meant to be read standing upright on a table. The case was decorated with an uninspired orange floral pattern. Yet it drew me and not just me. From all corners of that vast waiting room, our entire party gathered around it.
A Jewish mystic would have understood the Torah's magnetism. For the kabbalah teaches that the Jewish soul is composed of many brilliant sparks. I like the idea of a sparkling, multifaceted soul, with bright bits of reincarnated rabbinic sages jostling around with earthier types, nightclub owners, and peasants. In a way, the Jewish soul is like an airport concourse, crowded with competing sparks of life. And in that German concourse, even for a rather secular jumble of sparks like me, a Torah still has strong powers of attraction.
As Paul explained later, the Torah had been purchased in Tel Aviv that morning as a gift for the Dalai Lama. It was a printed replica, actually, not a real scroll, but that didn't matter. From the start of our journey it served many purposes. Symbolically, of course, we Jews were bringing our Torah--our wisdom--to Dharamsala. But at a far more visceral level, during a sometimes difficult journey through India, the Torah acted as a magnet, keeping the sparks of our Jewish souls aligned and, some believed, keeping our Jewish bodies safe.
That morning in Frankfurt, as we gathered around the Torah, I felt myself to be an unlikely candidate for this journey. I had hardly ever been what one could call a spiritual seeker. I was deeply interested in Jewishness--as culture and history. But I wasn't looking to Judaismthe religion-for answers to the deepest problems in my life.
I presumed that the participants in this dialogue would have strong religious commitments. I would be standing outside of that.
As for Tibetan Buddhism, I considered myself too stubbornly loyal a Jew to go shopping. I'd never been much for gurus. Were it not for the efforts of an old friend, Dr. Marc Lieberman, it would never have occurred to me to seek spiritual wisdom from a Dalai Lama.
Marc, a San Francisco ophthalmologist, was the first person to ever describe himself to me as a JUBU--a Jewish Buddhist. I've since learned that he is one among many, in a long line that goes back at least one hundred years.
The history of the spread of Buddhism to the West is complex and includes many different strands and influences, ranging from the impact of early translations of Buddhist texts on Emerson and the Transcendentalists to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigration of Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian Buddhists. Charles Prebish, a scholar and JUBU himself, has written of two distinct American Buddhisms. One consists primarily of traditional, conservative AsianAmerican Buddhist groups, which, like other ethnic groups, have brought their religion from the old country. The other, distinctively Western, Buddhism is both more innovative and less stable and draws primarily on non-Asian Americans.
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Meet the Author
Roger Kamenetz wrote the landmark international bestseller, The Jew in the Lotus, and the winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Stalking Eljah. He is a Louisiana State University Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies and a certified dream therapist. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, fiction writer Moira Crone.
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At a time when the Jewish people is diminishing due to assimilation ,Kamenetz's work is a worthy effort to confront and dialogue with many different kinds of Jews, in part as way of clarifying his own faith. I personally however would have preferred seeing him take a more confrontational, defensive , and less tolerant tone in his dialogues with Jews who have in effect denied the principle belief in Judaism, the belief in One Creator, One Transcendent G-d.I would have preferred his pointing out how desperately the Jewish people, after the Shoah need each and every individual Jew. In a way it was good to see him saving his own Jewish soul, but I would have preferred seeing him work more actively to Jewishly enlighten others he met on the way.