Michael Stroud, unsure about how to be both a Buddhist and a Jew, talks with well-known Buddhists who have returned home to Judaism. They’ve found it fulfilling to practice both Buddhism and the religion of their birth.
Norman Fischer, sitting cross-legged on his cushion and wearing a kippa, or skullcap, is talking about the exodus from Egypt, the climactic moment when the Hebrews are cornered by Pharaoh. “They can’t go forward and they can’t go back,” he says. “It’s as if everything funnels down to that one moment and then”—Fischer’s arms suddenly sweep wide to part the Red Sea—“Liberation!” he shouts.
It’s a week before Passover on a bright, San Francisco spring day, and Fischer is helping lead a one-day retreat of sitting meditation and Jewish wisdom teachings at the Makor Or Jewish Meditation Center. Except for the Jewish teachings and the kippas, the retreat is largely indistinguishable from a one-day Zen retreat. This isn’t surprising, since Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and runs the Everyday Zen Center in Mill Valley across the bay.
I have joined several dozen Jews from a variety of backgrounds gathered in the small house that is Makor Or. I’m here, mostly, as a final step in vanquishing my lifelong notion that I need to decide whether I am a Buddhist or a Jew. It shouldn’t matter—I sit, I walk, I sing, I pray. I read Fischer’s Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms. There’s no conflict—although it has taken me up until now to realize that.
Fischer was never torn the way I’ve been. “I never felt that I rejected Judaism, or became a Buddhist,” he says. “I was ordained as a Zen priest, but I never saw that as switching. It’s really karma.”
My karma has led me from Hebrew School and a Bar Mitzvah in Redwood City to Ch’an retreats in Taiwan to Vipassana retreats in Marin County to Sabbaths in Southern California and back to Hebrew School—this time for my two children. I’m a tiny piece of an interesting phenomenon. Western Buddhism is chock-full of Jews: Roshi Bernie Tetsugen Glassman, Lama Surya Das, Natalie Goldberg, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Mel Weitsman, Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, Philip Kapleau, and on and on. So many Jews have taken to Buddhism that a term has been invented to describe them—“Jubu,” or occasionally, “Buju.” Their stories form a genre, ranging from The Jew in the Lotus, about a dialog between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews, to That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, Boorstein’s book about her dual identities.
Like me, some of these Jews have integrated Jewish and Buddhist practices into their lives.
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