The American Jewish Romance with Buddhism

January 2, 2020 | Jesse Kellerman
About the author:

Of those American Buddhists whose ancestors did not come from Buddhist countries, some 30 percent are thought to be Jewish. As Emily Sigalow documents in her book American JewBu, this phenomenon can be traced back to the first person in the U.S. to convert to Buddhism (a Jewish textile merchant) and to Barry Goldwater’s second cousin (a Buddhist priest), but really hit its stride after World War II, when the Beatniks discovered Buddhist meditation. Jesse Kellerman reflects on his own encounter with Buddhism in his review:

[O]n my honeymoon, 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, . . . handed me a small piece of gold leaf and invited me to place it as an offering. . . . 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.

I could not, unfortunately, do that. I apologized. I meant no offense. I just couldn’t.

This gut-level aversion to idolatry, which took Kellerman by surprise at the time, helps him realize what these Jewish Buddhists are missing:

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 street corner. 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 anti-fragile.

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.

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