There and Back Again:
A JuBu's Passage to India

Rachel Barenblat

I feel like a fraud calling myself a Buddhist. For starters, Iím too much of a theist, too attached to the notion of a personal God whose presence is manifest in my daily life. There are many other reasons. What I really want is ecstasy, not equanimity. Iíve never officially taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, or any sangha. My formal meditation practice is limited, and half the time I waste my meditation hour berating myself for not being able to make my mind pipe down. And impermanence shakes me on some bone-deep level I canít verbally access. I hate letting go.

But the Judaism Iíve come to practice is so colored by Buddhism that the pure, uncut stuff of Jewish-American culture sends me reeling. I have trouble relating to shuls that donít have meditation minyans. Often I like to strip the liturgy down so I can sit for a while with what our prayers evoke in me. I question the validity of focusing solely on Jewish narratives and Jewish suffering when suffering is so universal.

JuBu is a patchwork identity, but it may be the closest Iím going to get to a label that doesnít itch. I want I-Thou relationships and a fundamental consciousness of nonduality at the same time: if that doesnít make me some kind of pushme-pullyou, I donít know what would.

On my better days, I see an appealing complementarity in the two impulses. On the one hand, the distance between God and world, waiting to be bridged; on the other hand, an awareness of how illusory those categories, and that distance, really are. The prophetic (Jewish) call to action balanced by a (Buddhist) sense of how my actions in the world shape my karma. Two traditions ought to give me two useful lenses through which to see the world, ensuring that I can always keep things in perspective and in focus.

That was the theory. But would it carry me through my first trip to India intact?


The first book I read about Indiaóat least, the first one that made a strong impressionówasnít really about India, though itís a true story for which India was the backdrop. It was the JuBu bible, Rodger Kamenetzís The Jew in the Lotus, which tells the story of a group of rabbis (and a poet) who went to visit the Dalai Lama in exile to share the Jewish peopleís secrets to Diaspora survival.

The book had a profound impact on my religious life. I first read it a time when my frustrations with Judaismís insularity were at a peak; The Jew in the Lotus helped me realize that parochialism wasnít necessarily a defining quality of Jewish practice, that meaningful dialogue with other religious traditions is a vital part of at least some forms of Judaism, and that Judaism comes in far more forms than the standard quartet of mainstream American denominations would suggest. I was inspired by the notion that it wasn't "us versus them," that Judaism can flourish alongside other religious traditionsóif not in comfortable coexistence, then at least in a productive one, with tensions and differences giving rise to fruitful conversations and learning experiences. The Jew in the Lotus was also the reason I sought out writings by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, went to the Jewish retreat center Elat Chayyim, and eventually set out on my JuBu path. It's not an exaggeration to call the book the reason that the spiritual spark I had guarded for ten years finally caught aflame.

Given the vivid descriptions of India that The Jew in the Lotus contains, I had come to feel about India the way many Jews seem to feel about Israel: as if the place itself might be innately holy, capable of changing me. At the same time, my husband and I tend to be skeptical of prepackaged religious experience; we wanted to find the kind of holy encounters that arise unexpectedly. Ordinary spiritual travelers might have made their way to Dharamsala, to walk the streets those rabbis and lamas walked, or maybe gone in search of the Bodhi tree beneath which Gautama famously achieved enlightenment. But we avoided those sites, and instead planned an itinerary that began in Bombay, wound through Rajasthan, and ended in New Delhi. We spent most of our time walking, from hilltop forts down into cities, through bazaars and twisting lanes, taking in as much India as we could handle through our eyes and our hands and our feet.

Before we left I made all kinds of promises to myself: I would be open to whatever experiences arose, I would endeavor to encounter India with an open heart and open mind, I would enjoy everything. I would be the perfect Jewish-Buddhist traveler.

Whatever that means.


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Images: Rachel Barenblat

December 2005

The Old/New Jewish Culture
Mordecai Drache

Brodsky Begins
Adam Mansbach

A JuBu's Passage to India
Rachel Barenblat

Hitler and God
Jay Michaelson

Winter Light Promises
Jacob Staub

Beyond Belief
Joshua Furst

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From previous issues:

The Mall Balloon-Man Moment of the Spirit
Dan Friedman

Josh's Dinner in the Cafeteria
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Keri HaRishon
Bruce Lokeinsky