Religion & Beliefs

Speaking up for the Bu-Jus

I used to share an office with a guy named Alex, an observant Jew, at a job that gave us lots of time to sit around talking about politics and religion and the meaning of life. Alex told me about … Read More

By / July 27, 2010

I used to share an office with a guy named Alex, an observant Jew, at a job that gave us lots of time to sit around talking about politics and religion and the meaning of life. Alex told me about his childhood in Russia, how he arrived in Brooklyn as a teenager with his family and discovered Orthodox Judaism as an adult. His rediscovered religion not only changed his life, he told me, but that of his wife and his parents — he’d gradually led them all to an awareness of Judaism they’d never had before.  I found his tale riveting, and felt a lot of respect for the sense of personal spirituality that came out so clearly when we talked. I only wish the feeling had been mutual.

I proudly call myself a Ju-Bu, Buddhist by inclination and Jewish by blood, and I think my chosen belief system deserves the same regard as anybody else’s.  To Alex’s credit, because he was a thoughtful and polite person, he tried to give me this respect, tried not to laugh. But, I quickly discovered, I represented something absolutely comical to him. He’d never actually met such a specimen as me, though he’d heard about my kind among his friends.  He was excited to have finally met one of my kind (and I was sure I gave him something to talk about to his friends back in Brooklyn, in no kind terms). Alex didn’t mince any words about my chosen belief system. He was sure I was extremely deluded, misguided and poorly educated.  He began making an attempt to set me straight. The conversations that followed (they took place over many months) were fascinating, frustrating and enlightening for both of us, though probably not in the way either of us hoped.

First, Alex walked me through a series of talking exercises that I enjoyed greatly, partly because I sensed he was walking me through the same thought process that had once changed his life.  He filled me in on various nuggets of wisdom from the great Jewish traditions, asked me why a person with such a special heritage as myself would trade my own religious birthright for a borrowed one, and grilled me for signs of the usual Jewish self-hatred that might, he thought, explain my state of confusion. Alex’s strongest point was that the Bible and the Talmud were deeper and richer sources than I could have ever learned in my weak suburban reform Jewish education. Any real wisdom to be found in an Asian religion could also be found in the Talmud, he said, and I ought to have looked harder before going on a religious shopping trip.  Why, he asked, should I not first search what I have at home?  I appreciated the many Biblical and Talmudic quotations and anecdotes he related to me.  He was correct about the richness, the humanity and the good humor to be found in the great Jewish texts, though I could not find in these sources a real equivalent to the psychological clarity and urgency for personal transformation that appealed to be so much in the classic Buddhist writings.

After Alex gave up on converting me, I began trying to convert him, though I didn’t try very hard since I tend to think — typical of my muddle-headed kind, Alex would say — that any religion is roughly as good as another.  It was easy to see that Alex’s enthusiastic Judaism gave him and his wife and children all the religion they needed.  I did try to share what I found valuable in Buddhism, but Alex was not very patient when I told him the story of Siddharta Gautama’s life, or recited the Four Noble Truths, or tried to quote some Zen koans.

Alex did know some basic facts about Buddhism, but he had a vague idea that the faith was steeped in negativity and self-denial.  He had some trouble believing me when I said that the historical Buddha was not a severe ascetic, that he counseled a middle path between austerity and excess, that he had lived among severe ascetics during his wandering years and did not consider them to have found the true path. I had better luck teaching Alex some improvised Tibetan breathing techniques, and he even admitted to finding some value in the practice of meditation. (Fortunately, there were no real Tibetan gurus in our office who would probably have found my own breathing techniques — and my real knowledge of the finer points of Buddhism — rather wanting.)

As Alex lectured me, in a wonderfully Rabbinical tone, I also wondered if he was making up some of his Biblical or Talmudic quotations, if he would have felt more inhibited if a real Rabbi had been in the room listening to him speak. Our discussions were lively and loose, but they gradually became more and more frustrating to me, because I was never able to get the same concessions from Alex that I gave him.

I respected his choice of religion, I told him, but he could not honestly say that he respected mine. We left it at that, and I do still feel perturbed to this day at the thought of Alex’s original reaction — hilarity, disbelief — when I told him I was a Ju-Bu.  I may as well have told him I was a Leprechaun, or a Pilgrim from the Mayflower, for the reaction I got.   If I eventually managed to impress Alex at all, it was only because he originally thought that any self-proclaimed Ju-Bu must be a complete and utter dolt, because he had to admit that I managed to hold up my half of the conversations.  I think we both learned something from these exchanges, but I wonder how many other modern Jews think so poorly of “my people”.

For better or worse, we are part of the Jewish community, and will remain as such. We are Ju-Bus, not Bus.  I’m not sure if I ever made Alex believe that Jewish identity remains important to me, but it does, and I make sure it’s important to my children as well.  I’ve tried to raise them to be good Ju-Bus, though I didn’t even bother mentioning this to Alex.  I’m sure it would have gotten a hearty laugh.

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