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September 1, 2010

As we approach the ginormous Buddha sitting atop the mountain on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, I turn to my son Daniel and say: “So this elderly woman desperately wanted to see this famous Buddhist monk somewhere in the Himalayas. She was told it would be a long journey and that, once she got there, she could only say six words to him. She wouldn’t be dissuaded. So she takes a one-day airplane ride with changes in two cities, then a hot bus ride, followed by hours on a rickety train, and she has to wait in line for days. Finally, as she gets closer to the monk, she’s reminded, ‘Just six words.’ She nods, arrives at his cave and says to the long-bearded monk sitting in the lotus position, ‘Sheldon, it’s your mothuh. Come home.’”

Daniel laughs at the old JuBu joke, and then we set off to climb the 268 stairs that will take us up to the 34-meters tall, 250-ton Buddha overlooking a vast expanse of green mountains and valleys. It’s always been curious to me how many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, and how they manage to synthesize the two practices, becoming “JuBus”. The singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, Ram Dass, numerous actors and actresses including Sarah Jessica Parker, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and Goldie Hawn , and many more– all are on record as being practicing Buddhists.

I want to tell Daniel that I hope I don’t have to hunt him down in a cave in the Himalayas sometime in the future, but I don’t. Nonetheless, I worry a little about it because, frankly, the same thing that was missing in mainstream Judaism that these JuBu’s were seeking is probably still missing. My guess is that they were looking for that oft maligned and easy-to-make-fun-of thing called spirituality, not something one normally associates with Judaism, which emphasizes practicing the laws, no matter how you feel about it. Yet, why should we not expect spirituality, demand it, of our religion? Isn’t that what a religion is supposed to provide? Not that spirituality is by definition at odds with rules, but sometimes, the laws might obscure or seem to replace the spirituality underlying them.

A few nights later, we’re at dinner with a Chinese woman who is a business associate of my husband, and her German boyfriend, a former Olympic athlete who currently works as a trainer for the Chinese basketball team. It’s a demanding, physical job and I ask him how he manages to keep up. He explains that he meditates every morning for an hour and a half, and then he has all the energy he needs. With more prompting from me, he tells me how it all began. He was traveling in India, didn’t have much money and was sleeping at the door of a Buddhist monastery. They invited him in after a few days on their doorstep and, he remained for four months. He cleaned the floors and did whatever needed to be done, and, as he observed the monks meditating, he started doing it, too. All of his learning was basically in silence, since they had no common language. He hadn’t been looking for enlightenment, just a place to stay. Since then, this former Olympic wrestler meditates every day and, “I just take it easy. Relax!”

I’m reminded of another conversation about a different kind of accidental conversion that occurred earlier in the summer over dinner with a couple we’d literally just met while picking Daniel up at camp in Maine. Margaret had been raised Jewish in Scarsdale, had gone to Israel, worked for a Jewish agency, and went on an archaeological dig in Israel. However, in her mid-30s and not married, her father’s new, devoutly Christian wife had told her to pray the catechism, and she would meet the man she was to marry. She did so, met her husband, and that incident – the power of faith, of prayer - converted her to Christianity. But now, married to a non-Jewish man and with a daughter, she’s recently realized she wants her daughter to have an understanding of her Jewish background, and so she went to a rabbi to say that she wants to re-convert to Judaism. The rabbi told her that it was unnecessary. She never left.

Call yourself what you want, go to the ends of the earth, but if you’re a Jew–a non-practicing Jew, an atheist Jew, a JuBu, a Jewish Christian, or any other form of Jew you can think of–you can never leave home.

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