If I were a planet, Judaism would be my sun: it nourishes me and keeps me grounded. Over the last decade, my orbit has been elliptical: I swang pretty far from attachment to Judaism before hanging a tight curve around Pluto and coming back this way. As it happens, a book about the intersections of Judaism and Buddhism set me in that orbit...and kept me there.
Ten years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. It is the true story of a group of rabbis--ranging in denomination from Reform to Orthodox--who travelled together to Dharamsala, India, to meet with the Dalai Lama and taught him how the Jews have maintained cohesion as a Diaspora people. At that time, I was a religion major at Williams College, and was leaning strongly towards rabbinical school.
The Jew in the Lotus blew my mind. I wanted to grow up to be Rodger Kamenetz, to be the poet who is invited to chronicle a journey like that! But even more astonishing than Rodger were the rabbis who came to life in his pages. I had a pretty solid academic understanding of how varied Judaism can be, but these rabbis were living proof. I followed the esoteric dialogues from the edge of my seat. Though I've never kept kosher, I cheered for Blu Greenberg as she taught the monks how to kasher, make kosher, their kitchen so that she and her husband could eat. When Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, during morning davening, prayers, in Dharamsala one day, quietly told Rodger, "Your God is a true God"--challenging him first to know his conception of God, and then to marry knowledge with faith--I got chills.
I came away convinced that there was more to Judaism than I had realized: that we, too, have a meditative and mystical tradition to draw on, that we can be compassionate and open to other traditions instead of merely insular and inwardly focused. I decided to hunt down books by the rabbis in The Jew and the Lotus. I was excited, I was engaged, I was on fire. But maybe the time wasn't right for my transformation; I got distracted by other things.
Not long after that, one of the most wonderful people I know asked me to be his life-partner, and I said yes. We'd been dating for five years, and we were ready for the next step. I expected the world to rejoice along with me. One small challenge: he's not Jewish.
The year that followed wasn't easy. My childhood rabbi wasn't comfortable marrying us, which I understood, though it saddened me. Other rabbis I spoke to weren't comfortable with the idea, either. Not everyone was menschlich, kind, about it. As the months went by, I grew progressively sadder and angrier, both. We did find a rabbi to marry us, but by the time the wedding was over, I didn't really want to think about Judaism much. Rabbinical school was no longer an option. I wasn't sure I wanted to affiliate myself with a tradition that treated my spouse--or me--so dismissively.
But over time, I found that Judaism wasn't really something I could leave. A few years after we were married, The Jew in the Lotus caught my eye from my bookshelf, and I picked it up to re-read. It was even better the second time. This time, I actually sought out books by some of the thinkers in its pages.
I learned that the rabbi who moved me most--Zalman Schachter-Shalomi--was raised, and ordained, within Lubovitch Hasidism. Today he's a figurehead in the Jewish Renewal movement, a transdenominational movement which seeks "to bring creativity, relevance, joy, and an all embracing awareness to spiritual practice, as a path to healing our hearts and finding balance and wholeness." That excited me. And I got even more excited when I found out that he teaches sometimes at Elat Chayyim, a retreat center in the Catskills.
I psyched myself up to commit the time and money to go there, and signed up for one of his classes... which was cancelled when he fell ill unexpectedly. I felt surprisingly bereft to be missing out on something I had only just decided I wanted to do. I read their catalogue obsessively. In the summer of 2002, I picked another class, packed my things, and went.
Elat Chayyim was an eye-opener. It was everything I had dreamed it might be. I took classes in Jewish meditation with Jeff Roth; discussed tikkun olam, the imperative to heal the world, with Arthur Waskow; saw women lay tefillin, phylacteries, for the first time; tried interpretive davening at dawn in a yurt. I had conversations with God. As my week drew to a close, God answered.
Today I have made Elat Chayyim a regular part of my spiritual practice: I visit at least annually, and this year I plan to go twice--and hope to finally meet, and study with, Reb Zalman. I've joined a shul, synagogue, and am a regular at Shabbat, Sabbath, services, as well as at Friday morning meditation. Last weekend I served as shaliach tzibbur, services-leader, when the rabbi was out of town.
The year or two I spent alienated from Judaism seem anomalous to me now. My journey has brought me back to Jewish involvement again. It's not a circle so much as a spiral, like the ramp in the Guggenheim museum in New York. I'm back in the place where I started, but I've climbed a level up.
One of these days I might send Rodger Kamenetz a thank-you note. He doesn't know me from Eve, but his trip to India all those years ago changed my life. Maybe my journey, small as it seems, will change yours.