Momo and Matzoh: Our Tibetan-Jewish Marriage

By Julia Gutman


Our first encounter was based on misunderstanding. I had stayed to help clean up after a Buddhist prayer meeting I had attended in Queens. Young Tibetans, speaking Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi (none of which I knew at the time), came in for the secular Tibetan fundraising after-party. I had never met any Tibetans besides monastics, so I stayed to see secular Tibetan culture.

When I first saw my future husband–who didn’t look Tibetan to me as he looked and dressed differently from the rest of the crowd–I saw an opportunity to talk to someone using one of the languages I knew: I assumed he was Japanese and I wanted to practice my Japanese with him. He assumed I was Israeli, and that like many Israelis he had met, I was interested in Buddhism and had stumbled upon a secular Tibetan get-together by accident. He spoke to me out of compassion for “the only white girl in the room.” But once we exchanged a few phrases, in limited Japanese and then fluent English, it became clear the world was not as we’d assumed.

Already a New Yorker for a decade when we met, my non-Jewish husband was somewhat intrigued by Jewish life. As he puts it, whether you take the subway or a taxi, you know if it is a Jewish holiday–the trains and taxis are rather empty on those days, and there are fewer beautiful women around. Also, you spot an Orthodox Jewish man in the black and white “uniform” buying a coffee at Dunkin Donuts and think: “Wow, is Dunkin Donuts kosher?”

Our relationship works for many reasons (knocking on wood here). We share values, a way of life, and perspective on life and beyond. We are not plagued by fears of hell, and we each mistrust proselytizing (sorry if that applies to you). We both grew up in exile. I was born in communist Ukraine (not a great milieu for a Jew). My husband was born in India, in exile from the communist Chinese occupation and genocide in Tibet. Neither of us has been to our true places of descent–the Middle East for me and Tibet for him. The fact that neither of us has been able to visit or live in those places makes us better able to relate to each other in our experiences of living in exile and as refugees, not fitting neatly into the social structures of Ukraine, India or America.

Even before we met, we each valued wisdom, compassion and mindfulness as the best paths in life, and share, unfortunately, a lack of knowledge regarding our roots. I feel like half a Jew because of my ignorance of Jewish religion and language. He wouldn’t be able to comprehend a book in Tibetan, and his knowledge of Buddhism is sparse, cultural. We can trust and relate to each other, for good reasons (shared values) and bad (both feel like exiles and outsiders, and worry about the political existences of Israel and Tibet), despite our very different looks and the colors of our skin.

Cross-cultural marriages come with extra obstacles. One of my favorite words–“no”–is almost a taboo to my husband, both as an Asian and a Buddhist. Ethnically Jewish, I love debating and arguing; advanced planning is in my blood. My husband avoids what he calls “pre-planning” and “being forced to choose,” as they make him feel trapped and lacking freedom. His most common response in lieu of “no” is “Let’s think about it.” It took him a while to believe that when people argue around the table, participating in and interrupting several conversations simultaneously, they are having a great time, sharing a Jewish dinner, and are not going to break into a fight. It took years before this Buddhist man who barely tasted any fish in his life came around to gefilte fish (a traditional Jewish dish of stuffed fish or fish cutlets).

So, from expression of affection to choice of words, it’s been a winding road towards understanding between us: Normal behavior in his culture, my husband used to never show affection by hugging, holding hands, even in private, or sitting in close proximity to each other. Verbally, he also used to avoid discussing any personal feelings such as love or any negative feelings and thoughts.

On the other hand, we both agree a Jewish-Buddhist relationship is probably the easiest cross-cultural mix. Compared to other “mixed” couples, we can tolerate our cultural differences, and are open to the religious differences of our numerous Jewish relatives and Tibetan friends. The esoteric aspects of Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism are frighteningly similar. Both use the concepts of chakras/spheres and channels, have notions of mystical continuity, mystical power to change the world as to align it with its divine plan and true nature, and the power, ability and duty of people to effect such changes through practicing certain lifestyles and making conscious choices.

Most of my religious relatives have come to understand that the Buddha is far from being an idol. It is a sin, in fact, to think of a statue of the Buddha as the Buddha. Its function is to remind a practitioner of the concepts and ideas of Buddhism, not to idolize the object, which is but a label for our mind to grasp the ideas better.

Also, most Buddhists are vegetarian, quickly solving the problem of pork in the kitchen. Many of my relatives, like many other secular Jews, choose not to eat pork even though they do not keep kosher. And although Tibetan Buddhists are avid meat lovers (there is no other food in Tibet!), their preferred meat is not pork but beef (it’s the closest to yak, and you can feed many people with the life of a single animal), with the proverbial chicken as a runner-up. Thus, the idea behind kosher food–having philosophies and restrictions governing the food one eats–is respected among Tibetan Buddhists.

In both our cultures, it is the woman’s role to bind the family together, to run the household, not in terms of being a servant, but as a keeper of tradition and values. So far, even with my lack of cooking skills, my family (our daughter and two cats included) is happy, safe–woven together like a cloth, with strands of different colors but all of the same strength.


About Julia Gutman

Julia Gutman, M.A., a Barnard and Columbia graduate, works mainly in psychological research and teaching English as a Foreign Language. She currently lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and two cats.