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Writing Down the Roots

By Natalie Goldberg

After four years at the Minnesota Zen Center, during a seven-day sesshin, I went to Katagiri Roshi. "You know, the more I sit, the more Jewish I'm feeling."

"That makes sense," he said. "The more you sit, the more you become who you are."

This feeling of being Jewish deepened in me. I wanted to know what it meant to be Jewish. Though my family was culturally Jewish—there were smatterings of Yiddish spoken by my parents and grandparents, we ate chicken soup and gefilte fish, felt the shadow of the concentration camps, lit Hanukkah candles—there was nothing spiritual or religious about our home. My father had been brought up religiously and he rebelled. When he was thirteen and had to change in the locker room for gym, his classmates made fun of the prayer shawl he wore under his undershirt. That night, he told me, he went home and told his mother, "No more. I'm not wearing it." And at sixteen when he got his driver's license, he snuck into the family's navy blue Ford and drove it down the street on Yom Kippur, the highest holy day, when you are only allowed to walk. "I crashed the car," he told me. "God was warning me, but, otherwise, that religious stuff is a lot of malarkey." This was my religious instruction from my father. Later, as an adult, I heard that my great-grandfather on my father's side was a holy man, that he wandered from family to family teaching Hebrew and the Torah at heder, Jewish school, that he had no home of his own.

On my mother's side of the family, my grandfather often repeated, "It's so good to be in America. You don't know how good you have it." He'd come over from Russia when he was seventeen to avoid the draft there. He'd seen Cossacks ride through his small shtetl and kill people. When he arrived in the United States, he threw off Judaism as archaic. He wanted to be an American. The day before Yom Kippur, he and my grandmother parked their car several blocks from their apartment in Brooklyn, and in the morning, when all Jewish families dressed up and walked to shul, to the synagogue, my grandfather and grandmother and their three children dressed up, too. They walked like the other families, but not to shul, to the car, got in, out of sight of their neighbors, and drove out to Long Island for a picnic. When I asked my mother once, "What is God?" she said, "It is goodness. Wherever you see good, you see God." That was a good answer. It satisfied me.

Now, twenty-two years later, Judaism haunted me in the zendo. What was it? And what was this foreign religion, Zen, that I was practicing, when I had turned my back on something that was rightfully mine? There were no interfaith marriages in my family. I was one hundred percent Jewish—no mixed blood. What did that mean? Perhaps I had been arrogant. I had turned my back on my own religion and was studying something foreign.

I went to Roshi. "I'm going to study Judaism. I don't know what it is. I'm going to leave Zen Center for a while."

He nodded. "Remember, whatever you do, the one true test of a religion. Ancestors, history doesn't matter—what matters is that it can help you here and now in your life."

I was naive. I'd never gone to temple, never met a rabbi, except Zalman Schacter, and that was at Lama Foundation, not in a synagogue. I called several in the Twin Cities and asked them to meet me for lunch. I thought rabbis would be like Roshi. Roshi was my archetype for someone spiritual.

The rabbis I met—all men—one from a reform synagogue, one from a conservative orientation, another from the Lubovich organization, were friendly, warm, opinionated, distracted, talkative. With one especially, I wanted to say, "Please, slow down, connect with your breath." None had the presence of Katagiri. Each one at some point in the conversation bent close to me. "Zen, Buddhism, it's not as deep, big as Judaism. It's okay, but it's not the same."

I was surprised. "Do you know much about Zen? Have you sat?" "I don't need that. I've read a little," the conservative rabbi said. We went on to talk of Minneapolis, intermarriage, education. This couldn't be. Where was a person like Roshi in all this? I took some classes on Judaism; I went to services; I studied Hebrew. In Hebrew class, we had an Israeli instructor named Tuvia. He presumed we all pretty much knew Hebrew; after all, it was his native language. I knew nothing, not even the alphabet, but I loved the class. I constantly nudged Carol, the woman in front of me, to give me the answers. She was a dermatologist, brought up on a North Dakota farm, who planned to convert. At the beginning of the course, we all chose a Hebrew name. I chose Malka, which means "queen." I liked playing at a new identity, an ancient Hebrew one.

After taking the Hebrew class for two quarters, I won a Bush Fellowship in poetry and with the money I went to Israel for three months. In Jerusalem, I went to Sabbath dinner at the homes of different Hasidic families. One Hasidic sect had a movement to bring wayward Jews back to the fold. I went often because the Hasids felt closest to what I knew of religion.

At one Sabbath in the Old City, I asked the head of the family over dinner, "What practice is there that I can do every day?" "Get married and have children," he told me. There were thirteen of his children at the table. I liked this man; I liked his family. They liked me. It was obvious I was a religious person; I accepted and appreciated their Hasidic tradition. "Yes, but I'm not married. I don't have children. What can I do?" I asked again. It seemed obvious to him. "Get married and have children."

I walked home that night through the streets of Jerusalem, past Hasidic Jews in fur hats gathering in front of a small synagogue, the air smoky under street lights. I felt I was back many centuries. I passed rose vines climbing up Jerusalem pines, down cobblestone streets and houses built of pink Jerusalem stone. This was ancient and beautiful, but I could not find a way in. I was a modern woman, a feminist, a writer, an American. I wanted a practice, and so far I had discovered it only in the Eastern world.

I envied my parents when they visited me in Jerusalem. They seemed comfortable there, at home. They spoke Yiddish, the language they had learned in their Brooklyn homes, with people they met on the streets. One Israeli man came up to my father on Rehov Jaffa, tapped him on the stomach, said something, and then walked arm and arm with him for a block. My mother and I trailed behind. When we came to the corner, the Israeli waved good-bye.

I turned to my father. "What did he say to you? Did you know him?"

"Naa," my father shook his head. "We spoke Yiddish. He said I should lose some weight. Did you notice how trim all the men are here? It must be because of the army. I told him I was American. He said he knew."

"How do you feel so comfortable here?" I had struggled for three months to feel at all relaxed. There were Jews here, my people, but it was also a foreign country.

"Oh," my father waved his arm, "it's just like old Brooklyn."

My parents had a natural Jewish identity from being brought up in a Jewish neighborhood. They took it for granted. They never felt the need to pass it on. I was brought up in suburban Long Island, many times the only Jew in my class. I had no such strong identity. Suburbia had neutralized my roots, washed them away.

When I returned from Jerusalem, I went to Roshi.

"Roshi, I think it's driving me nuts. It's like an ornate tapestry. I can't find a way in. I get lost in the history, the holocaust. Judaism seems sexist, opinionated."

He shook his head. "Pay no attention to that. Stand up with what you have learned here and continue to penetrate. When you get to the heart of Judaism, you'll find Zen."

I took a deep breath, nodded, and left.

One late afternoon in early October at a Yom Kippur service in a synagogue on Dupont Avenue, five blocks from the zendo—I'd been fasting all day and had walked early that morning through fallen brown leaves—I touched it, touched something. I held the prayer book in my hand, "Let there be grace and kindness, compassion and love," we recited—a moment when everything opened. There among my Jewish brothers and sisters, I felt that deep stillness, that quiet, that golden joy I felt in the zendo during sesshin—it was everywhere. After that I could return to Zen Center, knowing that yes, where I came from, the religion of my ancestors had it, too. There was no barrier in me: Zen versus Judaism. It was everywhere. There was a peace in me after that. I did not need to turn my back on anything.

Natalie Goldberg is a writer in Taos, New Mexico. This piece is from her newest book Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America (Bantam Books) and is reprinted with permission.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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