The JewBu Bubbe

In the mid-1970s, Sylvia Boorstein, author of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and Passionate Buddhist, was a practicing psychotherapist, wife, and mother of four children. Her life was excellent, and yet she wasn’t at peace. In fact, the more abundant her blessings, the more frightened she became that something, sooner or later, would happen to take them away. Her husband. Seymour, a psychiatrist, believed that spiritual paths should have answers to such dilemmas, and he became the family’s “advance spiritual scout.” After attending a two-week Buddhist meditation retreat, he suggested that Sylvia try it.

Her equanimity with two paths is rare, because most of us see identity in black-and-white terms: you are this or you are that, not both. Sylvia’s work is of special interest to Jews because so many of us are practicing and teaching Buddhism. Unlike Sylvia, however, many of the teachers are born Jews but are otherwise Buddhist in belief and practice.

“I’ve done one particular exercise dozens of times where you write about the twelve stepping-stones of your life. Birth is number one; where you are now is number twelve. You’re asked to consider their remaining ten steps in a contemplative way, and you don’t plan it in advance. You sit down, write, I was born…’ and then you number up to twelve. It’s never been the same any time I’ve done it.

“I used to think that some things will change on the list, but I’ll never leave out the death of my mother It was a huge event when she died—I was twenty-three—and I’d worried about her weak heart since I was a child. Her illness shaped who I became, and her death is what confronted me about the frailty of life. But seven years after I ‘knew’ this, I did the list and my mother wasn’t on it! Everything that we do matters, but sometimes we remember different events.

“When I see that everything we do has an effect, it make some careful when I teach—not like tight, tense careful, but careful in the sense of impeccable. When we see clearly. we behave carefully. Nothing is wasted, not even wasting time! If I’ve wasted today, it doesn’t need to upset me. I’ve learned that I won’t do that tomorrow.” Sylvia enjoys talking and teaching, leaning forward as a good teacher and therapist does.

“Intention is what corrects me. It’s important to have a practice, it’s important who taught you, but what is most important is intention. Why are you doing it? What do you hope will happen? My intention is to be alive and awake in my life so that 1 manifest myself as clearly as I can. It makes for a better life because it gives me the peace that is available to all human beings.

“On Shabbat.. .the women would mumble into their prayer books in Yiddish about the child who is creeping in and out too much. My grandmother would say, ‘Leave her alone.’ That’s all that I remember. The rabbi gave frightening sermons on Yom Kippur about the Book of Life and the Book of Death, but I was never frightened because I was so well loved.

“This is 1940, and anti-Semitism was terrible. I wasn’t well loved in school, I was the only Jew in my class, and kids said really terrible things to me. My mother worked hard to have me moved to another school. Even though I had to walk very far and couldn’t go home for lunch, my mother’s effort to keep me comfortable and my parents’ kindness told me that it’s all right to be alive. The sense of God I have is my mother. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘I cannot see God’s face, but I can see my mother’s.’

“The God of my father’s parents didn’t work for him, and he didn’t figure out how to get another one. But somehow, even though Judaism wasn’t quite up to speed, my parents didn’t get mad at it, and I love them for that.”

Sylvia describes a “best day” scenario of practice: “I get up in the morning, say whatever I’m going to say, and I sit for maybe twenty minutes. Three times a week I drive to the minyan. I like being with the community because I like praying and also because I know they need me. We need ten people, and I count.

“My mother’s father retired at sixty-five and came to live with us. He slept in my room. The phone would ring early in the morning, and I’d grope for the phone to hear somebody in Yiddish say, ‘We need a tenth person for a minyan.’ My grandfather wasn’t religious and had long ago given up the practice, but they knew he wasn’t working. He’d jump out of bed, get dressed, and run out the door. He didn’t have a big consciousness about prayer, but he did have a big consciousness about showing up for people if they needed him.”

I have that consciousness. When my grandchildren were here for a couple of weeks, they went to camp. One morning I wasn’t sure if the group would have a minyan, so I woke the children early, got everything packed for the day, and we went to shul. The youngest children asked why, and then the twelve-year-old grandson said, “Grandma, you’re the tenth person here.” That might have been the most important thing that happened while they were here. I told them about my grandfather, and that they can pass it down to their children. Now they have a five-generation story about showing up when people are needed.”