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To Buddhism and Back

At the age of 16, I left Judaism. For several years, I had been longing for a female model who was strong and spiritual, like Shiva or the Tantric goddesses; a model of someone who searches for meaning and whose life is disciplined and deliberate — like the Buddhist female warriors.

But all that I could find in Judaism — from the “Woman of Valor” in the Book of Proverbs (who “riseth while it is still night” to “delivereth girdles”) to my mother’s bridge playing friends in Great Neck — left me cold.

The Reform Judaism that I knew cultivated the mind, not the body — the latter being only something upon which to lavish too much food or clothing. As far as I could tell, there was no sense in Judaism that the body might have spiritual possibilities, might even be a temple. (In fact, the Orthodox men whom I knew, seemed almost to flaunt, with their shirts hanging out and their faces badly shaven, that to be spiritual meant to neglect the body.)

I yearned too for a religion that appreciated feminine ways of knowing which were grounded in eros: that is, in relationship, intuition, receptivity, and in all the emotions of the body. I loved silence, contemplation, and “being.” But Judaism didn’t help me here either. So I left.

I explored Tibetan Buddhism, anthropology, Jungian analysis, the goddess religions, modern dance. As a practicing Buddhist, I grew used to rooms which were sparse and clean. During one month-long sitting session of eight hours a day of meditation, I learned about silence, deliberateness and focus.

What a surprise then, that at age 30,I suddenly felt new pangs, an inexplicable new yearning. I was homesick for Judaism; for my own tribe, my own family roots, people. I began to feel that claiming my Judaism was something about which I had no “choice”. It was something in me, in my love of debate and complexity for example, in my “style of neurosis”, in my body, in the fact that Buddhism’s coolness and remoteness were starting to make me nervous. Ironically, I felt homesick as well, because I’d never been home. That is, my childhood Judaism was the highly diluted suburban brand, not the “real thing” — so I needed to search through “outer answers” — gurus, countries, philosophies — to make the paradox hit me: that the answer was within. Within my own tradition; within myself.

The question became, then, how do I learn Judaism? As opposed to Buddhism, which has carefully schematized paths of introduction, Judaism seemed so inaccessible and complex.

When I looked in Judaism for what I had valued in Buddhism — simplicity, a basic belief in non-dualistic human goodness, being (rather than verbal explanation), letting go (rather than holding on), flexibility (rather than stability) — I couldn’t find it.

I also had trouble with how crowded Judaism seemed. In Orthodox synagogues which I visited on occasion, the children ran around amid a steady clack of mutterings and gossip. In frustration, I asked a rabbi I respected, “Where is the silence in Jewish mysticism?”, and he answered meaningfully, “Jews have a noisy spirituality.”

It was with those words ringing in my ears, finally, that I began to realize what I really needed: BOTH. Noise and silence, simplicity and complexity letting go and memory, the coolness of Buddhism and the warmth of Judaism. I also knew that I absolutely had to find a spirituality of the body in Judaism, a celebration of the body through dance, a recognition of our bodies as sacred temples.

Around this time then, I had a watershed conversation with my great-aunt which reaffirmed for me that going back to Judaism was a matter of genes, an inheritance of the body. My Great aunt Rae used to say to me, looking at me, that she recognized a certain expression in my eyes. She told me that her father had been the cantor of a Chassidic group in Russia. Singing and dancing were his primary means of expressing devotion. My great-aunt used to join him at these times. When I asked her what he taught her, she simply said that they shared a special communion which the “others did not have… he talked from the heart; he had a soul.”

When I asked her how he meditated, she danced around the living room for me looking, at age 75 and under five feet tall, like a frisky satyr. Because of my relationship with her, I was able to see how my search for a spirituality which expressed “being moved” through the body and dance actually had roots in my own traditions and was inherited through the family!

Without having known about my own Jewish roots in dance and spirituality, I had nevertheless found my way into the relatively obscure profession of dance/movement therapy, and then to psychology. I was comfortable with the enormous expressive and communicative power of movement, with healing through body and psyche.

Slowly, I began to find in Judaism expressions of song, of dance, of healing, of the body of joy — in the Kabbala, in Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the Baal Shem Tov, in the figure of Miriam the prophetess, in Jewish dancing and healing techniques as old as the Therapeutae (a Jewish sect who lived in the wilderness during the first century BCE), from the Bible and in Sephardic liturgical dances used during burial. I found images of nature in Bible that made sense to me as a dancer: expanding-contracting, scattering- gathering. I found images like weaving, the braided challah. Biblical dance motifs of braided vines, grapevine steps, basketweave handholds — an understanding of bringing together opposites, a peculiarly feminine mode of knowing.

Finally, in 1986, during a conference which I helped organize in Los Angeles on women and spirituality, I experienced a final piece of “home-coming”. The word orphan came up for many of us — over and over and over Like others of my generation, I felt like an orphan in history, (to use Paul Cowan’s phrase), cut off from rituals that bound and informed generations of Jews. But the more I explored the word orphan, the more I began to understand its paradox. To be an orphan in exile was a permanent condition of my tribe! I was not in exile alone. I was in exile among exiles. Home among the homeless.

Which brings me to now. Where am I? I have begun to celebrate Jewish rituals and holidays, to take my part in a Jewish community. I combine this with Buddhist practices which remind me of open space, lightness and letting go. I still meditate regularly, and practice the discipline to see things simply, as they are.

And I dance. By myself With others. When I work therapeutically with groups. Sometimes as did my Chassidic relatives, I just let the soul and joy move through my body. Sometimes I use Jewish or meditative forms more intentionally. I work with groups of women from all traditions who are homesick to recover their spiritual roots. Together we remember songs taught to us by our mothers and grandmothers, wisdom handed down to us orally.

I now know what is implied in all the good quest stories, where spiritual warriors like Odysseus or Zen monks must go through their various searches in order to arrive, finally, right back home again. And although I still believe strongly in the value of questions, my own spiritual journey is now simpler, more intimate. No longer “out there” in the form of the “right” teacher, practice or group; it is instead “inside” of me. The questions that tortured me have fallen away. No culture, faith or spiritual model is perfect, and what I understand now is that it needn’t be.

Ilene Serlin is currently on staff at Saybrook Institute in San Francisco. She has taught at UCLA and worked at the House of Affirmation in Boston. She is on the board of directors of the Association of Mental Health Affiliation With Israel.