Amer­i­can Jew­Bu: Jews, Bud­dhists, and Reli­gious Change

Emi­ly Sigalow

January 1, 2013

Today, many Jew­ish Amer­i­cans are embrac­ing a dual reli­gious iden­ti­ty, prac­tic­ing Bud­dhism while also stay­ing con­nect­ed to their Jew­ish roots. This book tells the sto­ry of Judaism’s encounter with Bud­dhism in the Unit­ed States, show­ing how it has giv­en rise to new con­tem­pla­tive forms with­in Amer­i­can Judaism — and shaped the way Amer­i­cans under­stand and prac­tice Buddhism.

Tak­ing read­ers from the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry to today, Emi­ly Siga­low traces the his­to­ry of these two tra­di­tions in Amer­i­ca and explains how they came togeth­er. She argues that the dis­tinc­tive social posi­tion of Amer­i­can Jews led them to their unique engage­ment with Bud­dhism, and describes how peo­ple incor­po­rate aspects of both into their every­day lives. Draw­ing on a wealth of orig­i­nal in-depth inter­views con­duct­ed across the nation, Siga­low explores how Jew­ish Amer­i­can Bud­dhists expe­ri­ence their dual reli­gious iden­ti­ties. She reveals how Jew­ish Bud­dhists con­found pre­vail­ing expec­ta­tions of minor­i­ty reli­gions in Amer­i­ca. Rather than sim­ply adapt­ing to the major­i­ty reli­gion, Jews and Bud­dhists have bor­rowed and inte­grat­ed ele­ments from each oth­er, and in doing so they have left an endur­ing mark on the Amer­i­can consciousness.

Amer­i­can Jew­Bu high­lights the lead­ing role that Amer­i­can Jews have played in the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness in the Unit­ed States, and the pro­found impact that these two ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tions have had on one another.

Discussion Questions

Uti­liz­ing an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary lens, Emi­ly Siga­low has pro­duced a high­ly impor­tant work on the encounter between Judaism and Bud­dhism. Her Amer­i­can Jew­Bu: Jews, Bud­dhists, and Reli­gious Change (Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019) traces the rela­tion­ship of these groups back to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (specif­i­cal­ly to the World Par­lia­ment of Reli­gions, held in Chica­go, 1893), demon­strat­ing the porous­ness of Amer­i­can reli­gion. Lat­er chap­ters grap­ple with what Siga­low defines as syn­cretism, the mix­ing of reli­gious cul­tures, from Bud­dhism to Judaism and in the rec­i­p­ro­cal. She stud­ies the dis­course between lead­ers of both groups, argu­ing for the com­plex­i­ties of pow­er, bor­ders and author­i­ty in Amer­i­can life. In the sec­ond sec­tion, Siga­low uses ethnog­ra­phy and field­work to address the lived expe­ri­ences” of the Jew­ish-Bud­dhist amal­gam, ana­lyz­ing rit­u­al, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and cul­tur­al behav­iors. She deep­ens our under­stand­ing of con­tem­po­rary reli­gious mix­ing and change, as well as the flu­id­i­ty of Jew­ish­ness in the Unit­ed States.