Posted by Nat Bernstein
We all have one: that book recommended to us over and over again that we never read. Perhaps it becomes something of a personal badge past a certain number of echoed suggestions, or an internal protest against being repeatedly pigeonholed. I have little better reason than that, but it’s been nearly ten years since I was first asked if I’ve read The Jew in the Lotus—a question posed so consistently since then I can sense it forming before it’s uttered — and no, I still have not.
The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India is the 1994 bestselling chronicle of the 1990 dialogue at Dharamsala between Tibetan rinpoches and a delegation of Jewish Buddhists, scholars, rabbis, and mystics: thirty years into its people’s exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration sought counsel from a council of Jews on organizing and mobilizing a diasporic ethnic and religious community into a nation that could thrive in the modern world. In an inspired and inspiring moment of interfaith collaboration, the Dalai Lama held a forum on how these two of the world’s oldest religions had managed to withstand both time and persecution up to the present day, and what they could learn from each other’s histories and models for the future. Kamenetz’s account of the encounter found a wide, passionate audience among Jews, Buddhists, clergy and adherents of all faiths, and anyone interested in the unlikely survival of a small, esoteric religion and what wisdom it could impart on another of its kind, facing the same challenges two centuries apart.
Monday was the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, an occasion commemorated through the week across the globe and with special fervor in New York City, where he is celebrating his reincarnativity among the Tibetan denizens of the City and pilgrims from afar — among them my best friend from high school.
Tenzin had been forcibly enrolled in an ESL course at the start of our Freshman year, at the same large district school where I took an accelerated language program that our home school did not offer. We would wait for the bus shuttling us back to our small, alternative high school with our winter coats on backwards, a lazy accommodation for the backpacks we couldn’t be bothered to take off or adjust from the moment we left our classrooms on one campus until we took our seats in opposite corners of the Science lab we shared at the second. We built a cursory friendship on complaining to each other about our respective morning waste-of-time enrollments — until Tenzin successfully tested out of the unnecessary ESL class and I switched to an independent study, continuing my studies through classes at the local university instead. By the spring semester of our Sophomore year we were coordinating our schedules to take all of our electives together, claiming the far corners of classrooms, sitting in the windowsills and snapping our gum against our teeth. Anything that could not be graded we shared only with each other: our (blessedly angst-free) forays into creative writing, our most embarrassing, unconquerable crushes, stories from retreats and shabbatonim and their most tantalizing unchaperoned moments, questions of identity and the values with which we’d each been raised.
The first place I drove as a licensed motorist was to Tenzin’s house, the same afternoon I passed my driver’s test. We celebrated over a classic Bollywood movie and Frooti frozen into mango popsicles we scooped out of their severed juiceboxes with the straws. We spent our Senior year sitting comfortably at separate tables in the classes we shared, operating from opposite ends of the room in our benevolent unified reign over the school. Tenzin held court among the athletes, the jocks, Model UN, Black Student Union (there wasn’t much other support for students of color), the funky girls, the girls who had tried out cheerleading for a neighboring school Freshman year, the guys whose parents were frequently out of town and purportedly oblivious to the SOLO cupped parties reliably thrown in their absence; I kept company with the musicians, dancers, artists, and stoners in and about the studios on the first floor, the Science Olympiad and Mock Trial competitors, the editors of the satirical school newspaper, and the uninhibitedly brilliant clowns cramming in the same credits I was catching up on over our final semester of high school. (We left the theater kids to themselves.) We would converge on the back lot where only seniors were granted parking spots around the large grass square that was the hub of social activity (for as long as it was cleared of snow); we sat on the hood of Tenzin’s car and caught each other up on the affairs of our peers, favorite teachers, families, and selves each day before heading home.
These are the examples I gave when a more newly acquired friend asked what my relationship with my high school best friend “does for me.” It was an awkward question to consider — What does any friendship “do” for a person? — and it became frustrating evident that these memories were not answering what was meant by it. “I mean, what do you two find in common?” It took me a while to connect that this unsatisfied curiosity about an observant Jew’s friendship with a Tibetan Buddhist was at its core just a variation on the old classic: “Have you read The Jew in the Lotus?”
Throughout high school and since, every time someone from my nuclear and extended Jewish community met or heard about Tenzin, invariably I would see the inquiry scrawled their intake before the blurt as soon as the word “Tibetan” dropped. The Jew in the Lotus (and, indeed, the dialogue it chronicles) is by most accounts an excellent work, and an interesting, provoking piece of modern interfaith history involving some of the most revered Jewish leaders and thinkers of our time — a concentration of my personal heros among them — yet I still cringe every time someone insists I must read it. It’s a recommendation that reduces a significant relationship in my life to a perceived experiment, as though it developed out of a philosophical fascination with another culture instead of an innate and deep affinity between two people — who just happen to each come from rich and somewhat unusual heritages. Our friendship is not a project; it is not founded on some mission of mutual understanding or a quest to solve or contemplate the future of the nations we belong to. One assumes I’ll appreciate The Jew in the Lotus because it addresses so many of my “interests” — but my best friend isn’t an interest, and to suggest so is a subtle yet troubling exotification — on the shallow yet slippery end of the spectrum of dehumanization — of a person very dear to me.
But the cultural exchange is indeed part of our relationship. We connected as teenagers over being raised in traditional households and belonging to small and stretched communities steeped in custom and faith. We spend holidays together with each other’s families as often as we can: Losar, Sukkot, Shabbat, rinpoches’ teachings. We learn more about our respective cultures’ death and wedding rites as those events become increasingly relevant to our lives. We continue to discuss our personal musings on identity, of diaspora, of peoplehood together; we slip into the languages and names we use only at home and pick up each other’s foreign phrases and scattered words; we fill each other in on the political or violent moments facing our communities and the histories and complexities behind them.
Today the Dalai Lama begins a series of teachings for the people honoring him on his accession to octogenarnia. If I can make it out of the office in time, I will be joining his audience — not to carry out some interfaith agenda, not to observe a foreign sacred space, but to sit with my friend’s family at an occasion important to them, without any thought beyond that as to what it means to be a Jew in the lotus.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.