“We were always surrounded by books, there was always a high caliber of discussion at the dinner table.” He said his father, a Lithuanian Jew who was first in his class at Harvard, approached things “with great intellect and great curiosity.”
Rome’s family name is notarikon, or Hebrew acrostic, for Rosh Mativta, or “Head of the Yeshiva.” “Supposedly we’re descended from the Gaon of Vilna on my father’s side.” Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon – or “eminence” – of Vilna was an outstanding eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi and one of the staunchest Orthodox opponents of the Hasidic movement. So David Rome could claim very serious yichus – Jewish lineage.
He was bar mitzvahed in White Plains, New York, and attended a Hebrew high school run by the Jewish Theological Seminary. But despite this rich Jewish background, he turned to Buddhism after college.
“I wasn’t really looking. It just happened. Hitchhiking in Europe with an old friend from high school who had an interest in Eastern religions. He dragged me along to Samye-ling, the meditation center in Scotland that Trungpa Rinpoche had started. That was in 1971. There I experienced meditation for the first time.”
Rome found in meditation “a sense that something was right – just very much intuition.” Powerful too was “the quality of discipline in Buddhism,” which gave “a way of working with yourself, a way of what Rinpoche called making friends with yourself. There was a path… you could actually have this commitment and work with it, work on it and progress, explore, go deeper, clarify.”
The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz
As an Orthodox Jew perusing these lines, and the many other lines of first-person accounts of bright, capable, active and affiliated Jews abandoning their Judaism for eastern religions, or synthesizing the two, my overriding emotion is regret.
The Jewish experience I grew up with contained many of the ingredients David and his fellow Jubus (Jewish-Buddhists) didn’t even know they were missing until they found them in Buddhism.
A sense that something was right? I felt it every time we learned something that just made so much sense. Every time my family sat down to a Shabbos dinner. Every time I attended a chuppah ceremony at a Jewish wedding.
Quality of discipline? Every time I went clothes shopping. Every time I refrained from breaking Shabbat. Every time I bypassed heavenly-smelling food at the mall food court.
A way of working with yourself? Every time we were called to introspection, whether before Rosh Hashanah, after a tragedy, or in honor of a happy occasion.
A path? A commitment? The word “halacha,” Jewish law, actually means “a way of walking,” or a path, if you will. It is both a path, a way to navigate life, and, yes, a commitment. What characterizes fealty to halacha in Orthodox Judaism is that commitment: it cannot be broken, unless halacha itself permits it.
Go deeper? Clarify? Oh my gosh, are you kidding? This theme probably emerged in every Torah lecture I’ve ever attended. Keep growing, keep striving, never stagnate.
Here’s the problem: youth, and thus youth education, is largely wasted on the young. I know there are Orthodox Jews reading these lines who will be like “where was all that in my schooling”? And I’d like to tell you that it was there. I’m sure of it. But in elementary school and high school and even post-high-school, we are often immature, watching the clock, passing notes (or texting in class – I clearly have been out of school for awhile), paying very close attention to our rumbling tummies, or catching up on homework. Everything but Paying Attention.
If we could, as adults, go back and receive that education, as newly motivated learners, I wonder what might happen.
One of my kids was at summer camp this year, and a friend of mine was giving a Torah class. My child was very enthused, and told the lecturer how much it was enjoyed. My friend asked my child, “Haven’t you ever heard these ideas?” My child replied, no, not really, school’s not really like that, blah blah blah.
But I taught in my kids’ school. I know the teachers personally. I know what and how they teach. They ARE giving over these ideas. I think the problem is that my child isn’t listening. My child is probably thinking about what to wear tomorrow and what’s for dinner.
When we lose our youth to other religions, we have to ask ourselves: what do those religions offer that ours doesn’t? If the answer, indeed, is “nothing,” that’s the saddest of all. Because that means the education, the beauty, the depth, is not traveling all the way, that long, long, journey, into the ears and hearts of our children. In no way do I believe the transmission is broken. I believe that the children are simply immature. We must continue to educate our children – one day, hopefully, the ideas will sink in. But most importantly, as adults, we have to find and avail ourselves of that depth, that beauty, that path, that commitment, that call to action, to introspection, that way of working with yourself, that discipline, and most of all, that sense that, indeed, something is very, very right.