Long, Strange Trip
10/15/1999
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Alan Lew was getting ready to sew his raksu, the garment worn by Buddhists for lay ordination, but he kept procrastinating. Instead, he wrote poetry and a monologue in the voice of his Bubbe Ida. With every stitch, he was supposed to say “I take refuge in the Buddha,” and he soon realized why he couldn’t sew at all: He felt he was betraying his Jewish soul.

One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi” (Kodansha) is Lew’s memoir of his circular path, from interest in the Judaism of his grandfathers as a child in Brooklyn to involvement in the counterculture of the ’60s to 10 years of a serious Zen Buddhist practice in California, then back to Judaism and to rabbinical school in New York. Now a rigorously observant Jew, he serves as rabbi of the largest Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Beth Sholom.

Written with his wife, novelist Sherill Jaffe, the book — just published and already a bestseller in San Francisco — is a series of short chapters, each quite focused, presenting some large and small stones along the path. The writing is often poetic, sometimes funny, always candid; his stumbles are not at all covered up. “A spiritual path proceeds from mistakes, suffering, failures. I tried to be as honest as I possibly could,” Rabbi Lew, who is about to turn 56, tells The Jewish Week.

This is the story of a searcher. He acknowledges that his path is “fairly unusual. A lot just happened to me.” He writes about his early experiences in learning Zen meditation, how the world “came to have a dimension of depth it hadn’t had before,” his impressions of various Zen masters. During many of the years of his Zen practice, he supported himself as a bus driver, always writing poetry. He candidly describes his two marriages, and his journey, with his second wife, back to Judaism. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, he flourished; the study came naturally to him and he graduated in 1988. Before moving to San Francisco, he led a congregation in upstate Monroe.

In the past few years, many Jews have been drawn to Buddhism. What’s distinctive about Rabbi Lew is that he is something of a pioneer in bringing to Judaism the influences of a Buddhist meditation practice. Now, he’s one of the leaders in the Jewish meditation movement. He’s also decidedly Jewish — not both Jewish and Buddhist as some “JewBus” describe themselves. He explains that Zen meditation has “opened me to the great richness of ordinary Jewish prayer, a richness that was no longer apparent to most Jews.”

“The work we’ve been doing is an experiment in how to be a religious person in this new age of total instant communication we live in. McLuhan is outdated. We no longer live in a global village. We live in a global apartment house and the walls are very thin. The idea of hermetically sealed religious traditions is impossible.” He adds that Judaism has a long tradition of taking on influences of other cultures.

Rabbi Lew spends much time tending to the needs of his congregants, visiting the sick, conducting funerals, and is also committed to helping the city’s homeless. His social activism “flows directly from a sense of connectedness I get from meditation, combined with a clarion call for justice that Judaism enunciates so clearly.” About his pastoral work, he says: “The most important thing is being present with people in hospitals, deeply listening. That’s when I feel the most benefit from my meditation training.”

Meditation is increasingly a part of his congregation’s life. They sponsor four meditation groups every week, including two before the morning minyan. With the help of a major grant to be announced shortly, they are planning to open the first meditation center connected to a synagogue. Housed in a building adjacent to Beth Sholom, it will be an urban meditation center, with daily meditation groups and Torah study. “This is about daily practice. That’s the most essential element I brought from Buddhism to Judaism."

Rabbi Lew will be in New York as part of his book tour, leading a meditation Shabbat (Oct. 15-16) at the Westchester Reform Temple, 255 Mamaroneck Drive, Scarsdale; he’ll speak about “What I Learned From Buddhism About How To Save Judaism” at services on Friday, Oct. 15 at 8:15 p.m. and lead a workshop on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 16, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., “Meditation and Jewish Spiritual Practice.”

In Manhattan, he will be conducting a Jewish meditation workshop Sunday, Oct. 17 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 257 W. 88th St. ($10 for members, $20 for non-members, including lunch) and speaking Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at Sufi Bookstore, 227 West Broadway (between Franklin and White Streets).

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