A Jewish Buddhist Refuge Vow

I’ve been practicing meditation since 2004. I’m aware of the major benefits that my practice and study have had on my life, and I feel good about taking refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. For the past few months, I’ve been planning on taking my Buddhist refuge vow this weekend at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. I felt like I was ready, and that it was the right time.

But with Passover this week, I’ve come down with a serious case of cold feet and am thinking about putting it off, or maybe not doing it, period. I’ve been wishing that Passover were not so close to this refuge vow ceremony — I don’t think I’d be questioning this decision so much if Passover were some other week.

Why? I ask myself. Why should Passover make a difference?

Or rather, why is this week different from all other weeks? (Ha ha. Jews will hopefully get that joke.)

Passover in particular has always meant a lot to me. When I was a kid I used to take over leading the Seder. I even drew my own Haggaddah with crayons, complete with illustrations of the ten plagues. I loved hearing the story of Passover, telling the story, sometimes even putting on a Passover play with my sister. It was a big deal. Even today I love Passover. I love going home to Long Island to celebrate with my dad. I bake macaroons every year. Last year I wrote a personalized Haggaddah for our family to use (because I was bored of the Maxwell House Haggaddah we’d been using for ages), which made me feel more connected to the holiday than ever.

But really, my memories of Jewish holidays are tied to memories of family togetherness, a time before my parents got divorced, before my sister and mother had cancer. During all that upheaval, we barely ate meals together. When we did, meals were rushed, usually takeout. Or casseroles the neighbors dropped off. We ate off of paper plates. Everyone was tired and busy, understandably so.

But before all that, we lit the Sabbath candles and all sipped a cup ofManischewitz on Friday nights. We tore pieces of fluffy challah bread, and my dad made French toast the next morning with the leftover challah slices. We sang songs. We prepared nice meals and ate them on nice plates. Dipped sliced apples in honey. Sat on the wood floor of the kitchen spinning shrill light-up dreidels. Got dressed up to go to temple. There was a warmth and dignity and comforting familiarity and ritual to it all. It made sense. It was simple. Even on the more serious holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. It was all so simple, and we were all so happy — at least, that’s how I remember it.

What Passover has stirred up is my fear that if I take my Buddhist refuge vow, that I won’t be Jewish anymore. Teachers have reassured me that you can be both Jewish and Buddhist, that there is no conflict there. But still I’ve been feeling anxious, asking Jewish Buddhist friends questions ranging from “Am I dishonoring my Jewish ancestry?” to “Can I still be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” As if when I die, a rabbi will Google me, find this blog post, and tell my family I can’t be buried in the family plot.

After investigating my feelings further, I finally realized that what I mean by “Jewish” is “connected to happy memories from my childhood, a time when things felt stable.” That is what “Jewish” has always meant to me. Which would explain why my connection to Judaism faded in my teens, even before I started meditating. It wasn’t that I ever left Judaism for Buddhism. It was that I was growing up, and my view of Judaism did not fit in with what was happening around me.

In fact, I spent so much time worrying over the past few days about being a Bad Jew that on the night before Passover I forgot to do two things:

1)    Bake macaroons to bring to my dad’s Passover Seder

2)    Meditate

When I realized this, I laughed. Then I went to the grocery store and bought coconut flakes and sweetened condensed milk and baked macaroons at midnight. Then I meditated.

And I also realized that being Jewish means a heck of a lot more than the idealized view of it that I’ve been holding on to. Regardless of whether or not I take refuge this weekend, maybe it IS time to renounce that old relationship, and let a new relationship to Judaism develop, alongside my relationship to Buddhism. Nothing has to be lost. But a lot more can be discovered.

By Emily Herzlin


Emily Herzlin is a writer and teacher living in New York City, and is interested in how meditation and creative writing support one another. Emily grew up on Long Island and studied Dramatic Literature and Creative Writing at NYU, and received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. Publications include USA Today, Shambhala Publications The Under 35 Project, The Women’s International Perspective, and Crescendo City. Emily teaches a course on Mindfulness and Creative Writing at Columbia University through the Columbia Artists as Teachers program. She leads Mindful Writing classes at IDP. Visit  www.emilyherzlin.com for more articles and writing.

This article originally appeared on the Interdependence Project Blog