In January, one of my yoga students asked me a serious question that struck me as absurd.
An acquaintance and peer for the past four years, she sat in the front row as we waited for the clock to strike 6 o’clock.
“Toby, can I ask you a question?” She said. “Of course,” I answered.
We had been discussing my teacher training in India, and I expected a question about travel, maybe yoga training, certainly not what followed: “Are you a Hindu?” I think I may have laughed—the thought seemed so impossible.
“No,” I said, “I’m Jewish.” I am not, nor will I ever be, a Hindu, because I am Jewish—an identity that for me speaks more to tradition, heritage and culture than to religion, but that is nevertheless so deep as to preclude the possibility of belonging to any other faith.
Every month for the past five months, friends new and old have gathered in my apartment for Kirtan. We chant devotional Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist) songs, mostly in Sanskrit; we make music, burn incense, and drink chai. We pronounce the names of various Hindu deities, sit in a circle, and take turns leading chants. For some, it is a spiritual experience; for others, merely a social or musical one. For many, I suspect it is a little bit of each.
I went on to explain to my inquisitive student that while I identified as Jewish, I did also engage with many other spiritual traditions. Still, I was not a Hindu. No. I practice yoga every day, but I am not a Hindu. I attend and host Kirtan, but I am not a Hindu.
I perform full moon rituals, sometimes wear mala beads, and have pictures of the Buddha and Kali in my home, but I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist nor Pagan. I am a Jew. And the argument could certainly be made that I am shamelessly appropriating these elements of foreign cultures and faiths that appeal to me.
However, I prefer to think that I am engaging honestly and sincerely with practices that speak to my own truth (and, as an aside, that I have studied extensively), and so I forgive myself the possible transgression. It is maybe a question of semantics only. Now, I want to make something clear: It is okay to be a Jew and a Hindu, or a Jew and a Buddhist. In the U.S., this is so common that we even have a name for it: “Jewbu.”
In Reform and Conservative American Jewish communities, agnosticism and syncretism occur with surprising frequency and seem to be generally accepted, or at least tolerated. According to the Pew Forum’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 85 percent of American Jews believe being Jewish is mainly a “matter of ancestry, heritage or culture.” Thus, being Jewish is not, after all, dependent on the First Commandment—“I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” At least, not for everyone.
It is okay then, to be an Agnostic Jew, to be Jewish and Hindu, or to be a “Jewbu” (okay by the standards of many Jewish Americans, that is) but I am not. Perhaps that is where I personally draw the line between engagement and appropriation.
I might engage with Hindu and Buddhist practices, but I will not take on those identities. I have my own already, and it is enough.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Cami Krueger / Editor: Renée Picard
Photos: Courtesy of author