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May 14, 1999

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How An American Jew Landed In A Buddhist Lotus In India

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Arthur J Pais in New York

As the best fables teach us, sometimes you have to go far away to find your way home. And this is what happened to Rodger Kamenetz , an American poet and academic, nine years ago when he joined a group of Jewish thinkers to meet with the Dalai Lama in India -- the first high level encounter between a Buddhist leader and Jewish scholars.

Jew in the Lotus Nine years after his profound discovery expressed eloquently in the book Jew in the Lotus, Kamenetz is travelling again.

This time he is travelling to promote a documentary film based on his international best-seller. The movie has grossed over $ 100,000 in select American cities. The film not only recreates the experience of eight Jewish scholars (including Kamenetz) who visited Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama but also focuses on Kamenetz's continuing search for his Jewish roots.

The Dalai Lama was eager to hear about the "Jewish secret" of survival during centuries without a homeland. But in the foreground of the book and the film is a man who transformed by his contact with Buddhist culture.

As Kamenetz discovers, the lessons of spiritual survival in exile apply as much to a troubled individual as they do to a troubled nation.

He says when he visited Dharamsala for the first time he felt he was an unlikely pilgrim. He was not even sure if he could rise to the occasion. The recent death of his infant son and his floundering career had left him adrift in a sea of doubt and pain.

In Dharamsala he was surrounded by suffering -- the overwhelming poverty outside the camp and the Diaspora of the Tibetans. Yet in the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists he encountered people who faced this suffering with equanimity, resolve and compassion. As he watched this "dream team" of Jewish delegates share their secrets, Kamenetz began to feel the power of a spiritual tradition. His fašade of cynicism, self-defensiveness and self-depreciation began to crack. An observer no more, he began to look for a way out of his pain, his own exile.

The book has already achieved cult status in Jewish circles, in addition to being used as an academic text for college-level religious studies.

The film tells the story of how Kamenetz, the skeptic, found his way back to Judaism -- tradition of his birth. "The Judaism of my youth focused on outward symbols and rites of passage but not the inner life," he says. After his trip to India and mystic encounters, he began to ask the question -- "What is there in Judaism that is like this?"

The surge of recent films and programs about spirituality, human rights, ethnic cleansing, and the Dalai Lama in particular, pave the way for the Jew in the Lotus, says director Laurel Chiten.

Chiten, maker of the acclaimed film, Twitch and Shout, about people with Tourette's Syndrome, has filled her new work with profound spiritual insights. But as in the book there is humor in the film too.

"I am nervous -- nothing new in itself," he noted in his journal after arriving in India. "Nervousness was my religion," Kamenetz says as he discusses his youth and adolescence. (Kamenetz comes off as a cross between Woody Allen and Alan Watts -- the Buddhist scholar -- noted the San Francisco Examiner.) As a middle-class kid in Baltimore, he received a perfunctory Jewish education, disappointed his parents by not becoming a doctor, and struggled as a poet and author.

Kamenetz, who was invited to Dharamsala by his longtime friend Marc Lieberman, a Jew turned to Buddhism, does not find it easy to strip away his assumptions about religion and spirituality. He jokes about the culture clash ("monks like silence, Jews like to yak"). And yet he is stimulated by the religious discussions and steadied by the presence of prayer -- Jewish and Buddhist. Chiten presents the pilgrim's progress with rapid montages of the sights in India and by mixing Hebrew and Buddhist chanting.

The documentary does not forget to offer insights about the Dalai Lama. There is a scene -- which is at once hilarious and insightful -- when the Hassidic rabbi Zalman Schacter starts talking about angels, and how he believes that the Jewish angel and the Tibetan angel are guiding the proceedings. The camera focuses on the Rabbis of a less mystical bent -- that is, everyone else -- shift uncomfortably, hoping the conversation will be yanked down to earth.

But the Dalai Lama is fascinated. And with a child-like candor he wants to know what happens to the angels when there is an earthquake in Los Angeles.

The book's -- and also the movie's -- title is a pun on the Tibetan phrase, the "jewel in the lotus." Kamenetz thinks that Western Buddhists (including Jebus -- Jewish Buddhists) are "way too pious to laugh" at his pun on the Tibetan mantra. But when he handed to the Dalai Lama the hardcover copy of his book and offered his apologies for the irreverent title, the Tibetan leader erupted in spontaneous laughter.

"The Jew in the Lotus! That's very good."

More humor to come.

Near the conclusion, Lieberman teases how his friend is looked upon as "expert of the Jewish-Buddhist interface, and you don't know to squat."

RELATED FEATURE:

Down And Out Director Embraces 'Lotus' -- And Finds Personal Fulfillment

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