Schwer zu sein a yid

My grandparents, Blanche and Lou Hartman, were long-time residents of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) who also spent many years at the SFZC-affiliated Green Gulch Farm. During one of my many summers staying with Oma and Opa in Green Gulch, I had a memorable conversation with one of the guest students there (folks who split their time working at the farm and studying/practicing Zen Buddhism). I was in high school and she must have been in her mid 20’s at the time.

Somehow, the fact that I was an observant Jew came up (maybe I mentioned that I was going back home to Palo Alto on Friday morning for Shabbat, then coming back up on Sunday to spend another week at the farm), and we started chatting about our respective experiences growing up and being Jewish.

She told me her Jewish life story: from the New York area; family affiliated with a Conservative synagogue but not very active; socially conscious and active in progressive causes; felt culturally identified with her Eastern European Jewish heritage but was turned off by the association she had of Jewishness with materialism and boring upper-middle class values and by the apparent lack of spirituality in the synagogue. I was amazed because I had heard rumors about people like her, kind of figured that my Grandmother had overlapping sentiments (but never really talked it through with her), and read about people like her in Woody Allen short stories, but this was the first time that I was having a serious heart-to-heart conversation about Judaism with an angsty unaffiliated Ashkenazi New York Jew looking for spirituality in Eastern traditions and progressive causes.

At some point it became my turn to talk about my experiences and feelings about being Jewish, and she returned the favor of being amazed. In the middle of a sentence, or perhaps when I paused for a second to catch a breath or think about what I was going to say next, she interrupted me and said “So, wait…you actually *like* being Jewish? …It makes you happy! Wow.”

I said, “Well, yeah. Of course it makes me happy. Why wouldn’t it?”

She replied, “I can’t say I ever felt that way. Being Jewish is important, meaningful. I can say that. But ‘happy’? No. ‘Happy’ is not the right word.”

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