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Column: A very cool Bu-Jew … or is it Jew-Bu?

September 27, 2009

Austinite anchored by two traditions: Judaism and Buddhism

By Eileen Flynn
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jordana Raiskin traveled from the Jewish faith of her father to Zen Buddhism and back, not an uncommon journey. There’s such a well-worn path between Judaism and Buddhism, people came up with the shorthand Jew-Bu.

But Raiskin’s story is not just another example of that phenomenon. It’s a personal quest for meaning in the face of loss. A sorting out of a childhood colored by contradictory worldviews. A spiritual homecoming with a new appreciation for her roots. Raiskin sought – and found — community and ritual in two different traditions that had more in common than she thought. Today she draws on both to guide her life, to inform her work as a therapist and to mother her 3-year-old son.

I met her, appropriately, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish New Year, and the beginning of the High Holy Days, when Jews take stock of their spiritual lives. Our meeting also happened to come a few weeks after her 50th birthday, which had also prompted some reflection on her part.

At a Hyde Park coffee shop, Raiskin, a slender blonde with eyes the color of green sea glass, took me back to her childhood, when religion seemed easy. She grew up the daughter of a rabbi in Northern California with a sense that she had an in with God — her father, she assumed, was close, personal friends with the creator — and a solid place in a community of faith.

But an ideological tension between her parents complicated Raiskin’s religious life. Her father was passionate about the preservation of Judaism and the Jewish people. Her mother, an aspiring psychoanalyst, regarded religion as an infantile response to anxiety.

Raiskin’s parents divorced, and a few years later, she moved with her mother and sister to Los Angeles, close enough to visit her dad regularly but far enough away that she did not get a formal Jewish education.

Her mother became a psychoanalyst in Beverly Hills. Freud was her god, Raiskin said.

Raiskin still went to synagogue on the High Holy Days. But the little girl who once believed she had an in with God no longer felt spiritually connected to Judaism.

In her 20s, she spent two years caring for her mother, who was dying of cancer. She said her mother fought death, never coming to grips with her fate, never talking about her pain and never finding peace.

Raiskin needed to make sense of it. She read books about death. She wondered about her own life’s purpose.

“That began my spiritual journey,” she said.

After her mother died, Raiskin earned a master’s degree and began working as a therapist. She counseled patients at an HIV test site. It was the mid-1980s in West Hollywood. Death came often.

She watched a friend die from AIDS. He had left nothing unfinished. He had found peace. Life, she realized, didn’t have to end the way her mother’s did.

“I want to figure out how to live right,” she remembers thinking, “so I can have a peaceful death.”

In 1994, Raiskin moved to Austin, where she learned about a local psychotherapist, Flint Sparks, who was starting a book and meditation group that would eventually become the Austin Zen Center.

Raiskin was drawn to the practice and ritual of meditation, the connection to a community and the wisdom she gleaned from books and teachers. She began to explore how Buddhist philosophy fit into her therapy practice, especially the notion that “we really are connected. We really are responsible for each other.”

As she attended more book discussions and sesshins, or meditation series, certain themes of Buddhism, such as compassion and the oneness of people, would strike a chord. She would think, “I knew that.”

“A lot of the Buddhist stories began to sound like a lot of the Jewish stories,” she said. “I began to hear echoes from my father’s sermons.”

Then death loomed again. Her ailing father told his children he wanted them to join a synagogue. Raiskin complied, becoming a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Northwest Austin in 2006, a few months before her father died. Then her son, Theo, came into her life.

Death got Raiskin started on a spiritual journey. It sent her on a particular path that might have led her away from her origins but instead brought her to a familiar place.

With a new life begins a new path. For 3-year-old Theo, this will mean a broader spiritual experience than Raiskin had. He’ll have a Jewish education and identity. Mother and son go to Tot Shabbat and Torah Tots services, and she gave Theo the Hebrew name of both her parents: Yosef Chayim . And Raiskin also brings Theo to the Zen Center. Sometimes she’ll spot him ambling along the stone path, making little bows as though doing a walking meditation.

This is what Raiskin wanted for herself and for her son, a tradition that prizes ritual and community and compassion. She happened to find it twice.IMG_0570

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