Books > Syd Arthur > I Am Not Syd

I Am Not Syd/ A Spiritual Timeline

Let me say that again, I’m not Syd and I mean it (and don’t anyone out there say me thinks she doth protest too much). But on the other hand, you write what you know.  Below is a timeline of significant events along my spiritual path that maybe, every now and then, have crept just ever so slightly into Syd’s journey.

January 1961: Mazel Tov, I’m born (or reincarnated, depending on your orientation) into a secular Jewish home.

January 1961-1967: Pretty uneventful in the spiritual realm. Oh, except for the fact that in the 1965 opening game of the World Series, Sandy Koufax refused to pitch because it was Yom Kippur. In my family that’s all the adults talked about. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Janice, Uncle Art…they were positively plotzing about what a mensch he was and kvelling with pride. But we never lit a Shabbat candle, and only went to services on the two biggies: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

September 1968: Began Sunday school (though I went on Saturday so why we called it Sunday school, I don’t know).  I went to a very reform temple in Chicago, about a 45-minute drive from my house. This temple was so reform, that people often referred to it as “the church on the lake.” Best part of Sunday school? On the way home my mother, while driving, would pass back slices of fresh corned beef that she had picked up at the deli. 

December 1969: Becoming increasingly interested in the idea of having a Christmas tree.

December 1970: Mother continues to reject the idea of a Christmas tree despite the fact that our temple is a bit churchlike. Instead, she buys us Christmas tree and Santa Claus ice cream. This satisfies me for the moment.

April 1970: Turns out my interest in Christmas goes beyond festive ice cream. I have developed an interest in the churches where my non-Jewish friends go, and I remain totally open to marshmallow chocolate Easter eggs.

May 1970: Oy vey! I get on my bike and ride to the bookstore. Using my allowance I buy a copy of the New Testament.  When I return home and show my mother what I’ve bought, she laments, “You bought the wrong one!”  I explain to her that I meant to buy this one -- that I want to read about Jesus. She opens the oven; I think it’s to check on the brisket, but realize it might be to stick her head in.

May 1970-November 1970: I, in fact, read the four gospels in the New Testament, and share this news at Sunday school one Saturday morning. My teacher looks alarmed. The next week she has the rabbi visit our classroom. He talks to us a little bit, and then looks at me and says, “Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but Jews don’t believe that. What do you believe?” I don’t like this rabbi, and, I don’t care for his tone.  I look at him and say, “Aren’t we all the children of God?” He has the same look as my mother had when I came home with the New Testament.

December 1971: My parents buy me the album Jesus Christ Superstar for Hanukkah.  I take this as a supportive measure. Listening to the album over and over, I find my heart resonating with Mary Magdalene, and think that maybe, in a past life, that’s who I was. I share this with my mother who looks alarmed and once again opens the oven.

June 1973: While on a family vacation in upstate New York, my family enters a gift store. On the shelf, I see a small, ivory Buddha sitting in a lotus position. I gasp out loud and pick up the small Buddha statute, holding it to my heart. I don’t understand my reaction, but I know I must have this and beg my parents to buy it for me. (As you can see, I did not yet understand the concept of non-attachment, so central in Buddhist teachings.)  Finally, my parents agree to buy it for me. All these years later, it still sits on my dresser.

October 1973: I don’t like my third period Sunday school class, so I go to the office to drop it and to sign up for something else. The secretary says I can come back next week to sign up for a third period elective. I don’t. Instead, for three months (until the temple caught on) I would leave the synagogue after second period, stop at the corner deli for a soft doughy bagel and a salami stick, and wander around the streets of Chicago exploring the various churches. For three months, during third period, I basically didn’t exist.  That had a nice Buddhist ring to it. 

January 1974:  In our family room, I come across the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, which my older sister has just read for her English class. I experience the same physical and emotional reaction I had when I saw the Buddha statue in upstate New York.  I read the book and fall in love with the Buddha and his spiritual search….

March 1974: I also fall in love with our rabbi’s son, and learn to French kiss.

April 1974: During spring vacation, as our family drives to Florida, I begin the practice of looking out the window at various landscapes trying to find the perfect place for me to live like a hermit and reach enlightenment. The minimum requirements include a grassy area by a stream and a tree. My requirements for a hotel in Florida, however, include a vending machine and a swimming pool.

June 1975: Take my first yoga class and feel very cool that I am flexible and am able, in the first session, to sit in a full lotus position. I sit and smile feeling very superior wondering why the teacher doesn’t point me out as an example of what everyone should be striving for. The idea of losing your ego and practicing non-judgment is not something I understand at this age.  I also try to read Ram Dass’s, Remember, Be Here Now, but I decide to finish it later…

October 1976: Become more interested in temple and our youth group (which might have something to do with the fact that the Rabbi’s son and I are still going strong) and decide that even though I am three years overdue, I want to have a bat mitzvah. Meanwhile, I have memorized all the words to every song from Godspell.

December 1976: My first trip to Israel! I go with our youth group and fall in love with the Land.  The first mountain in my life that I ever climb is Mount Sinai. I tuck prayers into the Western Wall and visit the Dome on the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I take fabulous pictures of it all, but this is before the digital age and some twenty years later, the photo album is destroyed in our basement flood that, though not of biblical proportions, necessitated the installation of new carpet. On the positive side, now understanding the central tenets of Buddhism more fully, I can see this event as an opportunity to practice both non-attachment and impermanence.

June 1976: I learn my Torah and my Haftorah portion, and become a bat mitzvah during the holiday of Shavuot, in a very low-key service followed by a small celebration with a Jewish folk singer. And falafel. Except for the fact that the rabbi’s son and I have since broken up and he gives me nasty looks all evening, it is a lovely event.

June 1977: Celebrate my confirmation at temple. Have read through a substantial number of comparative religion books in my local library by now, but I don’t share that with the rabbi in my confirmation speech. Vow that one day I will travel to the Himalayas. Don’t share that in my speech either. But I do share it with my little ivory Buddha still sitting on my dresser.

June 1978: Summer in Israel that includes living in a bomb shelter on a kibbutz (not because of a war, but because they forgot we were coming and didn’t have enough accommodations).  Would show you a picture of our dwellings, but alas, this photo album was also lost in the aforementioned basement flood of non-biblical proportions.

June 1979: Graduate from temple. Somehow, though, I know more about the life of Jesus and the teachings of Buddha than the finer points of Judaism. Basically, my understanding of the history of the Jews can be summed up as follows:

They tried to destroy us, we prevailed, now let’s eat! 

August 1979-May 1983 (the college years):  In English, alcohol is referred to as spirits. Carl Jung, the famous Swiss Psychiatrist and influential thinker, points out that in Latin, the same word is used for alcohol as for the “greatest religious experience.” So let’s just leave it at that….What happens at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, stays at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. L’Chaim!

June 1984: I marry my college sweetheart, Steve, under the chuppah. At the conclusion of the ceremony, as tradition dictates, he is to step on a glass, placed under a napkin on the floor, and break it. The rabbi advises using a light bulb instead because it breaks more easily and makes a good sound. It seems a bit inauthentic to me, but I’ve learned it’s best not to challenge the rabbis. We move to Boston. 

October 1985: Begin meditating. Find it’s a great way to excuse myself from the family room during the Patriots’ football games on Sunday. Yawn.

January 1989: Our daughter, Allison, is born. They say God is a forgiving God, and so I’m working on the premise that I get a free pass of forgiveness from the things I yelled during labor. 

March 1990: Attend a three-day meditation retreat in the Berkshires. Looking for enlightenment, yes, but I’ll settle for a full night’s sleep.

October 1991: Our son, Matthew, is born. Everyone agrees that Matt is a perfect name for him. I tell only certain people (not a rabbi among them) that the impetus for his name came, in part, from my love of the Gospel according to Matthew.

December 1992: Begin attending an ashram. Find that a significant number of people at said ashram are Jewish. 

March 1996: Begin going to a Buddhist meditation center where not only are there many practitioners of Jewish background, but many of the Buddhist teachers were also born Jewish.

March 1998: First trip to Nepal. (See, I told you I made a vow that I’d get to the Himalayas.) When I go to Boudhanath Stupa, I feel like I’ve come home. I spin the prayer wheels amidst Buddhist monks and nuns, chanting the Tibetan mantra of compassion: Om Mani Padme Hum. I trek through the Annapurna region and go on an elephant safari in the Chitwan. Somehow though, when doing something adventurous or challenging (trekking, or looking down from the elephant at a tiger), Yiddish expressions drop from my mouth…oy vey! 

August 1998: Fall in love with Sylvia Boorstein’s new book: That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, and enjoy a wonderful daylong retreat with her.

September 1998: My dear friend and soul sister, Shelley, who was raised Catholic, is studying with a rabbi she insists I must meet. He teaches Torah as a Spiritual Path, and she claims he is absolutely amazing. I smile kindly at her and tell her, “I need another rabbi in my life like I need a hole in my head.” 

March 1999: I’m back in Nepal, this time in the Everest region. I visit my spiritual home at Boudhanath Stupa, and then proceed on an eight-day trek to Tengboche Monastery situated at 13,000 feet at Everest. It is the first time I’ve ever been in a tent. My friends back home wonder why, if I’m willing to go all the way to Nepal to trek and sleep in a tent, I don’t take a nice two-hour drive to New Hampshire and go camping. I try to explain that if there is a Hilton near by, what would be the point?

June 1999: Eight Tibetan monks stay at our home for a long weekend. They are performing at a local museum to celebrate the exhibit featuring sacred items on loan from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They are chanting for the opening of this special showing and need a place to stay. They seem at home in our house full of Buddhas and prayer flags, but they gravitate mostly to the basketball net in the driveway where they shoot hoops in their maroon robes putting on quite a show in our neighborhood. My kids fall in love with them, and they perform a special chant for our family. I make them black tea and serve them brown rice and lentils, but I also make them my mother’s sour cream coffee cake and noodle kugel, which they love. Oh, and warm, soft bagels blessed with a shmear of cream cheese. 

August 1999: Fall in love with the book, Awakening the Buddha Within, by Lama Surya Das who was formerly Jeffrey Miller from Brooklyn, and attend some of his Dharma talks. Ponder the number of Jews drawn to Buddhism.

September 1999: Shelley convinces me to travel on Route 128 during rush hour to make it to her Torah study with this rabbi who she is convinced I must meet. I’ve resisted for a year, so I give in just so she will shut up. 

September 1999: OMG…she is right. This rabbi (Rabbi A, I’m using the initial of his first name) is amazing. I’ve never experienced Torah like this. He’s all about the spiritual journey and he makes references to the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and Rumi…I’m hooked. I study with him and continue to attend the Buddhist meditation center.

July 2000:  Shelley andI join Rabbi A as he leads a hiking/studying trip to the Swiss Alps. The days consist of glorious hikes and Torah study and, thankfully, quaint chalets instead of freezing tents. In our first Torah study session of the trip, he passes out a Zen parable for discussion. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven…or make that nirvana. 

September 2001: The world is forever changed, and everywhere are people seeking connection and meaning….I meditate in a special session at the Buddhist meditation center. I sit with my Torah study group. Our hearts break.

October 2001: Allison celebrates her bat mitzvah. She has had to sit in the middle of the pushing back I’ve done around the services at our temple and my lack of spiritual connection in this synagogue. Somehow, she is able to be like the Buddha himself, or like a true mensch; she is able to sit in the middle of it all and radiate love. 

February 2002: I participate in a seven-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat in Western Massachusetts.  Even though I have taken a vow of silence, there is a pay phone, which I use every few days just to check in at home and make sure all is okay. I ask them to help me honor my vow of silence by only doing a quick check-in, and saving the details for when I get home. In my first conversation with my kids upon my arrival, Matt tells me the Patriots have just won the Super bowl. After I hang up and return to the cushion, I think about being the only one here with this information. I don’t share it for seven days. I might not possess the secret to reaching enlightenment, but I sure do feel pretty special being privy to this news.

July 2003: Another hiking/studying trip with Rabbi A, this time to the Italian Alps. He attends morning mass with a Catholic woman on our trip. My heart is full.

September 2004: I buy the book: Offerings: Buddhist Wisdom for Every Day. For every day of the year, there is a beautiful photograph and a teaching. I decide that each morning, while I’m sitting with Allison and Matt at breakfast before school, we will read from this book. Sometimes they roll their eyes, but I suspect that they like it. The few times that I’ve forgotten to read the quote for the day, they’ve reminded me. 

November 2004: Matt’s celebrates his bar mitzvah. Instead of going the usual route and having it at our temple with the rabbi, we try something else.  As a family, under the guidance of Rabbi A, we write our own creative service to celebrate this event, and study together as a family.

January 2005: Shelley, our dear friend, Hanna, and I form a private study group with Rabbi A. I continue to go to the Buddhist meditation center, but the distinction between the two is wonderfully blurred as founding teachers at the Buddhist center with Jewish roots discuss Buddhism with a bit of Yiddishkeit, and Rabbi A continues to teach Torah and Zen parables putting the heart of the Buddha along side the teachings of the Torah. 

March 2005: I travel to Bhutan and trek in an area of the Himalayas that has only just been opened.

June 2007: I spend a lot of time in Starbucks writing, and keep seeing this new rabbi in town, Rabbi B., pop in for a latte. (Again, I’m using the initial of his first name, but also find it amusing that I now have a Rabbi A and a Rabbi B which reminds me a little bit of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat with Thing 1 and Thing 2.) He also does a lot of writing at Starbucks. I hear through the grapevine that he is a very unique rabbi who has studied Buddhism and practices meditation, and that he is doing wonderfully spiritual things over at the synagogue five minutes from my house. Over the year, we strike up many conversations, and I also see him at the yoga studio where he can do a damn good headstand. 

March 2008: I travel once again to Nepal trekking up to 15,000 feet at Everest until I kvetch and retch and realize that I have altitude sickness and really, maybe for my next trip I should book myself into a spa.

September 2009: Rabbi B agrees to read my manuscript, Syd Arthur, and give me feedback. We have great conversations about both the book and the spiritual journey. But sometimes when we meet for coffee at Starbucks to talk, he jokingly calls me Syd.  I insist that I am not Syd, but he only smiles. Thus, in part, this timeline is dedicated to Rabbi B to show him that I am not, in fact Syd. I’m not, I tell you, I’m not. 

November 2009: I begin going to some of the services at Rabbi B’s synagogue. On Shabbat morning he leads a renewal minyan service that is, for me, filled with ruakh/spirit. There are candles and plants and drums and chanting and meditation and readings from the Torah and many spiritual paths. The chants are in Hebrew, not in Sanskrit, and the vibrations of love are the same in any language. People get up and dance or close their eyes in deep meditation and the light of peace shines on the faces of those who go every week to connect to the sacred. The morning is filled with options – yes options – like Torah yoga or Torah study and then everyone meets together for the rabbi’s inspiring sermon and Ruakh Rally (a sharing and spreading of spirit) where young and old sing and dance while the Ruakh band plays along. And after this wonderful display of spirit and joy, there is lunch. What would a Jewish gathering be without a nosh?

February 2010: Rabbi A reads Syd Arthur and tells me that he was laughing so hard on the plane when he read it, that the passenger sitting next to him asked what he was reading. He told me he explained that my book was like a conversation between Jackie Mason with his Jewish humor and His Holiness the Dalai Lama with his compassion, insight and wisdom. A shout out to Rabbi A: maybe you want to write that in an Amazon book review?

September 2010:  I join Rabbi B’s synagogue. The temple is fluid and alive and is breathing spirituality. After leaving our old temple, I wasn’t planning on joining a new temple, but at Congregation Shirat Hayam, my Jewish roots have been watered.  My Buddhist leanings are as strong as ever, but there’s no real distinction for me anymore (which I think is what Buddhism is really all about). So many of my Buddhist teachers grew up Jewish, and my two rabbis find the beauty in what the Buddha taught and breathe and teach a vibrant Jewish spirituality.  For me, that’s enough. Dayenu, that’s more than enough.