Having grown up on the east coast in a religious Jewish household and community, the ideas of historical trauma and genocide have been intricately linked to my education as a Jew. After only one full day in Bosnia, though, I am beginning to feel just how much of an effect that education has had on my spirituality. I knew that this trip would bring me face to face with my personal and ancestral religious history. But I wasn’t prepared for just how quickly I was forced to confront myself. In spite of my religious upbringing, I – like many non-Orthodox Jews of my generation and those after mine – do not feel spiritually fulfilled by the Judaic practices I was taught growing up. For the past several years, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist. But I still carry with me as an essential part of my practice the knowledge of what my ancestors – including my own grandmother’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany at the age of thirteen – had to endure in the name of her religion.
Today we visited the old Jewish Cemetery (Jevrejsko Groblje) in the hills overlooking downtown Sarajevo. This is where thousands of Jews – of which there were many tens of thousands, prior to the Nazi expansion into Bosnia – have been buried and memorialized for centuries. Our guide, Yadranka, informed us that there are no longer tens of thousands of Jews is Sarajevo. In fact, only 700 remain. A once thriving blend of Ashkenazim and Sephardim has dwindled to a handful of straggling survivors. Of the Jews that survived the 1940s, many left for Israel either then, or once violence came to reclaim their city 50 years later. It’s hard for me not to take that personally.
In the past, my ancestors and members of their community were forced to make choices of such difficulty that I couldn’t deign to imagine. Fight or flee. Pray or convert. Live or die. And, despite a thorough and excellent Jewish education and rich spiritual life, I chose to leave behind the religion and spiritual community into which I was born. (Talk about privilege!) Most days, I feel immensely satisfied with this decision. I have been more fulfilled and learned more about myself through practicing Buddhism than I did in the more than two decades prior.
But on days like these, I feel ashamed of myself. I feel like I’m letting down all those who have perished in the name of Judaism over the past 5,775 years. Who am I to take their ultimate sacrifices for granted? Don’t I owe it to them to push through my doubts and guilt to be a good Jew, to continue being a contributing member to my ethnic community by birth? How can I be so unfair to their memory? Have I made the right choices?
These questions are born of an unquenchable sadness, caused by generations of trauma and loss. I surely owe my very existence to the survival of countless generations before me, but that does not mean I owe them my spirituality and ongoing satisfaction with that existence. I owe it to my ancestors to be a moral person, and to be aware of others in situations similar to those that they faced – like that in which the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia currently find themselves. In this way, I can honor the Jewish community in ways that do not involve prayer or dwelling in past grief. I can be a Jew, by birth, and a Buddhist, in practice, by upholding the tenets that these two cultures share: compassion, wisdom, and patience.