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“Call Me Jim” Fugue

Daddy never told me the story of how he became “Jim”. He left it to m e to invent my own story. I have always imagined an outline: “Lionel” was much too bourgeois. “Jim” was proletarian.

My father came of age during the Great Depression, and it radicalized him. Although I feel certain that “becoming Jim” was not a formal event, I am coming to understand it in the context of my Zen experience.

Taking Jukai, taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, -- we often think of this as becoming a Buddhist, -- I am given a new name, a Dharma name. Although I imagine no formal ritual and I have no idea how widespread the practice was in becoming a Communist, I am imagining that Daddy took on a new identity. Probably not in any ritual way but in an acknowledgement of self-transformation, perhaps of letting go of a past, certainly a taking-on of a responsibility, a commitment. He never actually talked to me about what he was letting go of, if indeed he was letting go of anything.

What was he leaving behind? Whatever it was, he never talked about it.

Overseas at War

Daddy was overseas, in New Guinea, but he was never in combat. Not that I ever heard about. There were still Japanese snipers on New Guinea when he arrived with the Seabees to build the airbase. He used to tell a funny story from his days as a mail censor. It was his job not to allow any mail to go out that might undermine the US war effort.

One day he reads a letter from one of his buddies to his honey at home. “I’m out there on my bulldozer when I hear a shot ring out. I jump down crouching low. I can see my buddy on the next tractor slumped over, shot. I return fire.”

My father calls the guy in. “You can kill as many of the bad guys as you want,” he tells him, handing him back his letter, “but you can’t kill any Americans.” Killing Americans was bad for national morale. It could undermine the war effort. I loved the story. But I didn’t believe it. It sounded too funny. Until I read kind of the same story in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Yossarian was a censor too. But that was as close as Daddy got to combat. At least as far as I knew.

Did I really know? It was only when the Viet Nam vets were coming home that I learned how few combat veterans talked about their war experience.

Talking about Trauma

Around that time, maybe a few years later, discovering that some of my friends were children of holocaust survivors, I learned that their parents never talked about their experience in the camps. They couldn’t bear to look back, to remember. For a long while, I had a hard time digesting this. I was then at the beginning of my career in mental health, a believer in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis: We believed it was better to talk about the past, to talk about the trauma.

But I began to wonder. Maybe I had been swept up in a social work cliché. Maybe talking about the trauma, digging up the past, is good for some people. Maybe it’s not best for everyone.

The lesson was underscored years later, sitting with fire fighters after 9/11, realizing that there was no right way to mourn. It was liberating to say it out loud for the group, “If someone tells you that you’re not mourning right, they’re probably full of shit. Everybody mourns differently.” I say this now knowing it will strike some of my former mental health colleagues as blasphemy. Knowing the answers is after all often taken to be the hallmark of the mental health professional’s knowledge and competence. Channeling Bodhidharma, I am embracing not knowing. No answers. Everyone is different. Everyone mourns differently. Who am I really to tell you you are doing it wrong?

The Trauma Behind Change

What trauma might Daddy have been leaving behind when he changed his name? Were there war experiences in there? I don’t even know when he became “Jim.” Was it before the war? It might have been.

I am only guessing at all that my father might have been putting behind when he became “Jim.” I imagine that some of it must have been the pain of antisemitism. I knew his stories about fighting his way home every day after school. These were the stories that had shaped me. “Always hit back. Hit as hard as you can. If you hurt them, no matter how badly you get beaten up, the biggest bullies will think twice before starting again.” That was my mantra. It shaped me well into my adult working life. If you attacked me in a meeting, I would hit you back. As hard as I could. Verbally. Don’t mess with me.

When I read Yaphet Kotto’s story in The New York Times, -- I think he was starring on Broadway at the time in The Great White Hope, having taken over the role of Jack Jefferson originated by James Earl Jones, -- it rang a bell. Kotto was black and Jewish. He grew up with his family in Harlem and travelled each day to a Yeshiva in Williamsburg. He said that he was beaten up twice each day, when he got off the subway in the morning in Williamsburg for being black and again in the afternoon in Harlem for wearing a Yarmulke. It sounded so much like my father’s story.

But I also knew the stories about my Grandma Alice, his mother, the first woman pharmacist in Canada, who had put all her brothers through college, two through medical school, but had run out of steam when it came to her own four children. Daddy never really talked about it but I knew how much it hurt him that he didn’t finish college. But I didn’t really know the pain. He never shared it. His stories always had a lightness, a humor.

And maybe there was nothing that he left behind.

Maybe it was Nothing

Maybe he was just committing his life to the workers’ movement. Maybe “Lionel” just sounded too bourgeois. “Jim” was a man of the people. His faith in Marxism-Leninism was unshakeable. Both he and my mother were constant, when so many around them lost faith or just wandered away. The Depression ended. So many of their “comrades” came back from the War and with the help of the GI Bill bought homes in burgeoning suburbs and began to build middle class lives. Maybe the revolution wasn’t so necessary as it had seemed before the war. Maybe Communism was an adolescent romance.

Although we too had moved from the projects to Great Neck and although my parents eventually bought a small house on the GI Bill, my parents kept the faith through the witch hunts of the 1950’s, through the Hungarian invasion, through the Stalin revelations which shattered so many faiths.

Until now, I have not really understood how their faith created a foundation for my life.

For many years, in talking about my Zen path, I have marveled at the mystery: how have I ended up here? Imagine me, a Zen priest. I would have to laugh. I would always say, “Daddy must be turning over in his grave.”


The disconnect was obvious. The first line from Marx, maybe the only line that I learned as a child, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” captured the whole of my formal religious training and made me an outsider. Growing up in Great Neck, I was never invited to a Bar Mitzvah. It always seemed to me that classmates were talking about the Bar Mitzvah they were going to next weekend or the one they had been to last weekend.

When I pleaded with my parents to join a temple in the hopes that it was not too late to get invited to a Sweet Sixteen, they refused. I knew. It was against their religion. “You can join as an individual,” they offered. They were trying not to force their faith on me. I could only imagine being asked over and over again, “How come your parents aren’t members?”

I couldn’t imagine answering, “Because they’re not Jewish.” Way too humiliating. Or, “Because they’re atheists.” Even more humiliating, more isolating.

My parents did make me a 13th birthday party. It wasn’t a Bar Mitzvah. It just confirmed me as an outsider.

Without any religious training, I began sitting at the Soho Zendo in September, 1991, barely managing to belong, having worked all summer to build my sitting capacity to the required 30-minute periods. By December, somehow, with lots of encouragement from Zendo members, I was attempting my first sesshin with Kyudo Roshi, our teacher from Japan.

What am I doing here?

Recalling my summer, years earlier, as a waterfront counselor, tanned, with a whistle around my neck, patrolling the dock while campers splashed through Free Swim, my job was to whistle the over-frolicsome out of the water, the short whistle blast and the thumb up, not the thumb-up of approval but the baseball umpire’s sign of ejection, “You’re out.” Out of the water, your Free Swim is over.

What am I doing here?

Raised in atheism, although I never really believed that either, religion was still the opiate of the masses. So why now the opiate of the masses?

Well, Zen, I told myself, was different. And it was. For me. There was no demand that I embrace any creed in order to do this Zen thing. All I had to do was sit.

I gave myself a mantra, “Without inner peace, nothing else matters; with inner peace, nothing else matters.”

So I just sat, and I found some measure of inner peace.

And a few years later, in the joy of the opportunity to give back something of the peace that I had received in the practice, I strangely volunteered, in order to become Jishu’s first Shuso to become a priest.

What am I doing here?

Even as I ordained, I wondered, “Is Daddy spinning in his grave?” Mommy at the Tokudo ceremony looked tearful, avoided eye contact. I had told her I was becoming a monk. She told me later that she had thought she would never see me again, that I would disappear after the ceremony into a monastery.

What am I doing here?

Faith in Atheism

I am only beginning to understand, to realize the depth of my parents’ faith. Despite their “atheism”, they lived lives of great faith.

I have heard Maezumi Roshi’s daughter talk about how as an adult she came to appreciate her father’s commitment to the Dharma, to shift the painful childhood memories of his absence, of his busyness with other things, with other people, of the family vacations which always seemed to be spent visiting Zen centers.

It sounds a bit like my childhood, my father out so many evenings and on weekends, so much time for political meetings, so little time for me. My parents giving so much money to support so many good causes, not enough money for plane fare to my college graduation or to see the major theater production I directed, The Importance of Being Earnest, or to see me play Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But now as I am appreciating my faith, my good fortune in finding a Refuge in Zen practice, I am realizing that I didn’t create this for myself out of nothing, out of “atheism”. I grew up with models of great faith and steadfastness.

What a gift!

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