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Nu and Mu: a 2-part series on Jews and Buddhism

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Book launch: "Yasodhara and the Buddha" with Vanessa Sasson AND "American Jewbu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change" with Emily Sigalow

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The late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once wrote of a time he was in a shop buying some incense. The owner, seeing his kippah observed, “You Jews are such a spiritual people. I have seen so many Jews in ashrams and Buddhist monasteries around the world…”

The history of Jewish interest and involvement in eastern spiritual traditions spans over 50 years. In 1994, Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus (who spoke at the JPL), recounted his visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, accompanied by rabbis and Jewish scholars. Together, they shared ideas, prayer, and a focused interest in one another’s religious traditions.

This 2-part series begins with a conversation with Professor Vanessa Sasson whose novel Yasodhara and the Buddha was published in 2020, and continues with Emily Sigalow, author of American Jewbu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change published in 2019.

(“Nu” is a Yiddish word with several contextual meanings, and is often used as a way of nudging the listener into eliciting more information. “Mu” is a Japanese and Korean term which means “not have” or “without” and is used in Zen Buddhist practice to spur the listener into abandoning a yes or no answer to a question towards a third possibility.)

PART 1: October 7, 2021, 7 pm

Book launch: Yasodhara and the Buddha with Vanessa Sasson

By combining the spirit of fiction with the fabulism of Indian mythology and in-depth academic research, Vanessa R. Sasson shares the evocative story of the Buddha from the perspective of a forgotten woman: Yasodhara, the Buddha's wife. Written with a strong feminist voice, we encounter Yasodhara as a fiercely independent, passionate and resilient individual. We witness her joys and sorrows, her expectations and frustrations, her fairy-tale wedding, and her overwhelming devastation at the departure of her beloved.

Vanessa Sasson is a professor of Religious Studies in the Liberal Arts Department of Marianopolis College where she has been teaching since 1999. She is also a Research Fellow at the University of the Free State, as well as a Research Member of CERIAS at UQAM. She has published a number of articles and book chapters, is the author of The Birth of Moses and the Buddha: A Paradigm for the Comparative Study of Religions (Sheffield University Press, 2007), co-editor with Jane Marie Law of Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009), editor of Little Buddhas: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2013), and editor of a forthcoming volume entitled, Jewels, Jewelry, and Other Shiny Things in the Buddhist Imaginary (University of Hawaii Press, 2021). Yasodhara and the Buddha is her first novel.

Sasson grew up in an Egyptian-Jewish household, was educated in an Ashkenazic school, spent the years prior to her scholarly work working as a teacher in Tibet and Japan, and returned to Montreal in the mid-1990s to complete graduate work in religious studies at McGill. For the last 18 years, Vanessa has been bringing her Marianopolis students to the JPL where together, we learn about Jewish texts.

PART 2: October 14, 2021, 7 pm

"American Jewbu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change" – a discussion with Emily Sigalow.

The Jewish-Buddhist encounter has been a relationship of reciprocity and spiritual engagement for many years. In this book, Emily Sigalow chronicles the American Jewish encounter with Buddhism, describing the different ways American Jews incorporate aspects of both Judaism and Buddhism into their everyday lives. Drawing on interviews conducted across the nation, Sigalow explores how Jewish American Buddhists experience their dual religious identities. She reveals how Jewish Buddhists confound prevailing expectations of minority religions in America.

Emily Sigalow is a sociologist of contemporary Jewish life who focuses in particular on the American Jewish community. She has held various academic positions at Brandeis University, Duke University, and Wesleyan University. Currently, and is currently Executive Director at the UJA-Federation of New York where she directs the research, evaluation, and measurement department. She has published over a dozen academic articles and book chapters, and holds degrees from Swarthmore College, Ben Gurion University, and Brandeis University.

This will be a discussion between the author, Vanessa Sasson, and Eddie Paul (Senior Director, Library & Learning Services, JPL)

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