Q&A: Allan Appel on Judaism, Buddhism, and the importance of the human nose

Claire Heisler talks to writer Allan Appel about Judaism, Buddhism, and the importance of the human nose.

Claire Heisler
14 May 2009

Claire Heisler talks to writer Allan Appel about Judaism, Buddhism, and the importance of the human nose.

Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright. His book High Holiday Sutra won the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. His novel The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Appel holds degrees in writing and comparative literature from Colombia University and City University of New York, and he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is a teacher, and he has written extensively for non-profit cultural institutions.  He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and in 2003 he was awarded a fellowship in fiction from the State of Connecticut Commission on the Arts.

Why do you think so many Jews in the West are interested in Buddhism?  Are Judaism and Buddhism fundamentally connected, or is it their differences that make for such an appealing combination?

For some Jews of orthodox persuasion, the demands of a Buddhist practice and Jewish practice are similar, and so perhaps it’s appealing to do all the duties but without the harsh judgment of the Judeo-Christian God, the Yahweh that Allen Ginsberg always talked about sitting on the shoulder. For me, as I learn more about each tradition, I do love the difference; the non-theism of Buddhism and how it’s grounded in experience alone, is a contrast to the presence of a God. There’s no getting away from God in Judaism. Oddly, Buddhism has ― over the years ― made me dig deeper into my birth-given traditions.  I’ve come to appreciate not the easy-to-criticize dysfunctional God of the Hebrew Bible, but the mysterious God of the Jewish mystics.

How similar are you to your character Jonah, in High Holiday Sutra, regarding spiritual matters?

Jonah is pretty torn up, suffering from “split mind,” and is constantly battling the “monkey on your back” chatter that Buddhism helps with. Am I like that? Sure. If you’re writing the stuff I do, that is, non-genre fiction, and trying to get to some truths of human experience, you have to dig into yourself. Your character is always a kind of reflection, but not you. If it’s you, it’s essay or memoir. Jonah derives from me but he is screened, slanted, a mirror perhaps, but I hope if I look into it, it’s not me. Like me, still, however, I swing back and forth between the attractions of Buddhism and Judaism and want to land in one place or the other. I’m still traveling, or on those bad days, ping-ponging.

Jonah says that Judaism, through demanding that everyone carry out 613 commandments, sets up an impossible ideal.  Do you believe impossible ideals are the nature of religion?

First of all, since I wrote High Holiday Sutra, I’ve learned that half those 613 refer to services ancient Hebrews were to perform in the temple.  So we get a several hundred commandment break. Way to go, Jews. Is loving your neighbor as yourself an impossible ideal? Probably, except for someone who decides to become a monk. It’s also a good reminder, so yes, hard-to-reach goals are important, and not only in religion but any collective enterprise, in order to improve the species. But notice it says in the Hebrew, love your neighbor in the singular. Not all your neighbors but try one for starters. That’s a far cry from rock stars or Emmy award winners saying to millions of people, “I love you, guys.”

Can you elaborate on that?

After a while “I love you” tends to sound like “I frzklpt you,” that is, without meaning. The Buddhist contribution to the same is getting rid of the “I” in the equation. That’s why I tend to like it when people casually shorten “I love you” to just “Love you.” There’s no I. There was one conversation I had between meditation sessions with a novice monk or newly minted monk from many years ago. He was married and his wife became a nun at this monastery in New York State. That is, their marriage was grandfathered in when they joined. But apparently their vows included deciding not to have children. When I asked him why, he said very simply, “If I have biological children of my own, then no way will I be able to treat them the same, equally, as I would all children, all people.” There’s a lesson there on levels of sincerity in compassion but articulating any more what it is would probably ruin it.

Jonah says he has Jewish feet and Buddhist wings. What does he mean by this?

That phrase is not mine but I believe derives from something Rodger Kamenetz wrote. It means to me and to him, I believe, that the emotional pull of things Jewish ― the feet ― derives from our life experience of Passover Seders and Hanukah presents, and bar mitzvahs too (if you had a good one). The wings part is the liberation one feels when you freely choose other traditions. Oddly, Buddhism is so grounded in the earth, and wings usually refer to things ethereal, which is more Judeo-Christian, but that’s the idea.

Is America in need of a little idealism? Do you think a political figure, such as Obama, has the ability to return idealism to America?

Oh absolutely. I really wish I knew his spiritual ideas. Of course, he’s a practicing Christian, he says, but he’s such a down to earth guy, such an organizer. He’s probably akin in his Christianity to Jesus. Or, as someone said during the campaign to deflect Obama criticism, Jesus was a community organizer, too.  His manner thus far is very different from the JFK-inspired idealism that I remember from the 1960s. Then again, I was very young and going to the moon seemed great. Now it seems we need some very practical idealism, just to find our way to the doctor and pay for it.

Are you working on another book?  If so, will it be posing any religious or moral questions?

Glad you asked. Yes, I have a new novel called The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air coming out in July from Coffee House Press in Minnesota. The blurb says it’s about a young Jewish scholar’s fascination with a Jewish Lolita-esque girl. And it is that. They have wild motorcycle rides, but the aim is not frivolous; she ultimately drives the bike, with our hero tutor on it, to get herself America’s first Reverse Jewish Nose Job (RJNJ). Is that a religious or moral question, your relationship to your nose: the organ through which the all important breath inhales and exhales? I’ll say. What greater religious question, both Jewish and Buddhist, can be asked than the meaning of the nose?