Buber, Berkeley style: Getting in touch with your inner I-Thou

Since moving back to Berkeley — my birthplace — from New York City four years ago, my mind has been swirling with girlhood memories. And now, it’s happening again. I’m at the Berkeley

Richmond JCC for a Havdallah service as part of a “Compassionate Listening Workshop for the Jewish Community.” I am hit with a major nostalgia attack.

Tirzah Agassi, Martin Buber’s great-granddaughter and a former columnist for the Jerusalem Post now living in Mill Valley, stands up to speak. She’s telling the 30 folks in the auditorium the history of her great-grandfather, a committed Zionist.

Buber is well known for his resolve for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, and has been called “the father of the Philosophy of Dialogue.”

Agassi tells us that Buber’s non-Jewish and Zionist wife, Paula Winkler, was the one “who put Buber on the map.” When she met Buber, Winkler was the single mom of a 6-year-old — like me! — and was the true muse behind his work.

It’s when I hear Agassi say “I-Thou” that I sit up and hold my breath.

At the heart of Buber’s work is his existential philosophy of the “I-Thou Dialogue.” I first discovered I-Thou when I was 15 and had just joined East Bay Kesher, which is still part of the Midrasha program.

That year, in 1987, I was part of a pilot group, a wild bunch of urban Jewish teens whom local educators were brave enough to take out of town for four different weekends. On these learning retreats, Kesher youth today still explore topics and issues in contemporary Jewish life and thought, which encompass Jewish philosophy and theology.

One of the most profound weekends for me was our “I-Thou Retreat” — it was Buber’s philosophy with a Northern California twist.

One of my Jewish educators that weekend, a man named Ken Frucht, did his best to illustrate to us what I-Thou was: It was two friends observing each other equally, without judgment. Or a child and cat curious about the other. Or me touching the prickers of a cactus. Or two strangers conversing on a train. It was, in Buber’s words, an encounter, a meeting, a dialogue, an exchange …

The whole thing all sounded very mystical to me, and I wasn’t sure I got it. Then the soft-spoken Ken asked us to walk out into the woods to practice I-Thou with the trees.

A few of us giggled. How silly! But still I got up and wandered off, where I sat under a redwood tree. I looked up at the branches. I took a deep breath. And somehow, the trees let me be still with myself.

I-Thou is not about competition or rivalry — this is the gist of Agassi’s talk at the Berkeley Richmond JCC. It’s about listening and connecting. It’s about looking for common ground.

“We find out who our ‘I’ is when we are in a relationship with ‘Thou’,” Agassi says.

She makes me want to reconnect with the practice of I-Thou. In my daily life, how often do I engage in true dialogue with the living things in the world around me? Not often enough.

I admit that I’m not much of a philosopher: Do I even get what I-Thou means? Buber wrote about I-Thou in terms of the Arabs and Jews communicating respectfully and seeking an understanding.

But please don’t get me started on how I-Thou relates to Jewish-Arab dialogue. My thoughts would fill the entire paper. (Although if you’re interested in this connection, Agassi is thrilled to announce that the book “A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs,” in which Buber advocates bi-nationalism as a solution to the conflict in the Middle East, has just been reissued by University of Chicago Press.)

I’ll keep it personal for now, as I’m apt to do.

Who and what are the “Thous” in my life today? The union with my 6-year-old daughter isn’t always easy — we’re known for butting heads. Ditto with the “I-Thou” I experience with my parents. How about my sister? My best friends? My house plants? My fish?

And then I wonder about Ken Frucht, who gave me my first taste of Buber. I decide to Google him and find that he’s now a lawyer in San Francisco. He’s married with a child. Maybe it’s time for us to reconnect, too.