A tiny Jersey ethnic group traces its roots to Mongolia and Genghis Khan.
Route 9 and Freehold suggest Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and the lyrics, “Sprung from cages on Highway 9” and “Baby, this town rips the bones from your back.” They don’t conjure up the quietude of the three Buddhist temples and the Mongolian people known as the Kalmyks I encountered recently just off Route 9 and just south of Freehold.
Never heard of the Kalmyks? Neither had I, until I learned that this group of approximately 3,000 people—mostly New Jerseyans centered in Howell Township—is celebrating its 60th anniversary as Americans in 2011. New Jersey must indeed be the nation’s most ethnically diverse state if we have ethnic groups most of us have never even heard of. This year’s New Jersey Folk Festival, which often focuses on one of the state’s ethnic groups—its music, dance, and folklore—is featuring the Kalmyks on April 30 at an all-day event on the Douglass Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
The Kalmyks’ native land, Kalmykia, is one of the republics of the former USSR that remains within the Russian Federation today, with a population of about 350,000. It is the only predominantly Mongol and Buddhist land in Europe. Many Kalmyks, siding with the Whites against the Reds, fled the Soviet Union during the Bolshevik Revolution, and the remaining Kalmyks were deported to Siberia during World War II because of alleged anti-Soviet sympathies. It was not until 1951 that Kalmyks began to come to New Jersey. Earlier, they had been rejected under the Asian Exclusion Acts (repealed in 1943) and immigration quotas based on race (repealed in 1965). They found an ally in the United States Attorney General who argued that since Kalmykia is in European Russia, the Kalmyks are Europeans not Asians, going so far as to insist that they are “Caucasians”—which is silly, but so is racism.
Virtually all of the Kalmyks who began coming to New Jersey in 1951 had spent the years after World War II in displaced persons camps in Germany. They ended up there because, as the Nazis began their long retreat after the Battle of Stalingrad, some Kalmyks followed, staying just ahead of the Soviet Army.
Russian emigres living in the Howell area and the Tolstoy Foundation, which assists new immigrants, were instrumental in sponsoring the Kalmyks in New Jersey. In addition to the Kalmyk Buddhist temples there are several Russian Orthodox churches in Howell, as evidenced by their onion-shaped domes. Howell and Lakewood, farther south on Route 9, are thriving centers of Russo-American culture in New Jersey. (There also is a small Kalmyk contingent with one temple in Philadelphia.)
Originally a nomadic people, the Kalmyks were one of the innumerable tribes united by Genghis Khan in the course of conquering much of Europe and Asia in the 12th and early 13th centuries. When the Mongolian Empire faded into retreat, the Kalmyks were incorporated into Russia.
American Kalmyks speak English, of course, but may also speak Russian and Kalmyk. Anyone who has seen the Star Wars movies has heard Kalmyk spoken. It is the language of the Ewoks, those furry, cuddly bipeds living on the moon of Endor who, you may recall, were easily understood by the linguistically gifted robot, C-3PO.
It is almost as if one is on a New Jersey version of the moon of Endor when standing on Kalmuk Road (Kalmyk is spelled in a variety of ways) just short of where it becomes a dirt road leading to the Tashi Lhunpo Temple. The street may be considered the physical center of Kalmyk life in New Jersey; it inspired the title of a book in 2004, The Street—Kalmuk Road.
I find myself inside the temple’s social hall along with Maria Taunov and Augnel “Alta” Buruschkin, and also a monk serving us tea. I am told that the way to greet a monk is with a two-handed handshake, one’s forehead lowered onto the linked hands. The monk good-naturedly laughs at my clumsy greeting.
Most monks in Kalmyk temples are Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, recognized as the spiritual leader of the Kalmyks, has visited the Howell temples. Says Buruschkin, “I get up at 5 am every day and chant my prayers for two hours. This is what the Dalai Lama does, and I try to pattern myself after His Holiness.”
On arriving in their new land, most Kalmyks entered the building trades but, over the years, gravitated into electronics, professional careers and white-collar jobs. Buruschkin works for a consulting company. Taunov is a legal assistant at a New York City law firm, commuting to work and chanting her morning prayers quietly on the bus. On weekends she chants them at the altar found in most Kalmyk homes.
Taunov also teaches Buddhist principles to children at one of the temples on weekends. “There are great assimilationist pressures,” she says. “I know who I am, but I want Kalmyk children to know who they are.” Kalmyk families tend to be closer than other American families. Many households are multigenerational, and there is great deference paid to the elders as well as veneration of ancestors. “American freedom and openness are wonderful,” Taunov says, “but they make for more intermarriage and fewer children, because Kalmyk women, like other American women, don’t want to be confined to the home.”
I was introduced to Taunov and Buruschkin by Nicholas Olefer Jr., a Caucasian of Russian descent who is a convert to Buddhism and is on the New Jersey Folk Festival board. Olefer lives in Westchester County and practices and receives instruction at a Buddhist monastery in Carmel, New York. “No one cares who you are in a Buddhist environment; they care who your teacher is,” Olefer explains.
The Kalmyks believe in reincarnation—as do Hindus—but they prefer the term “rebirth.” I can’t say I really understand the difference, but I was struck by the eerie sincerity with which Buruschkin told me, “I lived during Buddha’s time, but I didn’t pay attention. Now I’m paying attention.”
Later in the day, the three took me to Rashi Gempil-Ling, another of the Buddhist temples just off Route 9. There were two buildings, a small one essentially empty except for a large prayer wheel—a round, beautifully decorated device believed to contain a million printed prayers wrapped around a central core. “We spin the wheel as a means of getting our prayers to multiply as they fly out into the world,” says Buruschkin, who has a small prayer wheel in his home.
We removed our shoes and entered the temple, where a service was going on. Everyone sat on the floor on pillows. One was handed to me, and I did my best to resurrect an earlier familiarity with the lotus position, only to develop a cramp in my left leg. The service was presided over by Art Engle, a Caucasian lay-teacher married to a Kalmyk woman. Engle has a PhD. in Buddhist studies from the University of Wisconsin. The service was conducted in Tibetan, and Engle swayed side to side as he chanted, as did many of those in attendance, including a Buddhist nun. I was struck by the fact that half the people at the service were non-Asian.
It was peaceful in the temple. I didn’t relish the prospect of facing the traffic for the drive home. The temple was only feet from Springsteen’s Route 9 and the suggestion, as in “Born to Run,” that one should flee the rapid pulse of New Jersey life. But in that temple, if only for a short while, I found an oasis of calm.
Contributing writer Michael Aaron Rockland’s two most recent books are Stones, a novel, and The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel. A forthcoming memoir will cover the years he spent in Spain as a cultural attaché.
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