Meet a Member: Trucker goes from Jew to Buddhist to None

Jonnie Benzimra and his wife Denise Brown.

Name: Jonnie Benzimra.

Where I live:  Mentor, Ohio.

Where and when I was born: Richmond, Surrey, England. Richmond has been swallowed up by Greater London and is now known as Richmond upon Thames. I was born in 1954, which makes me soon to be 64, but I am NOT going to break out into the Beatles song.

Family: Two sisters in Britain and a brother in Toronto. Both my folks are deceased. My father was a staunch socialist (a bit of a dirty word here) and my mother was a very popular Maltese Jewish housewife — fiery Mediterranean blood. Here, I have an English wife who has two sons from a previous marriage. We both originally married Americans and had been divorced for about six years each. We met each other through friends who said, “Oh, I know an English girl down the road.” We have been together 15 years, married for 10 of them. I have removed the word “step” from my sons’ introduction.

Education: I went to a Jewish secondary school that I had to travel all the way across London to attend. Before then I was the only Jew in a local primary school and had to stand outside class while they taught Church of England stuff. I remember being bored, but I didn’t know how nice it was to escape that indoctrination. I joined the choir because I loved to sing and ended up “praising the Lord” — in song, anyhow.

I didn’t do very well in school. My desperate parents sent me to college hoping I would snap to and become the doctor my mother so wanted. I didn’t. My father, who was considered brilliant, reassured me that I wasn’t unintelligent, but just not so academic — a very kind heart.

Occupation: At 17, I became a shopkeeper, a grocer. For a year and a half, I opened and operated a successful whole food and health food shop in Wales, selling brown rice, rolled oats, buckwheat, Mung beans and honeys from around the world.  A huge young community had emigrated from all points Britain to South Wales for cheaper housing and land. I was now 19 and gave it all up to go overland to India and Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1973. I sold the shop, and even with many changes of hands, it still runs today.

I have been a grocery shop owner, a traveler, a truck driver, a roadie for many different rock bands, an arc lamp spotlight engineer and operator for the entertainment industry, and a salesman in America for the winter months of all the years of the 1980s. I have also been an actor and a well-known actor’s assistant. I am a long-distance truck driver again. 

As a driver, I am stunned at how much religion is hung all over passing trucks. Many trucks have huge crosses lit up in the front. There is a chapel in every truck stop. It’s amazing how religious these truck drivers are. I am a little quiet about my Noneness, fearing a little retribution. (I will always remember being shocked during the burning of Beatles records after John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.)

I wish we had a recognizable symbol for Nones. I would hang it up front of my truck and leave it to others to decipher. I always thought religion was a very private thing, kept to oneself and not forced down other throats.

Religion (or lack thereof): I was brought up in a Jewish home. My Maltese mother kept a kosher kitchen, while my atheist but traditional Jewish Brit of a father took us all out for the occasional bacon sandwich.

Although I had my bar mitzvah at 13, I didn’t believe in any of it. I did it all for the love of singing, and the grand party, with presents that came after.

When I came back from India, I was so proud that I had not found a guru like everyone else.  Even my friends and family were discovering spirituality with one guru or another. ’Twas the times. I was an atheist like my dad.

Fourteen years later, I was in India again and looking into Buddhism. I was a Jew who found Buddhism. A BuddJew, as we were known. I dove deep into that for three years with my first wife. I lived and worked at this Buddhist Center in Dharamsala, India, where the exiled government of Tibet is based. The evangelical Christians would come and thump their bibles on the Dalai Lama’s podium proselytizing. Buddhists had to just let it happen and not intervene or use force.  Very upsetting. We Buddhists were accused of being godless (which we were) and not having a real religion at all (which I was proud of). I kinda believed in reincarnation, but only to a point. It was the Mahayana Buddhist teachings of the Hell Realms that finally sent me running, pulling out my hair. Not from fear of those hellish realms, but their ridiculous invention to control the masses. We do good in this world because it’s the right way to conduct ourselves. Kindness is everything. Not the fear of going to hell or heaven or sitting next to God or getting a favorable rebirth when we die. “Do good for goodness’ sake,” my father used to quote.

I went back to India in 2007 with my present wife. On our last day, we went around the Delhi Railway Station and its lands with a street child who spoke English, who showed us how he used to live and how other kids were copping along with the organization to help those street kids. It was a wonderful chance to see and understand and help where we could. A lady joined our group at the last minute and purposely pulled out her crucifix from her blouse when talking to the kids in their home. I thought of all those missionaries trying to corrupt these Hindu/Muslim/Nones into her own beliefs. She did not represent the rest of our touristy group and I asked her to put crucifix away. She didn’t, and voices rose. I felt truly embarrassed in front of these kids and their organizers.

My motives were not conversion. Hers . . .?

My favorite quotation: It is stuck on the back of my car as an often-renewed bumper sticker and has been for more than 10 years: “My karma ran over your dogma.”

The other day I heard on NPR that FFRF had won another case where religion was forced down our throats through the public arena of park areas. I am very proud of being a member of FFRF and hope that kindness given around the world is done for its own sake instead of heaven’s sake.