December marks the yahrzeit of Ram Dass/Richard Alpert z”l. I remember him well. No one synthesized Eastern Wisdom with Western psychology as brilliantly as he did. Still relevant, his numerous recordings and work spanning decades until his death on December 22, 2019 can be accessed online.
I was fortunate to know Ram Dass personally. And its safe to say he had never met anyone with my strange background; an Iraqi Egyptian Queer Jew, born in India and grew up Stateless in Japan’s Catholic and Protestant missionary schools.
I remember Ram Dass’ struggle being a Jew and a gay man in a community bent on shedding the Jew and hushing the Gay. The New Age/Counterculture/Spiritual movement born in the sixties is stained with a “we’re only Jewish on our parents’ side,” and until very recently a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality.
When he uttered absurd comments, in a community that did not appreciate Jewishness, I was the Jew in the room.
Ram Dass; “Tefillin sounds like teflon.”
An annoyed me; “If you pronounced it correctly maybe it wouldn’t.” That was a big part of our dance.
Ram Dass mentioned more than once how, had he been exposed to Jewish Mysticism at that crucial time in his life in the sixties, “maybe I would have found myself on another path.” But it was an illiterate Hindu guru not a Kabbalist, who came into his life. As he was traveling in India a half-naked old man, Neem Karola Baba, unknown to the West at the time (and completely uninterested in being known), “opened (his) heart” like never before.
Richard Alpert, the Harvard professor and son of a prominent philanthropic Jewish Bostonian family, was forever transformed. He became Ram Dass (Servant of God), named by his guru to embody the Hindu deity Hanuman.
He went on the road to teach with a unique mastery of spiritual wisdom and Western psychology. He was his “best case study,” he claimed, openly sharing his foibles through the spiritual maze that was his life. Life was about letting go — of ego and every loss that comes — “Gam zeh ya’avor– This, too, shall pass.” We are taught to accept the unacceptable.
Despite all the meshugas of assimilation, we connected as Jews. Ram Dass never failed to identify as a Jew despite his conflicting feelings about his heritage. We shared a common link, our undeniable history and bond as Jews. My problem with him was when he unconsciously fed internalized antisemitism.
His conflict in being a Jew was reflected in comments that sounded clever but are ultimately sad. The “I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side” he borrowed from Stephen Levine z”l, got and still gets the biggest laugh every time it is repeated in Buddhist meditation halls filled with a disproportionate number of Jews.
At some point several years before his stroke, Ram Dass began entering Hassidic rabbis and Kabbalists into his roster of quotations from Hindu saints, Christ, Buddhist masters, Sufi poets and Taoist sages.
It was just a matter of time before Rabbi Zalman Schacter z”l who founded Jewish Renewal would get him onboard.
Ram Dass announced an upcoming retreat, he would be co-leading a Jewish Renewal weeklong workshop with Rabbi Zalman at what was then Elat Chayyim, in Woodstock, New York. It finally happened!
When I got there I saw Ram Dass hanging out with some people at the entrance.
“Are you sad Zalman won’t be here?” He asked.
I hadn’t heard.
“No,” I quipped, I’m here because of you!”
“And I’m here because of you, hocking me, hocking me, hocking me! ”
We shared a hug and a laugh–I was thrilled, my hocking him (nagging/ Yiddish), was rewarded.
It was an incredibly vibrant week. It was a joy to see Ram Dass challenged by a group of deeply devotional spiritually infused young rabbis ordained by Zalman, particularly one man, beautiful Rabbi David Wolfe Blank z”l.
“They really get it, especially David,” he said realizing Judaism was deeply devotional.
He was literally moved to tears as he davened on Shabbat morning.
“My heart opened,” he said.
In the large group he reflected on his ignorance in marginalizing Judaism. He was elated and humbled. He talked about some phone calls he had received over the week from some of his friends who mockingly asked “How’s the “Jewwww-ish” retreat going?” He couldn’t join in anymore.
And then came the stroke. Four years before his 70th birthday, he experienced a devastating stroke that took away his independence and severely altered his speech. His incredible gift for integrating and articulating complex ideas was gone. He redefined the devastation of his body as “being stroked,” as he worked on accepting the “fierce grace” he was dealt. He walked the talk.
One of the last times I heard him speak at a large gathering was at Omega Institute in upstate New York. He was up on stage with Roshi Joan Halifax, a Zen nun. Ram Dass had recovered enough speech to answer direct questions with a few words.
“Ram Dass what were you working on personally before your stroke?” Roshi Halifax asked.
In his post-stroke no longer vibrant voice he answered;
“My shame over being a Jew and a homosexual.”
I’ve wanted to honor Ram Dass’ Jewishness publically for a long time. I want to honor his struggle with being a Jew and a gay man in his world where it was simply uncool, unmirroring, even something to be ashamed of. Ram Dass’ Queer Jewish self is underappreciated and underreported. But no closet was big enough to hold him.