I grew up with Ram Dass as just another of my father’s friends, one of the guys—as in, “Ram Dass is coming to town,” or “Daddy’s going to see Ram Dass in Hawaii.” Old photos from the 1990s show Ram Dass at the head of our dining room table surrounded by other family friends. They were mostly East Coast transplants living in LA, and the conversation over dinner sounded like we were at the crossroads of Long Island and Queens.
I didn’t see Ram Dass as any sort of guru, in part because I knew Neem Karoli Baba (endearingly known as Maharaj-ji, meaning “great king” in Sanskrit) was the actual guru, his knowing gaze beaming down on us from framed photos around our house. At some point though, probably as a teenager, I figured out that Ram Dass was actually famous—even outside our community—for his book Be Here Now (1971). Its publication had launched his career as a teacher and writer on Eastern spirituality for a Western audience. He was perhaps Maharaj-ji’s most notable disciple and credits the guru as being the source of his own spiritual insights.
Not long after Be Here Now was published in the early ‘70s, my father read the book and went to India on a sabbatical from his law practice, seeking a sense of meaning and soulful sustenance that he had failed to find in his native Judaism. So when he serendipitously stumbled upon Ram Dass at a hotel in Delhi and got to hang out with him, he had considered his trip a success. I can go home now, my father thought to himself. When Ram Dass asked what else he had planned on his trip, my father responded, “What else is there to do? As far as I’m concerned, this is it. You are the epitome of what I had hoped to experience here. So I have no idea what’s next.”
Depositioning himself as the be-all-end-all of my father’s trip, Ram Dass told him, “What you see in me is but a reflection of Maharaj-ji,” and immediately sent my father to Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Vrindavan before the guru left for another location (as he was known to be constantly on the move).
There, he encountered the Hindu guru for the first time, wrapped in a plaid blanket and perched on his tucket (the low bench on which gurus sit). Maharaj-ji felt like both a sage and a zayde, my father recalls. Similarly, Ram Dass also felt familiar, but more like a wise peer than an older baba. After all, at the end of the day, he was one of us, “a yid,” as my father would say. Ram Dass’s conversations were peppered with Yiddishisms, and laced with a kind of Jewish humor that spoke directly to an audience of wayward Jews of the post-Holocaust generation, like my father: disillusioned with religion, turned on by psychedelics, and looking to make sense of a world where war and genocide had made the old paradigms, once a source of hope and meaning, seem grossly outdated and inadequate. It makes sense that so many leaders of New Age spirituality came out of this demographic, inspired by ancient rituals and philosophies from far-off lands.
Ram Dass is perhaps the most famous example. He was wise, and carried a yogi’s sense of grace, but he wasn’t necessarily a wholly enlightened being. Ram Dass first experimented with psychedelics as a psychology professor, and then found himself in India looking for a way to maintain those same spiritual heights without the use of drugs. Still, he never completely stopped taking psychedelics, and he never shed his Jewish American roots. Once back in the US, and throughout his life, he would still smoke weed from time to time. He often cracked irreverent jokes, like referring to “chutzpah” as an ancient Sanskrit term. As my dad might say, Ram Dass basically had a “shtick”—as author, baba, and spiritual leader. But outside the public gaze, he too was on a personal journey, growing into himself, coming home to himself as Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass, a self-described “HinJew.”
At his bar mitzvah, Ruben ben Chaim Yosef read in Hebrew from the Torah but understood none of the words. As he later described in his memoir, Being Ram Dass (published posthumously in 2021), the ritual felt “empty” and he yearned for “something more.” Being Jewish was central to his family’s identity: his father, George Alpert, was one of the founders of Brandeis University and later became a co-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, along with leadership positions in other nationwide Jewish philanthropies. But to young Richard Alpert, the Judaism that he grew up with in 1940s Boston was emotionally hollow and left him feeling spiritually unmoored.
Richard identified with Judaism in a tribal and cultural sense, but he felt little connection to the religion itself. To him, Judaism seemed like it was “about power,” such as “the power of G-d to unleash plagues” or the power of the Jews “to survive amid oppression.” As for the ecstatic, mystical side of Judaism, such as “what happened to Moses up on the Mountain” (the event celebrated by the Jewish holiday Shavuot, arguably the most psychedelic episode in all of Jewish history) it seemed to him that his community was less interested in that moment of spiritual rhapsody than in the rules that came out of it. “Their primary interest was what [Moses] brought back [from Sinai],” he recalled. And the “predicament,” for Richard, was that religion was more about these dry rules than it was about spiritual connection. In short, the message of this story about the commandments was simply, “‘you better follow them or else.’”
It didn’t help that Richard was ridiculed at school for belonging to a religion to which he felt nominally connected at best, and resented at worst. His mother (in “classic Jewish mother fashion,” as he put it) used “food as a proxy for love” and he grew overweight. Bullies targeted him with slurs like “fat dirty Jew” and realized how easy it was to “beat the shit out of [him].” He struggled with being queer (something he would only talk openly about in his sixties), and fell into the standard Jewish cycle of self-loathing.
Even so, he persevered, excelled academically, and grew up to be a psychology professor at Harvard—then again, what else was to be expected? “Until you know a good, Jewish middle class upwardly mobile anxiety-ridden neurotic,” he later wrote, “you haven’t met a real achiever.” Still, he dissociated from his tribal roots, often joking, “I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side.”
Richard wasn’t the only one to make this joke. I heard it here and there from other members of the satsang—my parents’ community of Maharaj-ji devotees. Now, as the second generation of this movement, I’ll turn it around and tell you, I’m only HinJew on my parents’ side. Not that I don’t have an appreciation for the way I grew up, but as a kid, the dissonance between my Jewish education and my parents’ HinJew practices were striking. I was hyper-aware of my Jewishness thanks to the fact that, as a young child, my parents sent me to a Conservative Jewish preschool where I learned the alef-bet, and then, in elementary school, I became obsessed with Holocaust literature. At the same time, at home, my parents’ religious practices included both elements of traditional Judaism and Hinduism. They used to host regular kirtan events—a night of devotional music and chanting in Sanskrit—for their satsang. Sure, none of us understood Hebrew so well, and I sometimes suspected this was one of the reasons my parents or their friends sometimes had difficulty connecting to Judaism—who wants to read words without knowing the meaning? But at the same time, it’s not like most of them understood Sanskrit. Still, maybe they found it easier to connect to Hinduism because, unlike with Judaism, there was no expectation that they should understand those prayers.
But unlike my parents, I didn’t come upon the HinJew thing on my own accord; I never discovered Ram Dass—he was already there as I grew up. There was somewhat of an expectation (perhaps ironically, considering their own rebellion) that I would go with the program, even if it meant just sitting in a corner or hiding in my room, escaping into my homework, or rolling my eyes at my parents’ (embarrassing, at the time) antics. I didn’t have anything against Hinduism, or kirtan, or yoga, or the fact that my parents and all their friends called each other by their Hindu names; but, like most teenagers, I simply felt the urge to rebel. I grew up in an otherwise conventional Jewish neighborhood, and while my classmates’ parents “went to lunch” with other moms, or went golfing with other dads, my parents held vegetarian potluck kirtans with Indian food, smoked weed, and got divorced, and remarried, and divorced again, multiple times. Behind the scenes, it was not all bliss, peace and love: there was meditation, and then mediation; hippie parties, then hippie politics; yoga, then yelling at the kids. All normal stuff, except that it was happening in a community that wore (another culture’s) spirituality on its sleeve.
I wondered, out of genuine curiosity, wasn’t the stuff that my parents and their peers were looking for in Hinduism—meditation, mysticism, chanting—also available within our own culture, within Judaism? Of course it was, as I later learned as an adult, as if uncovering a long lost secret—they just didn’t want to look there.
And in a sense, who can blame them? American Judaism in the wake of the Holocaust left their generation spiritually unkindled, often running away from themselves, towards assimilation, or towards other religious cultures all together. My father once told me that as a child growing up in California in the 1940s, he used to ask himself, “what’s wrong with us that they want to kill us?” Perhaps for many Jews, the Holocaust was seen as a kind of threat—the fear of what could happen if one was “too Jewish”—and being at “home” within Judaism felt too vulnerable. Echoing this sentiment, in describing a visit to the Dachau concentration camp in a lecture once, Ram Dass recounted his realization that “part of why I haven’t been able to fully acknowledge the incarnational aspect of being Jewish was my fear of the pain, of the horror of the predicament of the Jews.” Because, as he says, “the immensity of the Holocaust in terms of the human condition brought many people so close to the edge of the mystery of ‘is there a good G-d?’ or ‘what is the universe about?’”
It might have taken decades for Ram Dass to even acknowledge, let alone work through, the pain of Jewish trauma on his path home—to himself, to freedom—because (as he put it in his memoir) “only when you honor your karma fully can you begin to be free.” Being human on earth is our soul’s “curriculum.” As he described it: “As long as I pushed away something [like Judaism], I was attached, and as long as I was attached I wasn’t free . . . To be human [is] to honor all the identities.” But indeed, the bodily incarnation known variously as Ruben ben Chaim Yosef, Richard Alpert, and Ram Dass would need to cycle through these multiple identities in order to ultimately uncover the one that mattered the most: the soul.
When he was a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 1960s, Alpert researched substances like LSD and psilocybin with his colleague Dr. Timothy Leary—research that involved self-experimentation as well. With his discovery of psychedelics came the “shattering realization” that he “was a soul.” But when Harvard found out that they had been tripping alongside their research subjects, and giving psychedelics to undergrads, they both were fired in 1963, and Alpert lost what had been a tenured professorship.
This moment launched them each onto widely different paths. Leary’s story is well-known; the two still occasionally shared psychedelic experiences at Millbrook, Leary’s estate in upstate New York, through the late-60s. Richard continued his exploration of Divine Awareness through the study of Buddhism, and by hanging out with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. But going round and round the “revolving door” (as Kesey himself called it) of getting high and coming back down was getting old. He wanted to go further, and stay there: Wasn’t there a way to arrive at feeling high and spiritually connected, without the inevitable descent?
By then, Alpert felt that he had “explored all [the] chemical possibilities” of psychedelics. He figured that if he “headed East, maybe [he] could find someone who could read the maps of consciousness.” Plus, as a self-proclaimed “Jew-Bu” at the time, Alpert was feeling the pull of India (the homeland of the Buddha himself). Once he was there, he connected with a fellow called Bhagavan Das—tall, blonde, and dreadlocked, once known as Kermit Michael Riggs, from Laguna Beach—who led Alpert to meet the guru, Neem Karoli Baba. At the time, Alpert was skeptical of gurus, considered them to be a “hustle,” and balked at the idea of submitting to another human being: “I’m not touching anyone’s feet, I was a Harvard professor!” And yet, when he met Maharaj-ji, he broke down in the face of what he experienced as Neem Karoli Baba’s unconditional love—the expression of G-d consciousness or “loving awareness.”
Indeed, the majority of the satsang had similar experiences with the guru. My father had also been reticent about the idea of pranaming (a reverential salutation reserved for elders, gurus, and deities), since bowing to another person is not common in Jewish tradition. But it helped that Maharaj-ji felt heimish—homey and familiar—to my father. He also seemed to have what can only be described as magical abilities. To many of his devotees, including both my father and Ram Dass, Maharaj-ji subtly revealed knowledge of intimate details of their lives, including interior experiences, that was only possible thanks to the fractalized nature of his consciousness, as I’ve interpreted it based on descriptions of those who knew him while he was in a body. Simply just being with the guru was, for many, a kind of psychedelic experience. Maharaj-ji’s followers often came to live at his ashram for extended periods of time to be close to his physical presence.
It was said that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, could read people’s minds; this was common among tzadikim, or Jewish holy men. Similarly, so could a tzadik like Maharaj-ji. He was psychic, and would gently reveal the extent to which he knew everything by telling those like my dad what he’d had for dinner the night before. Ram Dass met the guru not long after the passing of his mother, and upon their first darshan, Maharaj-ji detailed the cause of his mother’s death, and referenced the fact that Ram Dass had been thinking about her the previous night while looking up at the stars. “How does an old man wrapped in a blanket in the Himalayas know intimate details about my mother?” Alpert wondered.
“Inside, my rational mind, like a computer in overdrive, tries desperately to figure out how he knows all this. I start running through every possible paranoid scenario . . . But how could he know about my mother? I didn’t tell anyone about last night. My mind keeps running in circles, getting nowhere.”
Finally, Richard’s rational mind gave up and he began to cry. “It was my spiritual heart opening,” he writes in his memoir. “I realize Maharaj-ji is orchestrating my awakening. The people around him know what is happening. This is what a guru does.” Then suddenly, he realizes, if Maharaj-ji can read his thoughts about his mother, he knows all of his other thoughts, too. “Including all the things I’m most ashamed of. My bisexual double life. My intellectual pretense. My anger at my mother. I can’t bear that he knows all this. These are things I keep carefully hidden.” These were the parts that Richard deemed unlovable about himself. And yet:
He knows, but instead of criticism, all I feel is great love coming from him . . . I look up at him, and he looks down at me, and I realize he’s just loving me with pure unconditional love. The flood of emotion dammed up from not having mourned my mother collides with the impossible fact that this old baba in the Himalayas knows every detail about me, everything in my mind—and loves me anyway. Something inside me shatters. Or melts. Or dissolves. My spiritual heart cracks open, and something deep within, the part of me that has been hidden, releases in my chest, the heart chakra. I am pulled into my soul . . . I cry and I cry and I cry and I cry. I’m not sad, and I’m not happy. The nearest I can come to describing it is that I’m crying because I feel deeply that I have come home.
Sometimes, the only way to truly come home is to leave it first: journeying for the sake of return. That’s the psychedelic path as well: ingesting a substance, taking a trip to another realm of consciousness, and finding your way back to yourself, back home. As Ram Dass once put it, describing the journey of life: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
The first time that Ram Dass (and many other American seekers) felt “at home” was in India with Maharaj-ji. The feeling was beyond reason, as Maharaj-ji’s psychic consciousness revealed to his devotees in subtle, gentle, compassionate ways that he knew everything about them, right down to their very own thoughts. Some even say that Maharaj-ji, like Jesus (whom he often spoke about), was an earthly incarnation of divinity—specifically, the Hindu deity Hanuman who is in turn known as the messenger (or alternately the “breath”) of Ram, who is one of the central deities of Hinduism.
Maharaj-ji bestowed Richard Alpert with a spiritual name—Ram Dass, meaning literally “servant of Ram,” or servant of God. Only through his relationship with Maharaj-ji could Ram Dass learn what it meant to be one with, and to love (rather than fear), the Divine, since at the core of the guru’s teachings was a foundational consciousness of “unconditional love” and “loving awareness.”
Through this softening and opening up to Divinity, Ram Dass also learned how to soften and open up to himself. How can one truly “be here now” if they find it impossible to even be, wholeheartedly, in their own earthly incarnation? As Ram Dass wrote in his book Polishing the Mirror, “home is the quality of presence, the quality of being wherever you are.” Coming into his own presence meant facing the dissociation he felt within himself—from his sexuality, from his family history, from the “home” that he came from. Had Richard Alpert not branched out of his Jewish identity, beyond the stultifying Judaism that he knew growing up, he may have stayed dissociated within it—rather than coming back around to it, as Ram Dass, much later in life, when he could see Jewish practice through new eyes.
Like a student who learns from a rebbe, Ram Dass learned from Maharaj-ji and distilled the guru’s teachings into writings and lectures for those back “home” in the West. With his use of Yiddishisms, Jewish studies scholar Jonah Gelfand once pointed out to me, Ram Dass’s teachings often feel like they were geared toward a Jewish audience, to his own demographic.
In its way, Be Here Now is a piece of chassidis, conveying to the reader the most basic tenet of mindfulness: presence. In a way, Ram Dass is speaking to himself—or, at least, to the self-loathing Reuben ben Chaim Yosef, and the anxious Richard Alpert inside of him—telling his incarnation to embrace all of its identities, to be here now, not to run away, but to come home to the presence of all that is.
With his gentle, unconditional love, Maharaj-ji sherpaed Ram Dass into the present—and taught him how to be present to the multitudes of his own incarnation. As Ram Dass once joked, when he was invited to give a lecture at the American Jewish University in 1992, he took the invitation as a sign that Maharaj-ji was winking at him, signaling it was time to embrace his Jewish identity. In that lecture, he describes how, through Maharaj-ji’s wisdom, he was finally able to reckon with and reconcile the pain of what it is to be Jewish. As the guru himself has said, “I love suffering, it brings me so close to G-d.” It’s no surprise that Ram Dass himself connected later in life to the tales of Rebbe Nachman (as he described in a 1980 interview for The Sun Magazine), who expressed a similar ethos in his Hasidic teachings.
It’s through the experience of having your heart break again and again, of coming to a compassion and equanimity beneath it all, that one discovers even “strangely enough joy” that arises through the process of alleviating joy, Ram Dass said in the lecture at AJU. “It’s a question of the tension between being separate from G-d and being one with G-d, which is what every tzadik is living moment by moment.” Krishna Das, the renowned kirtan musician who is also “Jewish on his parents’ side,” from Long Island, and a devotee of Maharaj-ji, once told me that he saw the guru as a great tzadik, and compared him to the Baal Shem Tov.
In that same lecture at AJU, Ram Dass explored the concept of what it means to be chosen. Chosen to suffer, chosen to stay close to G-d through our covenant? As he put it, to “‘choose G-d’ [means] . . . remember me and you will be redeemed.”
He explained that as he began to see it, Judaism is a practice of mindfulness, a religion full of Divine reminders, which can be as simple as kissing a mezuzah at the entrance of a room. “What Orthodox Judaism offers is a regularized mystical experience. Judaism is a way of remaining in the present, and Shabbos is a great reminder.”
He described Judaism as a “love affair between G-d and humans.” As G-d’s children, we’re asked to love the Creator and serve Him. In exchange, we are gifted life, we commune with G-d through our breath, and we get perks like Shabbos—the transcendent climax of the week, of time itself, the ultimate be here now.
Ironically, for many Jews, Ram Dass’s teachings helped bring them home to Judaism. Ram Dass himself told me a story about a visit to Jerusalem, when two black-hatted Haredim ran across a square in excitement, yelling, “Ram Dass, it’s you!” They had read Be Here Now, gotten into psychedelics, and then back into yiddishkeit. Another ba’al teshuva, Yaakov Yitzchak—originally from Venice Beach, once called Jeff Richman, and now living in Tzfat—told me a story of how Ram Dass “m’kareved” him (brought him closer to Judaism): he had been sitting in the front row of the AJU lecture, and thought to himself, about observing Shabbos, “if Ram Dass was doing it, I knew I had to do it.” He recalled how, when they caught up backstage, Ram Dass tapped him in the center of his chest, as if cementing the decision.
In recent years, as Maharaj-ji’s LA satsang dispersed around the globe in the aftermath of the pandemic, my mother has returned to her own Jewish roots. She joined her local Carlebach shul, and began going regularly to Shabbos services. When I showed her the YouTube clip of Ram Dass’s AJU lecture, she responded with classic Queens flair, “I like him better as a Jew.”
In his memoir, American Spiritual Warrior, Rabbi Yosef Grodsky recalls sitting in a sukkah in Jerusalem in 1983 with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi discussing Ram Dass. Ram Dass was close friends with Reb Zalman, who pioneered the Jewish Renewal denomination in a movement that ran parallel to the HinJew scene. Grodsky writes that the rabbi told him, “Ram Dass would have become a rabbi if he had started on his spiritual journey when younger.”
Indeed, the movement to rekindle Jewish spirituality that blossomed into the ba’al teshuva and neo-Hasidic movements led by Reb Zalman and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was ultimately the same as the one led by Ram Dass, or others like the Jewish-born Sufi Sam. They drew from similar groups of Jewish psychonauts and spiritual seekers who felt alienated from the Jewish tradition.
Both Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi saw great spiritual promise in this seemingly wayward generation of American Jews. They sought to bring them back into a Judaism that was less rule-bound, and more mystical, one that harkened back to the Hasidic ritual and fervor of the old world through ecstatic prayer, dancing, singing, and the recounting of parables. Carlebach’s followers especially were (and still are) known for their trance-like niggunim. “Lord, get me high,” they sing. In a way, Ram Dass became his own sort of HinJew ba’al teshuva.
And of course, even after his time spent with Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass never quite stopped getting high. In fact, his path back to Judaism ran through psychedelics by way of Reb Zalman, who was central to him seeing Judaism in a new light. “I remember taking LSD with Zalman, with his talis wrapped around us and we were suddenly in the place where Judaism and drugs were as one,” Ram Dass told me in an interview once. In his memoir, Ram Dass describes Reb Zalman as “the most joyous celebration of Judaism” that he ever encountered. “I appreciated how he infused love into the rituals I found so empty as a boy,” Ram Dass writes. “Loving G-d is central in Judaism, but I didn’t get any of that growing up. Only later did I encounter the mystical, joyous side of Judaism with Zalman. And only when I met Maharaj- ji and opened to my own spiritual heart could I appreciate loving G-d.”
As Ram Dass explains it, a “guru” is different from a “teacher” in that the teacher “stands next to you, giving direction,” while the guru “is up ahead, beckoning you.” He writes, “the guru knows the journey is an illusion; his job is to get you to see that there is nowhere to go, that you are part of the One.” Similarly, one could say that the job of the tzadik is to guide you home. It doesn’t matter if this tzadik is a blanket-wrapped baba in the hills of northern India, or a bearded Jew from Ukraine who left his body hundreds of years ago. The specific religion is beside the point, so long as Divine love and devotion—bhakti and chassidis—are the centerpoint.
While it might seem that people like my parents or Ram Dass parted ways with Judaism, it was never that clean cut. They were always Jews on a journey. The unity of G-d, and their devotion to that one G-d (called by many different names), was never in question. Despite my parents’ HinJew affectations, I also grew up with a deeply monotheistic Jewish concept of God, which made it that much easier to understand Judaism when I started to explore it on my own terms. The question was, what do you do with that awareness of God? How can you reconcile it with pain, and sit with it, be with it? For me, the legacy of be here now is this practice of aligning with G-d’s will, acknowledging pain and healing it rather than dissociating from it. It is reflected in the Jewish meditation mantra of “shiviti”—meaning, loosely, “I have set God before me,” or, in other words, to just be with (or in) the divine presence. Because it’s not enough to sit on a pillow to meditate and call it a day; the “high achieving, anxiety-ridden Jewish neurotic” would never allow it to end there. What do we do once we’ve tuned in? In the long-standing Jewish tradition of wandering, there begins the journey home.
Madison Margolin is a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life. She is the cofounder of DoubleBlind Magazine and has written for publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vice, among others. Also a cofounder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and host of the Set & Setting podcast on the Be Here Now Network, Madison has traveled from cannabis farms in Northern California to underground ceremonies in Brooklyn to the shores of the Ganges River and all over Israel|Palestine, reporting on the role of entheogens in religion, culture, and healing. Her book, Exile & Ecstasy: Growing up with Ram Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground, will be out this fall. Find out more about her work here, or follow her on social media.