In 1968, only six years after founding the AEPi chapter at his Long Island University campus, Steven Silberfein took one of the thousand names of the Hindu god Vishnu and became Sridhar Silberfein.
A year later, the one-time Jewish fraternity brother escorted the Hindu teacher Swami Satchidananda to the stage at Woodstock to deliver an invocation in front of 500,000 flower children.
Surveying the crowd, Silberfein turned to the cotton-bearded swami and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get all these people chanting the names of God?”
“Forty years later we did that at Bhakti Fest,” said Silberfein, 73, referring to the Indian devotional music festival he founded in 2009.
Mounted twice a year in Joshua Tree, Calif., and now once a year in Madison, Wis., Bhakti Fest has become a fixture of the West Coast festival circuit.The May festival known as Shakti Fest, in honor of Hinduism’s divine feminine force, brought more than 1,500 yogis to the Mojave Desert last week for three days of chanting, breath work, yoga and a more-than-healthy dose of kale seaweed salad.
As blissed-out Californians floated around sipping coconut water and Vitamineral Green superfood, Silberfein, who has turned the festival’s operations over to his oldest daughter, Mukti Silberfein, schmoozed with artists with names like Durga Das and Arjun Baba.
Attended to by a bevy of young female assistants, Silberfein could easily be mistaken for a celebrity guru, though that’s exactly the impression he’d like to avoid.
“I’m just a regular guy,” said Silberfein, sitting in his air-conditioned RV. “I still bow down to the feet of people. I’m still scrubbing floors.”
Jews have long turned to Eastern philosophy to plug holes in their spiritual lives. Jewish Buddhists, or Jew-Bus, are perhaps the best-known example, brought to widespread attention in the best-selling “The Jew in the Lotus,” Roger Kamenetz’s 1994 account of a dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama.
Less attention has been devoted to the phenomenon of Hin-Jews, who populate the ranks of America’s yogic elite in disproportionately large numbers. In addition to Silberfein and Ram Dass, who experimented with LSD at Harvard with Timothy Leary and is now revered as a master spiritual teacher, the biggest Western stars of the Indian call-and-response style of chanting known as kirtan are both New York-born Jews.
Silberfein credits his Austrian-Jewish mother with teaching him how to cook and clean, as well as the value of service. Growing up on New York’s suburban Long Island, Silberfein’s mother would take in Polish and Jamaican immigrant women and train them to clean houses, he recalled. “It was a form of seva, of service,” he said, “but she didn’t equate that.”
To his mother’s dismay, Silberfein took that service ethic and applied it to his gurus, or Hindu spiritual teachers. His first was Swami Muktananda, a charismatic teacher whom Silberfein met while studying with Rudi, a Brooklyn-born Jew who in the early 1960s taught a form of eye-gazing meditation out of a storefront in Greenwich Village.