One Man's Strange Path from N.Y. Jew to Hindu Honcho

Founder of Indian Devotional Fest Was Former AEPi President

Performers and yogis gather at the annual Shakti Fest in California organized by a former AEPi president,
JTA
Performers and yogis gather at the annual Shakti Fest in California organized by a former AEPi president,

By JTA

Published May 24, 2013.
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Rudi, born Albert Rudolph, hung photographs of Indian saints on the walls, including one of Muktananda’s guru, Bhagavan Nityananda. Silberfein said he first received shaktipat — the Hindu concept of spiritual transmission — by looking at Nityananda’s photo.

“I had an overwhelming feeling of love when I saw these pictures,” he said.

In 1970, Muktananda asked Silberfein and Ram Dass, who would go on to publish the spiritual classic “Be Here Now,” to organize his first U.S. tour. Like Silberfein, Ram Dass — born Richard Alpert — also is Jewish, which led Muktananda to wonder why everyone he designated to his inner circle turned out to be Jewish.

“Someone said, ‘It’s because they’re the smartest guys around, they’re closely aligned with the Indian businessmen,’ ” Silberfein recalled.

At the time, Silberfein was a successful real estate broker. In 1978, he founded Desert Essence cosmetics and introduced tea tree oil to the Western market. But Silberfein attributes the affinity between Jews and Hindu teachers to something more numinous than the Jewish ability to negotiate.

“We were dissatisfied with the traditional Judaism we were being presented with,” Silberfein said. “We knew that the formless exists, that the form is not the real truth, but the Jews didn’t feel that.”

Since Muktananda’s death in 1982, Silberfein has been most closely aligned with Amma, the Indian holy woman known for giving hugs to followers who line up by the thousands for her embrace.

When Amma makes her yearly pilgrimage to California, Silberfein drives her from San Ramon, the Bay Area town that serves as the center of her U.S. operations, to Los Angeles, where for many years he hosted her at his Center for Spiritual Studies in Topanga Canyon.

Silberfein used to live in Topanga Canyon, a hippie enclave in the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. But he gave up his seven-acre ranch there nearly a decade ago when a visiting spiritual teacher told him that the property’s Vastu — the Hindu equivalent of feng shui — would never allow him to have a good relationship with a woman.

Silberfein, who is unmarried, has had three wives and four children, the youngest being 14. “I thought, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?’ ” Silberfein said.

As Silberfein’s mother lay dying, she told him he’d eventually get a “good kick in the ass” for having spent his life driving gurus around and not getting enough sleep.

When Silberfein told her he was going to see the mother — by which he meant Amma — she said, ‘I’m your mother. Don’t you ever call anybody else your mother.’ “


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