Passage to India

By Carol Kort


This year, once again, I will be having a Hanukkah party that my brother Roy will not attend.

When he was twenty, my brother dropped out of college and left his comfortable, middle-class surroundings in suburban New Jersey to live on an ashram in India. As a student of music and art, Roy was propelled into the psychedelic drug culture popular in the early 1970s. Fortunately he didn’t want to self-destruct, as a few of his friends had, and so when his Sanskrit teacher suggested he consider moving to Auroville, a spiritual community in southern India, he applied for a passport. Perhaps an even more salient reason for his sudden sojourn to India was his quest for a meaningful spiritual life.  

Like many young assimilated Jews at that time, Roy was attracted to eastern religions, in part because of his disappointment with his own birth religion.

What did being Jewish mean to him? I suspect, for the most part, it meant attending Hebrew school three times weekly to learn a difficult, useless language that made no sense to him. And all that work was in preparation for a Bar Mitzvah (ceremony in which one assumes the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew), to be followed by a big splashy party, neither of which he wanted! Not exactly the stuff of which spiritual fantasies are made.

When Roy left for Auroville, which describes itself as an experimental “universal town belonging to nobody in particular, where men and women from all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities,” my parents were terribly alarmed. But they assumed that their prodigal son would return home once he had gotten the Indian mishagas (craziness) out of his system.

That was thirty-two years ago. Roy still lives in Auroville, named after his guru and its founder, Sri Aurobindo, an Indian revolutionary who became a philosopher, poet, and mystic. Aurobindo and Mira Richard, also known as The Mother (both have died), created the ashram as a spiritual retreat; more than 1,000 Aurovillians live and work together in settlements surrounding the ashram. What they have in common is the “spiritual pursuit of a higher level of human existence.”

At times it seemed that The Mother was more important to Roy than our mother. Instead of spending the holidays with his Jewish relatives in New Jersey or Florida, Roy has an extended family in Auroville, including his wife Gillian, a non-Jewish Australian craftswoman and astrologist.

Ironically, Roy is not the only one in our family to have experienced communal life, where residents contribute their skill and labor in return for room and board. My husband and I spent a year on a kibbutz near Haifa. I never expected living in Israel would affect me as much as it did. I returned to America with a profound appreciation of Israel and what it meant to be Jewish. Shortly thereafter I had children, and they, too, have strong Jewish identities. Although I attend a Reform temple, and only rarely, I am most definitely a Jew.

My brother’s “kibbutz” in India has enabled him to feel he is helping to shape a new society, one in which spirituality plays a major role. I can see how valuable his stay in India has been: Roy has evolved from a frustrated, frenetic child–a lost soul–into a content, gentle adult. Through prayer, meditation, and study, as well as a loving marriage to someone who shares his lifestyle and beliefs, Roy seems to have found inner peace and God. But he is most definitely not a Jew.

While I am happy for my brother, I sometimes have trouble with his repudiation of his Jewish roots. For one thing, we disagree strongly about Israel. In India, Roy gets most of his information from BBC radio reports or stories in the local press which are often biased against Israel, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Semitic. Also, Roy has been separated from Jewishness–holidays, humor, food, history–for so long that when we do get together, I no longer relate to him as my “Jewish brother.” His “otherness” feels odd and alienating.

For example, I know that Christmas is very important to his wife Gillian; as a couple they celebrate the holiday in a big way, but they do nothing to celebrate Hanukkah. I also know Roy practices certain Native American traditions and rituals, in addition to prayers inspired by his guru. In other words, Roy’s spirituality, at least in practice, seems to combine aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Native Americanism–but no Judaism.

I wish Roy could see that being a Jew now is very different from what he remembers at the stodgy, rigid Hebrew school he was forced to attend. He would like the healing services and the New Age aspects of Reform Judaism. I am sorry he didn’t come to my daughters’ Bat Mitzvahs: I think he would have enjoyed the personalized, multifaceted ceremonies that combined poetry, music, and family participation. In fact, at one of them, a friend stood on the bimah (podium) and read a passage by Sri Aurobindo in Roy’s honor, and in his absence.

I am also sad that he has missed our jovial, modernized seders (ritual meals) and festive Hanukkah parties. I think he and his wife would have had fun, and that perhaps Roy might have embraced at least some aspects of his Jewish identity. But . . . perhaps not. He is far away, physically and spiritually, and that often leaves me feeling like I don’t really have a brother. Yet I admire his decision to aspire to a life of contemplation and self-development.

It hasn’t always been easy, for him or for me, but he seems to have found his spiritual place on earth. It isn’t centered in Jerusalem, “City of Gold,” but rather in Auroville, which means “City of Dawn.”


About Carol Kort

Carol Kort co-edited two books on parenting and is the author of American Women Writers and co-author of American Women in the Visual Arts. She has also written books for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and articles for The New York Times Education Life Magazine and The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine.