A Question of Identity

Those of you who have read my book, The Orange Robe, know that one of its themes is identity. (How could it not, when over the period of close to 20 years, I’d had three spiritual names and three legal ones?) One aspect of this theme was my identity as a Jew. As I shared in the book, at the time I encountered Ananda Marga, I was searching for a new identity. My rejection of the one I had grown up with had to do with the family I came from (not a warm or close-knit one by any means), the zeitgeist of times (the late ’60s and early ’70s), and my youth. But my desire to be someone else had also resulted from internalizing the subtle but still fairly pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes I had grown up around in ’50s and ’60s America, something called in the literature “internalized oppression,” which happens when a person attempts to distance herself from membership in a devalued group because she accepts, to some degree, the negative evaluations of the group held by the majority.

In 1975, not long after becoming an Ananda Marga nun, I was sent to Israel and arrived in the country eager to plunge into the work of establishing the mission of Ananda Marga there. At the time I considered myself reborn. No longer was I Marsha Goluboff, a Jewish girl from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Now I was Acarya Malatii, proud daughter of Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, the founder and guru of the movement, and no longer the daughter of Max Goluboff, who had emigrated to the United States as a young boy from a shtetl in what was then the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire.

Several vivid memories from those days in Israel come to mind, the first involving a man with a thick Polish accent (a man I have no doubt was a Holocaust survivor) whom I encountered one day when out and about in Jerusalem. On that day so long ago, I was striding down a sun-splashed street in my bright orange robes. As I made my way down the street, the man, coming from the opposite direction, stopped in front of me and stared, a stunned look on his worn face, his thinning gray hair framing his face like a halo. “What are you people doing in our country?” he shouted, his voice thick with anger and full of pain. “Stop trying to convert us! Go back to where you came from!” Before I could say a word, he drew his lips together and spat at me. I wiped the mess off the front of my uniform with my handkerchief as best I could and then went on my way, mentally reciting one of our conduct rules, the one about always being ready to accept all sufferings as rewards.

Now I think, What if he had known that the young woman standing before him in a habit almost identical to a Catholic nun’s save for the color, had come from a Jewish family? What would he have thought, have felt? I was a girl whose great grandfather on her father’s side had been conscripted into the tsar’s army at a very young age, as was common practice in tsarist Russia; whose father, along with his mother and sister, had come to join his own father in America not long before a major pogrom in his shtetl killed over 1,500 Jewish residents, some of whom surely must have been members of his extended family, as none of his aunts, uncles, or cousins had emigrated with him. I was a girl whose maternal grandmother had emigrated from Poland in the late 19th century and whose maternal grandfather had come to America from what had been Austria-Hungary. How many of their extended family members had ended up perishing in the Holocaust? And yet, here I was, dressed in orange robes, looking like a nun, trying, as the man said, to convert Jews! Of course, I didn’t see it that way. I wasn’t converting anyone, just bringing real spirituality (as I thought of it) into people’s lives. Now, looking at the ignorance and arrogance of this young girl, I think, What nerve, what (to use an apt Yiddish word)chutzpah!

And then there was the little matter of the Ananda Marga symbol, which we called a pratiik. It consisted of a six-pointed star (that everyone besides us would have called a Jewish star) in the middle of which was a rising sun. And in the middle of the rising sun was, of all things, a swastika. Some Israeli Ananda Marga members asked me not to display this symbol in public because it would be upsetting (to say the least!) to new people to see a Jewish star and a swastika displayed together. I pretended to listen to their concerns, but didn’t, really. “I understand,” I told them. “But it’s our symbol and it’s important. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We just have to explain it to people. Then they’ll understand.” (After all, our swastika wasn’t the German one, we would tell anyone who would listen; the Germans had taken this ancient Eastern spiritual symbol and distorted it, put it on an angle, and misused it.) Predictably, more than once, a new person would come to our center, take one look at the pratiik, have the blood drain out of his or her face, and bolt out the door before we could say anything in its defense.

And then there was the time the guru visited Israel. I was elated, sure that once the Israelis came to know the greatness of his teachings, would recognize Shrii Shrii Anandamurti as the savior for whom the Jews had been waiting for thousands of years. (More chutzpah!)We rented a hall in a park in Haifa, in which he would give his spiritual discourse. On the evening in question, we prepared for his talk by placing a dais for him to sit on in the front of the hall, and on the wall behind the dais, a huge pratiik. The discourse started off without incident, but halfway through, we were disturbed by voices at the back, first just a few, but as time went on, more and more; and they sounded angry. Seems the door had been left slightly ajar. Since the hall was in a park, people passed by, and some of them looked in. Imagine how they felt when they saw this Indian guy and behind him, a huge Jewish star with a swastika in the middle of it! And how did we feel? Well, we felt that these people had disturbed the sanctity of our guru’s discourse. If they only knew who he is! is what we were thinking. Not, What are we doing, displaying a Jewish star with a swastika in it in a public place in Israel!
A profound sense of shame and sadness passes over me as I think of these things now. Back then, I considered myself a universal spiritual personality, one without a past, one who had embraced the universal family and had left her little Jewish one behind . . . and one who certainly didn’t care about the Holocaust or her father’s experience of Cossacks on horseback thundering into his village in search of Jews . . . or about the reactions of some Jews upset about seeing a swastika inside a Jewish star!

But it’s important for me to make an effort to look upon that young woman with compassion and let go of judgment. For she had been young and naive. She had thoroughly believed in the guru and in what she was doing, and that she could assume a new identity as easily as donning a new outfit. In some ways, the person I am now does resemble her. I haven’t completely lost my idealism and like to think that I am helping, in my small way, to make the world a better place. I have, however, discarded the arrogance I had back then and the zeal, no, the fanaticism resulting from believing that the path I was on was the one way to truth and salvation for the entire world. Thankfully, in that way, the young woman I was then bears no resemblance to the person I am now.