Readers respond to Eulogizer coverage of death of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

I asked you, the readers, to tell me if the Eulogizer was correct in posting a lengthy obituary of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a 71-year-old yogi and guru who was born Joyce Green to Jewish parents in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, and your overwhelming response was that the article was appreciated.

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“I enjoyed the article on Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati,” wrote Raymond Singer. “I first met her at a service in New York City conducted by Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, an undiscovered luminary of our times. She was a genuine person, a rare example these days. Jews who incorporate other paths and wisdom schools into their lives are still Jews, and their explorations enrich all of us. As Rabbi Gelberman proclaimed: "Not instead, but in addition." I only met Ma Jaya a few times, sorry to see her go, and glad that the venerable JTA has kept me apprised of this. I hope that you continue to publish obituaries of Jews who followed alternative paths.”

Anson Laytner wrote that he thinks it is worth noting the death of “non-traditional Jews, because they provide us with glimpses of the breadth and reach our people have in this society. It is appropriate to acknowledge the many routes our people pursue as we engage our world. Who among us knows which path guarantees survival in the future?”

He also wrote that the Jewish tradition teaches “that even if a Jew sins (by converting), s/he nonetheless remains a Jew. We are both a nation and a religion.” And then he posed a question: Would you do an obit on a traditionally observant but clearly immoral Jew, a gangster for example?

The answer, Anson, is yes. There have been obits of Jews with questionable morality, including the son of Bernard Madoff, who himself was tangled in his father’s affairs, and Francois Abutbul, an alleged scion of an Israeli mob family who was gunned down at a highway rest stop.

Ira Rifkin wrote a lengthy response:

The Jewish world is multifaceted and Jews – as are all people – are highly complex individuals. Though perhaps a religious apostate, Ma Jaya remained a Jew according to halacha….The Star of David she wore seems testament to her cultural if not religious memory.

Being a Jew does not require buying into the whole traditional package. Dropping out of a Jewish environment does not erase the subtleties of one’s historical origins. Culture is just too deep for that. Origins impact us our entire life in ways conscious and unconscious.

And where would your critics have you draw the line? Surely wherever you did would leave out some fascinating Jewish lives that influenced others, generated headlines or contributed to the well-being of others in large and small ways. Would you rather be criticized for intolerance toward human diversity?

When Baba Ram Das dies there will be some who criticize his inclusion in Eulogizer as well, despite his wide influence over generations of non-traditional Jewish spiritual seekers. Some would even criticize the inclusion of Arlo Guthrie because of his association with Ma Jaya (despite his having been prepped for his bar mitzvah by Meir Kahane, of all people).

Ira Rifkin took the Ma Jaya article to task, however, for failing to mention that Arlo Guthrie’s father was the classic American folk singer Woody Guthrie: “Not all JTA readers are aware of Woody Guthrie, despite his folkie fame, particularly some more religiously traditional Jews.” I don’t know if that is correct, but I felt Arlo’s name was sufficiently well-known to skip a mention to Woody. If you want to read more about the “Oklahoma cowboy,” probably the greatest American folk singer of them all, click here.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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