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Aum Shalom: Jews, gurus, and religious hybridity in the City of Angels

Amanda Lucia and Michael Scott Alexander


According to Frommer’s famed travel guide, Los Angeles is home to the highest concentration of Buddhists outside Asia, Mexicans outside Mexico, Koreans outside Korea, and Samoans outside Samoa.1 It has the second highest population of Jews outside of Israel, only bested by New York. The city includes numerous Asian “ethnic islands” (Takaki 1998, 230-269) and Jewish “ethnoburbs,”2 and Hispanic or Latino Americans outnumber Anglos (47.5 to 29.4% as per the 2005-2009 American Community Survey). But did this ethnic and religious diversity lead to sustained social hybridity? Have we seen the blending of East and West in Los Angeles? With respect to the general sociology of the city, Los Angeles has become a tossed salad rather than a melting pot, in the historian Robert Fogelson’s language: a “fragmented metropolis” with distinct neighborhoods, communities, and identities abutting one another (Fogelson 1993). While these communities sometimes overlap and build coalitions, the process of true social hybridization occurs much more infrequently and, when it does, over the course of multiple generations.

But religion may be another matter. While Los Angeles’ communities may not fully hybridize into new social amalgamations, there are unusual cultural affinities that emerge due to the practical interactions of multiple ethnic and religious groups operating in immediate proximity to one another. As a recent Los Angeles magazine article said, “While other parts of the world are riven by spiritual divisions, it’s the sheer compression of religious practice in the region that unites ... Sameness in difference - it’s a beautiful thing, and one more reason why we Angelenos should count our blessings” (Segal 2016, 96—117).

While proximity to difference can retrench personal convictions, it can also lead to increased interest, respect, or even hybridity as a result of consistent exposure. Once formed, Los Angeles has provided an accepting home for new religious hybridities: blended articulations of sameness and difference, tradition and innovation, fixity and fluidity. The ethos of the city supports imagination, innovation, and freedom for self-expression, each of which encourages religious hybridity and reconceptions of established traditions. The seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of multiple and sometimes conflicting identities finds acceptance in Los Angeles. Whether by birth or by choice, Los Angeles is a catalyst for the construction of multiethnic and multireligious identities, contained not only within neighborhoods, but also within individuals. While thorough social hybridity is a generational process (when it occurs at all), religious hybridity can be an individual’s choice to create porous combinations of ideas and practices birthed in the in-between spaces between religious traditions.

Nevertheless, few would have predicted how thoroughly American Jews would come to take positions of authority among guru forms of American Hinduism, especially in Los Angeles. This chapter claims that American Jews have been a vanguard of the spiritual hybridization process in Los Angeles, spearheading new forms of spiritual interaction by blending together East and West. Michael Alexander has argued for the existence of a similar phenomenon in the cultural realm, among an earlier generation of Jewish immigrants to New York who, when first coming into contact with the African-American populations of the Great Migration, prolifically adapted African-American cultural forms and cues in the American music industry. Here we argue that in Los Angeles, Jews once again turned especially toward non-Anglo populations and followed a similar hybridization pattern, thus identifying themselves with racially marginalized populations - what Alexander has called “outsider identification” (Alexander 2001, 8). In particular, during the countercultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s, Los Angeles Jews became deeply involved in Asian religious practices, particularly Buddhist meditation and Hindu guru organizations. Los Angeles became a major epicenter for Jewish-Buddhist and Jewish-Hindu guru activity for three reasons: (1) American Jews brought “outsider identification” and related identity curiosities with them wherever they moved, including postWorld War II Los Angeles where they moved en masse; (2) Los Angeles had a long Pacific and South Asian influence, which expanded rapidly in midcentury; and finally (3) hybridized cultural and spiritual identities (though not always social identities) were accepted and even celebrated in the multiethnic, multireligious, city of dreams and innovations - Los Angeles.

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