Skin of the Teeth: Celebrating Diaspora in Jewish India

My JDC Entwine Inside Jewish India trip began long before I boarded the flight to Mumbai. Much like other defining experiences, I was both overly prepared and utterly clueless for this life interlude. Staunch warnings, blurbs of excitement, overlong recommendations and countless reminders flooded my inbox and my Facebook feed for quite some time before departure, and even my Indian friends had conflicting—and sometimes slightly alarmist—pieces of advice to confer. ‘Don’t drink the water!’ ‘Inspect water bottle caps before opening!’ ‘Don’t eat the street food!’ ‘Do eat the street food!’ By the time I sat down to the 14.5 hour flight, I was in a surreal, incredulous state: it was actually happening, I was Going To India. I had to actively suppress mental comparisons to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the indulgent (but well-written) travel memoir Eat Pray Love. Like her, my rogue anticipation was tinged with dashes of almost-bliss, and not a little bit of malaise too.

But none of this was surprising. When it came to my bucket list, few things were higher than visiting India. My first experience with Indian culture and (unbeknownst to me) the Hindu religion came 5 years ago, in the Bahamas of all places. In December of 2010 I traveled to a yoga ashram on Paradise Island, a 20 minute walk up the beach from the Vegas-like Atlantis resort, to become a yoga teacher. When I got there, I was immediately taken aback by the religiosity of this purely vegetarian, devoutly hindu place, but also bemused by the fact that the ashram’s staff was almost entirely Israeli – the swamis, or hindu priests swathed in orange robes, were lapsed Jews on a (slightly different) spiritual path. I myself was in something of a religious lapse at the time, as I had spent most of my 20s running away from that which was familiar (and, more often than not, oppressive), and I found myself embracing much of what I learned there—yoga for the body, and for the mind and spirit as well. But it took a hindu ceremony during which I refused to prostrate in front of Ganesha, the elephant-headed cosmic remover of obstacles, for me to realize I still had a sense of Jewish identity. Having this authentic religious moment in such an incredibly joyous and foreign context made a giant impression.

So, as a practicing yogi and now slightly more seasoned yoga teacher years later, I was curious to further explore this dichotomy on a Jewish-themed educational tour in the Far East. And while the idea of India as a source, a ‘mother country’, was always present in my little yogic world, the possibility of actually traveling there had remained strangely distant. It was something I needed to work up to. I’m not quite sure why, but I felt India to be something I was not ready for just yet, in spite of all that prep at the ashram in the Caribbean. Even at departure, it still didn’t quite feel like the right time.

But karma obviously had had other plans for me. In the space of two weeks last November (just in time for my birthday), I lost my job, crashed my car, and was accepted into the JDC trip in one fell swoop. God, in all his/her/their/its names and forms, was telling me something plainly, flatly: get out of Los Angeles. “Go east!” And there I was, on the plane with over a dozen freshly-met American Jews, on a trip that felt more like an investigative mission than a pilgrimage. We were in search of something none of us knew a thing about – Jewish India. Another pop-culture reference jumped to the fore: Leonard Nimoy’s educational TV series In Search Of… from when I was younger. Only this time, we weren’t looking for Bigfoot.

After joining up with our international contingent upon arrival in Mumbai (our corps included young professionals from the UK and South Africa as well), we jumped right in. As we began our trek, exploring a cavalcade of synagogues that dot the west coast of India from Mumbai to Cochin, we were slowly able to take stock of where we were, of the context of these remarkable Jewish places in such a vast, new and gleefully strange land.

In terms of first impressions, it becomes apparent that there is something very ‘skin of the teeth’ about India. This is true not only of the traffic (‘traffic’ might not be the right word; ‘swarms of perpetually honking breakneck suicidal motorcyclists and rickshaw drivers’ seems more accurate)—it’s also true of travel arrangements, buying and selling, and virtually anything else. It’s a feeling that everything is happening exactly as it should, including that moment when the almost horrendously disastrous ultimately gives way—at the last possible bloodcurdling moment—to the intensely beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that you immediately forget there was any other possible outcome. Until the next maniac driver or ruthless merchant/hawker comes hurtling towards you.

Arguably, the most unique and beautiful thing—or things—about India are the sounds, horn-honking aside. I immediately noticed how my iPhone’s still photo camera, no matter how hi-tech, simply did not suffice. The music of the country, which invariably wafts in through your window at night no matter where you are, is nothing short of intoxicating. In order to capture it, coupled with the prolonged ceremonial sounds of religious activities such as pujas or arati (forms of hindu prayer), the use of a video camera or voice recorder was far more necessary than my regular camera.

Another pretty strong impression: India is a zoo. Literally. Cows, monkeys, dogs, camels, horses, cats, pigs, goats, insects, birds, bats and rats mix with the humans, all in dogged pursuit of the exact same thing: sustenance. Perhaps the most out-of-place are also the most welcome of all these species: the cows. Holy as they are, they lumber around, and due to their dumb weight, slowness and the ungainly way they occupy space, they look as if they are waiting for something; lost travelers themselves, with nothing to do but stand around and wait for the next train.

Our JDC group, however, never felt lost, as we were seamlessly transferred from one knowledgable tourguide to another, one fascinating and esoteric site to the next. Our task list was full, and the mission objective of uncovering the Indian Jew quickly seemed far more within our grasp than initially thought. While Jews in India indeed make up a needle-in-a-haystack portion of the general population, the mark they have left (and still leave) on the country’s many-colored cultural fabric is far more vital than the stuff of urban legend. Due to that very sparseness and rarity, their mark is even more vibrant and filled with the desire to be felt. One need only to visit the Mumbai JCC, cloistered on the third floor of a building in a busy area in the southern reaches of the city, where any number of activities take place for Mumbai Jews both young and old.

But the reality is, the Jews of India are getting by on the skin of their teeth themselves. For the bouquet of eclectic synagogues and other Jewish institutions we visited as part of JDC Entwine, things would have to be happening at a far greater amplitude for this meager population to stand out as an even marginal member of the national Indian community. And it’s all the harder to stand out in a country where religion and religious expression is so tactile, so everywhere, much like the streets themselves. Everywhere, meaning it's highly accessible to anyone, practically anywhere, at any time. That is indeed one of the most interesting aspects of religion, Judaism included, as seen through the prism of India: just how quotidian and lacking in pomp it feels. As opposed to the often opposing, always sequestered-feeling synagogues of Europe and the US, temples of all kinds (Jewish and otherwise) find a way to cram themselves quite matter-of-factly into both the urban and rural landscapes in India, much like the burgeoning population does as it teems through the streets and overcrowds every transit hub.

Oftentimes, temples are found in corners or side streets you wouldn’t even think to notice, and that goes for small makeshift altars as well as the touristy larger monuments. Even in their opulence, India’s more substantial religious structures can still contain something of the mundane—this was illustrated perfectly by a couple spotted holding their baby at the impressive Jagdish Hindu temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan, after the JDC portion of my trip ended. Flanked by grand elephant statues and accessed by a dizzying high staircase, the temple attracts a steady stream of tourists all day, but this decidedly local pair squeezed themselves in between them all to offer their own prayer, which had something to do with their child. In its casualness, its efficacy, its utilitarian nature, the couple’s rushed prayer held more meaning than I was used to seeing, for instance, at the highly social shabbat gatherings at swanky synagogues in certain American metropolises.

In stark contrast was the decidedly non-swanky synagogue we visited in the Konkan Villages, which is a ferry, bus and rickshaw ride away from Mumbai. There, we happened upon perhaps the strangest and most appealing synagogue of all – a pink shul that managed to be both breathtaking and feel completely hidden away at once. It is kept up and maintained (with the help of the JDC) for just three Jewish families who remain in the area. The structure was situated across the street (or village path) from a house adorned with hindu imagery and inexplicably filled with goats—yes, predominantly young goats who had run of the place—and immediately next to the gated entrance to the shul, another small makeshift hindu temple sat.

As I entered, I could also discern the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, which is when it hit me: India is a mad traffic jam of religion. And in its ubiquitous, jam-packed nature, somehow everybody seems ridiculously cool with everybody else. For their meager numbers, the Jews of India have historically had less experience with anti-semitism than their counterparts elsewhere in that abstract concept known as the Diaspora—the heinous attacks in Mumbai in 2008 notwithstanding. Instead, the reasons given for this population’s large-scale exit from the country over the years mainly involve industry, or the simple desire to live in Israel. In their place, many many other religions have flourished in India to far greater numbers than the Jews, with little to no friction between them either. I for one don't know how they all got it so RIGHT.

Ultimately, this trip to India helped me understand what ‘Diaspora’ actually is. On the Friday night of our program, we walked from our Mumbai hotel to the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, which like the Magen David temple we saw on the first day of our trip resembled an overly frosted baby blue birthday cake with white trim, both in a state of gentle disrepair. The synagogue was not even half full, but there was an air of celebration owing to our presence. As the Kabbalat Shabbat service began, I was deeply pleased to recognize the tune the congregation selected for Lecha Dodi, and as I eagerly joined in I had something of an aha moment – or maybe an oy-ha moment. It’s difficult to appreciate the real meaning of the term ‘Diaspora’ in the United States, which has at least as many Jews as in Israel itself. Diaspora is not a sad, biblical notion evoking Jews who are lost, spread to the four corners of the big scary world to fend for themselves; that idea is sorely outdated. On the contrary, India revealed the Diaspora to me to be a contemporary and even beautiful thing, something that can stand and be honored for its own sake. In that Indian synagogue, it was thoroughly clear to me that Diaspora refers to Jews of all colors, languages, creeds and cultures, sharing in an often similar devotion, with rich and fascinating differences that make us, in as much as a collective ‘people’ as we may be, all the stronger.

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March 17, 2015 at 4:02 PM




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