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(photo credit: Meredith Price)
As Ellana Shimshon, 29, stood awestruck in one of Tel Aviv's most impressive synagogues on Allenby Street four years ago, a monumental realization dawned on her.
"I was wandering around by myself even though I had come with a guy I had been dating for a few months, and all of a sudden I knew that he was the man for me to marry," Shimshon says. "At the same moment, he also had an epiphany, and to this day we feel like God meant for us to be together. Something happened inside that synagogue, and every time we visit Tel Aviv, we pay a visit to give thanks."
Born in Ahmadebab, India, Shimshon grew up in a large house that she shared with her parents, grandparents and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.
"My grandmother had 11 children and each of them got their own rooms in the house. But I was the only girl after five boys so I was the little doll and I got a lot of pampering," says Shimshon, who nonetheless spent most afternoons playing cricket with the boys. "I was a tomboy. I never got along with girls."
"My family is made up of well-educated, broad-minded, successful people. Many of them are lawyers or hold managerial positions," says Shimshon, whose family has been in India for more generations than she can count.
After their retirement, her parents preferred to remain in India rather than make aliya with Shimshon and her younger sister.
"Life is hard here compared to India," says Shimshon. "My parents came to visit and realized they would not be able to afford full-time help around the house. My mother saw me doing all the housework and said 'no way' to moving here."
Some of her maternal family members live in Ashkelon and her father has relatives in Ashdod, but the majority of her immediate family stayed in India.
The reasons Shimshon chose to make aliya with her younger sister in 1999 might come as a surprise to some people. They have little to do with the stereotypical notions about Indian immigrants coming for a better life, to get better jobs or enjoy more help at home.
"I want to set the record straight that not all Indian immigrants have better prospects here, and it's not true that only American and Canadian immigrants are well to do," she says emphatically. "In my community, we were simply brought up to believe that after you got your education, you moved to Israel. It has nothing to do with making more money."
Shimshon spent the first six months in Israel on Kibbutz Givat Brenner, where she attended ulpan classes and helped around the farm.
"It was a nice experience to get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows," says Shimshon. "I had never even darkened the doorstep of a barn and the manager didn't want to let me take that work, but I liked it. I once got kicked by a cow, but it wasn't bad."
After a few months of agricultural adventures, Shimshon was hired as a ground hostess at Ben-Gurion Airport, where she worked until 2002.
Shimshon and her husband live in what she describes as a normal, middle-class apartment in Ramle, where the two are comfortable.
"I wouldn't say we live in luxury, but we have everything we need and there is an Indian store nearby that sells all the spices necessary to make traditional Indian dishes," Shimshon says. One of the reasons the couple chose Ramle was to be near the large Indian community. But Shimshon's father also influenced their decision.
"My father always told me to live in Ramle because of its central location and easily available transportation to other areas," she says.
Although she holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and a graduate degree in Tourism and Management, today Shimshon works as an English secretary for MGS Sports in Holon.
"Because reading and writing in Hebrew is difficult for me, I can't find a job in my profession."
However, she would like to find work closer to her field of interest. For now, she handles the correspondence with suppliers in China who produce the wholesale items MGS sells here in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
Shimshon speaks Hindi, Gudrati and Marathi with varying degrees of success, but she feels most comfortable in English.
"There was a very strict policy in my city to speak only English at home and at school," she says. Like many new immigrants, Shimshon spent six months in an ulpan upon her arrival in Israel, but she still struggles to read and write in Hebrew.
"I consider myself Indian and Jewish. That's why I'm here - because I chose to live in the Jewish state over Canada and the United States," says Shimshon. "But India is still home, and I will never lose my 'Indianness.'"
Shimshon considers India her fatherland and Israel her motherland, but despite a common bond of Judaism, the way India is perceived by many Israelis makes it difficult for her to fully assimilate.
"People ask stupid questions, like, 'Did you ride to school on elephants?' or 'Did you wash your clothes in the river?'" says Shimshon. "I saw Israel on television as a child, but I knew the difference between Beduins riding camels and people living in cosmopolitan cities."
"In India, it's hard to follow every rule because people work and attend school on Saturdays, but in my small community, we were as observant as possible."
The dwindling Diaspora in her Indian province may have dropped from around 7,000 a few years ago to just 250 today, but Shimshon says the population decline has only strengthened their resolve.
"We only had kosher food on the high holidays, but we do everything we can to make sure the children marry into the Jewish community and know what it means to be Jewish. We celebrate Rosh Hashana and Pessah together at the community synagogue and the children sing songs in Hebrew. It is a strong, tight-knit group, and I miss that warmth here," Shimshon says. "I miss celebrating the holidays as one big family community."
Here, Shimshon prays every Friday and attends synagogue on Shabbat.
Aside from curling up with a good book, Shimshon says she loves to travel. "No matter what our financial situation is, we make it a point to go abroad, mainly to Europe, at least once a year." With London and Paris listed as the next destinations on her list, Shimshon has plans to travel as much of the world as possible. "I want to visit Poland but my husband finds it depressing, so I guess I'll have to go alone," she smiles, a mischievous glint in her eye.
"Most of our friends are from my husband's cricket team or they're cousins." Shimshon says it has been difficult to make friends with Israelis. "We don't share the same mentality, and we lose contact quickly, but with Indian friends we remain close."
From Sunday to Thursday, Shimshon works in the MGS sports office in the Holon Industrial Center. In the evenings, she whips up Indian meals and sometimes visits friends.
"Before I got married, I never cooked, but I wanted to see a smile on my husband's face when he comes home from work, so I learned, mostly from the Internet," she confesses with a giggle.
Fridays are reserved for a meal at home, where they make Kiddush and watch an occasional movie. On Saturdays, Shimshon sometimes watches her husband play cricket.
One day, when she is in a better financial situation, Shimshon wants to send resources back to her hometown for the upkeep of the synagogue.
"I don't want it to become a tourist attraction," she says. "I want it to remain a synagogue that the Jewish community uses."
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