India: Enchanting and surprising

The country bombards the visitor with the unexpected – color, noise, human mass and extremes.

india mumbai travel 311 (photo credit: Suzanne Singer)
india mumbai travel 311
(photo credit: Suzanne Singer)
MUMBAI, India – It was the second candle of Hanukka. We lit, along with Israelis and others who somehow find their way to Chabad houses worldwide. But this was different. We were at the Mumbai home of Rabbi Hanoch Gechtman, his wife Laki and their infant Musi, in a building massively guarded by armed Indian soldiers.
After singing and consuming Laki’s jelly donuts, Rabbi Hanoch invited us to join him for the inaugural lighting of a menora on the roof of Nariman House.
My husband and I and an Israeli businessman living in India and his visiting wife went along on the short ride.
We passed through the fenced entry to the former Chabad residence and community center, now protected by Indian police while it is being repaired, we climbed past dark rooms pitted with bullet holes where only a year before Pakistani Muslim terrorists murdered the beloved Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah. We remembered Sandra, the Indian nanny who snatched their toddler son Moshe from the carnage and saved him. Emerging on the rooftop, we overlooked the twisting lanes of the Colaba neighborhood where the music of a wedding procession below reminded us that Indians love to celebrate anybody’s tradition.
We were near the sea from which the terrorists in small boats had spread their murderous net to the luxury Taj and Oberoi hotels, to the railroad station and to the building where we now stood in the dark.
Neither in Mumbai, nor in Delhi where we spent most of our time, nor in the Himalayan village where we lived for a week, nor in the southern state of Kerala where for centuries Jews lived observant lives among Hindus and Christians, did we experience kippot-wearing anxiety or anything but indifference or interest in our identity as American Jews now living in Israel.
Until three years ago when my husband was invited to visit a research institute in Delhi, I had no urge to visit India. The usual reasons – dirt, beggars, roadside shanties, people sleeping in streets, intestinal anxieties and a general sense of too complicated.
But even before the invitation, I had become curious. At some events I attended where Indian defense and security experts met with their Israeli counterparts, it became clear that India was becoming tight with Israel, at least at certain levels, and that we recognized each other’s enemies and shared challenges.
This, while Europe and much of the rest of the world was becoming increasingly critical of Israel, even of our existence as a Jewish state in an Arab sea. And it also caught my attention that at any point in time there are about 40,000, mostly post-army young Israelis, wandering around India (unfortunately, not all behaving as good representatives) and that some return home ready to explore the spiritual side of their Jewish lives.
That’s led some to break out of Orthodox expectations and take new paths to Jewish observance – to possess Judaism in a way that carries meaning for those who had been indifferent or alienated.
Then there is this. With 161 million Muslims – 13 percent of its population – India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.
Although Muslims are integrated in the national fabric, they experience inequalities and, sometimes, clash violently with the Hindu majority. But this vast democratic state is committed to recovering and moving forward. I feel there an unusual mix of passivity and dynamism.
India challenges assumptions and senses. It bombards with the unexpected, with color, with noise, with human mass, with extremes – of temperature, of depth of valleys, of height of mountains, of wealth and poverty.
It is infused with spiritual expressions, in public spaces, in elaborate temples, in small shrines, in quiet home corners. India blurs cultural/religious lines, absorbs and transmutes.
For centuries Jews lived in Cochin and other towns along the Malabar coast in the southwestern state of Kerala. The Cochin Jews presence is documented for 1,000 years and may have begun as early as the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple 2,000 years ago.
They lived a religiously traditional life in harmony with their Hindu neighbors, with privileges from and protection by the local maharajah. Over time, Hindu customs that did not conflict with Halacha penetrated Jewish observance, a syncretism described in intriguing detail by Prof. Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg in The Last Jews of Cochin.
Most of the two to three thousand Jews residing in Cochin and other towns along the Malabar coast moved to Israel after its rebirth in 1948.
I am enchanted with this massive nation. Despite its more than a billion people speaking 18 official languages and 1,600 minor ones and dialects, an English-speaking visitor can feel comfortable, even in the less traveled destinations.
Bookstores are a special surprise, many with impressive stocks of the most current and classic English works from everywhere; political, historical and cultural/religious books about India, exquisite photographic volumes, children’s tales – and run by booksellers, like those of old, who read, advise and know where books stand on their shelves.
A warning: Because the prices are lower than at home and the selectionsso enticing, it is tempting to buy a lot. Ship them home by sea mail;don’t arrive at the airport with overweight bags.
Above all, I urge those who treasure freedom and tolerance, loveriotous colors, fabrics, crafts and archeology, find human diversityenriching, respect the quests of God-seekers, and, like me, are drawnto people for whom Judaism and its practices and beliefs are respectedeven if not understood – travel to India!

The writer is a contributing editor to Moment magazine and Biblical Archaeology Review.