The Indian Bishop

A postcard of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (photo credit: AUSTRALIA POST SHOP)
A postcard of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus
(photo credit: AUSTRALIA POST SHOP)
I was in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, invited by KLM Airlines to an International Congress on Space Medicine (a subject of which I knew nothing).
For some time, I had been a consultant to the airline in Jerusalem. It was a sinecure; I never actually did anything. I was only appointed because a patient had recommended me. He was a travel agent who wanted to get in my good books. KLM used the occasion to invite their medical consultants from around the world to attend. Two tickets duly arrived. We had one or two sessions on traveler’s medical problems, the rest of the time was ours.
My wife and I did what all good tourists do in Amsterdam: we took a barge trip on the canals.
My story begins. The canals (grachts) of old Amsterdam are very romantic, and date back to the 17th century. They are lined on both sides by tall, narrow, red-brick houses, five storeys high. The Dutch were always practical people. Given that they were short of land they built upwards; the houses are still very beautiful, good taste being timeless. Each has a beam sticking out under the roof, over which they used to (and still do) haul heavy packages upward by rope and pulleys with a minimum of effort.
That particular day, as our tourist barge moved slowly down the canals, the buildings were covered by a heavy though gentle mist, both revealing and concealing, so that the houses peeped out like a woman wearing lace lingerie, hinting at what lay beneath. The atmosphere was dreamy. I could visualize old time Dutch burghers looking like Frans Hals portraits: faces florid from too much roast beef, Gouda cheese, farm bread and good Dutch Ale; conical black hats, white ruffled lace collars, velvet black jackets hiding little packets of diamonds tucked away inside, brought from India and the East Indies on great Dutch sailing ships. Romantic prosperity.
The houses were still inhabited; they had been slightly modernized, and at night, walking down the canal pathways, one could see inside the large plate glass windows of the ground floor beautiful old furniture, modern paintings and light fixtures. The occupants didn’t seem to mind.
Our tourist barge chugged on.
Leaning over the side of the boat, I became aware of a bubble shape that somehow floated to my side, and when it stopped, sagged to the deck like a grounded barrage balloon.
The shape was a corpulent Indian gentleman dressed in clerical black, with a purple or blue shirt – I forget which – and a collar back to front indicating that he was a man of the cloth. He had a large belly that started under his chin and somehow ended in gaiters around his short calves. He smiled benevolently at the world or whatever part of it came into his vision, beaming goodwill to all men.
He wished me a good morning and I said it was a pleasant day. He obviously wanted to talk and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved. He reached into his jacket and produced his business card, which read:
Rev. Dr. P.K. Gupta
Bishop of (some unpronounceable province) India
Director of Education
I handed him my card, which he started to examine through his thick glasses, about two inches from his nose, when my wife Ruth appeared from the lower cabin. Ruth was very beautiful and always dressed with impeccable taste. She was wearing a very chic black raincoat with a high collar, a black and white silk scarf, which she tied round her neck in her own special way, and she carried an umbrella that we had bought that morning at the local market. Like almost everything in Holland, it was bright orange. The color combination was stunning, and I could almost feel the barrage balloon wobble.
“Bishop Gupta,” I said, “May I present my wife Ruth Sherer?” He shook her hand vigorously, holding it a little longer than was absolutely necessary, and said, “My dear sister, my friends call me P.K.”
As he bent over her hand, Ruth sent me wordless signals in the way longtime couples do – shoulders shrugged, eyebrows raised – meaning, “What gives?” So I explained that we had just met, and the conversation took off slowly like an overloaded transport plane.
The bishop led off. “And where are you from, my dear sister?”
“Jerusalem,” she replied.
“Jerusalem?” the bishop asked, puzzled.
“You know, Israel.”
“Ah, Israel?” He looked even more puzzled.
“Bishop Gupta, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the Holy Land,” she gently replied.
The bishop looked relieved. “Ah, the Holy Land. Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” he said, waggling his head from side to side. Now he knew.
“And what is the population of Israel?”
“About three million,” said Ruth (this was in the early 1970s).
Bishop Gupta put his fingers on his chin and was silent, clearly having heard something he couldn’t understand. “THREE million? Surely you mean THIRTY Million, THIRTY million, my dear sister? But in any case such a small number. Why, I have more children than that in my Diocese schools alone. No, no, no you MUST mean THIRTY million.” He couldn’t grasp a number as small as three million.
There was no point in arguing. He asked about our religion. We said we were Jewish. The bishop was politely quiet; he had obviously never met any Jews before, and he didn’t quite know what to say. We left the subject hanging in mid-air and chattered on about Amsterdam.
The barge trip lasted an hour. We all filed up the gangway like good children leaving a birthday party. The bishop and Ruth and I shook hands. He said he hoped our paths would cross again someday, and somehow the words slipped out of my mouth “Please look us up if you’re ever in Jerusalem.” It was a matter of form; I don’t think I really meant it. He picked up on it, eagerly, saying he was on a world trip investigating children’s education. “I will send you a postcard from every place I visit, my dear sister.”
I had temporarily ceased to exist as far as the bishop was concerned. Dear sister thanked him politely. Dear brother tried hard to be congenial and we moved on. Ruth and I went home, and P.K. moved around the world.
True to form, he sent us a postcard every month for the next year. Paris, Bonn, the Scandinavian countries, all the way across America and Canada, Hawai, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore.
About a year later, he turned up in Jerusalem, very properly phoned us in advance and asked if he could visit that afternoon. He was staying at the guest house at Notre Dame, not far from our home, and came for afternoon tea promptly at four o’clock.
Ruth was American, and despite our many years in New Zealand before we came to Israel, never quite mastered the art of an English afternoon tea. She would have preferred coffee and cake, or a cold beer, but she made a good showing. The bishop didn’t mind anyway.
He reached into his jacket mysteriously and said he had searched everywhere he went for a suitable present for his dear sister. He slowly pulled it out of his pocket, said he had found it in Hong Kong, and handed it to Ruth with a triumphant smile. It was a colored picture, deep, incandescent blue and gold in a style very popular at the time, 3-D, fluorescent, glowing as one turned it around. A very strong impression.
The subject: the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. “Especially for you, dear sister and brother. I have carried it with me, close to my heart for six months.”
Ruth and I were in a state of mild shock and confusion; grateful for his kindly concern, touched by his thoughtfulness, but puzzled why he would think that a couple of Jews in Israel would want a picture of Christian importance. It was pretty clear that he knew nothing of Judaism; he probably thought we were Protestant Jews, Anglican Jews, or even Catholic Jews. He’d just never had any contact with people of our faith. We accepted it graciously. It would have been rude to say it wasn’t appropriate.
The main question was what the hell we were going to do with it. After all, it was a religious object, meaningful to millions. We couldn’t throw it away, we couldn’t put it in the paper recycling. There was no one we knew to give it to, except our neighbor the Anglican minister and that would look churlish. So we put it on a bookshelf, waiting for ideas.
Help came quickly the next morning – min hashamayim, as we say in Hebrew, “from the heavens.” At 7 a.m., our household help arrived for the day’s work. Dina Levy was with us for 32 years, helping raise our three children. Dina came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq as a young girl of 16. Severe pogroms had broken out after the establishment of the State of Israel and the defeat of the Iraqi Army. She came from a highly religious Jewish family and continued that way intensively. She would have had no knowledge whatsoever of Christians, lived exclusively among Muslims and frankly was very like them in her ways, emotional, eyes flashing if her feelings were hurt (frequently). Even her spoken Hebrew was guttural like Arabic. We had difficulty understanding her.
She took one look at the picture and said in Hebrew, “Wow, what a wonderful, wonderful piece of art.” She looked at it again and again, eyes wide; it was clear that she would love to have it. She wore her feelings on her sleeve, in this case, fortunately. Ruth asked her if she would like to take it home. She was profuse in her thanks and took it. She had no idea what it meant and didn’t ask.
Next time we paid a family visit to the Levy‘s home, the picture of Jesus and the Virgin Mary was displayed in a place of honor. It sat on a shelf among silver-framed, slightly faded sepia pictures of the Levy family back in Baghdad in the old days. Grandfather wearing an Arab-style gallabiyah plus a fez with a tassel on his head, alongside rows of young men in old-fashioned tuxedos with high, rounded stiff collars, hair slicked down in cowlicks, twirling mustaches, some holding cigars. Buxom ladies wearing dresses covered in sequins, grandma sitting on a kind of throne, children galore lying at her feet.
And, sitting right in the center of the Levy family was the fluorescent, 3D, bright-blue picture of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, complete with halo. A modern form of ecumenicism, one might say. It is probably there to this day and may or may not arouse comment from the family and neighbors, religious Jews one and all.
A long way from Hong Kong or the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, but still it was Jerusalem, where anything can happen and usually does.
Bishop Gupta would have been pleased, no doubt.
The writer is a 97-year-old physician living in Jerusalem.