Kindness and kinship in Kathmandu

A television show about a real-life Chabad house in Nepal thrusts a Lubavitcher couple into the spotlight.

Chezki and Chani Lifshitz 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Chezki and Chani Lifshitz 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
With bright red lipstick and nails to match, Chani Lifshitz’s appearance seems to belie her position as wife of the Chabad rabbi in one of the most primitive places on earth: Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Together with her husband, Rabbi Chezki Lifshitz, the couple has returned to Israel for their summer furlough during Nepal’s low season. Last month, they organized an event at Ramat Gan’s Diamond Theater to garner support for their Chabad house and the many Chabad houses stationed all over the globe.
The couple hopes to piggyback on the success of a new show produced by Channel 2’s Reshet, aptly named Kathmandu, which follows the trials and tribulations of newlyweds Shmulik and Mushki, who travel to the Nepalese capital to open a Chabad house. The characters, both played by secular actors who by their own admission had very little prior knowledge of Chabad and its activities, are loosely based on the real-life couple as they were 13 years ago when they first arrived in Nepal.
Every year, some 20,000 Israeli backpackers travel to Nepal, mostly to embark on treks in the Everest and Annapurna mountain ranges. Following the success of Chani and Chezki’s Chabad house in Kathmandu, another Chabad house was opened in Pokhara, the city from which backpackers set out for the Annapurna treks, and a few years ago a third Chabad house was opened in Manang, one of the stops along the Annapurna circuit. The latter, dubbed the highest Chabad house in the world, was opened especially for the festivals so that Israelis in the midst of treks could enjoy a “yom tov” atmosphere with other Jews. The main Chabad house is famous for hosting the largest Seder in the world in a Kathmandu hotel, attracting well over 1,500 guests.
So how do the parents of five young children – four of whom were born in Nepal – decide to change their lives so drastically and settle in a place that barely has running water and suffers from electricity cuts for an average of 12 hours a day? “They couldn’t find shluchim [emissaries] willing to go to such a third-world country,” says Chani, whose answers are frequently interspersed with infectious laughs. “We were the crazy couple willing to do it. Finding the right emissaries for a place is like finding the right shidduch [match for marriage]. I guess our personalities are well-suited to the character of Nepal itself.”
In addition to a severe lack of basic infrastructure, Nepal suffers from frequent political upheavals, so life there is never predictable.
A typical week in the lives of Chani and Chezki might include a searchand- rescue mission into the mountains to locate a lost or wounded Israeli, sending “flipped-out” backpackers – those who overdosed on drugs – back home to Israel, getting an Israeli out of jail, and of course preparing for over 300 guests at their Shabbat table every week. Chezki comments that in real life, the stories depicted in 13 episodes of the TV show could all happen in a single day.
Chezki credits Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky with being the person he turns to in times of crisis. “He helps us with everything, not just financial constraints. Political phenomena, wars on the street – 24 hours a day I know I can call on Rav Kotlarsky.”
RABBI MOSHE KOTLARSKY, whom some regard as being No. 3 in the Chabad hierarchy, lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and is the administrator for Chabad emissaries all over the world. He is also the chairman of the kinus shluchim – an annual conference that gathers emissaries from 4,000 Chabad houses worldwide to 770, Chabad headquarters in New York. It was in 770 that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, built his legacy and expanded the Chabad movement into a worldwide phenomenon.
Kotlarsky, who was in attendance at the event in Ramat Gan, explained the unique challenge of being emissaries in Nepal as opposed to elsewhere. Whereas in other places there is usually a local Jewish community upon which the Chabad couple can built some sort of infrastructure – including kindergartens, schools and synagogues – Nepal is made up of transient communities of backpackers who stay for a few months at most.
“You don’t know what it’s like to live in Nepal,” says Kotlarsky, who has visited the country a number of times. “Every country has its own industry, be it technology or agriculture. In Nepal, there’s only one industry: the industry of Beit Chabad.”
Indeed, upon arrival at Kathmandu’s airport, one is immediately accosted by dozens of Nepalese taxi drivers whose first question is, “You want to go to Beit Kebab?” Acknowledging that Nepal is not for the fainthearted, Kotlarsky continues, “Chani and Chezki had a real commitment: They saw the potential in building it into a permanent shlihut and they did it masterfully.
Every Chabad emissary does incredible work. But Chani and Chezki are really unique because they’re so unassuming.
They seem so unprepared and yet they are the most prepared people in the world. It’s as if they survive on miracles, but what’s amazing is that a miracle is always there for them.”
Miraculous stories are a dime-a-dozen for the couple. On his current trip to Israel, Chezki ended up praying the morning service in a synagogue in Rehovot on the same day that a brit mila (circumcision) was being performed on the son of a “Chabad house alumnus” – a former Israeli backpacker who had visited Nepal eight years earlier. According to Chezki, the now-religious backpacker had turned up at the Chabad house and engaged in a debate with him regarding the benefits of doing Vipassana, a 10-day speech fast popular with Israeli travelers in the Far East. Chezki had argued that one can reach the same levels achieved through Vipassana using Jewish methods such as hitbonenut (Jewish contemplation meditation).
The backpacker became convinced to give up on the idea of Vipassana, and instead chose to hole himself up for a week armed with only a Tanya – Chabad Lubavitch’s seminal text on the Zohar, the foundational work in Jewish mystical thought. Chezki enthused that the incredible twist in this story was that one of the topics they had discussed was brit mila. The backpacker was vehemently opposed to the idea of circumcision, calling it an act of inhumanity. Years later, Chezki had no idea what had become of the traveler, and it was only by sheer coincidence that he ended up praying in the same synagogue on the day of the brit.
Chezki recounts another story that occurred four years ago in one of the Jewish seminars he holds in the mountains. The workshops are not necessarily designed to return people to repentance; instead, Chezki says that the aim is to teach Jewish history and philosophy to people whose knowledge is limited. Attending that particular workshop was an Israeli who had become a monk in a nearby monastery.
Chezki remarks that while some may avoid Chabad and its activities, others want to demonstrate their openness, and it was in that context that the monk arrived at the workshop.
The story goes that the monk asked Chezki if he should do anything for Hanukka, and Chezki suggested that he light a hanukkia in the monastery. The following year, another aspiring monk from Israel arrived at the monastery and was perturbed by the presence of a hanukkia. He asked the first monk why it was there – did he think they were back in Israel? Eventually he too was persuaded to visit Chabad, and after doing so he decided that the best course of action was to return to Israel to learn more about Judaism. He promised he would return to Nepal to study Buddhism after a year, when his knowledge of his own faith would be more fleshed out. The monk never made it back to Nepal and has since been studying in a yeshiva.
The couple is quick to emphasize that it is not their job to force people into doing things. “Being a shaliah is like being in Sayeret Matkal [IDF special forces unit]. But the biggest compliment is if a person returns to Israel and encounters a religious woman in a wig, and instead of thinking of it as a threatening thing, they think of me,” says Chani. “We want people to have the opportunity to gain a minimum knowledge of Judaism. We don’t do things by kefia [coercion].
The [Lubavitcher] Rebbe received everyone with such love – and if we’re able to imitate him even a tiny bit, then we’ve done our job.”
But not all backpackers are interested in learning. For many, the freedom and wild adventures that Nepal affords them is more than enough, and sometimes their lack of boundaries infringes on the private lives of the Chabad couple. In one scene shown in the TV series, a backpacker falls asleep for many hours on the bed belonging to Mushki – Chani’s TV alter ego.
About 90 percent of the show’s plotlines are real events that happened to Chani and Chezki, and this is no exception. Chezki says that some of the real-life events were so outlandish that they actually had to be toned down for TV to make them more believable. “If in the TV show there is a door to Mushki’s bedroom where the backpacker fell asleep,” says Chani with a broad smile, “by us there’s no door. You take into account that on some level you’re no longer a private person.”
SO HOW does one maintain normal, familial relationships in such a situation? To this end, the couple put aside one hour for themselves each morning before stepping into the craziness of the Chabad house.
“Our coffee hour is holy,” says Chani. On Friday nights, they have a Shabbat meal for just their family before hosting the one at the Chabad house.
Chabad also has an online teaching program through which the children of emissaries can keep up-to-date on their schooling.
Of course, with Nepal’s frequent electricity cuts, using the system is not always possible for the Lifshitz children. Chani admits that the biggest challenge of life in Chabad is raising children. “The mentality there is just so different, and of course there’s no community support,” she says.
“There’s no morning that I don’t wake up and ask what we are doing for the kids’ education today. We can’t just say, ‘This is the Rebbe’s mission, he’ll sort it out.’ I have to always have my finger on the pulse.”
But Chani is quick to point out the positive aspects of bringing up children in such an isolated environment. “You’ve got to take the lemons and make lemonade,” she says, flashing her trademark smile. “In the case of the children, there’s no competition, no ‘I want what that other boy has,’ no demands, ‘buy me this.’ The kids live a simple life and are very happy with what they have. They also have tremendous unity between them, and they look after each other.”
Does she worry that the behavior of some of the less decorous backpackers might have a negative influence on them? “No.
The backpackers don’t need to be their friends. The kids are still very innocent.
They don’t even say words like meshuga [crazy]. They’re in shock when they arrive back to Israel and hear some of these things [from their peers].”
The couple says that while in Israel, the children miss Nepal and are desperate to return. Chezki relates that during Shabbatot in Israel, his eight-year-old son, Shmulik, constantly asks, “Where are all the people?” Chani adds that the one of the wonderful traits her children have picked up through living in the Chabad house is how to give from a place of love, and not of obligation.
And it is not only their own children that the couple looks out for – twice a week, Chani takes two local Nepalese girls off the street and to a restaurant to eat a square meal. “I never get used to seeing such poor children. At first, I wanted to go and adopt all the children on the street,” says Chani, who admits that it was always her dream to adopt “tons and tons of homeless children.”
While she has not yet adopted all of the child beggars, a year ago the couple took a young Nepalese boy off the streets and brought him into their care. They weaned the boy off drugs, set him up in his own room above the Chabad house and even sent him to a private school. “Our condition was that he stays off the drugs,” says Chani, referring to the child’s glue addiction.
“A year later, he still has tremendous willpower. Other people [who visit] are able to see that it’s not just Jews that we help.”
The couple has an excellent relationship with the local community. “Chezki’s like a guru for them,” says Chani. “They have lots of respect for us. And we respect them. I respect the slow-paced life they have. You have to remember that they don’t have the privileges we do. And we also have to keep in mind that at the end of the day, we’re their guests. I always tell the backpackers not to turn their noses up at them.”
In addition to being the only shohet (one ordained in kosher slaughter) and kosher milkman in Nepal, Chezki – and indeed, his wife – have also had to pick up skills in a host of other fields. “Sometimes you have to play the role of doctor, social worker, psychologist, teacher, you name it,” says Chani. “I didn’t learn these things, but you get the strength from above. One of the things the Rebbe did was to take regular people and turn them into leaders. ” Chani admits that she had many reservations about the TV show prior to its airing.
Not least of all was the portrayal of Mushki, the rabbi’s wife played by Nitzan Levartovsky, who is often at a loss about how to react to certain scenarios. “At first I had a problem with the fact that for Mushki, the shlihut is hard and she has a lot of complaints.
I think they overplayed the difficulties.
Now I realize they needed to add that in order to create drama and conflict.
“It’s funny to say this about myself, but I think that even at the beginning I was stronger than Mushki. People see that we don’t suffer and that we enjoy ourselves and love the backpackers.
“Every time I felt a little bit lost I reminded myself that I had come to help people.
Of course it’s a big challenge, but nevertheless, I think I’m such a lucky woman to do what I’m doing,” she says.
Chani maintains that if the shlihut becomes too cumbersome for an emissary, it is preferable that they leave. There was only one occasion in which Chani temporarily abandoned her duties. This involved Rivka Holtzberg, the emissary from Mumbai, who was Chani’s best friend and with whom she chatted on the phone several times a day. During one conversation, seemingly out of the blue, Rivka told Chani that she loved her. That was the last conversation Chani ever had with Rivka. The next day she and her husband, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, were killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008.
Following the tragedy, Chani did not enter the Chabad house for a week. “That was the longest time that I hadn’t gone into the Chabad house. You can’t give when you feel a void.”
The couple say that watching the television series is like going back in time. They also say that seeing it has allowed them to get to know themselves better. “We were given the chance to see ourselves through the eyes of other people,” says Chezki.
He admits, however, that there were scenes of which he did not approve and that he requested they be cut from the series. “For dramatic effect, they wanted to include immodest scenes. Like most TV shows in Israel, they wanted to add some spice, but the problem is that people identify the [series] couple with us.”
According to Chezki, it wasn’t always an easy task to convince the investors, directors and producers to keep the show clean, especially when considering that the TV shows with the highest ratings, such as Survivor and Big Brother, often revolve around questionable morals and immodesty. But all in all, Chezki was pleased with the result. “In comparison to other shows, it’s very clean,” he says, before quickly adding, “But it isn’t recommended for a Chabadnik.”
Ultimately, the show provided a great PR opportunity for Chabad. It is also an achievement for Israel’s haredi community in general, since this is the first time that the main characters on a primetime TV show are ultra-Orthodox – a fact that Chani says should not be taken for granted. “I’m happy that people are being exposed to what Chabad does without leaving their living rooms.”
Even the actors themselves praise the show for its sensitivity. “This is a show with soul, one that really touches the heart,” says Michael Moshonov, who plays the part of Shmulik, the earnest emissary. Having shaved the beard he grew for the role and now sporting a mohawk hairstyle, Moshonov looks drastically different from his character. He jokes that since meeting Chani and Chezki and learning so much through visits to Kfar Chabad and on location in Nepal, he has turned into something of a Chabadnik. Indeed, as Chezki told Moshonov at the support event, “We got to the point that I didn’t know if you were playing us or we were playing you.”
Watching Moshonov on screen, one might be forgiven for not believing his claims that he knew next to nothing about Chabad beforehand. But he acknowledges that he had plenty of advice to make the character credible. “I built a close connection with Yehiel Fleishman, who gave me the inspiration and taught me how to walk and pray like a Chabadnik, and make it as real as can be,” says Moshonov.
Fleishman, who lives in Kfar Chabad and is Chani’s brother, acted as the show’s adviser on all things Chabad. “I was consulted on all the nuances, including clothes, behavior and music. I found myself in wig shops or worrying about skirt lengths. I became a fashion consultant in addition to it all!” Moshonov says that the experience of filming for three months on location in Nepal is one that will never leave him.
“Hopefully through the show more people will go to a Chabad house. This was my first time and it was very inspiring. Kathmandu is a crazy place – and a beautiful place – but life there is hard. My character is weaker than Chezki, more sensitive and a little naive. Chezki is strong – in a way, he rules Nepal, he knows every corner and just what to do. I was sick and Chezki drove on his motorbike to my hotel to bring me some hot soup. You can’t imagine the commitment, the infinite giving of this couple.”
According to Chezki, the fact that people can learn about Judaism almost anywhere in the world is something that should never be taken for granted. “A long time ago, if someone wanted to study Judaism he had to make an effort and travel to find somebody to teach him. And now, postworld war, Jews don’t need to go out and find us because we’re the ones going to places to seek them out and give them the opportunity to study about Judaism and to celebrate Shabbat and the festivals.”
But beyond that, Chezki maintains that the Chabad house in Nepal is first and foremost a symbol for peace and unity between people from different backgrounds. “We want to show that it is possible for all types of people to live together, and that we’re all brothers.”