My first day in India I sat in a Starbucks and cried a little. Who knows which thing actually pushed me over the edge, but I was due to have one good cry somewhere in the world right?
India has been on my list of places to visit since before I got this fellowship. Years ago I did an internship at the JUF (Jewish United Fund – Jewish Federation) in Chicago. They did a “lunch and learn” that happened to be about the Jews of India. We ate Indian food in a conference room and briefly learned about the Indian Jews. At the time, I was amazed to learn that there were even Indian Jews and it’s been on my mind ever since. Plus just the mystique that is India.
So what better way to get to India than having a fellowship that allows me to dig into these communities and visit these places? What did I expect from India? I’m honestly not sure.
Flying from Rome to Mumbai was a bit of a crazy flight (hence the overtiredness upon arrival). I had a layover in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at 11 pm at night. I nearly got lost, not because it’s a big airport, it’s not. But because there were no signs for connecting flights, only a lady saying (not loudly) “Bombay flight to Bombay” and standing off to the side. Needless to say I followed the crowd and hoped for the best.
After a flight with a man continuing to shake my seat with his knees for the full five hour flight we landed in Mumbai at 6am. My Uber driver’s car didn’t really have a trunk so he put my luggage on the roof, with no strap to hold it down. I gave him a look, he gave me a look back that was basically “it’ll be fine, don’t worry, you have no choice”. I worried the entire drive over bumps and around turns. But he was right, my bag was fine. I, on the other hand was tense.
It was beyond hot and humid. The only way I can describe the weather is that feeling before it rains in the summer, where it’s muggy and sticky all day, and you can’t wait for the rain to actually come. Well this was the same, except it didn’t rain at least not yet. Anyway, I couldn’t check into my room, there was no air conditioning in the common room, and I was hot, and tired, and hadn’t slept.
I saw there was a Starbucks nearby and figured they’d have air, and I could figure myself out there. Sitting down in the Starbucks, I couldn’t get logged in to the internet and I basically lost it. Thank you dependency on technology. It wasn’t from culture shock it was from being tired and alone and missing people, and sick of making decisions, and probably overwhelmed from walking around and just full on exhausted. The personal part of this year hit me, there is no professional/personal difference in how this year works. It’s all wrapped into one. The weight of the year was on me, and so I sat for a minute and cried in Starbucks. Went to the bathroom, got a strange look from the attendant and realized why you should never look at yourself when crying and pulled myself together.
Walking around Mumbai was overwhelming. Basically India to me was this odd mix of big city, lots of people, hot weather, and very little personal space. Thinking back to my time in Ukraine where I realized how big the world was, here I also felt it. But in India people are not shy to talk to you, or ask where you are from, or want to talk and connect with you, in fact they want to do all those things as you walk down the sidewalk, and they’ll walk with you. On top of that everything including poverty, opulence, and everything in between is in your face. From small children tugging on your shirt, people of all ages crammed onto motorbikes with no helmets, and cows, on the street. Yes, I said cows.
I finally checked into my room, took a shower, cooled down, ate food, took a nap, and decided I’d be okay. Look, I’ll always be fine (it is my Mom’s maiden name after all), as I’d describe to all my people later, we all need to have this moment sometimes and I think this one had been coming. There was a lot more to my crying than India (who am I, what will I do upon at the end, will I ever find someone - you know typical stuff) it was just mixed with landing in quite possibly the most overwhelming place I’ve visited yet.
(I promise more pictures to come in the next posts)
Moving on, the travel magic kicked in that evening. I had planned to go to Chabad for dinner, and saw that it said on the website to meet at the synagogue. After being thoroughly questioned before entering the shul, I popped into a beautiful looking synagogue. This was the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue the Baghdadi Sephardic synagogue in Mumbai.
I was able to breathe easy during the Kabbalat Shabbat service. There is a continual joy I get from being in a synagogue, not speaking the local language and still understanding what is happening. Despite sometimes off key or varying tunes, it’s just a beautiful thing to me that continues to remind me of the commonalities amongst Jews all over the world.
There were two women on the women’s side and after services they invited me to Kiddush. Which was really Shabbat dinner. We did Kiddush, washed hands and said blessings over the Challah, yes there was freshly baked challah, and yes they also would then serve Indian style breads. Then the food came, more and more plates of food. A small group sat around and sang niggunim. The Rabbi who is visiting for the year from Israel gave a d’var, the leader of the community who has been the leader for many years celebrated a birthday and shared his gratitude toward a younger member who will be stepping up into leadership. A Moroccan man from Israel was visiting and he continued to sing with his beautiful voice.
In all, the only word I could describe my feeling at the end of the night was nourished.
There is historical significance to this synagogue. As I walked back with the younger leader of the community and an American expat, we spoke about the challenges that the community has. There are very few if any young people left in this part of the Jewish community (you'll hear about a different part of Mumbai later). Moshe who I was speaking with, moved back from Israel where most of his family lives. The people sitting around the table were mostly at least a generation older than me. Moshe understands that there isn’t too much of a future to build with young people, instead when I asked him about what he hopes or sees for the future, he wants to make sure their history stays alive, he wants to make the synagogue a place for people to visit both Jewish and not.
When you sit inside this beautiful place that has just been redone, you can't help but imagine what it must have looked like to be full. Moshe shared that he remembers when his mother would wake him up early on the high holidays so they could get to synagogue (a different one) on time to get a seat. Because otherwise you would be standing or sitting outside. The Jewish schools in Mumbai that were once vibrant and filled with Jewish kids, today are still open but are not filled with Jewish kids. What will happen to these beautiful places?
I didn’t take the chance to explore more Jewish communities of India but all over India there are other places with empty synagogues, shuls you need to find someone to open up to show you, places where Jews once existed and no longer do. Is this what happens when we don’t show up?
In some ways the story in India is so different than Europe, here Jews were not driven out, or in such grave danger, in fact there isn’t much anti-Semitism nor historically so. But these communities struggle to keep their young here. Whole families move to Israel or other places to find partners, and be with other Jews.
That night at the shul I felt like a weight was off. The nourishment that Shabbat can provide, a welcoming environment can provide, and probably good food, is pretty amazing. Ultimately I decided to move to a more proper hotel instead of the hostel, and was happy with my decision. I chilled out, it rained a little – not quite monsoons, and I was able to prepare for the trip that was arriving in Mumbai that week.
Needless to say, my first day - in writing this I realize this was literally all day one in India - was a bit of a whirlwind. It took some time but I do enjoy India. Mumbai is a beast. I feel like Delhi will be the same. I think back to writing that Krakow is like seven layer cake with all its layers. Here in India there isn’t a pastry big enough to describe it. Maybe if there is one, my sister Marni can whip up something on her blog? (Just a suggestion ;) ).
There are just so many different sides to India so you can love it for the craziness or not. When you are surrounded by 1.3 billion (yes billion) people it becomes easier to understand how a place can have this many side, it’s also easy for those 1.3 billion people that highlight how alone one can feel in the world.
Like I said, it got better, I saw more animals, and find out why I was really in India, check it out in India, Take Two. Plus pictures.