In India I Went to Work

Part 1: Preparation

I didn’t really want to go to India. This was my wife’s deal. She has the adventure of travel within her and I go when I am asked and I probably would not have gone if she hadn’t asked.

I figured I would go as a tourist, I had no responsibilities really, just to accompany my bride and to be what little help I could be though I could not imagine what I might add. This was not my deal. I’m just along for the ride, so to speak, she had a talk to give here and there and she put the itinerary together. She had been to India before. I’m in but I had nothing to contribute.

I didn’t know much about India. I did some reading which is generally my way of seeing the world but I just wanted a sense of where I was going though with each exposure to the literature I found I was drawn more into the story.

The Jewish India story was deep but I discovered that there wasn’t much written about it. How could such a story remain relatively untold; about the spice routes, early traders, the synchronous spiritual stories that intersected in what I had always assumed was one of the most spiritually alive places on the planet. But on the Jewish story in India — I took out a few books from the library, ordered a few more on-line – not much.

So I read. The classic literature of and about India, some history, some fiction, some excellent travel writing. I learned a lot. But it didn’t prepare me for what I encountered when I actually traveled to India.

Part 2: Getting There

We landed in Delhi, even the airport smells of something burning. What is that smell? Smoke. Something burning.

The theme of this trip: Jewish India. Is that large enough a subject for an itinerary? It’s way large; that is precisely what I am sorting through in thinking out this journey of secret destinations. The footprints in Jewish India are laid deep into the earth.

The Jewish story is not about numbers, it’s about history and mythology. The difference with the rest of India nowadays is that the contemporary India story is indeed about numbers, as well as history and mythology. India at 1.2 billion people (by everyone’s understanding a low-ball estimate) is a teeming place of pulsating lifelines. I have read it will become the world’s third greatest economy within twenty or thirty years.

If you’ve been to India, you know that estimate is also low-ball. It will happen sooner than that. India is hungry and hard working, an in-your-face capitalist ethic that I would bet on, invest in, hire, etc. Do not undersell India.

Part 3: Seeking Jewish India

I was told by our guide, an Indian Jew from the Bene Israel community around Mumbai, that there are between 4 and 6,000 Jews presently living in India. By all the travelers I met in a short ten days there, there might be another 4 to 6,000 Jews traveling through India, or spending a time in India, or looking for – what – in India. Israelis, for example, are frequent travelers to India, not only those who trace their roots there, but the young Israelis in their gap year who travel on the cheap throughout the country.

India, in addition to everything else you might learn about it, is a place where people are looking for things. Seekers. I felt that everywhere we went and if I thought I was traveling as a tourist visiting the sites of Jewish India and other well-known locations, I was soon disabused of that notion. I was there to serve and to teach, and to make some sort of Kohanic ritual meetings with other seekers on journeys of secret destinations. I ran into many of them — individuals, like myself, hungry, looking, seeking, I guess I attract people like that — at least this is what I am told by my friends.

Part 4: Working

Almost everywhere we went, synagogues opened up to us. I sang in every synagogue we visited and we visited many. At some of them a key appeared, a lock was opened, a synagogue that is not in daily use acquired a minyan, and I led the prayers.

In a synagogue in Cochin, we stood before the holy Ark with an Australian man and his cousin and made the kaddish and the deepest talk about the recent passing of his mother.

Everywhere we went, I chanted the holy prayers in a style approximating the nusach of the East; I heard it and tried to mimic it. At every synagogue I mounted the bimah in the middle of the room, faced the holy Ark with the Torahs in their metal cases, and sang or chanted something, transported. It drew people in, travelers, intersecting this one time in our lives in these places full of shadows and echoes.

I stood in synagogues that look little like synagogues I know and I felt completely planted. I hardly noticed where I was and the sound that came out of me could have come out of Baghdad, nineteenth century, or Mumbai, now.

In another location, we blessed a newly married couple in front of another Ark. In another place I met with some travelers from Europe who were struggling with drugs and we spent some time talking through that in a teahouse near an old synagogue where we had met.

When I returned home and a friend asked me, what did you do in India? I realized I did exactly the same thing there that I do here. There were days I had to stop and look around and remind myself where I was; I’m in India. Some days I felt as if I had gone to work and done the same things I do when I go to work here. It was the last thing I expected and it was exactly the same schedule I keep in St. Louis, Missouri, though I was in Mumbai or Cochin or Jaipur. India.


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