Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shabbos in Mumbai

First day (Friday 15th) in Mumbai was crazy. Thanks to all the scary stories I had heard, I was really paranoid (the paranoia passes after a day or so) about pickpockets and bag snatchers etc while walking down the street. After a fairly meager room service breakfast of toast and tea, I realized I didn’t have any bottle water to wash my teeth with. I decided to use tea instead of water, such is the paranoid madness that infects someone on their first day in India. After brushing my teeth, I locked all my baggage, summoned my courage, and I ventured out into the streets. I was clutching my small backpack the whole time, and constantly checking that my wallet, passport, and money belt were all in place. After a bit of a walk, I decided to try and find Beyt Chabad, as I planned to go there that night anyway, so I figured it would be good to work out where it is. The map I had was good, except that I overestimated the distances. It turned out it was only two blocks from my accommodation. It is down a tiny laneway (frequented by pedestrians and goats) off the main road (frequented by oxen and everything else). It was heartening to see a menorah amongst all that chaos.

The Shabbos dinner on Friday night was excellent. It was about 40 people. Most were Israeli travelers, but not all. Some were volunteers for various organizations, some Israeli businessmen, and even a photo-journalist (say it with a French accent) from France. There was also one Jewish Indian family there – very nice people. I got plenty of valuable information from the travelers I sat next to.

Gil, the guy sitting next to me on my right, about my age, was in India to buy diamonds for his company. He had, with a degree of guilt, confessed to me that information, as well having had confessed to having what he described as a "soft landing” in India, as he had arrived with his boss and they had been staying at the luxury Taj Mahal Hotel (which is confusingly in Colaba, Mumbai - no where near the actual Taj Mahal which is in Agra near Delhi - but one of the world's more famous hotels nonetheless). However, his boss had gone back to Israel, and he was now in India on his own, "finishing off some other business," what ever that meant, and now staying in far less luxurious accommodation. I asked Gil what the Indians were like to do business with and he said something to the effect that he had found them to be surprisingly tough and cunning in the negotiations. Gil asked me if I normally have a Kiddush back in Australia. “Yes, every Shabbat, normally with my family.” He then replied, again quietly, that this had been one of the very few times in his life. I said “That can’t be true. Do you have a Pesach seder every year?” “Yes.” “So then I’m guessing that you say the opening Kiddush there, so you have a Kiddush at least once a year.” “I guess so, sort of…” “Well, you’re here now, that’s what counts” I said, as if to reassure him, but he looked at me puzzlingly. Thinking he didn’t quite hear me, I repeated myself, “Well, you’re here now, that’s what counts,” but he didn’t seem to understand that English language expression.

They also did the thing where they went around the room and everyone introduced themselves, gave their Hebrew name, said something interesting, or told a story, or suggested a song. I told them all about my Lariam experiences, and it got quite a few laughs, but I don’t think it quite amused the crowd as much as my name, “Alter Leyzar.”

Later, I noticed Gil had missed his turn. “Hey, you didn’t stand up and tell everyone about yourself.”

“Oh no, not for me, believe me, this is not for me.” He was the only person who didn’t take their turn. Perhaps it was that he was somewhat embarrassed about his profession in the present company of all these hippy-like travellers, many of whom were about his own age. “Actually, I really need to get going…” and he excused himself to me, and left. It was if I had served as a kind of counsellor for Gil to confess a few things that for his own reasons had been causing him anxiety. I think, because I was not a fellow Israeli, that he had felt more comfortable to confide in me all that he had believed in his own mind to put him on the outer from almost everyone else.

The next morning, I went to Knesset Eliyahoo, the famous Iraqi synagogue . When I was called to the Torah, the gabbai asked me in Hebrew “What’s your name?”
“Alter Leyzar ben Shmuel” to which he replied in Hebrew “No, what’s your Hebrew name?” I repeated “Alter Leyzar ben Shmuel – Alter Leyzar, it’s a Yiddish name.” Clearly, the Iraqis had never heard such an Ashkenazi name before. Myself, the Ashkenazic rabbi (who was there from Beyt Chabad), and the Gabbai, all just laughed.

1 comment:

Farm Girl said...

maybe gil didn't get your comment about 'you're here now so that's what counts' because he was embarrassed to be there at all - being there was a negative rather than a positive and not what he wanted to count. but i think that you might be right that he talked to you because you weren't israeli. it might have been interesting to ask him why he was there.
i haven't been to india but in other chabad houses that i've been to in asia, i've sometimes found it quite hard to talk to the israelis, finding that a lot of them come only to speak hebrew to fellow israelis. so it's interesting to hear that he came but chose to speak in english to an aussie and acted sort of embarrassed to be there.