Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No one told me about Ganesha Chaturthi. The first morning I was woken up to deafening music in the street I defined it as an isolated yet unsurprising event. But then it happened again.  And again. And 7 more times. This 10 day Hindu holiday celebrates Ganesha, regarded as superior to all other gods. Storytime: Goddess Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva, had created Ganesha and had him stand guard at the front of her house while she bathed. When Lord Shiva returned from wherever he was Ganesha refused to lend him entry which angered Lord Shiva who in turn cut off his head. When Lord Shiva realized that he had actually just decapitated his son he resolved the problem by affixing an elephant head to his neck. 

Musical processions and lots of night-long fun accompany this elephant-god through the streets until the 10th day on which all the Ganesha idols are immersed into water. I was told that this immersion, which is the next step in Ganesha’s journey and a way for him to carry the misfortunes of the people, is dangerous for foreign girls traveling alone. They say the sea turns into a sea of people, each family with its own idol. And if I recall there are over 14 million Hindus in this city. Though this might not be something my parents would want to hear, this piqued my interest all the more. In the end, I succeeded in convincing someone from the JCC to join me and he said he would have never gone if I hadn’t asked!

Pretty interesting that this exists around the same time as Judaism’s 10 days of repentance and tashlich (symbolic casting away one’s sins by throwing bread into water), right?  In summation, I found Ganpati to be alternately annoying and entertaining.
...the water's acidity shoots up at this time of year :(
And there he is!

The following post is an article I wrote for Kol India, the global Indian Jewish community newsletter:

                Upon arriving in India I was fantastically overwhelmed by the sounds, smells and sights encompassing me. The chaos and change were so intense that I did not know when I would feel comfortable and settled. It was about three weeks into my arrival, at the Jewish women’s camp in Lonavala, when I found myself in a harbor of comfort. Though I was a bit nervous about leading the selikhot service and running my first sessions as a JSC volunteer, it turned out to be a delightful two days in beautiful surroundings with beautiful women, inside and out.
For two days we took short trips to Lonavala hotspots, relaxed and played games in the hotel, had several learning sessions and drank A LOT of chai. Though I have not seen these women in their homes or at work I could feel the stress of everyday life drifting away as the hours ticked by.
                On the first day we paid a visit to the Celebrity Wax Museum. To my amusement it was filled with illustrious Indians, whose identities all of the women clearly recognized and of which I continued to be ignorant. Luckily Michael Jackson, Angelina Jolie and a couple infamous dictators were there to convince me that that I was still on this planet.
                Later in the day, I ran my first session titled, A Struggle for Birth. An interactive discussion about the Torah and Haftarah readings for the first day of Rosh Hashanah ensued in reaching a deeper connection with the festival. We examined the stories of Sarah and the birth of Isaac and that of Hannah and the birth of her son, Samuel. Topics of infertility, faith, birth and struggle were explored to the point of everyone’s satisfaction. The women had very insightful and thoughtful remarks which expanded the conversation intellectually and took it in directions even I had not expected.                  
                Another activity revolved around white cloth, paints and brushes. A review of the obligatory mitzvot for women was followed by some fun challah cover painting! Messy hands, the passing around of colors and deep concentration eventually led to the production of sixteen impressive masterpieces.
                 Throughout sessions, meals and outings I was surrounded by Marathi, which could of well have been Japanese or Swahili for all I know. Though the topic of conversation was often lost on me, it was almost always followed by laughter, the universal tongue. While at times I felt a bit out of place, overall I felt the maternal nurturing I had left in America at my side in this new country.
                On the second day we took a trip to town where my mouth was introduced to a new friend, chikki. I hope I can maintain this friendship as the year goes on! After shopping, our lovely bus driver took us to Bushi Dam where some of the brave women rolled up their pants to reach the elation found in this water. Though there were a couple of falls on the slippery rocks, these women got right back up! They are certainly relentless in pursuit of fun.
                With dry clothes on our bodies and food in our bellies, we sat around one last time for a learning session and a final round of Housie. The concluding session was a kabbalah discussion about birkat habayit, blessing for the home. We spoke about a women’s role in helping to create a peaceful home and I am assured that these women excel in this field.
                My year has certainly started on a high note and I am comforted knowing that these kind-hearted, intelligent and strong women are part of the larger community I will soon meet. Thank you to everyone who came and helped to make this a fantastic camp for all! 

I couldn’t find my camera when we were driving 
by these views so these images are from the internet

Heather and I have been teaching at the Sassoon school, which was established over a century ago as a Jewish school by Sir Jacob Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew who devoted himself to tremendous philanthropic work in the Bombay Jewish community.  (The Sassoons are very important characters in the history of this community so if you want more detailed background you should look them up) However, walking through the halls of this school today one will find about 15 Jewish students among a Muslim majority. And while almost 100% of the student body is Muslim, most of the teachers are Hindu. 

Twice a week we go down to the school after normal school hours to meet these students for an after school snack and an hour of Jewish learning. Before Heather came I was teaching this group by myself. It was uncontrollable: this class is defined by a wide age range of 5-14 as well as varied levels of Jewish knowledge. And as a special treat, a decent number of them are hyperactive. It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep every student engaged at once. Now that Heather’s here we’ve decided to split the class between the two of us with hopes that things will run more efficiently.

When I do have their attention we have been doing activities to discuss their identities as Jews and Indians. I can’t help but think about my time working at camp as I approach my upcoming year. At camp there is only one month to fit in Jewish history and identity and the fact that I now have an entire year to implement a curriculum with this group really excites me. Also, some of the activities I’ve been doing with this group are similar to ones I found particularly successful at camp. For example, I did a name activity where the students researched the meanings of their first and last names. The Jews here mostly have Jewish first names such as Reuven, Elijah, Moses, Leora, Meirah and Eliana and last names referring to the Indian villages their families came from. Yet, when I attempted to have a deeper discussion about their answers I noticed that analyzing and thinking creatively doesn’t come easily to them- it’s not necessarily the way they are taught to learn in school. It will certainly be interesting to see how informal education works here and what I’ll do to make it effective for them.

This past Sunday we boarded a train with members of Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), the Jewish youth group here, for a whole day outing at a water park. I can’t even attempt to explain how amazing it felt to be in clean, chlorinated water. .. that is until now when I realize I might have contracted pink eye.

While the splashing, water slides and games were fun in themselves, it was fantastic to meet the individuals. This group includes Indians between the ages of 18 and 25. I was sooo happy to meet others around my age and I can really see myself becoming friends with many of them!

The JYP committee had planned a bunch of fun ice breakers and games and as far as I could see, did a great job at ensuring logistics went smoothly. I was asked to reenact the same session about Sarah and Hannah that I did at the women’s camp. Though we did it a bit late in the day and people (including myself) were tired I could tell that I caught their interest and that we all learned a few new things.

Supposedly we’ll continue to be involved with these guys which is fine with me because they’re awesome.  


Sunday, 4 September 2011


My first week in India has been just what I expected: the unexpected. Sure I had read about the bright colors, the grime and cows in the streets, the inescapable potent smells, the congested traffic, the manifest distinction between affluence and poverty, the Delhi belly and more. But it wasn’t until my first steps here that these features actualized for me. Every guide book says that India shocks all of one’s senses. My tongue is prickling from spices, my nose is more aware than ever before, my eyes won’t close in obedience to my will, my ears need earplugs and my feet and hands…. well,  they’re dirty. But I’m excited! I came to Mumbai to experience a new existence and here it is.
Part of this new experience and the reason for my stay is the Indian Jewish community. This year I am one of two Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Jewish Service Corps fellows in Mumbai. Historically, Jews have been in India for over 2,000 years (c. the First Temple destruction). With the religiously tolerant Hindus as their neighbors, the Indian Jews have generally not experienced anti-Semitism and have assimilated into larger society. Though they are proud of their Judaism many lack the Jewish education needed to carry on the religion with understanding and devotion. While thousands of Bene Israel emigrated to Israel, about 4,500 remain. The JDC, which actively embodies the principle of ‘kol yisrael aravim ze laze­’ – ‘all of Israel is responsible for each other,’ has been in India for almost fifty years. With the ultimate goal of helping to establish a self-sustaining Jewish community in India, the JDC continues its Jewish educational programming as well as its welfare programs for needy members of the community.
Heather (my fellow fellow) and I will be creating and implementing lots of informal Jewish educational programming for community members of all ages as well as coming up with new ideas to keep this community going! I’m very eager to learn from those I’ll be teaching, especially about a Judaism that I assume is quite different from my own.
I'm having a difficult time feeling so dirty all the time while having diarrhea and not knowing how to communicate with cab drivers and shop owners.... there's a lot I don't like so much. The other night I was so lost I seriously thought I wouldn't make it back to the apartment. Oh, and I am really uncomfortable having EVERYONE stare at me wherever I go. I really can't wait for Heather to get here so I can feel confused and lost with someone else! Alongside all of these things that will take acclimating to, I’ve met wonderful, wonderful people and really silly things are happening all around me. Oh, and I love the new Indian clothing style I’m slowly taken on.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably someone I miss. So hi and I miss you!

*The posting on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee*