Friday, 28 October 2011

So Many Holidays!!

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Though I came here to work with the Jewish community, other religions don’t fail to color my days. Whether it’s passing a street side Hindu temple every other pace, skipping a heartbeat (or five) upon seeing an exposed corpse being carried through the street or watching birds circle a concealed Parsi Tower of Silence,  an air of religion permeates almost every step I take. 
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was Navratri (and Dassera), a Hindu festival meaning ‘nine nights’. A few decibels quieter than Ganpati Chaturthi, Navratri was fun to watch and partake in. Once I learned of Navratri’s significance I immediately realized that it falls around the same time as Sukkot.  Likely due to the mutual use of the lunar calendar, while Hindus invoke cosmic forces to bring life back to the soil, Jews are building their sukkot to prepare for their holiday with an agricultural origin.


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On my way home from the gym the other night I decided to remove my shoes and enter one of the tents housing the goddess of this holiday. Every time I go into a pandal or stop to watch dancing in the street I am enticed by smiles and welcoming gestures. They’re eager to introduce me to their religion (in a non- proselytic way) through ceremonies, food and dance. I’m not sure how I feel about never having to wait in line and being given a front seat to watch ceremonies. But compared to the incessant staring I get and having strangers ask me to take pictures with them (on my camera), this aspect of the treatment does not warrant complaining. After kindly declining the chance to present an offering to the goddess I took a seat and watched a 20 minute chant during which two women with long, loose hair fell into trances next to a pan of fire. A self-reminder that this was not my place and that there were fifty other people watching them allowed me to resist the urge to get up and give them my extra hair ties.
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Homesickness, comfort, excitement and confusion define what I felt throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Whether I’m in a Baghdadi or Bene Israel synagogue, I’m introduced to diversities in song and bodily movements. I’ve started kissing my fingertips as they do after the shema, hamotzi, havdalah and when greeting others. Having learned the Bene Israel selichot for the women’s camp allowed me to follow a decent amount of the prayers. However, I could barely manage to follow others I knew by heart because the tunes drastically confused them.
Despite the differences in the services, the honey and shofar made Rosh Hashanah taste and sound the same to my Ashkenazi self. But there is one unique flavor worth mentioning: Bene Israeli halwa. It’s far from comparable to the Israeli halva I’ve had. People stir this mix of semolina, coconut milk and sugar over a heated stove for hours and the result is a fantastic congealed pudding-like treat. Throughout the holiday I never hesitated before accepting it at synagogue or in people’s homes. When I find something I like to eat here I never decline it.
I stayed with the same lovely, lovely family I have been staying with for most shabbatot. Their hospitality is reaffirmed each time I walk in the door and am bombarded with welcomes and three little girls shouting “Goldilocks is here!”-or- “Hannah Montana”- or- “Avatar!” (I really have no idea what to make of this last one). Meals are filled with zemirot, chatter, challah and Indian food. I often find myself staying late either talking with the parents and cousins or playing games with the girls. It’s so nice to be welcomed into a family here, yet at the same time it makes me miss my home in America where I have my own familial closeness. 

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Later in the day I performed Tashlich, which is called Sea Prayers here. The largest Sea Prayers actually acts more as a venue for Jewish boys and girls to meet each other and possibly find a mate.  And in fact, I met my soul mate! Well not really. I didn’t even end up going to the main one; I attended a much smaller one in front of Haji Ali because the people I was with were going there and I knew I’d get very lost on my own if I attempted to go to the big one. The whole time I couldn’t believe that I was doing tashlich at the Arabian Sea. How cool is that?! Instead of throwing bread here they empty their pockets. Luckily someone gave me a handful of cereal so I could do the symbolic act I’m used to. (Shout out to Anat Goldberg for being my tashlich partner at UMass for 4 years!)
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As my connection with Judaism is more strongly rooted in Jewish peoplehood and collective history than in God, Yom Kippur is something I struggle with every year. Fasting on Tisha B’av, on the other hand, is much more up my alley. But I put on a white kurta and white leggings, the color Bene Israel Jews wear on Yom Kippur, and made my way to Jacob’s Circle for the holiday. Like the Sassoon School nearby, Jacob’s Circle is a predominantly Muslim area which used to be the hub of Mumbai Jewry. There remain a few synagogues in the vicinity and I divided my time between two of them. (I attracted more stares than usual in my white garb since many Muslims wear all white and it is the color people don in times of mourning. So understandably, my appearance must have been puzzling to them.)
The walk between the synagogues involved walking around goats, chickens, cows, trash and a fair share of nude children releasing themselves on the street. At one point I found myself stuck between a goat and a bus with people spilling out the doors and noticed that I was smiling! I realized that I had reached a point where these annoyances were entertaining. I’ve learned that if I force myself to smile at times like these then I actually start to find the events amusing! (Examples: Trying to cross the street and getting stuck between 2 cabs, 2 motorcycles and an ox, stepping in poop, noticing there is no toilet paper (in the entire building!) once it’s too late...The list goes on but there are still things for which I doubt I will ever reach such a level of amused comfort:  Examples: Seeing a pigeon eating a dead rat, walking helplessly past a beating on the street and having griping stomach pain for days straight…..
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Back to Yom Kippur. This was my first time at one of the synagogues and when I walked in I didn’t recognize anyone. But two minutes didn’t pass without some of my students from the Sassoon School running up to me, a boy from JYP waving to me through the mechitzah and a woman introducing me as so and so’s auntie. Though it was hot and dim because the electricity wasn’t working for much of the service it felt good to be there.

But that didn’t last forever. Just like elsewhere, by five o’clock Yom Kippur was feeling long and tiring. My knees hurt from bowing and my hands grew tired of holding the machzor I could barely follow. But I had brought my tanach and some divrei torah to keep myself focused.  That, plus a mental discussion about the book of Jonah and a personal meditation made the services more meaningful for me. In the background of all this, beyond the confusion with the tunes, was the awesome feeling to be in India and to know that this happens all over the world on this day.
Once services were over everyone crowded into the front of the synagogue where a deep pot of sherbet was waiting to fill everyone’s cups and bottles. This juice of black raisins boiled in water is a unique Bene Israel break-fast tradition. Since it tasted great and was made with filtered water I helped myself to two glasses. However, fifteen minutes later my stomach turned and instead of taking a cab to the house I was invited to, I decided to take the train back to my apartment where I have a toilet to use at my leisure and cereal. Indeed, I ended up being sick for a number of days with a fever, sore throat and a lot of stomach pain. So, yea. Not sure what to say about that.  Moving on.
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The four sukkot around the city I visited were all pretty different from the ones I’m used to. The blue tarp walls were replaced with palm leaves. When I looked up I didn't see dried corn and gourds, but coconuts, pomellos and pineapples. I wasn't used to singing in the sukkah but here they sang songs about Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Though I don’t understand Marathi, the repetition of words such as Moshe and Sinai were enough to understand the larger context. But the most noticeable difference to me was the weather. I’m so used to the autumn cold around Sukkot that the other night before I headed out to a sukkah party I reached for a sweatshirt. It only took me half a second to realize where I was.


Heather and I spent an evening in a sukkah with some JYP members, during which Heather led a discussion about the different symbolisms attached to the lulav and etrog. Many people had thought provoking comments and we were all introduced to some unique and interesting ideas! The next night I met twenty women at the same sukkah for a pound party (aka potluck). Before eating I led a session about why we read Kohelet on Sukkot. Since this was a new topic for everyone present we had a great time talking it out and viewing this holiday of celebration from a new perspective. That night we ate our share of homemade Indian food as well as a chocolate cake I baked!
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Just like most of the chagim here, Simchat Torah had the same structure and mood to it as elsewhere, but the songs and language bestowed it with a level of unfamiliarity. There were the hakafot, lots of singing and dancing, women wearing what appeared to be their most gorgeous saris and people joyously celebrating with the whole community. Something that may be unique to this community or happens to be something I've simply never done before is a haychal ceremony. After Shabbat the community came together once more to return the Torahs to the ark. As the dancing continued everyone lined up in front of the ark and took turns kissing each scroll before the chag officially ended.
I couldn't help but think about how similar this seemed to the Hindu ceremonies I've seen during which people line up as they approach the appropriate god of the festival. Or maybe it's just that I was around so many different religious ceremonies recently that they are starting to blend into each other.

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