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.
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.
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.
For your ears:
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.
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!)
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.