Appreciating our Judaism through a sojourn in India

My family and I spent most of August on a journey through parts of India, and I haven’t quite returned home yet.

We visited Mumbai and Delhi for a couple of days each, but most of our time was spent discovering Ladakh, a remote and sparsely populated Himalayan region, magnificently nestled in the north-western Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, bordering both Tibet, in China, and Pakistan. Due to its high altitude and extreme winters, it’s open to tourists for only a few months each year.

I know this isn’t a travel column, and although I highly recommend this trip to others similarly inclined and will happily give my two cents to anyone who might want them, I won’t tire you with the details of our journey. Suffice it to say it was a wonderful family experience, not devoid of challenges (my son got acute stomach poisoning), and India with all its contrasts – religious, cultural and scenic splendours juxtaposed against extraordinary poverty and a literal sea of humanity – is a place I’ll surely visit again.

And while it wasn’t the focus of our trip, our travels also provided opportunities to examine who we are as Jews and Israelis.

To start with, our family has an Indian-Jewish connection. My wife’s late mother was of Indian heritage, having spent some of her formative years in Bombay – today’s Mumbai. We visited synagogues still active, including the wonderful, ornate Magen David where she and her parents prayed, the neighbourhood where she grew up and the Jewish cemetery where we said Kaddish at the grave of my wife’s great-grandfather, a rabbinic scholar who travelled to India from Yemen in the late 19th century to become a spiritual mentor to the distinguished Sassoon family. 

It was wonderful meeting family members still living in Mumbai.

We came across hundreds of Israelis, mostly 20-somethings recently released from IDF military service. They come in droves to decompress, are known locally for doing just a bit too many drugs, and gather in particular towns and villages. In Leh, Ladakh’s regional capital and in Manali, in Himachal Pradesh, they are numerous. Many shops advertise in Hebrew, some merchants speak the language pretty well, and restaurants serve schnitzel, hummus, and Israeli salad.

Like it or not, this is the scene.

Buddhism prevails in these parts, with hundreds of temples, enticing, accessible and tangible in their aesthetic beauty and friendly monks. We met Israeli youngsters who appeared to have been smitten spiritually. Others connect to their roots through the work of places such as Habayit HaYehudi in Leh. Known by locals as Jew House and run by a young Orthodox couple from Jerusalem, it’s an anchor for Jewish kids, especially secular Israelis over-exposed to India’s raw spirituality and in need of reminders that they have a spiritual home of their own. We joined a couple hundred of them one Friday evening for Kabbalat Shabbat, and although we’re used to a more pluralistic brand of Judaism, after a week of countless temple visits, praying wheels and fabulous golden Buddhas, it was refreshing to bring in Shabbat with songs and prayers we felt at home with.  

Other experiences reminded me of home. In the big cities, airport-style metal detectors are the norm when entering hotels, malls and major tourist sites.

During our stay, a border altercation with Pakistani insurgents left five Indian soldiers dead and the nation in mourning. We learned of persistent tensions between India and Pakistan, and India and China.

Travelling in Ladakh, one can’t help noticing a large military presence, with huge bases, military convoys, roadblocks, and permits required for travel to certain areas, while others are completely out of bounds to foreigners.

We visited the Hall of Fame, a memorial in Leh to hundreds of Indian soldiers killed during the Kargil War of 1999 (previously unbeknownst to me) between India and Pakistan. It reminded me of similar memorials to battles and soldiers here in Israel. Being a neutral outsider, it seemed to me that so many had died because of futile territorial gamesmanship by all sides.

And another thing. Most Indians we met know little if anything about Israel and the conflicts afflicting our region. It was refreshing not to find anything about us in the press.

Returning to our own war drums here in Israel, we’re still breathing the thin air of the Himalayas, a bit more appreciative of what we have at home.