India for Me…Day 1

We are now safe and sound back in The Land, and I’ve had to put together my “elevator speech,” the thirty second or one minute response when someone asks you a question like, “Well how was it?” or the follow-up question that one perspicacious person asked: “Was it worth the money?” Barbara has had no trouble putting together her answer. “It was amazing,” she will tell the world in no uncertain terms. It’s not that I disagree with her; the OU-Israel trip to India was unquestionably a unique experience, well thought out and organized, one that will leave a lasting impression in the minds of all the participants. It’s just that, as I made clear from the very beginning, I had a very different agenda from that of the other participants (what a surprise!). Visiting synagogues in obscure places, houses of worship that haven’t been prayed in for fifty years? Ehhhh! I’ve seen my share of abandoned shuls in and around NYC, read enough about failed “experiments” in Jewish living in the Exile. Getting decent seats for those of us who hang out nowadays at Musar Avicha in Ma’ale Adumim? Now you have my undivided attention!

There were close to forty of us who went on this OU “adventure,” of whom about eight were there by themselves. One fellow was unmarried, one woman was a widow, and the others had spouses who, for one reason or another, declined to join in the adventure. I just couldn’t see doing that. One of the good reasons for being married is to have a reliable someone available to share your important experiences with. If Barbara wanted to go on a once-in-a-lifetime jaunt, I was going to be there with her when the sun rose and when the sun set. So, again, that’s the main reason I went: to keep her company. And to head out with camera in hand to see what I could see. And maybe, just maybe, to sample some examples of Indian cuisine.

After giving the matter some thought, my answer to the first question is something like the following: I’m glad I saw what I saw, went where I went, and experienced what I experienced, but what I’ve mainly taken away from this experience is a greater appreciation for the miracle of The Land – and not just for the obvious spiritual reasons. And was it worth the money? The answer I gave in a Facebook reply was that, given all that was involved, I can’t imagine how the trip could have been arranged for any less money, and I don’t believe the OU made a nickel on the deal. That’s the best answer I can give, and I will expound on what I mean as I go along.

Before I forget, if you want the “official” version of what went on, click here.

The trip to India was the brainchild of Rivka Segal, the program director at OU-Israel (making her the highest ranking woman there). She was reading an article that one of the Ari’s wrote about some exploit of theirs, and it occurred to her that it would be a wonderful thing if the OU could organize a tour of some exotic place with the two Ari’s in the lead. Both of these gentlemen wanted to return to India and take their wives along with them, so they were agreeable – although leading a bunch of random people hither and yon was not what they usually did.

So they put together a tentative itinerary of places of Jewish interest in this vast subcontinent, and sure enough, people began to respond, slowly at first. But by the deadline, enough folks had signed up to make the trip possible. It wasn’t a certainty from the beginning, but ultimately Rivka got to go, joined by her husband, Yigal. He was the one with sufficient lung power to cry out, “All right everyone, back on the bus,” as well as functioning as the gabbai.

But this trip would not have been possible without Ralphy. (Barbara was doing her usual stint on Thursday, packing food for Victims of Terror. There she met a young woman doing her “year abroad” with a group that visited Jewish sites all over the world. She had herself returned from India just a few weeks before. On hearing that we were just there, she had exactly one question for Barbara. “Did you meet Ralphy?”)

Ralphy Jhirad was listed as “our Jewish Indian tour guide” in the material sent to us, and while he is a)Jewish, b)from the indigenous Bene Israel, and he did some of the guiding – along with Ari and Ari and a few other folks – the description provided hardly does justice to the larger than life fellow who met us at the airport in Mumbai when we arrived. As we were to discover, every place we visited, Ralphy had arranged the transportation and the best possible accommodations; each airport we needed to be at, he shepherded the forty of us through the intricate Indian security and boarding procedures – with all the overweight luggage, necessary supplies, fresh fruit, even a Sephardic Torah scroll – somehow in time to get on our plane; everywhere we went, Ralphy knew everybody, and I mean everybody. When it became apparent that many of the meals to be served would be, shall we say, lackluster, he arranged to borrow a chef from one of the hotels; whereupon, we dined upon glorious authentic Indian cuisine (albeit with most of the spices removed to suit the Ashkenazic palates of the assembled) the rest of the way.

There is an aphorism, attributed to Will Rogers: “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t yet met.” I can’t imagine that the American humorist is well known on the busy streets of Mumbai, but it describes to a “T” our guide’s M.O. With rare exceptions, everyone that Ralphy meets becomes his friend. And if there is any doubt in your mind whether you have joined this august group, “Friends of Ralphy,” he will announce to one and all that you are indeed his friend, with all the rights and privileges that distinction provides. And if you are a guy, he will give you a big hug to seal the deal. In short, he, along with his wife, Yael, and his son Avniel, are de facto Jewish India. It might be possible for a Jewish group of any stripe to visit India without his services, but they’d be missing half the fun.

 ******

 We arrived at the international airport in Mumbai, or as Ralphy still calls it, Bombay – the name I always knew it by. (“Bombay” is the Anglicized version of the Portuguese “Good bays,” whereas “Mumbai” is a corruption of the name of a Hindu goddess.) Enormous, modern facility. The signs inside indicate that you can even drink the water – in the airport. I’m told that there once was a time when the water in India was indeed potable. No longer. These days, the undrinkable water is run through a purification process at bottling plants, minerals are added, and the water is then bottled and sold to you in flimsy plastic bottles, which are to be crushed to prevent re-use. We had been sufficiently and duly warned. I am pleased to report that no one on our trip got sick from the water.

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Morning Haze — Mumbai

Out of the airport, onto the bus waiting for us in the parking lot, Ralphy leading the way. We were just in time for the morning rush into the main part of the city, and so the bus proceeded with all deliberate speed – meaning it wasn’t going too fast. Plenty of time to take in the sights, the series of high rise apartments in the distance on the right and closer to us a sprawling city of shanties, shacks, hovels – the kind that don’t come with the latest conveniences, like indoor plumbing. We had been on the ground for half an hour, and we were already face to face with the extreme disparity between how different folks live there, something we would witness everywhere we went in this strange country. Next we crossed over a bridge, right into the morning haze with the air pollution creating an exotic impressionistic effect upon the water – very photographic, but I shudder to think of the long term effects on one’s lungs.

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In Front of the Chabad House — Mumbai

The first place we stopped on day one was the Mumbai Chabad House, the one that was attached by terrorists in 2008. Click here for more information. It was no surprise that Ralphy was very close to both Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivky (may their memories be a blessing), and in fact the rabbi had taught Ralphy and Yael’s sons. The building has been restored and is again functioning (with very tight security), but it will always remain a shrine to all of those who were murdered inside, especially as throughout the building, there are signs describing who was killed where. We had a credible lunch there, but it was hard to forget where we were.

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Interior View Magen David Synagogue — Mumbai

Back on the bus. Next stop the Magen David synagogue, one of several that served the Baghdadi Jewish community in its heyday and is still in use (barely!) today. (One caveat: the linked article evidently confuses the Magen David synagogue with the much larger Kenesset Eliyah, where we would be for Shabbat.) Ralphy has much to say about the Baghdadis, being indeed an expert on all matters of Jewish life in India, about which he is publishing his third book; he has also produced a short documentary about the financier and opium dealer, David Sassoon, who bankrolled the synagogues, a hospital, and a library in this metropolis. There is plenty of time for everyone to scurry around with cameras and smart phones to take pictures of everything, including the signs on the walls.

By the time we reached our last stop on the day’s tour, Tifereth Israel, I have had enough. TMI (too much information). I walked outside and marveled at some of the nearby pagan shrines that are here, there, and everywhere in India. Finally……… everyone was done inside, and we walked as a group to a nearby intersection to wait for our bus. It took about fifteen minutes for our driver to wend his way through traffic to where we were waiting, enough time for me to gaze in awe and wonder at the traffic patterns in this overcrowded metropolis.

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How We Pray — Bima of Tifereth Israel Synagogue
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How They Pray –Hindu Shrine

Lots of places have too much traffic, but most of them have some method to control it: traffic lights, stop signs, roundabouts, cross walks. In Bombay, there are traffic lights – every several miles or so – and, unlike New Delhi, drivers actually do stop when the light is red. But……. In India, most of the time, drivers just keep going, signaling with their horn that they are coming. Large trucks, small trucks, buses (Ralphy assured me that the crowded red buses – not air-conditioned – that look like they are from the time of Ghandi are actually relatively new) cars, taxis, motor cycles, motor bikes, rickshaws, bicycles, pushcarts are all converging and passing one another in some insane rhythm, all the while honking, honking, honking. Supposing you’re a pedestrian and you want to cross the street?, you ask. Indians just dart out into the street and weave their way around the on-coming vehicles, which somehow stop to let them through. So if you’re me, you wait until a few random people start to cross, get on the side away from traffic, and use the locals as a human shield. That’s how. After a while, I was beginning to get a massive headache from all the horn blowing, which would continue from the first light of morning well into the evening. Mercifully our bus arrived and we piled on, finally heading to where we were staying before collective exhaustion set in.

Now Barbara and I do not make a habit of frequenting five star hotels; in fact, we have never been at any place nearly as fancy as the places we stayed at in India. That’s because Ralphy has a deal with the Taj chain of hotels. He brings his tour groups to their hotels, and they take care of his people. Typical Ralphy! The President Hotel is a place where there’s someone on hand for anything you need. I didn’t try it, but I suspect that if you sneezed, a staff member would come running over with a tissue. The only thing you have to do yourself is go through the tight security – almost like at an airport. Their sister hotel, the Taj Mahal – even fancier – was one of the places targeted in the 2008 terrorist attack. So they are on guard, determined to prevent any repetition.

We handed in our passports so the hotel could make a photocopy – standard procedure in all the hotels we stayed at – took our room key cards, and went up to our room, which looked pretty fancy-shmancy to our unaccustomed eyes. We’ve never been anywhere with terry-cloth robes for us to use neatly hanging in the closet. This being India, there were bottles and bottles of purified water as well.

Unpack, catch our breathe, and it was time for evening prayers and dinner, both on the veranda – an area set aside exclusively for our use while we are there. Did I mention that, even though it’s February, the day time temperature there was in the eighties (Fahrenheit)? So of course we would want to eat al fresco in the cool, cool, cool of the evening. Say good night, go up to our room, and crawl into bed.

And that was the first day of our trip.

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