India for Me…Day 3 (Shabbat)

There we were, back in the President Hotel, getting ready for Shabbat. But how does that work in Mumbai? It’s not an issue in any hotel in Israel. You go to the front desk and ask for an old-fashioned key, which you use on Shabbat instead of the normal swipe card to unlock the door to your room. There’s invariably a handy staircase to go up and down. Some of them even have a Shabbat elevator! That’s because hotels in Israel expect that some of their guests are shomer Shabbat. But what do you do in Indian hotels, where Shabbat is less of a priority? They don’t have room keys, and they only have “emergency” exits for staircases. Ralphy, as always, to the rescue.

This is what you do. When you need to get into your room, you sidle up to the front desk and announce, “We’re in room 327,” which alerts them to send a helpful uniformed employee up to the third floor to open the door for you. Going up and down the rarely used staircases is more of an issue. Ralphy has arranged for all of us to be on the lower floors, but between the lobby and the first floor are several levels for staff use, including the several kitchens. Of course, if you wind up in the vegetarian kitchen, no one will yell at you. A perfectly attentive sous chef will walk with you to where you need to be.

At the appointed time, the group assembled in the hotel lobby. We would walk en masse to Kenesset Eliyahoo where the women would light candles, we would daven and then join in the communal Friday night dinner.

We must assume that Ralphy walks fast. When he says it’s a half hour walk from the hotel to the shul, that means forty-five minutes if you’re walking at a leisurely pace. It also means that Ralphy, Yael, or Avniel would be leading the way. Otherwise, we would still be wandering around the streets of Mumbai, hoping that the Prophet Eliyahu would find us and show us where to go.

You may assume – correctly – that we did find our way. On the appropriate side street, go past the platoon of soldiers guarding the building and walk right in. Enter the sanctuary a flight up from the entrance.

Long time readers of my articles will be familiar with my “If you build it, they will abandon it” thesis. Is there a synagogue anywhere more beautiful than Kenesset Eliyahoo? (Please click on the link above to see for yourself.) Yet, to put it mildly, it has seen better days. The Baghdadi Jews, for whom this house of worship was built, have all gone away, fleeing hither and yon in 1948 after India ceased to be a British colony. All that is left are a few Bene Israel (Oh irony of ironies, considering that the Baghdadi interlopers never took kindly to their indigenous brethren) to keep the place going, with considerable help from the tourists that Ralphy provides.

We walked in, more than enough of us to form a minyan – which was a good thing, because at first there were only a handful of men sitting on benches that could comfortably seat several hundred. By and by, the “locals” began drifting in, one, two, or three at a time, including the new Chabad rabbi, so ultimately they would have had a minyan without us, but barely.

Almost everybody stayed for dinner, a more than ample spread. Light on the wine; our host also provided some Johnny Walker Red (not my usual, but desperate times call for desperate measures). He also provided us with a few well chosen words. Seems he has some race horses, to whom he has given some fanciful, Jewish-themed names, like “Megilla,” and these horses have actually done quite well for him, winning some important races. We all cheered. On a more serious note, we were told that in recent past some prominent Israeli dignitaries and celebrities like Madonna have visited Kenesset Eliyahoo – not to daven of course, but to do whatever it is that dignitaries and celebrities do.

Solomon (that’s our host and patron) seemed optimistic about the synagogue’s future. Certainly, an infusion of cash for a desperately needed renovation (which could happen) would help – as would an infusion of new blood to fill the many empty seats. That is unlikely.

Time to head back to the hotel, through the Mumbai “night life.” We began to see a few men sleeping on the sidewalks, then a few more. Then ten on one corner. Then a woman with five or six dogs, one of whom was snuggled under a blanket. The dogs seemed unperturbed; just a few of the hundreds of strays that wander the streets here, there, and everywhere in India. Then women and children. On a ledge were sitting a woman and her son, who looked about eight years old. I will never forget the look on his face, a combination of shock, despair, and resignation. His mother had no place to take him – not even to one of the hovels we past on the way in from the airport, not even the poor house accommodations à la Dickens. Just a perch on a ledge on a street corner in Mumbai.

We, of course, had a place to stay, a very nice one at that. We told the clerk at the front desk the number of our room, and a uniformed attendant was dispatched to open the correct door. No need for him to walk up the several flights of stairs; he was going to take the elevator. Why not join him? He’s going up anyway. Which we did.

*****

The plan for Shabbat morning was simple enough. There would be two shifts leaving the hotel, one to reach Kenesset Eliyahoo early and one to arrive at a more sensible hour. No one felt confident to head out on his own – we had not left a trail of bread crumbs Friday night. The early group headed out in time to catch everyone’s favorite show, “Saturday morning on the streets of Mumbai.” This episode of the award-winning series featured, 1) a stray dog stuck in the middle of a busy intersection, howling in frustration as cars kept whizzing by him; 2) lots of homeless people still asleep on the sidewalks of Downtown Mumbai, oblivious to what was going on around them; 3) a line around the block of people waiting to apply for their children to attend a private Catholic school; 4) a group of of street urchins begging for food. Gets you right in the mood for morning prayers, don’t it?

Same as the previous night, we provided the minyan at the start, and the regulars straggled in, as was their wont. Afterwards, most of us again headed down to the “dining room” for another hearty meal and some more Johnny Walker Red (What will my friends back home think of me, I wondered).

Since we were still at the synagogue, the decision was to hang around until it was time for the afternoon prayers. That would give Ari Z. time for a talk about sheitels. There was a time, maybe ten or so years ago when the problem du jour in certain circles was the advisability of women’s wearing wigs made from the hair of Hindu women. What was that all about? Ari Z. would explain, although I fail to remember the resolution, if any.

The previous evening when we were leaving Kenesset Eliyahoo, we walked through what was going to be a street festival, now in progress as we were heading back Shabbat afternoon. We divided up into different groups, one going one way, a second another, a third staying to watch the local arts and crafts. I was more than happy to head back to the hotel for a well deserved Shabbat nap, followed by all of us getting together for a third meal. Evening prayers and then another Shabbat had come and gone.

Some of the folks decided to go out and do something Saturday night. Barbara joined a group going with Ralphy to the even more elegant Taj Mahal for “a drink.” Me? All I wanted to do was stay in our room and curl up with a book. I had seen enough of Mumbai. Which was OK, because we were leaving for our next scheduled stop at the crack of dawn, or even earlier – if that time of day even exists.

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