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Archive for March, 2010

Faith in Far-Off Lands

March 31, 2010 4 comments

I’ve been praying a lot this week, but not like most other Jews around the world. No, my puja began late at night last Thursday, when I awoke, drenched in sweat, overtaken by a pain in my head so severe I was convinced my eyes would be pressed right out of their sockets.

At that moment, and amid the fits of vomiting that ensued with every subsequent thought of nibbling on a dry biscuit or supping a mere dribble of water, I pleaded with any savior that might listen — G-d, Buddha, Allah, Shiva, Jesus, Hendrix, Barack Obama — that He or She might grant me some relief.

Lest, it wasn’t to be.

So I made my way — sweating, shivering, vision swirling, head pounding, nausea lurking — to a private hospital in town to get some proper medical care. (And here I must thank my housemate, Enrico, for helping me get to the hospital, dealing with doctors in the ER, filling out reams of paperwork, booking me a room and sitting by my side for hours on end — truly divine.)

Four days, dozens of IVs and countless blood tests later (each of these tests, by the way — for dengue fever, malaria, typhoid and a laundry list of other tropical bugs — came back negative; the doctors think I just got caught with a nasty viral infection), I’m safely home: resting, recuperating, and of course, remembering the Exodus.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. I wanted to share two articles I came across today about Jewish life and tradition in far-off lands.

The first piece describes the looming disappearance of Kolkata’s once-thriving Jewish community:

Jewish settlers to Kolkata eventually built five synagogues, at least two schools and a hospital. The schools are still operational, though not one student is Jewish. The Beth El and Maghen David synagogues exist today more as memorials to a former era than as functional Jewish temples.

They established a landmark bakery, Nahoum and Sons, in New Market, a favorite among Jews and gentiles alike who craved its fruit cake, cream rolls and lemon tarts. It, too, like every other Jewish institution, faces a perilous future — the last of the family in Kolkata, David Nahoum, is 84 and frail.

The story is heart-breaking, though one paragraph, buried at the very end, sheds light on a particularly beautiful — and truly extraordinary — aspect of Indian society:

Kolkata, he says, was the kind of place that absorbed everyone. Evidence of that tolerance can be found on the same corner as Maghen David, where land is shared by a Christian church, a Hindu shrine and a Muslim mosque.

The other piece describes a Passover seder held each year in Kigali, Rwanda, not unlike the one I had planned to attend earlier this week in New Delhi. I found this passage particularly moving:

Jews have been telling this story of freedom for thousands of years. Now it’s time to help create a similar story of emancipation for needy people around the world, to free them from the constraints of poverty. I once asked a young Rwandan to define poverty and she replied that it was a lack of freedom. The poor are not free from hunger, not free to travel, not free to control their lives or even their bodies. Here in Rwanda and around the world, poor people are enslaved, just as the Jews were in Egypt. This year is yet another time to remind ourselves that we must work and invest in the poor of all nations to help them grow, prosper, and find the peace and freedom they desire.

Amen. Happy Passover!

On the Road: Holi City, Holy Sites

March 24, 2010 1 comment

For the better part of the past month, I’ve been out of Delhi, visiting a few of India’s holiest cities, following in the footsteps of pilgrims, observing rituals and partaking in some familiar—and unfamiliar—traditions.

What follows are a few short recaps of the first two stops on my sort-of India ritual tour. I’ve thrown in a few videos to add a bit of color.

Jaipur Redux

In early March, I traveled back to Jaipur with some friends to celebrate the spring festival of Holi.

We made a point of trying to catch a glimpse of the local traditions, so we spent much of the weekend curiously and somewhat aimlessly strolling through back alleys and quiet neighborhoods. And on a number of occasions, we happened upon extraordinary street celebrations—some rowdy, some serene, all incredibly joyous and inclusive—often featuring men dressed in flowing robes and intricate costumes, singing, dancing, telling jokes and re-enacting myths that had been passed down for countless generations.

Here’s a scene from one such tamasha, or lively gathering, held beneath a giant, shady tree at the steps of a Hindu temple in a small, traditional community situated miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Jaipur.

We also stopped by the Jaipur Elephant Festival to gawk at dozens (or was it hundreds?) of the brightly painted and glamorously bejeweled creatures stomping around the festival grounds—and while we were there, we decided to dabble (just a few hours early) in the infamous Holi ritual of throwing colored powder and dye at every man, woman and child in sight. Moments later, all of us were caked, head to toe, in bright shades of yellow, red, green, pink and blue. (Some of my pictures better tell this story, so make sure to have a look.)

And as we made our way home down what were typically dark and barren streets of the old city, we were shown the way by the dancing light of ritual bonfires lit every few meters across the entire city, shrouding the Jaipur skyline in an eerie flickering orange haze.

The next morning—the proper time to celebrate Holi—we again grabbed our bags of colors, took to the streets and played once again, painting the faces of every Jaipur-ite we encountered—and vice versa—and exchanging grinning wishes of “Happy Holi!”

The City of Shiva

With my two-month internship at the UN complete, I decided to hit the road on my own for a few weeks. My first stop was Varanasi—also known as Benares, Kashi, and the city of Shiva (the god often referred to as “the destroyer”)—one of India’s oldest and holiest cities. Perched along the western bank of the holy River Ganges, Varanasi is at once mystical, beautiful, serene and somewhat spooky.

I awoke before dawn each morning to stroll or take a boat ride along the ghats (an area of stairs leading down to the water), watching Hindu devotees bathe in the Ganges—a practice believed to help wash away one’s sins—and perform puja, prayers and rituals, as they faced the rising sun.

In the evenings, I sat amid thousands of pilgrims and tourists, clapping and chanting as Hindu holy men blew into conch shells to awaken the gods, beat drums, rang bells and danced with flaming urns, offering hymns in praise of the holy river itself.

And in between, I spent my time climbing the seemingly infinite steps along the city’s picturesque ghats; meandering down its narrow, cow- (and cow shit-) infested alleys; sipping sugary chai and gluttonously sweet curd milkshakes called lassis; stumbling upon new shrines, exquisite and plain, alike, with literally each and every step; averting my gaze from the tired eyes of widows who have come to the city to die, as it’s said passing away in Benares releases one from the cycle of reincarnation; dodging the processions of men chanting the name of the god Ram as they carried the silk-draped bodies of departed loved ones to the river to be cremated…

… shunning the endless string of touts pedaling hand massages, boat rides and ritual offerings of coconuts, flower petals, face paint and candles; meditatively lending my ears to the omnipresent sounds of sitars and tablas and flutes; breathing in the warm Varanasi air, punctuated with the sour, exotic scent of burning corpses, the musty, sewage-tinged odor of the filthy River Ganges, and the sweet, herbaceous fragrance of marijuana being smoked for ritual purposes by holy men and ascetics whose simple orange cloths dot the city’s bustling streets.

And as each extraordinary day drew to a close, I retreated to the serenity of the restaurant atop my guest house, where, with a cup of sweet, milky, comforting chai, I could watch over the city as it glowed in the final moments before the sun disappeared for the evening. And in perfect harmony with the myriad thoughts drifting through my mind, hundreds of children’s kites peppered they sky, flapping and fluttering about in the calming evening breeze.

Photos from both visits can be found here. Stories and pictures from my visits to Haridwar (for the Maha Kumbh Mela pilgrimage) and Rishikesh will be up here soon.

Varanasi Photos are Up!

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I snapped over 1,100 photos over the past two weeks. About 100 of them, taken in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), are now up on my Flickr page.

A full report on that visit should be up here in the next day or two, so be sure to check back. For now, make sure to check out the first batch of pictures!

A New Forum

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been on the road for the past two weeks — observing ancient rituals in Varanasi, walking among Kumbh Mela pilgrims in Haridwar and practicing my yoga poses in Rishikesh — so this blog has been on the back burner.

But I haven’t been silent!

Last week, a few of my housemates launched an exciting and informative blog — the Knowledge Must Weblog — offering a space for Western transplants in India to discuss their experiences. And they were kind enough to publish an entry of mine about some of the quirks of life in Delhi.

Please have a look around their blog, and be sure to check out their company Web site as well. Any of my future contributions to their site will be cross-posted here.

The Family Visit – Act II

March 4, 2010 1 comment

The second leg of my family trip a few weeks ago brought us to Jaipur; I returned to the Pink City with some friends this past weekend to celebrate the Spring festival of Holi.

Both trips were extraordinary — and extraordinarily different. But the combination gave me a more full (though hardly complete) picture of one of Rajasthan’s most vibrant and storied cities.

What follows is a brief (and long overdue) recap of the first of my two visits.

Greeted Like Kings

The man in the turban with the enormous mustache was the first to greet us as we passed by the marble elephant statues and shimmering fountains. Next came a young woman, immaculately dressed, who smeared our foreheads with red paste.

“Namaste,” she said, grinning warmly. “Welcome to the Rambagh Palace Hotel.”

We, too, had something to smile about: we’d be spending the next few nights in the one-time residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur.

We dropped our bags in rooms that must have once served as royal suites, quickly grabbed our cameras and wandered the hotel grounds, mouths gaping, stopping only for a brief moment to watch as barefoot women in exquisite, jewel-studded gowns, bells strapped to their ankles, twirled to the mystical sounds of wooden flutes and drums.

Soon it was time for dinner, and then a good night’s sleep.

Good Fortune

The next morning began bright and early with a visit to Amer Fort (also called the Amber Fort), a beautiful complex — once the center of a capital city — situated in the hills outside of Jaipur. While we didn’t make it there in time to catch an elephant escort up the mountain, we happened upon the fort’s Kali Temple just in time to see worshippers giving offerings to one of the Hindu faith’s most loved — and feared — goddesses.

One man had carried in a bottle of vodka. He offered a few sips to Kali; the rest, now considered sacred, would be brought home to share with family and friends.

We were offered a palm-full of whiskey from a batch blessed earlier that morning, and we eagerly indulged in hopes of warding off illness (though apparently not food poisoning…) and evil spirits.

Moments later, the deafening clang of bells and the fragrant scent of burning herbs filled the air. Men chanted. Others bowed. A mystical aura took hold. And minutes later, energized and ears ringing, we slipped on our shoes and made our way up the fort for picturesque views of mountains in the distance and the city below.

Back on the bus, we rolled onto Jaipur’s streets, weaving around elephants, camels, monkeys and, of course, cows. After lunch and some shopping, we took a stroll through City Palace, making sure to catch two highlights: the armory, a massive display of  daggers, swords and armor; and Jantar Mantar, the observatory, a thoroughly impressive campus of enormous marble sun dials, sophisticated weather-reading tools and precise astronomical instruments built almost three-hundred years ago. Many are still in use today.

And as the sun began its descent, we moseyed amid the soft red sandstone buildings for which Jaipur’s old city is known, popping in and out of tea stalls, spice shops, fruit stands and jewelery stores.

A full day complete, it was time for a shower. Time for a drink. Time for dinner. Time for bed.

And most importantly: Time for the Taj Mahal.

I’ll be posting a few thoughts on the final leg of our trip in the coming days, as well as a report from my second visit to Jaipur, so please stay tuned!

Jaipur Photos are Up!

March 2, 2010 1 comment

Photos from the family trip to Jaipur are (finally) online! A recap of that trip, and of my return to the city this weekend for a colorful Holi celebration (with some wild photos), will be up soon.