Covering Religion

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Dispatch written by Deena Guzder

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Sabbath morning began with a cacophony of crows flying through the gauzy clouds that stretch across Mumbai’s pale sky like birthmarks on a new mother’s belly. Groggily answering wake-up calls and slathering sunscreen across our shoulders, we left our disheveled rooms, which were quickly tidied by invisible hands during our absence, and enjoyed a breakfast buffet downstairs. Adam Goldmann, the son of our professor, corralled chai-sipping stragglers into the lobby and led us away from our overzealously air-conditioned hotel and into the hot, muggy streets of Mumbai, the ” Maximum City.”

Selling shiny necklaces wrapped around a rusty metal hanger, a tall boy with clothes that drooped like excess skin on an old man’s face tried to catch our attention. A voice that still sounded child-like and squeaky punctuated the air as we walked, “Hello, Madam, very beautiful necklace, for you only 10 Rupees. OK? OK? Makes good gift.” Noisy bangles and colorful saris of passersby continued in the Saturday bustle, unfazed by the lilt of vendors whose words lingered in the lazy heat. A cow nonchalantly settled itself in the middle of a busy street, unperturbed by the protests of yellow-black cabs that buzzed around its bulky frame. The deities on the cabbies’ dashboards swayed approvingly with each near miss.

After weaving our way through laughing children and impatient rickshaws, we reached the Kineseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, founded in 1884, where we joined the service in progress. Entering the pastel blue building with freshly painted gold and white banisters, the women shuffled upstairs while the men —- donning multicolored yarmulkes -— remained downstairs as is the Orthodox tradition.

Plaques with Hebrew writing adorned the synagogue’s walls and ceiling fans shifted around the heavy air as we imbibed bottles of filtered water and wiped sweat off our faces. The weekly portion of the Torah was chanted in melodic Hebrew and, although far from home, Rebecca Kaufman said the “davening” rabbis were a familiar sight. “There’s something very communal about a service that allows Jewish people to walk into a synagogue and feel at home.”

Neha Singh Gohil, a fellow student, also found the service reminiscent of home. “It’s just like Sikhism. If you know one religion, you know all of them,” she said.

The reading from the Torah was followed by a procession through the male section of the congregation, during which adherents reverently kissed the ornate scrolls carrying the Torah. After a reading from a prayer book, the service ended with the singing of Ein Keloheinu and a plea from the congregation leader to keep the Sabbath. “Rather than a holy place that we must travel to, Shabbat is a holiness that comes to us, once a week, every week,” said a handout distributed to the congregation.

Ari Goldman, our professor, received a special honor to do an aliyah, give a blessing over this week’s Torah reading. “I blessed my wife, my sons, my daughter and my students —- especially since after a week in India some of us are feeling a little ill and on the edge,” said Goldman who wore a blue and white prayer shawl, a talis, and explained that each knot represents one of the 613 biblical commandments that the bearer should follow.

When asked how he was received as a newcomer to the synagogue, Goldman said, “In a way, I’m not a foreigner, but a fellow Jew.” He added, “The beauty is that I know all the rituals and chants so I could go to any synagogue in the world and feel comfortable.”

There are anywhere between 3,500 and 5,000 Jews in India, but the numbers have declined since the creation of Israel, according to Rebecca Kaufman who covered Judaism for the class. “There’s been a steady trickle out of India, but there’s also been a return movement in recent years,” she said. There are seven synagogues in Mumbai.

Kaufman said she was impressed by how the small congregation of Mumbai Jews had preserved their ancient faith, but questioned her own place in the synagogue. “Whenever I walk into an Orthodox setting, I feel like a Jew out of water and worry that I’m somehow not Jewish enough,” said Kaufman who was raised Reform.

Tania Haas, who was raised Conservative, also expressed discomfort. “I don’t find this a very women friendly synagogue. The balcony should be lower so people can see. I feel totally excluded,” said Haas. With the mahogany balcony obscuring the service below and the incessant whir from the “Blue Star Air Conditioning” store outside drowning out Rabbi Gabriel Holtsberg’s sermon, Haas read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” during the service.

The head of the congregation welcomed all the “wonderful guests from the University of Columbia” and emphasized that Jews “pray for humanity” rather than only their specific community.

Goldman made a speech thanking the congregation for bestowing him with the honor of getting an aliyah and wishing the community a “Shabbat Shalom.” The speeches were followed by a family-style meal of potato salad, Indian curry, boiled eggs, Iraqi pita, chicken cutlets, breaded chicken and other Middle Eastern and South Asian dishes. “I think this community may win the award for the best cuisine on the trip,” said the professor’s son, Adam Goldmann.

After lunch, Queenie Belkar, an Indian Jew who has attended the synagogue for the last eight years, said she enjoyed the service. “The Jewish community is India in very well respected and accepted,” she said.

After leaving the synagogue, the group of students dispersed like flies shooed away from a fisherwoman’s catch. John Soltes spoke to a priest about the Catholic community in Mumbai; Karla Buning received a joyful embrace from India’s famous hugging saint; Karim Bardessy enjoyed Parsee food with a friend from Mumbai; Neha Gohil Singh shopped for clothes; Barry Petchesky had a “religious experience” while wading the deep end of a hotel swimming pool; and, Nisreen Habbal celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with Anna-Katarina Gravgaard while pondering which facial features they would like to reshape (the game was called “If you had to get plastic surgery on your face what would you get?”).

Melanie Huff and Irena Choi Sterns’ plans to attend high tea at the Taj Hotel were cancelled when Ahmed Shihab-Eldin was pick-pocketed on a train from Mahim to Churchgate. “He should have kept his wallet separately,” said Elroy Pinto, 20, a journalism student at Bombay University and Ahmed’s fixer.

In the evening, the group reconvened for the Columbia Alumni Reception at the Indigo Bar, a posh club that attracts Mumbai’s nouveau rich -— the type of people who lounge around in plush Terry robes and laugh at all the right times. The royal navy blue couches and Japanese tea tables were bathed in a dull yellow light emitted from the multiple ornate candles dispersed around the bar. Sipping a Bombay Sapphire Martini and using a toothpick to spear a vegetable dumpling off a nearby waiter’s tray, Adam Goldmann reflected on a reality reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “We are in another world. Outside there are emaciated old men sleeping in the gutters and in here it’s like Paris,” he said.

A few kilometers from the Indigo Bar, a mother held her son’s head between her calloused palms, as if appraising a coconut, and used her thumbs to part the child’s hair in search of lice. An elderly man living out of the corrugated skeleton of a rickshaw lay curled in fetal position like an abandoned child in a rusty bassinet. Earlier in the day, near the train station, a boy with shaggy hair that was tinted with henna busily collected Miranda bottle caps and placed them on the railroad lines moments before a train passed. The boy recovered the caps shortly after the train’s wheels had flattened their ruffled edges and, after closely examining his treasure, jumped up and down with delight as if the caps have been transformed into shiny, smooth rupees.

Copyright © 2009 Journalist Deena Guzder
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