Waiting for the Messiah

Waiting for the Messiah

As India prepares for Holi, a small community of Jewish tourists and travellers celebrate Purim at the Delhi Chabad House, hosted by Rabbi Akiva and Mushka Soudry

NEW DELHI – The Hindu festival of Holi and the Jewish holiday of Purim have a few common features: a sense of play, merriment and celebration -- and, every few years, coinciding dates. Both religions’ holidays are governed by complicated lunar calendars. In 2016, the two holidays fell on the same day. And this year, they were a day apart, with Purim on March 12 and Holi on March 13.

Holi celebrates the deity Krishna’s love for the divine Radha. Purim, the deliverance of the Jews from the evil decree of an ancient Persian minister. Both are days of excess and, generally, a really good time. While India’s billion Hindus were on the brink of celebrating Holi, a tiny congregation of expat Jews observed Purim at the Chabad House in Delhi’s main bazaar.

In a hectic bazaar filled with signs in Hindi, Urdu and other Indic languages, a large Hebrew sign stands out overhead. It points down a dusty alleyway, where a bored-looking security guard sits outside a door, playing on his smartphone. Up the stairs, Rabbi Akiva Soudry, 30, careens around the room, arm in arm with a younger man, to the thumping beats of neo-Hasidic dance music.

Earlier, Soudry called the room to order for the reading of the Megillah, written, like many sacred Jewish writings, on an animal hide scroll. He rattled through the text at breakneck speed, pausing only occasionally for the beating of drums and noisemakers, blotting out the name of Haman, the villain of the story. To add to the din, a younger man regularly fired a confetti cannon that belched scraps of colored paper around the room.

As the rest of the country stocked up on colored dyes for Holi, the Soudrys - Akiva, his wife Mushka, 27, and their three small children - were hosting a free kosher meal for about 30 people. Chicken wings; chopped Israeli salad; viscous tahina; and a warm eggplant dish drenched in olive oil, stained ruby-red. As Akiva addressed the congregation, swaying backwards and forth, smoke swirled into the room from barbecues at the back, manned by local helpers. Despite the New Delhi heat, Akiva wears the traditional Hasidic male outfit: black trousers, a white shirt and a long black kaftan. His beard hangs down almost to his chest.

Purim is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. Trying to explain it, Mushka exclaims, “Purim is happiness!” She and Akiva both grew up in Israel. Their English is accented, sounding almost French at times, and as they talk, they make little asides to one another in Hebrew.

“So many times, different nations and different people tried to kill us, and to destroy the Jewish. Us,” says Akiva. “Purim is a great example of how a plan to destroy us and to kill us totally changed. Instead of killing [the Jews], they became respected. And everybody understands that the Jewish are special. This is Purim, from the bottom to very high, because of God’s miracles.” Today, more than ever before, he says, this is a time to celebrate. “Now, we are strong, we are comfortable with our Judaism everywhere in the world. Really, we are now in the Purim situation.”

IMG_8531Akiva and Mushka are members of Chabad, a Hasidic sect sometimes called Lubavitch. “Chabad” is an acronym, standing for the three Kabbalistic principles that Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of the sect, felt were key to understanding to God: Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge). Chabad emissaries go to every corner of the globe to set up Chabad houses -- open homes, where affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike can expect a warm reception and weekly Shabbat services. Chabad estimates that there are now over 3,500 institutions across more than 85 countries. Each is a little pocket of Judaism in some of the world’s most unexpected places.

New Delhi might be a good candidate for one of the more unlikely. Over the last few decades, most of India’s local Jews left the country for Israel, leaving just 5,000 still in the country. Akiva and Mushka minister to a carousel of Israeli backpackers and travelling Western tourists. At their Purim dinner, most people are chattering excitedly in Hebrew, between swigs of whiskey or beer. An English couple are in India to visit the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, while a set of identical twins from Canada on separate routes around the country have reconvened here in the Chabad house.

Mushka and Akiva met through a Shidduch, a matchmaking system where prospective spouses are introduced by an intermediary -- in this case, Mushka’s brother. The brother and his wife keep a Chabad house in South India -- but, before they got married, he visited the Delhi Chabad house for Shabbat, where Akiva was. Akiva brought water and pre-cut pieces of toilet paper to his room (tearing sheets from the roll is not permitted on Shabbos in some sects of Orthodox Judaism). “He liked that,” Akiva says, laughing. “So… this is the payment.” Mushka and Akiva were married soon after -- now, they have three children under the age of five.

But being in Delhi has its challenges. Moksha initially says she doesn’t like it -- later, Akiva describes her as hating it. She doesn’t correct him. They have very few local friends, maintaining only a loose connection to the very small Bene Israel community, and the difficulties of living an Orthodox life in such a foreign context are considerable. It’s costly, Akiva says. “She is paying every day. Not in money, but in hardness. She don’t have a school to send the children, she don’t have a kindergarten.” Mushka must homeschool their children, and there’s no sandbox, no slides -- not even a doctor they can trust. “We don’t have it here. Everything is on our shoulders.” Yesterday, Mushka says, her little boy cut his forehead open. “And… you pray. You don’t know what else to do.”

But Akiva says the challenges and cultural clashes make him a better person. “Before, I was very… let’s say, very easily angered … The Indians, they make me crazy in everything I have to do with them, it’s very hard. But now, I’m much more calm. I take it easy, everything. I think it changed me a lot.”

Chabad has had seven Grand Rabbis, known in Yiddish as rebbes, starting with Shneur Zalman in 1698. Its most recent, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died in 1994. He wrote extensively - some 300 volumes of published work - and helped push Chabad to the status it has today, reviving the movement in America after the Holocaust. After his death, adherents chose not to find a new leader, instead hoping to continue the work he had begun. Mushka’s full name is Chaya Mushka, named in memory of his wife.

Akiva and Mushka believe that being in Delhi is their destiny -- ordained both by God and by the Rebbe. “This is our target and our mission in this world,” says Akiva. “We came here just for three months. And God made all the things for us to stay [for good]. So, we’re here. We can change it very easily, but it is not the right thing to do.” The role is made especially for them, he adds. Anywhere would have its challenges, Mushka offers. “But each place, you have to fight for something. And this is where God sent us.”

They still reminisce about Israel, where much of their family is -- sometimes, Akiva admits, he thinks he might be happier if he lived there all the time. “But I know that it’s not true. This is the place where I should be. And this is the only place where I will be glad and I will be happy.”

Chabad seeks to bring Judaism to Jews wherever they are in the world or in their religious practice -- those who believe, and those for whom it is first and foremost a cultural identity. Chabadniks hope that, through interaction with Shabbat services, social occasions and other Chabad activities, Jews will find solace in their religion. Chabad Houses might provide everything from classes and religious services to counselling.

Akiva and Mushka Soudry feel a great sense of responsibility to Jewish tourists who may be passing through. “The travellers are our community,” Mushka says. “We look after them.” This encompasses helping them if they get into trouble with the law or simply sharing with them in their experiences. “Everything they need, they come to us,” Akiva says. “Even if it’s a bad thing, or it’s a good thing.” His face lights up as he describes hearing those travellers’ good news - an engaged sister, for instance. “It’s very nice. People are coming to us just to share a good thing.” They use WhatsApp to keep in touch with people around the country, some of whom remain in contact long after they’ve returned home.

But there’s another reason for them to be in India. “The rebbe is saying that part of the redemption is that Jews will go all over the world, and they will be mixed up with the local people,” Akiva says. The very fact of being in India and living a Hasidic lifestyle there takes the whole country to a higher level, he adds. “It makes India a part of the Jewish mission,” Mushka says. They will sometimes go with Israeli guests and dance in public with the Torah. “It makes us feel stronger to be different,” she says. “And being in India, we all feel the specialness of being Jewish. It’s very exciting.”

That excitement may need to sustain them for some time. For, Akiva explains, “we are staying here until moshiach is coming.” Mushka nods. “Until the redemption. We’ve been waiting a long time. More than 2,000 years.” But, she says, the wait for a messiah may soon come to an end. “We are praying every day, three times a day, and we know, every Jew believes, that moshiach is going to come very, very soon. Sooner than soon.” And when that happens, she says, they won’t need to be in India any longer. “So we will be leaving very soon.”

The Rebbe’s teachings place some emphasis on the coming of moshiach -- so much so that some of his followers began to wonder if he might be that messiah himself. “In the last few years before 1994, the Rebbe said a few times, in different ways, that we are the last generation of exile, and the first generation of redemption,” Akiva explains. This has led them, among some other Chabad devotees, to believe that Rebbe is the messiah -- still alive, and coming back to save them.

Akiva and Mushka say that they remain in regular communication with him, writing letters whenever they have a question or a problem. Regular letters obviously don’t work, he says, so instead they write questions on paper and slip it inside a book of his collected letters. “We believe that the Rebbe is sending us the exact answer, for us. And according to that answer, we are acting.” The Rebbe has been able to tell them what to do in every situation, Akiva says. “He is giving us the power to do things.” Mushka falls silent, then chimes in. “Without this… I am not sure that we would be here.”

They stand together in a pool of yellow light from the Delhi streetlamps. It’s getting late -- approaching midnight. Rickshaws hurtle past the turning to the alley, while the security guard continues to text. Upstairs, the party is beginning to tip into a Hasidic version of raucousness. Women and men are separated by a wooden screen -- the men, sweating in their black and white clothes in the evening heat, hurtle round in circles, their arms on one another’s shoulders. The women have tied polyester scarves edged with metal coins around their waists. Wiggling their hips, they lipsync into a plastic tulip pulled from a stray vase, laughing until tears pool in the corners of their eyes. Non-dancers lean against the window-frame, drinking cheap whiskey from plastic shot glasses and smoking cigarette after cigarette.

Tonight belongs to Purim, and this tiny expat community. The isolation does nothing to detract from their joy, Akiva says. “It makes us feel Jewish. Lonely between so many Indians, but still happy, still family, still loving one another, and still wanting to be in peace with all the world. This makes us feel Jewish.”


Ahmedabad’s Parsis Fight to Bring Back the Vultures

Ahmedabad’s tiny Zoroastrian community has a plan to restore vultures to the area, to help with their traditional funerary practices

AHMEDABAD –  With its nine species of vultures all under threat of extinction, India is the middle of something of a “vulture crisis.” By the end of 2016, there were only an estimated 999 of the birds left in the western state of Gujarat, according to the Gujarat Ecological Educational Research Foundation.

With vultures down to a countable number, even a few accidental deaths are worrying. One small contributor to vulture mortality is the annual festival of  Uttarayan, a time when tens of thousands of kites are set aloft in a day of fun, devotion and sport. The festival, held in January, is symbolic – the kites represent the gods awakening from their winter slumber – but is also deadly for many birds.  Kite enthusiasts cover their strings in powdered glass, so they’ll be sharp enough to slash through others’ during mid-air “kite fights.”

Like so many of the the kites, many of the vultures that get in the way will never fly again.

India’s vulture population has been decimated by decades of being poisoned by the drug diclofenac, often given to cows as an anti-inflammatory. As beef is banned for human consumption in much of India, the cows’ carcasses are usually left to the vultures. In these high concentrations, the drug is lethal to the birds. Despite a 2006 diclofenac ban, three vulture species are on the brink of extinction.

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Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria

The vulture crisis has had particularly challenging consequences for the country’s tiny Zoroastrian community, also known as Parsis. While Hindus burn their dead and Muslims bury them, Zoroastrians maintain a unique practice, known as Dokhmenashini or “sky burial.”  The dead are placed on so-called Towers of Silence, squat cylindrical buildings that look like grain silos, where their corpses are picked dry by vultures and other birds of prey, until nothing but the bones remain. These are dissolved in quicklime and leech into the soil.

“The basic philosophy is charity,” said Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria. “Once the soul has departed, the mortal remains are of no use to anybody – so let it be of use to another living being.” Now retired, he is a leader in Ahmedabad’s Parsi community.

Just 30 years ago, there were over 80 million vultures in India – more than enough to take care of the funerary needs of the country’s 60,000 Parsis. Today, though, the number of vultures nationwide has fallen into the thousands. Other birds, like ibises, will do the job, Anklesaria says, but they are no match for vultures, who can strip a body down in a matter of hours.

“If a vulture weighs 30 kilos or 20 kilos, at any given time it can eat up to 40 kilos,” Anklesaria said, as he sat with the local priest Vistasp Dastur in the mortuary room next to the Towers. “It can eat so much it can hardly walk. So, if you have five or seven of such birds… one body will be finished in a few hours.”

Without vultures, bodies take far longer to be disposed of, which creates both a religious and public health issue. To try to solve this, many Zoroastrian communities, including Ahmedabad’s, have installed solar collectors, which help the sun dry out the body faster. These will only work, however, in warm, clear weather.

Anklesaria, sporting a large white moustache, describes himself as a hardcore carnivore, starting each day with four or five eggs. He drives a square white car with the word ‘ARMY’ emblazoned on its windshield.

He has a plan, and, when he describes it, speaks and moves with military efficiency. Rather than letting Uttarayan contribute in its own small way to vulture decline, he hopes to take in half a dozen of the inevitably injured birds after next year’s festival and keep them in semi-captivity near the Towers of Silence. There’s fundraising still to do, but he’s optimistic.

As Ahmedabad’s Zoroastrian community barely numbers 1,500, the dead won’t be enough to feed the birds. Usually, he says, only about two Parsis die each month – the rest of the time, the birds will have to be fed with meat, funded by the local community.

He isn’t the first to come up with such an idea. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Parsi leaders in Mumbai, home to India’s largest Parsi community, were planning on building two large aviaries around their Towers of Silence that would house 76 vultures each.

Sheltering the birds is only one part of that plan. Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence sit atop a sandy hill in a neighborhood called Jashoda Nagar on the outskirts of town. The most commonly used tower was built in 1929; the second, now defunct tower, dates from 1843. At the edge of the area is a third, reserved for children who die before their Navjote, an induction ceremony into the Parsi community, or for adults who die “unnaturally” – through suicide, in childbirth or while menstruating. On a tour around the towers, Anklesaria strides through the area confidently, but steers clear of that third structure.

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One of Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence

Anklesaria hopes to turn the scrubby lot into a public park. Already, trees are being planted and man-made lakes dug into the sand. Peacocks flap about the Towers and the purple bougainvillea flowers are in full bloom. Wealthier Parsis subsidize low-cost housing in the area for poorer Zoroastrians. Anklesaria hopes they will come to see the area not as a barren wasteland, but a tranquil recreation spot.

More importantly, though, he wants it to be fit for avian habitation. “The purpose of having such a big area,” Ankelasaria says, gesturing proudly at the property, “is so that the birds will come back.”

The vultures’ demise has also seen a decline in sky burials. Many more secular Parsis are instead choosing to be cremated, like the majority of Indians. For more traditional Parsis, this is a horrifying development. Fire is a sacred element to Zoroastrians, and the vessel through which worshippers experience the divine presence of Ahura Mazda, the Uncreated Spirit, the god of good and truth in Zoroastrianism. To place a corpse, seen as the height of ritual impurity, onto a pyre would be the ultimate sacrilege.

While Ankelasaria, who is married to a Christian woman, is non-judgmental about those who favor cremation, he expresses a clear preference for sky burial when his time comes. “Of course I will,” he says, squinting at the Tower in the late afternoon sun.

Now in his sixties, that day is hopefully a long way off. Far more worrying is the likelihood Ahmedabad’s Parsis might soon die out altogether. Ankelasaria estimates that they may have less than 50 years left. Birth rates are low, and dropping, and many young Zoroastrians are put off by the religion’s esoteric rules and regulations, which prohibit women from marrying outside of the faith.As the number of vultures dips lower and lower, so too does the number of Zoroastrians – and it’s hard to know which flame will be extinguished first.

Featured Image Photo Credit:© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons