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.”

Daily Dispatch 9: Ahmedabad, City of Diversity

AHMEDABAD - There was evening and there was morning, the ninth day.

For some of us it began very early. The Guru of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism was set to leave for Africa on Friday and thousands of his followers were there to see him off after his daily Puuja. A few of us left the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to witness the spectacle.

Professor Trivedi, a Swaminarayan Hindu himself, presented the Guru with a necklace of red flowers and was invited by the Guru to display his prowess as a musician, leading a song and playing the harmonium before the crowd.

“The incredible part of it is that this happens every day the guru is in town,” said Cole who accompanied Professor Trivedi. Cole was fascinated by the sheer logistics of getting so many thousands in one place.

For the rest of us our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry.

Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms.

“I just love the imagery of it, these women walking around in all white in this white marble space,” said Thea. “It such a good place for contemplation and really understanding how ahimsa works in practice.”

After the nuns, we stopped by the state of Gujarat’s only synagogue, the art deco Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad’s old city. We were greeted there by an elder of the synagogue who told that he was one of the only 140 Jews in Gujarat. The man, whose first name was Benson, told us about the community, how it first came to Gujarat and how it has dwindled in size in recent years.

“We are not sure what the future has in store for us, but we are hoping and trying to keep the torch of Judaism burning in this part of the world.” Benson said.

Our final stop in the old city was the Parsi Agiari, or Zoroastrian fire temple. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and was the state religion of ancient Persia. The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Being associated with Persia they were called Parsis by the local Gujaratis after Iran’s Fars Province.

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Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria, a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis. Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad.

“I particularly enjoyed seeing the sharp contrast between how the Jewish leader and the Parsi leader spoke about the size of their communities,” Andrea observed. “Though both are small, at the synagogue Benson spoke about how grounded his community is in this location and their attempts to grow and preserve it, while the Parsi leader spoke frankly about the possibility of his community disappearing in the next 25 years.”

After we left our meeting at the Agiari, we had off until the evening to report, shop or relax by the hotel pool. A few of us joined Professors Trivedi and Goldman for a lunch at place called Swati’s Snacks which is known for its modern take on traditional Gujarati cuisine. Speaking at least for myself, I can say that the Gujarati food, pure vegetarian cuisine known for its sweetness, was a welcome change that the spicy cuisine we had had in Delhi, Vrindavan and Rishikesh.

Intrigued by what we learned in the Agiari, Natasha and I were interested in doing a story on the Parsis and inquired about the “Towers of Silence” where Parsi practice the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial. In a sky burial, corpses are left out on the top of towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey so that nothing is left behind. Anklesaria offered to take us to the towers on Ahmedabad’s outskirts and told us all about the tradition and how the community is working to maintain it in modern India.

In the Evening the group was split up, and given the opportunity to have dinner with families from the different faiths we have been covering here.

Sylvia, Ellen and Andrea ate by a Jain family which was celebrating the breaking of a yearlong fast by one of its members. “We learned a ton about what is required in the Jain diet and why they have to eat before sundown and not until an hour after the sun rises,” Sylvia explained. “It's because there are organisms you cannot see in darkness that could be in your food, which Jains neither want to hurt nor eat.”

Emily, Thea and Gudrun ate by a Swaminarayan Hindu family. There, 10 members from four generations of the family all lived together. Over local Gujarati dishes, the group had the chance to ask them about the intersection of politics, religion and development.

“We all felt, because all three of us had been at the BAPS temple that morning that it was pretty fabulous opportunity to see religiosity in the home and the differences between the religion as explained by our textbooks, what we heard and the temple and what we experienced in the home,” said Thea.

Cole, Ana and Elizabeth had opportunity to join the Parsis in a community dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the construction of their Temple. “There were 500 people there sitting facing each other like a beer Hall,” said Cole. “It really struck me how open they were about their dwindling numbers. They said they’ve been [around] for 3,000 [years] and this isn’t going to be the end of them.”

Since it was Friday Night, Natasha, Pia and I went to Shabbat Services at the Synagogue. We didn’t end up having dinner with a Jewish family but instead made our own Shabbos dinner back at the Hotel with professor Goldman. Since alcohol is banned in Gujarat, we had to make Kiddush, the ceremonial blessing of the wine, in Goldman’s room. Though it seemed that the kosher wine Professor Goldman had brought with him from New York had soured, the experience was sweet nonetheless.


Photo by Ana Singh

Daily Dispatch 3: Footloose in Delhi: A Mosque, a Purim Celebration and a Bird Sanctuary

NEW DELHI – After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. It is made up of small, unmarked backstreets where sanctuaries hide and large main roads are packed with people, music and impromptu parades. It can be daunting, but our confidence grew with the hour and we met the challenge.

Emily spent her day at the Nizamuddin Dargah. She had a sit down with Syed Bilal where they spoke about the upkeep of the shrine, in particular the “interdenominational nature of visiting devotees.”

“We also discussed the film industry’s impact on the shrine,” Emily said. “It’s a frequent location for shooting.”

Natasha and David started their day early with the intent of covering several different stories. They ventured to the Muslim part of old Delhi on a search for a restaurant serving nihari, a breakfast food made with beef, which is illegal in Dehli.

From there they did an interview with the deputy director of the Delhi Haj committee, who decides which Delhi-ites will be allowed to travel to Mecca each year.

They then met up with the imam of the Jama Masjid again to talk more about the Haj.

“That interview took an interesting turn when we learned, as it came to an end, about his boyhood dreams of playing cricket for the national team,” Natasha said.

The pair ended their day with a late night party in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim at the local Chabad House.

“A late night, but a fabulous and rewarding day of work and play,” Natasha said.

Professor Goldman even got in on the fun at the Chabad House. The house, which serves as a synagogue and hostel for visiting Israeli youth and others, is down a narrow alleyway off the main bazaar. A huge photo of the late leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson pointed the way.

“Inside the Chabad House, the local Chabad rabbi, who is from Israel, read the story of Purim in the scroll known as the Book of Esther,” Goldman said. “It tells the ancient drama of a plot against the Jews that is foiled by an unlikely Jewish Queen.”

Professor Goldman compared the festivities to Holi and explained there was plenty of liquor, confetti and lots of dancing. He did say that the men and women danced in separate part of the Synagogue. “It seemed like a good way to usher in Holi.”

Gudrun met with Molinder Singh at the Bhai Vir Sing Marg Institute. The Pari spoke about the politics behind the turban. She learned that “turbans are six meters long and a sign of religious affiliation and commitment (or a reminder) to dharma.”

Ellen and Andrea met up with Syed Hammadi Nizami at the Nizamuddin Sufi Shrine to talk about the effects demonetization has made on charitable giving in different faiths.

The team of Pia and Thea traveled over Dehli state lines to Noida to visit the Immanuel Mar Thoma Chruch.

“We interviewed senior citizen congregants, who were gathered there for a lunchtime conversation about gender dynamics in the Bible,” Pia said. “We chatted with them about preserving their Keralan roots in Delhi and beyond, and shared delicious Keralan food with the reverend and his family."

The Pia/Thea team is also working on a story about the pollution of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. They were able to secure a sit down with Dr. Syamel Sarkar, the Director of Water Resources and Forestry research.

As for me, I ventured to the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir Bird Sanctuary in old Dehli. I had to dash across a highway that separates the Red Fort and the bustling shops of Old Dehli. There are no signs to indicate when the safe time to walk is, so I just took a deep breath, sucked in my stomach and weaved in and out of cars, mopeds and rickshaws that appear to be trying to do the same thing. But once across, it was right there.

Walking up the stairs to the bird sanctuary I was greeted with signs, including one that read, “Birds are our friends. Do not hurt them for your food, amusement, pleasure, safety. Security of our living creatures and environment is our topmost religion.” Jains put an importance on leaving a life free of harm and violence. Jains believe that all creatures deserve to live without harm. They are famously known for not even killing bugs.

Everyone returned back to the hotel safe and full of stories about navigating the big and confusing city. It was incredible to finally be able to use our skills that we’ve been developing over our seven weeks of class and use them in a practical setting.


Photo by Elizabeth VanMetre

Taking Out The Torah at Rego Park Jewish Center


Two hundred people might easily fit in the sanctuary of Rego Park Jewish Center – but by 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, barely 10 have taken their seats for the start of the service. As the first hour passes, more and more worshippers filter in, reaching for the prayer books in their niche on the back of the seat. They join in with the service with varying levels of vigor as soon as they find their place on the page.

The building dates back to 1948: its main sanctuary is painted pale green and pink, with wooden wall paneling and unusual Art Deco flourishes, like the two spindly menorahs that flank the stage. The walls are lined with stained glass windows in purples and blues – names like “Sidney and Mary Sekula” or “In Memory of Anna Hess” picked out in white against images of hands, books and scrolls. Two round metal light fittings, gleaming like spaceships, hang from the ceiling. On the stage, two flags – Israel’s and the United States – hang limply to either side.

Rabbi Romiel Daniel stands on the stage and faces away from the congregation, rocking gently backwards and forwards on his heels as he chants in Hebrew. To his left stands the sexton, known as the gabbai, in a black velvet yarmulke. Occasionally, he will call out into the room: “Page 25! Please stand. … You may sit. … Now, page 51…”

A little over an hour into the service, Rabbi Daniel steps to the ark in the center of the stage. It has a purple velvet curtain, embellished with gold and edged in silvery beading. There is a large Star of David in the middle above some Hebrew text. He tugs on a cord once, twice, three times – the curtain opens. Inside, five or six scrolls are nestled snugly together on a shelf, up off the floor. The congregation rises as one and chants together: ‘ein kamocha baelohim adonai v’ain k’maasecha…” (“There is none like Thee among the gods, O Lord, and there are no works like Thine…”)

Four other men come onto the stage to help remove two of the scrolls from their spot on the shelf. The scrolls are the size of small infants: the helpers take them in their arms and hold them against their torsos, resting the wooden ends of the scroll on their right shoulders. One scroll is wrapped in an embellished purple mantle, similar to the curtain that hid it from view; the other in a plainer taupe cloth with a colorful embroidered pattern. The other helpers reach for a dazzling silver crown and a set of matching finials, decked with little bells. Rabbi Daniel takes one of the scrolls from the helper and begins to walk. The others join him, moving slowly down the stairs and in an anti-clockwise direction around the pews.

The men and women of the congregation slip gracefully to the end of their benches, ready to greet the parade. Before, there had been whisperings between them of the outside world (“So windy outside!” said one woman during the chanting, shaking her head), but now there is only the quiet repetition of “Shabbat shalom” from one worshipper to one another. Hands are lightly shaken, but every head is turned towards the procession, like a field of sunflowers looking to the light. The scrolls and the texts they contain may be the central reference and at the center of the liturgy, but more than that, they are at the center of the faith – to be adorned as treasure and, in turn, treasured.

The scrolls are paraded down the aisle: as they pass, people reach out with their prayer books, knocking them against the mantle as softly as a kiss. Almost every man wears a fringed prayer shawl around his shoulders – these too are stretched out over the fingers and touched against the scroll. Some worshippers simply reach out with their bare hands, and then bring their fingers slowly to their lips. They look enraptured.

The procession moves in a U-shape down one aisle, across the back of the room and back up the other, more swiftly than before, before returning to the stage. The crown and finials removed, one scroll is laid on the podium and the other returned to its shelf. The congregation sits once again.