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There are Jews in India, and they date back centuries. We worshipped on this Yom Kippur with the Bene Israel Jews at the only Jewish temple in Gujarat, Magan Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad. It was an unforgettable experience.

We left Visnagar at 7 AM to try to catch the morning service. Ahmedabad is a two-hour drive away. We didn't know what time they would start or end, nor how long it would take to find it. We arrived at 9, sometime after the Torah reading (it's one of the early parts in their morning service).

It was a little difficult to find the synagogue. The synagogue's website hasn't been updated in several years and the phone numbers on the webpage didn't work for us. What helped us most was another American who had visited two years ago, and his blog entry had enough clues to help us find our way.  You go just beyond the bridges in Ahmedabad to the Khamasa Gate area, and start asking people for the way to the "Yehudi Church." (Most English-speaking Indians know what a church is, but they've never heard of a synagogue.) Our driver first was given directions to the bright magenta Christian church nearby. when we explained that it wasn't the right one, he found someone else who directed us another four or five blocks down the main road going away from the bridges, to the Magen Abraham temple. The temple is on a little side street on the left. We tried to ask passersby the names of the cross streets there, but we couldn't quite communicate well enough.

2009 is the 75th anniversary year of this particular synagogue, as recently reported in the Times of India.  This is the only Jewish community in Gujarat. The people here trace their religious ancestry back for centuries, and prefer to call themselves "Bene Israel" (Children of Israel) rather than "Jews". For today's service, visitors came from all over india and around the world. A couple weeks ago they had a special commemoration service. They commissioned a special siddur (prayer book) with three columns per page: Hebrew, Marathi (the local language spoken in Mumbai/Bombay), and Hebrew transliterated into Marathi. A majority of the members here in Ahmedabad speak Marathi as their first language, with Hindi a close second. The congregation includes a host of other languages too, like Gujarati and English and modern Israeli Hebrew. Services are conducted in traditional Hebrew, of course.

We were nervous about showing up unannounced and late, but they welcomed us warmly. This is a small outpost of Judiasm, the only one for literally hundreds of kilometers.  They're used to visitors. After the morning service, Michael talked with a couple members, and they were especially pleased to hear that he was a computer science professor teaching in Gujarat.  I tried to talk with the women members, but I didn't find many good English speakers among them except the handful of westerners. One member I did talk with a little later proudly told me her nephew is a computer engineer in Mumbai (Bombay). The Ahmedabad Jews are very active in their city, and have businesses and consulting firms. The members here look and dress and sound and work just like their Hindu neighbors. They're totally Indian and completely Jewish at the same time. It's really neat.

The color of the day was white. The temple was draped in white, with white sheets completely covering the floors and furniture.  It's a stately Art Deco building, with Indian-style marble accents. The white walls and blue trim inside reminded me a little of an Art Deco version of a Masonic lodge hall.  I wore my navy-and-teal salwar kameez, but every other person wore white. The white may be a traditional Orthodox practice; even our Reform rabbi and cantor back home always wear white on Yom Kippur. The men wore white shirts and trousers or white kurtas and pajama pants. The women were mostly in white salwar kameezes, with the rest in saris.  The women sat in the balcony; the men stayed down below. The men wore white tallits (prayer shawls) with blue stripes. Someone even loaned Michael a tallit and a kippah (yarmulkule/skullcap) when he first came in, to cover his head.  Michael (in his off-white kurta) had procured a Muslim cap, and he used that for the afternoon service after several other men used identical head coverings. Just like entering most Indian houses of worship, we took off our shoes on entering the worship area. (We later learned the people normally keep their shoes on for the weekly Friday night shabbat services, but remove shoes for holidays.)

It wasn't crowded. There were about 40 or 50 women and children throughout the day in the upstairs balcony, and 20 or 30 men in the hall below. I counted only eight obviously foreign women over the course of the day, and five non-Indian men.  Later, I chatted with the three female American students who were studying in Ahmedabad. One was from Baltimore; she was doing a fashion internship making corsets at a ladies' garment factory.  Another was an architecture student from RPI. Another was from New York City, and I didn't catch her name or info. It made me feel a little old when they were talking throughout the service about how they were going to go out of Gujarat to get drunk and celebrate on one of the student's 21st birthday next month. I guess my problem is I didn't come to an Indian synagogue to talk with foreigners.

I did come to worship with Michael. Michael is Jewish. I happen to be Christian (Evangelical Lutheran). But nobody asked me, and I did not mention it; not out of deception, but I didn't want to distract anyone. On a personal level, I feel completely comfortable worshiping God in Jewish synagogues with my husband--especially Reform temples with moving spiritual music. We are both members of a Reform Judiasm congregation. Also, Michael and I plan to raise our future children in the Jewish faith, so I'd better be comfortable wtith it.

It was hard to tell what was going on. The service did have the standard Jewish components, but it was still utterly foreign to me. The entire service was in Hebrew with an Indian accent. I had never been to an Orthodox Jewish service before, so it was difficult to follow; I did recognize and participate in several of the responses. Also, most US services are Ashkenazic (based on the eastern-European liturgical tradition).  This service was Sephardic. The bima (raised altar area) was in the middle of the synagogue, with twinkling miniature Christmas lights and seven fluorescent-bulb candles.  Michael was lucky for the afternoon service; he had a guide (from Australia) who had experience in Reform and Orthodox services and explained him what was going on.  Turns out they follow the siddur exactly, with all the standard components but with some additional emphasis.  For instance, the cantor was standing at the bima reading and swaying and muttering silently to himself except for a spoken word here and there. Turns out they say the Avuot twice; the first silently as individuals, then responsively as a congregation. The responsive prayers are neat, with the cantor's baritone belting out below, and the women and girls in the balcony echoing in Indian-accented chants.

They use handkerchiefs in interesting ways. The most unusual and different part of the service was during the morning, for the Shema, when Indian Jews literally prostrate themselves before God. They take out a white hankerchief, bowing down on their knees with their heads on the floor on the handkerchief.  This happens multiple times during the morning service.  I'd read about this and given Michael a white pillowcase. He didn't end up needing it, since the floors were covered in white sheets anyway. For myself I had a pure white... dishtowel. Not the most elegant way to worship, but I saw at least one other woman with a dishtowel too (and hers even had flowers on it). It's the spirit of the gesture. Later, during the break, we did buy several handkerchiefs at a mall. We each had our own for the borech-hu; though they didn't do it again in the afternoon service. Because I'm female, I took an extra handkerchief, folded it into quarters and put it over my hair in my barette like most of the women there do. It's completely accepted there and much cooler than a full veil; I'd been using my dupatta, and that had been way too hot.

I struggled with the heat all day. The synagogue is not air conditioned, and I was overheated up in the women's balcony. It supposedly started at three; only us foreigners showed up on time. At three-thirty the service was moving along, and by four-thirty the members had started arriving in substantial numbers.  My blood sugar also dropped. It's traditional to fast on Yom Kippur from sundown the night before to the end of the service the next evening.  Michael fasted, but my body just wasn't up to it. I gulped down a liter of mango juice and a handful of snack food that morning, and that was my food for the day.  I also drank plenty of water. The synagogue has a modern, safe drinking water system in the back, with chilled water. I visited it hourly, drinking water and also wetting down my dupatta (cotton scarf) to help keep me cool as it evaporated in the heat.

The service was led by three men: an older rabbi, another assistant who speed-read Hebrew (he may have been another rabbi). There was also a young teenage boy who read out clear Hebrew. At the very end of the service, he also blew the shofar - a magnificent ram's horn a yard long.  Like in Hindu temples, everyone removes their sandals on entering the sanctuary and sits on the floor or the benches. The bimah was decorated with multicolor christmas lights and flower garlands.  Two ten commandments were on the wall, one in Hebrew and one in Hindi, and the siddur was in Hebrew with Marathi translations.  The services, Michael learned, were standard orthodox, with a hazzan speed-chanting in Hebrew, and the members alternatively taking part in the services and chatting with their friends.

At around eight o'clock we all broke the fast with an unfamiliar but tasty, probably hand-pressed grape juice that tasted like raisins. They also passed out raisins that were sweet, but not seedless.  It's traditional there to break the fast with two glasses of grape juice, given the heat.  Many people there refrain from food, but still drink water to avoid dehydration. As one of the members told Michael, "Life and Health come first."

Michael chatted a bit with several of the Indian Jews present about the experience of being Jewish in India.  Although the worship was strictly Orthodox, the congregants he spoke with are not as strictly observant outside of the synagogue as American Orthodox jews.  Most Hindu Indians know of Judaism as a type of Christianity, and Ahmedabadis refer to the synagogue as a "Yhoodi Church".  In a country with over one million different deities, Judaism is just one more local religion.  One of the congregants told Michael that he likes to explain his religion to the Gentiles, but the only ones that are really interested in listening are Christians.  On the other hand, Indians tend to be strongly pro-Israel because they see Israel as anti-Pakistan.

We may go back there for other festivals or Shabbat services in the future.
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Several of our excursions have been accompanied by professor Bhavesh, deputy director of the MBA school. He's a neighbor and close friend of our faculty coordinator, professor Hiren.  Bhavesh invited us to dinner with his family and we were delighted to visit them.

We met his family. Bhavesh and his wife, Widaya (sp?) have two children, a three-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son (similar ages to Hiren's kids--they're neighbors and frequent playmates).  They were all watching a kids video together, of English nursery rhymes.  Hearing a too-cheerful voice singing nursery rhymes is grating at any

We got to talking about his family. Bhavesh says he is a farmer.  He's a fairly well-off MBA-school professor, but he's a farmer. Now, he doesn't actually farm. He hasn't ever farmed; wouldn't know how. But his father owns a few farms. Now his father doesn't do any farming either, but he rents farmland to people who actually work the land and grow crops. It was the professor's grandfather who actually farmed and did first-hand agriculture. You have to go back two generations. But that still means he and all his descendants are farmers. It makes perfect sense, if you have that mindset.

While we were there, Bhavesh's parents called and talked to their grandson on the telephone. They call Bhavesh and their grandson every day, and about half the weekends the kids go to their house, or the grandparents visit.  They only live about a 20 minute drive away.

Family ties are very close in India, and much stronger than most families in the US. The extended family is the basic economic and social unit. Here, a father always includes his son in any economic decisions, starting around age ten. The savings rate is very high, with an eye toward creating wealth for the children; even if the father is living in a shack, he may have saved up $100,000 USD for his kids. A major emphasis for middle-class families is saving enough money to pay for weddings and buy a house for their children. They typically pay cash. Also, parents tend to live with their sons when they retire (daughters live with their husbands' parents).

Bhavesh married his wife, then his brother married her sister.  Bhavesh says this is a common practice, called "Saca" (exchange). Some families, when they look for marriage partners for their children, deliberately seek matches like this, and they want to give a son and gain a daughter (or vice versa) for all their kids at once. Bhavesh had gotten engaged before his brother, and he and his wife seemed happy. He says they have never had a single fight. Michael and I bicker from time to time, but that's part of the way we communicate. It's a different approach.

I'm envious of Indians' close relationships with their families. In the US, my parents (and Michael's too) live over six hundred miles away from our home in Maryland. Most of my extended family on my dad's side is scattered across the US, and my mom's side is concentrated in rural Texas. Here, nearly everyone has stayed to live and work near their parents, cousins, and extended relatives.  Americans tend to value money and work and material things more highly than Indians, and many think of India as an impoverished developing country and feel sorry for its people. But Indians don't seem to miss the luxuries we Americans take for granted. When Indian people consider the high divorce rate in the US, or hear about how distant our families live from us, they feel sorry for us. It's a different values system.

Back to dinner. The food was great, and Bhavesh had cooked all of it himself (most with his own original recipes). It's not common for Indian men to do cooking, but becoming more so, and Bhavesh is a terrific cook. He started cooking fifteen years ago and is still going strong.  He cooked us a dinner of "Fusion" cuisine of his own invention. All the food was delicious. I recognized chinese influences in a couple of the dishes (cabbage, ginger, garlic, and green onion fused with curry). We had a lychee milkshake drink for dessert. Bhavesh refused to take any food himself until we were finished. Apparently the custom here is that guests eat first, and the host eats only afterwards. It's another part of the "guests are like gods" emphasis on hospitality.

On our way back home we stopped by a couple more gerba dances. The Navararti festival goes on for nine nights all over India, celebrating the goddess in different ways. In Gujarat, they honor her by dancing the gerba. Every neighborhood has their own gerba in the local square or vacant lot, with a little temporary shrine set up with candles and twinkling christmas lights. People dance gerba for hours, going until four or five or six AM especially as the week wears on. The dancing pauses when there is a ritual offering with prayer (a musical chant), a lighting ceremony, and offerings of sweet foods. The lamp used in the ritual is carried around afterwards. Worshipers put their hands out over the lamp flame to absorb the light and energy of the goddess, then run their hands down from their head around their bodies. This, along with eating the sweets, helps them absorb the essence of the goddess.  The older neighborhoods tend to take the religious aspects of the dancing somewhat more seriously than the newer subdivisions, where people emphasize the dancing and fun. The music is the same at both types, praising the goddess to Bollywood songs and drumbeats.

Men and women sit separately for the religious ceremonies. They also dance separately. There's always a circle of women dancing the gerba, most glittering in spangles, bangles and bling. And usually, though not always, there's a smaller group of men lined up inside, also going around dancing the gerba (though in much more subdued clothes).  The womens' circle keeps going and going, and the dancers move in and out as they tire. It's fascinating watching it, with the hypnotic music and the bright colors and constant movement. There's just always something going on here.

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