Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Abu Dhabi to Mumbai and the Bene Israel

From the initial decision to take this trip it has certainly been one of the most emotionally interesting of our travels. The motivation for signing up was to get back on the list for cruise chaplains so I took what was available. Abu Dhabi to Goa, India, to Mumbai, to Oman, to Dubai, back to Abu Dhabi. Not a single place I ever wanted to visit and several where I was sure we wouldn’t be welcome. In fact, my first thought was, “If I have to bring a חנוכיה, a Chanukah menorah, how would I get it into Abu Dhabi?”

Then there was deciding how to get to Abu Dhabi. Royal Jordanian Air was the best choice. I was much more comfortable thinking about flying Royal Jordanian through Amman than some of the other choices I had.

I never wanted to visit India but have had and interest in the Bene Israel since I went to their synagogue in Lod for Tisha B’Av in 1971. Of course there is the history of Ghandi. Even so, it was never on my list of places to visit.

But, after booking the airfare, fighting the website for a visa for India and making all the other arrangements, we were on our way. Albuquerque to Chicago, 4 hour layover, Chicago to Amman, 4 hour layover, Amman to Abu Dhabi, to the hotel and finally at 3:00 AM local time, bed.

We planned an extra day in Abu Dhabi on both ends to help with the stress of travel. We arrived in Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night and had picked a hotel near the airport. From landing in the airport, the sight of traditional dress and modern dress all blended together. During lunch at the hotel we watched 2 women in full burkas “bubbling” (smoking from a water pipe) while people lounged around the pool in barely there swim wear. I was surprised that there were Christmas decorations everywhere. On the way home we will do some touring including the new Louvre. I’ll be interested in seeing if being in the heart of the city is the same as being by the beach.

After boarding and sailing 3 days we arrived in Goa, India. Of course we had the wrong kind of visa and our ship, using the Mr. Scott method of timing (Scotty we need power now. Captain it’ll take 10 hours. Captain we got it done now!) getting the correct Visa was pretty easy.

We had booked a non-ship tour of Goa. Only 10 of us on the bus made the day very nice. Lots of good conversation and sharing about what we saw. My impression of Goa: it was nice. Lots of vacationers from around India, narrow roads, a huge contrast between middle class housing and shanties, and the richness of nature left a wonderful, colorful, and complex image.

The next day we landed in Mumbai. Again, we had booked a non-ship tour. This time a tour of Jewish Mumbai with city highlights. It was just the two of us and nothing like I expected. Our tour guide Hannah Shapurkar was incredible (contact me directly if you need a tour guide in Mumbai or around the country for her contact information.) A member of the Bene Israel community, married to another member of the community, provided us with a depth of understanding of the inner workings of the community and its history.

The Bene Israel arrived in India in 132 B.C.E.. They were fleeing from the oppression of the Seleucid Empire. Their boat was wrecked and only 7 families survived. Those seven families created a community that has lasted for over 2100 years. In the 19th Century the Baghdadi Jews arrived from Persia, Iraq, and what are now the Gulf States. Led by the Sassoon family, they built their own community and helped the Bene Israel with theirs. Many of the Baghdadi Jews left with the British but their legacy remains through their buildings and foundations they left behind.

We visited the 2 Bene Israel synagogues in Mumbai. In the first, the oldest dating from the 1700’s, I found myself infused with the soul of a 2100 year old community. Now, Sephardic in worship, their commitment to maintain their community is palpable. Here is a Shabbat message video I took in the synagogue. I apologize for the sound. I had to speak quietly.

We also visited the Sassoon synagogue and day school. A more elaborate building it too had its uniqueness. The school was built as what we would call a Jewish Day School. Now, there are only 12 Jewish students. The majority of the rest are Muslim and the balance are Hindu. The sight of Muslim mothers in full burkas waiting to pick up their children from a Jewish school instilled me with a hope for the future. I have felt that hope missing in recent months.

While I did not care if I ever visited Mumbai, I am glad beyond words that I did.

Returning to the ship I led the lighting of the first Chanukah candle, a symbol of hope and blessing. The perfect end to a perfect day.

We are sailing for Oman. Two days at sea before we arrive.


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