Community · Culture clashes

“Dirty” Mumbai

I am one of those deeply saddened by what has happened in Mumbai recently, and particularly to the Chabad shluchim.

I am particularly saddened because I have met and have been helped by many shluchim in my travels.

I have seen and heard of Chabad shluchim breaking up old native communities in “far-flung” places, but I have also been helped by them in others.

What it comes down to though, is that while Chabad launches a huge outreach program, and many of the shluchim share deep-held ideologies and religious convictions (obviously), they are all individual families. As in, I do not feel the same towards all the shluchim. They are those I like and deeply respect and those that I do not.

The shluchim in Mumbai, I never got a chance to know directly. They seemed to have been very nice and special people. I am really glad that their son, Moshe, was saved and is being taken care of by his maternal grandparents. There were many episodes I heard of both of them which I found heart-warming and repsectable. I think it is a shame that I never got a chance to get to know them. However, in the speeches about them, there was a recurring trope that I could not miss and found disturbing.

A note: What is about to follow has nothing to do with the shulchim that passed away. I will repeat, the following, which means, this post itself, has nothing to do with them, but is only prompted by what has happened in the aftermath: In speeches that I have heard (or read), I noticed a trend that betrays just how exactly the “Jewish” community (of the US at least, if not the majority of the English-speaking traditional world of it) feels about “India” and “those backward countries.”

The first came on a Friday night in my regular shul where someone got up and talked about just how special, welcoming, and nice those shluchim were. In the speech, I noticed, the person made a comment about how difficult it must have been for the shulchim to build the terrific center that they did. The wording used was that, “Imagine the difficulty to build a modern building in India, where they are 200-years behind.” …Excuse me, “200-years behind”? Why not simply say “uncivilized”? Isn’t that what you meant?

I heard another speech made about them which used a phrase–turning into something of a set one–to describe what going to India meant to them: They left their “comfortable Western home” to arrive at “dirty,” “crowded,” and “difficult” India. Oh, “dirty”? Right, the street corner that this speech was being made, in the middle of what some people would call “filthy” and “dangerous” New York, doesn’t measure up to it, I am sure. My stomach turned.

Another thing that bothered me was that, in all of these speeches, save for one, India kept being described as “such a difficult place to be a Jew.” The shulchim kept being described as providing “a home away from home” for all the traveling and “wandering” Jews.  Well, aren’t you forgetting about the Indian-Jews? The native Jewish population: Bnai Israel? From what I hear, one of the important services the shliach provided was the service to the local Jewish population, whose existence most (though not all) of the speech-makers seemed to totally forget about. I mean, Jews are not only Ashkenazi. They don’t only exist in Western Europe, North America, and Israel. Jews do not only live in “comfortable” “civilized” “western” homes. They also come from India too.

In fact, this reminds me how when I went to Israel for the first time to Israel on Birthright, how so many of the college kids I went with (I was also a college kid then) thought that majority of the places we stayed in were too dirty. I thought that they were spoiled brats. They only seemed to think that things were up to their standards when we were staying in a five-star business hotel being served by Israeli-Arabs who were being managed by Israeli-Jews and knew how to smile at us pleasantly and serve us nicely. I felt like there was no point staying in a place like that if I was visiting Israel for the sake of visiting Israel–not to have some business dealings. I also hated the fact that I was on the bus with hundreds of American Jews who could only marvel at how “inconvenient” and “dirty” (read, “backwards” and “uncivilized”) Israel was.

Majority of the people making speeches had traveled through India and that’s how they had made their acquaintance with the Chabad shluchim, whom, sadly, they will never see again in this world. If what they took back from their trip was just how “hot, muggy, dirty, and noisy” Mumbai (or are they saying India as a whole?) was, except for the oh, occasionally “beautiful” and “historically significant” sights, they seriously need to rethink their frame of mind. India is not simply a tourist spot (or some exotic Disneyland) existing to serve your needs as a traveller. It is another region where people live in. They perhaps have totally different ways of seeing things and coping with things than the casual (and unobservant) traveler/observer could ever imagine. To not know what that way of life and perspective on life is, to be completely ignorant of it and instead, to come down on them as being “uncivilized,” how self-centered, what an embarrassment. What a shame.

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6 thoughts on ““Dirty” Mumbai

  1. Shalom!

    I got to your blog via Y-Love’s blog.

    Recently, I had wished and yearned to find other Jewish and non-“mainstream” blogs so I wouldn’t feel so alone out there.

    Then in a space of a few days, I discovered your blog and Arms of Moses blog. I am glad.

    Also, I think some groups don’t accept the Bnei Menashe (Indian Jews) as Jewish.

  2. Hi Miriam,

    Thank you for posting!

    I know what you mean about not wanting to feel lonely….

    Thank you also for introducing me to Arms of Moses blog also. Very exciting to be able to connect through the web like this!

    About Bnei Menashe (sorry for my mistake in the blog…), I also thought that some had issues with them. On the other hand, I don’t know the whole politics or issue around and I certainly know that the Chabad rabbi (who was killed) actively participated in their services, so I know for sure that there was a connection there. I just think that it was too bad that people didn’t focus on that connection a little more. It’s a really sad, really beyond words, what has happened to them. I can tell that they are people that I really would have liked to know.

  3. Hello Kaguya: I just learned about your English-language blog from the ‘This is Babylon’ blog site. I love your writing, and your topic. Kol HaKavod to you. There’s no doubt in my mind you’re 100% kosher; as you know, it’s from the mommy, and that’s that! As a Jew I know that many of us in the tribe can be jackasses – it’s unfortunate but true. Don’t let the dolts have their way with you, especially if one manages to blurt out, ‘If you want to be Jewish…’. Just flip him/her the bird. You add beauty and strength to the Jewish community. What else? Your knowledge of languages is staggeringly impressive.
    Be well, and post a lot – your stuff is super!

  4. Interesting what you said about the Birthright kids. I guess for a group to be a real success, there must be positive people with them all the time pointing out the good.

  5. The entire post was very much appreciated- such a thoughtful perspective. The brief mention of Birthright particularly spoke to me, as I think I had a very similar experience to what you did. The reactions of some of my peers absolutely shocked me when it came time to stay in a less than 5 star hotel or walk for more than 10 minutes.

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