The first thing the rickshaw driver said to me when I got off the bus in Manali was, "Where do you want to go? Beit Chabad?" I had just been on an 11-hour overnight bus from Chandigarh, and was exhausted from 53 hours without a real bed to sleep in, so I agreed and we headed up the winding, traffic-packed lanes to a small bridge crossing a river, from where he told me to walk straight until I saw it.
But before I could find the Chabad House, I had to get past endless shops with full Hebrew signs pasted on their windows, baring names like 'Jerusalem of Gold' and 'Kol Tuv Achi'. Seemingly every single shop, restaurant, and guesthouse in Old Manali was catering to a strictly Israeli crowd. With my backpacker sandals and Jew-ish complexion, shop owners called out 'Mah Koreh' and 'Bruchim HaBaim LeManali', and one even tried to rent me a room in full spoken Hebrew.
This trip has provided me with so many new insights into Indian society. From Amritsar, to Chandigarh, to Manali, and beyond, every step has brought new adventures and totally different cultural shifts to what I thought I knew about India. I struggle with understanding what India is and what it's not. Two months into my time here, I was walking through a slum with a friend, and we saw several barefooted children playing in a pile of trash. I excitedly exclaimed, "Wow, this is the real India!" to which my friend politely reminded me that she had never once played barefooted in a pile of trash, yet she's every bit as much a part of the 'Real India' as these children were.
But this is not the India that I've come to know and love. My India is not Dharamshala's fancy cappuccinos and warm apple pie (ask me about my struggle to find a delicious cup of coffee in Mumbai). It's not hordes of Israeli backpackers comparing piercings and hair wraps, and organizing group treks into the wilderness. I suppose the Israeli backpacker scene is a part of the 'Real India' (and also provides employment and support for thousands of 'Real Indians'), yet the desire to maintain an Israeli bubble bothers me a little bit.
I spent last Shabbat at the Chabad House in Manali, along with about 200 Israelis, and one American Jew. Trying to fit in with my pieced-together Hebrew I talked about my experience in Mumbai, and heard about other peoples' months of backpacking. Everybody was sharing tips and trying to organize groups to go North together to Spiti or Ladakh. When I said I wanted to go East to the Parvati Valley, and I would take a public bus (6 hours for only $2.25), everybody wrinkled their noses and said I should arrange to take a private jeep with other travellers. One boy told me wanted to take the public bus to Spiti, but didn't want to spend 11 hours with Indian tourists. Which to me is astounding. Part of what I love so much, both about my life in Mumbai and in my travels, is meeting local people and getting to know them, hearing their stories, or even just trying to string together enough Hindi words to make some sort of contact.
My second day in Manali, (after a delicious coffee with a delectable view), I went on a trek to a small village called Ghosal. The walk itself was lovely, along rocky mountain ridges, through thick pine forests, and across meadows full of apple fields with snow-peaked ridges as a backdrop. The village of Ghosal was about two hours past the far edge of Old Manali, descending down from the road. Being in the village was surreal. It's quite remote, and the village people were quite traditional. The women wore sort of pinafores made of thick hand-woven fabrics, sort of like a sari for Himalayan temperatures. Many of them had golden hoops all the way up their ears, and colourful studs on both sides of their noses. The houses were made of cut logs, with loose slate slabs as roof tiles. Many of the houses were multi-storied, with the bottom story serving as a barn for their cattle. They looked like Tevye's house in Fiddler on the Roof, minus the dancing Jews and with ornate tribal paintings decorating the eves.
The whole town only had one shop, a little stand selling soap and packets of aloo bhujia, a sort of Indian potato snack. The people of Ghosal happened to be celebrating the last day of a five-day Hindu festival, although nobody could tell me what specifically they were celebrating. I was invited to sit with a group of 15 women who were drinking chai in a circle outside the temple. None of them spoke any English, but were happy to tell me how many children they have and their ages (one of the two chapters I really understand in my Hindi textbook). After chai time we all went to the temple, and they invited me to sit with them as a priest sang chants into a reverberating microphone set in front of an elaborate multi-faced silver idol. Even though we were only one village over from hundreds of Israeli backpackers, I was the only foreigner there.
But I want to go back to this Israeli tourism industry and what these Israelis are doing with the months that they spend here. Many Israelis come to India after their mandatory army service, although a fair amount of them seem to be in their late-20s and early-30s, and looking for some sort of shift in their lives. In order to support the hordes of Israelis, who tend to congregate in certain areas (Goa in the winter and Himachal Pradesh in the summer), there are a network of different organizations (including Chabad, HaBayit HaYehudi, Beit Yisraeli, Lev Yehudi, and many more) who provide kosher food, religious services, social opportunities, and Jewish learning for these travellers.
Last Shabbos I was at the Chabad House in Manali, and during week I stopped in at Chabad of Kasol and HaBayit HaYehudi Kalga (Kalga is a tiny mountain village with no roads, you have to hike up a steep cliff side with all your things, so I have no idea how the pregnant Rebbetzin with all of her young children ended up there), and I'm about to spend this Shabbos at one of the many Jewish organizations in the villages around Dharamshala.
Which brings us back to the question of what all of these Israelis are doing in India? Many of them sit around, taking yoga courses and flute lessons and smoking cheap cigarettes in the mountains. When someone tells me that they've been in a place like Kalga for a month and a half, I ask them just what it is they do everyday, and they tell me that they're always busy with something new, which is amazing. But a lot of it is that they're also on journeys to find themselves. After several years in the army constantly being told what to do and who to be, the mountain villages of Himachal Pradesh provide them with the freedom to decide for themselves. And these Jewish institutions are here to support these Jews in their explorations, and to remind them that whichever far mountain villages they trek to, they still have their Judaism to come back to.
And the same goes for me. Travelling alone for three weeks, while not so long, is still a long time. I'm not bound by the same social and cultural restraints that I am in Mumbai. Facing new situations, and having to make decisions by yourself, is challenging but also so rewarding. And it's comforting to know that even in these far off towns, there will be a smiling Rabbi to invite me over for Shabbos dinner.
I wonder if there's a correlation between the mountains and mysticism. In Israel, there are four holy cities, each correlating to one of the four elements. Tzfat, the mountainous city of air, is known for its spiritual hippies (it's also the city where I spent four months in seminary learning Torah). The local Indian villagers, as well as the thousands of pilgrims who come to different shrines here, see a spirituality in the mountains which is far loftier than the shrines found in the bigger cities lower down. And perhaps this is why the Chabad Houses here thrive. Because here, people who pass by posters of the Rebbe on the streets of Tel Aviv are willing to sit and learn Chassidus with a Rabbi who they would never speak to back home. Here, Israelis who have kept Kosher by default their whole lives are forced to decide whether they will eat outside, or whether they will schlep to a Chabad House for meals three times a day (which many of them do). Here is where people have both the freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions. And here is where all sorts of people, religious Jews, secular Jews, European backpackers, dirty hippies, Yoga practitioners, Indian tourists, wandering sadhus, and Chabad Rabbis all come together looking for some sort of purpose in the way they're living their lives.