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Festivals of Light

This week was Diwali. Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness. It is celebrated by lighting ritual lamps in the windows and door frames of houses, sharing the light with everyone around. The most important day of Diwali is the third day, which coincides with the darkest night of the month, when the New Moon appears. The New Moon coincidently brings in the Jewish month of Kislev, which is the month of Chanukah - the festival where Jews also celebrate the victory of light over darkness and fill our windows and doors with ritual lamps.

Everywhere the streets are full of tinsel and string lights. Houses are elaborately decorated with paper lanterns and flashing displays. It looks like Christmas, but the heat and humidity remind me that I'm in Mumbai instead of back home. This time is some of my favourite weather back home, where it's chilly enough but not freezing, the air is crisp, and the time comes for warm interiors and hot chai. Unfortunately, that sort of weather (and crisp air) doesn't exist here in Mumbai, but the festive feeling brings me back.

I've been in India over a year now - 13 months specifically. Every so often we get groups visiting us at the JCC, usually over-middle-aged groups of American Jews, sitting in the AC with their fanny packs and laced up runners. Each staff member tells their little bit about their role at the JCC, and I talk a little bit about what it's like being a foreigner living in India and how I'm adapting to a new culture and a new community. I used to have a lot of things to say to these groups - about things that surprised me, things I had learned, etc. This week a group came, the first group in a while, and I found that I had very little to say to them. Things don’t surprise me anymore. I know this place. I know what I'm doing.

The Jewish monthly cycle is full of ebbs and flows, in line with the seasons and with the Jewish holidays. The energy rises through Adar (around February/March) with the holiday of Purim, and stays pretty high and joyful through to Sivan (around May/June) with the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot where the Jewish people gain both freedom and nationhood. Further into the summer the energy flares through Tammuz and Av (June-August), times which have historically brought terror and destruction to the Jewish people (both Temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av). Elul and Tishrei (August-October) bring spiritual highs and intensity with an entire month full of High Holidays.

And then the high high energy of the past months suddenly breaks with Cheshvan (November-ish), the only month in the entire Jewish calendar with no holidays. Cheshvan can seem boring, with the decline in festivities and the return to daily life after the Tishrei madness, but Cheshvan is one of my favourite months of the year, because it gives us time to focus on normal life, and how our Judaism fits into that. We're not rushing with preparations for one holidays or another, we're simply living our lives.

And then Cheshvan becomes Kislev (on the very day that Diwali festivities peak). Kislev is the darkness, and finding the light in the darkness. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi famously said, "Even a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness", and as I found myself walking the streets of Mumbai, pausing to look at elaborate oil lamps perched on doorsteps, I thought about how pretty the city was, decked out in light, and seeming - if only temporarily - at peace. There was chaos all around, but lit by the multi-coloured hues of LED string-lights, everything seemed whole.

This week I helped lead a three-day Family Camp. Eighty community members - children, adults and seniors - attended, and I was in charge of planning and facilitating programming throughout the retreat. The programs went really well, and it gave me a fun opportunity to work with new groups of people and look at different topics in a creative way. For example, one session used meditation and painting to explore Jewish music. Another discussed the cycle of Jewish months I mentioned above, and finished with the participants making Chanukah cards to give to people in need of a little extra light.

The resort we were at had a pool, and we went swimming during every block of free time - swimming pools are a rare commodity in Mumbai. Not everyone here learns to swim as a child, so many of the people didn’t know how to swim. In Canada we take it for granted that most children go for swimming lessons, but there were adults at this retreat who had never even been in a pool. But people were so dedicated to taking the opportunity to learn, and I watched as my friends worked with children and adults alike, patiently helping them do things like putting their faces in the water and floating on their backs - things that are so natural to me that I don’t even think about them. It was so beautiful, watching people support each other in that way. The formal programming was important, and we had some really good discussions, but just taking the opportunity to spend time with people and watch how a community functions together was definitely one of the highlights of the experience for me.

Just like the Jewish calendar has ebbs and flows, highs and lows, so does my time here in India. There are times when I feel very connected and a part of the community, and times when it’s so apparent to me that I’m not from here, and as much as I’m accepted, I’m still from somewhere else. I had an amazing time at Family Camp, spending time with my friends and meeting new people, but watching all the families together - many families came with three generations - I was reminded that I’m also part of a community and family many thousands of kilometres away.

Thursday night I got home from Family Camp. As I was walking up the steps in my building, I noticed oil lamps lit outside all of the doors. Families were celebrating the last night of Diwali. In three weeks, I’ll be lighting Chanukah candles with the community here, and with my parents who will be visiting from Canada. Last night I lit Shabbat candles with the amazing friends I’ve made here. And this past week I got to participate in the lights of different communities coming together to support each other and celebrate in their own ways.

Shavua Tov!

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