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An India Travelogue, Part 13
by Lawrence Bush
WE ARE CUTTING SHORT our trip to India, with one week left (which would have involved a trip to Varanasi, the “holy city” on the Ganges River, and to Khajuraho, a city famous for its erotic temple sculptures). Our son has been hospitalized in St. Louis with a sudden, serious condition, so we’re flying to Delhi tonight and back to the States the following night so that we can be with him.
It’s totally weird that this is happening on the first day of Passover, and I’m feeling insanely superstitious — the plagues, the angel of death flying over, the full moon, all of the beggars I didn’t give tsedoke to . . .
I do regret failing the tsedoke challenge that India poses. While we were exceedingly generous with drivers, waiters, etc., we’d been forewarned by so many different people to ignore beggars or to expect to be overwhelmed -- and we saw none of our Indian friends distributing alms. So we never got it together to fill our pockets with coins or 10-rupee notes and simply share the wealth. I regret not being more open-hearted towards, rather than merely politically outraged by the ubiquity of, the dirt poor people of India. The general atmosphere of Hindu piety had me thinking of human encounters as a criss-crossing of karmic opportunities, but I’m afraid I never emerged enough from my cocoon of anxiety sufficiently to engage with the majority of those opportunities.
I feel vulnerable, now, as if I had forgotten to mark the doorposts of my household with sacrificial blood . . .
WE SPENT the evening distracting ourselves from our fears about our son by having a rooftop drink at our hotel while corresponding with various concerned friends. Our evening then turned into a lengthy conversation with an Israeli couple from Haifa, both scientists, both India veterans, and both ashamed of their country’s politics, as we are of ours. Most interesting to me, though not surprising, was the difference between their approaches to Judaism and ours, their feelings about Judaism and ours, They are both leftists and atheists and have essentially given up altogether on the Jewish tradition, leaving it in the hands of the rightwing national religious folk and the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who are running their country, and whom they despise. I, too, am a leftist and atheist, but I’ve spent the past sixteen years working on Jewish Currents to refuse conceding Judaism and Jewish identity to the American Jewish right and the ultra-Orthodox. They were rather baffled by the idea that I might find within the Jewish tradition inspiration for my progressive politics — and I was rather baffled by their non-recognition, especially during this Passover season, of the idea expressed by Rabbi Leo Back, which I have quoted dozens of times, that we Jews are “the sons and daughters of the revolution” and ought to keep that in mjnd.
Indians, as I’ve made clear in this travelogue, don’t give a whole lot of thought to Jews. The weirdest comment on the subject came from a Muslim guide at one of the palaces in Jaipur, who told us about his enthusiasm for Barack Obama and his disdain for Donald Trump, and then said, “But I understand that the Jews control the U.S. government. Is this true?”
We didn’t bother coming out to him as Jews, but in the several conversations in which we did identify ourselves, we found Indians thinking of Jews in association with Israel, period — with Israel and its reactionary politics. I gave brief educations to several people about the reality of Jewish liberalism (and radicalism) in America, but it was clear that we’ve already lost the public relations battle: Israel is what the world thinks of Jews and Judaism — Israel and the fact that Jews control the United States government.
IN DELHI we’ll be embraced and helped for the next twenty-fours by a couple of the wonderful Indian educators with whom Susan bonded very powerfully as their teacher over the past month. And then we’ll be gone, leaving behind our blessings and good wishes for well-being in this vast and complicated country of 300+ million gods and goddesses and 1.3 billion human beings.
There is much, much more to learn about this land and its incredible diversity, but not this time around. I’m actually relieved enough to be leaving here before our intended date that I’ve already kibitzed my son with “Thanks for getting sick,” to which he replied, “Any time, Pops.”
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.