This Passover my wife and I went to Southern India to visit the "lost tribe of Ephraim."
This clan of about 150 claims to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. They practice Jewish traditions, celebrate most of the holidays, and have started to observe many mitzvot, often in their unique style.
For example, in their tradition, on Erev Pesach they actually slaughter a goat and put the blood on their doorposts! They were shocked to discover that the Jewish world doesn't do that. In general they were thrilled to learn more about how "mainstream Judaism" is being practiced in the rest of the world. Many dream of a day when they could move to the holy land of Israel.
While my wife and I came to help lead a Passover Seder, we ended up learning tons from our Indian experience. Here were a few lessons and highlights.
1. The Power of Music
About 10 minutes after our arrival at the South Indian village in Chebrolu, I realized we had a problem. They don’t speak English! Okay, so we had a translator and a few spoke English, but in general, how were we supposed to share the depth of our Torah traditions when they can’t understand us?
The answer: through the magic of music.
Music breaks down all barriers. So during the Seder, during kabbalat Shabbat, before during and after classes, we made sure to sing and dance…a lot.
One night, after a long class with the villagers, four youthful Indian friends escorted us back to the hotel. (After five nights of bucket showers in 120 degree weather and “natural” bathrooms, we had decided to splurge on an Indian hotel for the last few nights of our stay.)
Our late night voyage was sweet, the weather was cooler, and the roads were slightly less chaotic. Our translator wasn’t there so we sat silently together in the car.
The four singers
Then one Indian boy, with a big smile on his face, asked “Rav Keith... you know ‘Shabcheey’”? Of course I did. And suddenly the Indian roads, with temples, churches and mosques on all sides, were filled with six souls singing every Jewish song we could think! We sang, Am Yisroel Chai, Kol Haolam Kulo and Hatikvah at the top of our lungs. My wife and I were in shock, but they knew every word. It truly was a night we will never forget!
2. Prayer from the Heart
After each night of Q and A, we would fulfill the mitzvah of counting the Omer with the group. I had explained to them the pertinent details on how to carry out this mitzvah, including an explanation of some of its spiritual significance.
After counting the Omer, I felt that we were missing something. I wasn’t ready to end the class. I decided to have three minutes of silent, meditative prayer. As most of the Telugi could not read Hebrew, formal texts were hard for them to grasp, but personal prayer…that was something that these people truly excelled at!
After two minutes of prayer, I sneakily opened my eyes to see how everyone was doing. My eyes filled with were in tears. Perhaps they were praying for a job, or for their sister to find a suitable marriage match, or maybe they were praying to one day come to Jerusalem, but whatever it was, they were all completely immersed in such sincere, intense prayer that put me to shame.
3. The Power of Thanks
In Hebrew, India is called “Hodu”. Hodu means to thank. At first, I was convinced that the meaning of this was: “India has truly made me thankful and appreciative that I don’t live in India!”
For example: Thank God, I have a normal shower that doesn’t consist of a bucket of lukewarm water!
Keith and his wife, Nili
Thank God, I can walk across the street in Jerusalem without almost being run over by a motorbike, a beggar or a cow!
Thank God, I have enough money to afford basic medical needs, like asthma containers.
Thank God, I don’t have to live in a place so hot that one is forced to hibernate from 10am to 5 pm, and thank God I’m not stuck working in those conditions just to eke out 5 dollars a day, to support my family.
I truly felt blessed and thankful that I have been born into such a life of luxury.
And yet, as our Indian journey continued, my wife and I realized that there may be a totally different way of understanding why India is called Hodu. Ironically these people actually walked around and gave thanks far more than their richer, Westernized counterparts. Virtually everyone in India has a religion. And virtually everyone makes a time for prayer and thankfulness in their lives. Ironically, the ones who seem to have the most to be thankful for are the ones who are most negligent of this basic obligation.
So India has come to symbolize the land of thankfulness, as it reminds me of my obligation, of the privilege to say thanks…even when life is tough.
So thank you God for giving me the amazing privilege of learning from these "Telugu Jews." And thank you to the “Telugu Jews” for hosting me and my wife and providing us with such an unforgettable experience.