Dec 27, 2006 5:20 am


I thought I will share with you all a note I sent yesterday to family and friends in the hope you will find it of interest:

I know Holiday greetings is out of vogue, but I have been on the road and Internet deprived, so I have not been able to sent any Hanukkah or Christmas greetings. I am sending this note from a noisy Internet cafe - so do not be surprised if the number of the usual spelling and grammar mistakes will be large, even for me and do accept my heartfelt hopes for a good 2007.

It is an interesting experience to celebrate Hanukkah in India. They are so few Jews that getting hold of basic holiday paraphernalia is not easy. Actually, we spent a few days before Hanukkah in Cochin - The only place in India where there was a Jewish community large enough and entrenched enough to become part of the Indian caste system. Their Jewtown (it is the official name!) had three clearly defined groups:"Two of these have their own distinct communities and synagogues: the"Black Jews" are physically similar to the local Indian population and presumably descended from the earliest Jewish settlement; the"White Jews" (or Paradesi"foreigners") are a mixed community mostly of European and Middle Eastern origin. The third group is made up of the Meshuhrarim, freed slaves who had no synagogue of their own and distinct from other Jews by having, until the present century, no communal rights." Ouch!

Why no more Jews in India? Well, the Portuguese brought the inquisition to India and the Muslims to the south of Cochin were no better (you can read all about it here.

The Cochin synagogue and Jewtown are today one of the city's must see attractions. There are no Jews there, but it does have an excellent book store. So, we bought books and a Chala cover produced by local tribes. I did not find Hanukkah candles for sale. After all, only 13 Cochin Jews remain in the city. The rest moved to Israel. Actually, that is what most of India's Jews did. Big synagogues do remain. I visited one in Mumbai where the Hindu care taker reprimanded on taking photos on the Sabbath. It is a beautiful building but there are only about 20 remaining members. Oh, yes, in a museum exhibit on the history of India's NY or Shanghai - Mumbai, we learned that India had it's Rothschild family. It is named Sassoon. They came from Iraq and the city enjoys their philanthropy - including a library.

Still, Hanukkah candles, we have not found. We were short of time and probably looking in the wrong place. In any case, it was the fourth night of Hanukkah when we finally got to light the candles. By that time we were in a Himalaya mountain retreat attending the Fulbright conference of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. There I ran into the daughter of an American diplomat attending the conference and discovered that she was foresighted enough to bring a small menorah and Hanukkah candles with her from the US. She invited me to join their private Hanukkah celebration but I was more ambitious.

So, that night we had a multi faith Hanukkah candle lightening. The head of the Fulbright office in Bangladesh represented the Muslims, an American Indian science professor, the Hindus, and English teacher the Christians and moi the Jews. It was a Hanukkah to remember though the candles shone bright for only a short time. We were dining outside and the wind had other ideas.

The next night we had an interfaith sing a long. We needed faith and song to forget the fact that we speeding down very poor twisting mountain roads in the dark of night. The next day, we discovered that but for the alertness of a cab driver, the bridge over the Tista we passed would have been blown up by terrorists. (Bengal-bound explosives seized The Statesman, India - Dec 20, 2006 20: It is all thanks to a level-headed taxi operator that the Singtam police could prevent the shipment of a big consignment of explosives to West Bengal. ...)

They were probably Maoist terrorists. They"sneer" at the Nepalese Maoists who cut a political deal which will probably turn the country over to them following the next elections. We had some Nepalese with us. My heart went out to them. They were trying to put on a brave face. Of course, those who are able, are leaving the country. The rest hope that they will no follow the"moderate" example of the Kmer Rouge.

I must compliment Fulbright India as they invited not only senior Fulbright professor but also student, teachers and former Indian Fulbrighters to America. Hence, instead of whining, the participants competed in putting forward their contribution to their host institutions and to improving US image in their host communities. A Muslim American student from California posted in Bangladesh led the way. He was less than pleased by inquiries assuming that Muslims have a tough time living in America and apparently, told them a thing or two. USEFI India is a real dynamic focused organization. Just the best.

They did, however, book us in a hotel in the center of Calcutta, right next to the famous India museum. The airport placards declared it the"City of Joy." I will never forget it. On the way to the hotel, we saw the poverty we dreaded but the worse was yet to come. We woke up to street noise. We thought it was a political demonstration. It was not. Outside we saw thousands of people five deep lining up for a free meal. Big guys controlled the lines. They did not want me to take a photo. I really did not want one. I will never forget the sight as long as I live. Oh, yes, Kolkata (such a rich place has nothing better to do with its money than spend it on changing the name of the city - shameless) has been ruled by Communists over thirty years. Now, even they see the light and try to industrialize, the reactionaries fight them tooth and nail. The moderate ones declare strikes, one lady a hunger strike and then they are the Maoist terrorists. Amartya Sen tried to convince them his fellow Bengalis that they should use the market and that would not mean being controlled by it. Bengalis consider themselves the intellectuals amongst the Indians and all they want is to keep control over the poor not to lift them out of poverty.

Christmas in Goa is party time. People go to midnight mass then dress to the nines and go to formal balls. School children in Santa Clauses outfits are caroling and fire works abound. India loves Christmas. Here the church has put the past behind it and promotes a smiling Jesus. It makes me think that being a minority can be an enlightening experience. Let's hope that the Muslim minorities will convince their correligionists to follow a similar path. Then the new year will be bring with it a new era of toleration. For guess what? Indian papers report that a study found that young Indians are more prosperous, more tolerant and crave fame.

Joyous holidays to you and yours.

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Maham Saleem - 12/27/2006

Dear Dr. Klinghoffer,

This was the most interesting story out of India so far. I hope you had a wonderfull Hannukah. I myself am excited about Eid on New Year's eve in USA.
I hope this Hajj is stampede free.