Shabbat at Chabad Mumbai
By Howard Sackstein
“Now, I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds”
Bronzed from the beaches of Goa and
exhausted from the constant trance parties of Anjuna, Hellipad, Baga and
Hilltop, we arrived in the sprawling mass of humanity, which is Mumbai. Bodies
sleeping on the streets, beggars scamming tourists and the well heeled Bombay
elite speaking English in their posh accents, punctuated with expletives, to
impress their coteries. This is Colaba the heartbeat of Mumbai.
The smells of the street rise up and
punch you in the nostrils. In Mumbai you can never be alone, at every step
someone is selling to you, negotiating with you, cajoling you, tugging on your
shirt sleeve. The teaming multitude of people know the only way to survive is
to engage, to enjoy, to accept – this is one of the most tolerant places in the
world. In Mumbai you can be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Jew – all
In the shadow of the Gate of India, sits
the Taj Palace hotel, pride of India, built by the founder of the Tata group, to
revenge the British who declined him entrance to their lavish colonial hotels.
The Taj Palace is built as a monument to Indian dignity, prosperity and
independence. Its magnificent dome, its arches, its pools and uniform clad staff
make this edifice an authentic tourist fantasy.
Down the main strip of the Colaba
Causeway is Leopold’s Cafe, immortalised as the meeting place of Shantaram.
Tourists sit at the restaurant tables with copies of Shantaram in their hands
reading the monolith trying to grasp the singularity that is India. Occasionally
Gregory David Roberts, former heroine addict, bank robber, mobster, author and
philanthropist wanders into the restaurant. Tourists flock to him to talk about
his book which has become the Rosetta Stone translating Mumbai to the meandering
generation searching for spiritual and physical redemption on the streets of
If you cross the road and walk past the
Sassoon Library, donated by the Indian Jewish businessman and philanthropist of
that name, and past the trendy art galleries and music stores not far from the
magnificent structure of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Train
Terminus you come across the Knesset Eliyahoo
Synagogue. Nestled in a back alley behind flaking pale blue walls, the shul is
ornate and cool in the searing Mumbai heat.
We entered before Shabbat in January
2008, not quite sure what to expect. This back alley building in the centre of
the Hindu heart of capitalism is one of 7 or 8 shuls within Mumbai. One week
later, Madonna and Guy Ritchie would tour the Knesset Eliyahoo shul as part of
their spiritual quest in India.
The shul fuses five distinct
Jewish cultures, the traditional Bene Israel Indian Jews, who trace their
roots back in India two thousand years, Baghdadi Jews who came to settle in
Mumbai over the past few centuries, Israeli business people, Jewish tourists
with backpacks or staying in the opulent Oberoi or Taj Palace Hotels, all
looking for the vestiges of something familiar in a very foreign land, and of
course Chabad who have come to lead all of these disparate, often conflicting,
scions of the tribes of Israel.
I sat down on the hard wooden bench next
to an Indian Jew who asked my origin. When he heard I was from South Africa, he
immediately asked if I knew Anne Harris. Anne had visited the previous year and
had been a guest in the synagogue.
After the service, Rabbi
Gavriel Holtzberg led a group of
tourists and Israelis working in Mumbai back to his home for dinner.
We moved at a blistering pace back
through the streets of Mumbai, no one gave the kippa clad group a second
look. In comparison to other religious practices in the city this was
uneventful. Back through the smelly streets of the Fort area, into Colaba, back
past the Sassoon Library, past the new falafel shop of one of the Israelis, past
Leopold’s Cafe and down into side alleys and back streets to come to Nariman
House, home of Chabad in Bombay. It was so out of the way that I feared we would
not be able to find our way back.
The Rabbis home was an entire floor of
the building. The room was host to about 20 of us. Rabbi
Holtzberg introduced us to Rivka his wife, and to his
mother in law who was visiting from Israel, the baby was just over a year.
In the kitchen about three or four cooks
and helpers prepared Shabbat dinner and the food kept on coming.
Israeli salads, spicy fish, chicken,
desert - the meal was endless. Before desert, the Rabbi gave a lengthy lessons
in Hebrew, lengthy at least to the four South Africans whose Hebrew was not up
to the standard of the other guests, all of whom were Israeli.
Among the guests were diamond dealers
and business people who regularly frequented Mumbai. The next night we would
meet up with one of the Israeli diamond dealers to go clubbing in a disco called
Polyester one block from the Taj Palace Hotel. Another guest was opening pure
vegetarian Israeli falafel shops in India to cater for the needs of pure
vegetarian Hindus and the Buddhists who will not harm any living creature.
Before desert and birkat hamazon,
the blessings after the meal, Rabbi Holtzberg
asked each person present to re-pay the favour of the meal.
He did not want money, he wanted commitment, commitment to Judaism, to faith to
ritual to charity. One by one, people around the large U shaped table rose and
committed themselves to charity or teffilin or hospitality to the
The night ended with offers of
hospitality for a return to Chabad for Shabbat lunch the next day or another
Shabbat dinner when next in Mumbai. We thanked Rabbi and Rebetzen
Holtzberg, for their hospitality and
we commented on the cuteness of the baby – they told us their home was always
open to strangers.
Last week a number of strangers entered
their home - this time not for Shabbat hospitality, this time as the angels of
When the cute baby turned two years old
on the last Shabbat, his parents lay dead in pools of blood at Nariman House.
Saved by one of the helpers who cooked us dinner in the kitchen, she snatched
the baby and ran from Chabad House when the terrorist entered.
Neighbours of Rabbi
Holtzberg and Rivka had been shot
while throwing stones at machine gun wielding terrorists while trying to protect
their Jewish neighbours. In a country of religious tolerance like no other, the
streets of Mumbai flowed with blood.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Train Terminus was
under siege, Leopold’s Cafe had been attacked, the
blood stained copies of Shantaram lay strewn across the rubble, the Taj had
fallen, a symbol of bruised Indian pride.
Although the attacks were perpetrated by
fratricidal Muslim terrorists, I am reminded of the quote from the Hindu sacred
text, the Bhagavad Gitav,
made famous by Robert Oppenheimer on the explosion of
the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico in 1945, "Now,
I Am Become Death (Shiva), Destroyer of Worlds".
But there was a difference between those
merchants of death and the Hindu lord Shiva, for by Hindu tradition, Shiva
destroys all - even evil - so that from destruction new good may be built.
from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine