Israelis Invade India
By: Dikla Kadosh
May 17, 2006 10:05 PM | Permalink
PAHAR GANJ, INDIA -- Shai Levi spent three years in the Israeli army, a mandatory requirement for all Israeli citizens. As soon as his service was over, he fled Israel and spent the last five months traveling in India, a popular post-army activity for an estimated 30,000 young Israelis every year.
Levi, 23, came to India to unwind, relax, and forget the horrors he witnessed during the height of the Palestinian intifada, when blood stained the streets of Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods on a regular basis. He came to escape responsibility and the stress of Western life.
Inside the Chabad House in New Delhi, a Jewish community center set up by the Lubavitcher sect of Orthodox Jews, Levi looked calm. He wore a red zip-up sweatshirt, warm-up pants and sandals even though it was raining outside and the unpaved roads of the Pahar Ganj bazaar had turned into a slippery maze of mud. He hadn’t shaved in days and his shoulder-length brown curls were in disarray.
It was Friday afternoon and two Orthodox Jewish men were bustling around preparing a Sabbath dinner for the unknown number of Israeli tourists that would be dropping by that evening for a taste of home. A huge pot of Matza Ball soup was simmering on the stove while one of the men kneaded a bowl of dough for the challah, a rich bread eaten on the Sabbath. The Chabad House serves as a meeting place for Israelis, who travel to India alone or in pairs, but hope to link up with others along the way. The religious center also provides meals, advice and prayer services.
“I started to pray here in India,” said Levi, who admitted that he rarely goes to synagogue in Israel. “You start missing Shabbat dinners when you’re away from home,” he said in Hebrew. “You miss feeling Jewish.” He has come across other Israelis during his travels across northern India who had the same experience of rediscovering their religious connection.
As for the connections they make with the Indian culture, Levi characterized them as mostly superficial. Although he found the people to be very open and easy to get along with, he noticed that Israelis tend to keep to their own kind, only interacting with Indians in matters of business. They communicate with Indians in English and barter, sometimes aggressively, over goods. His impression of Israeli-Indian relations was one of mutual respect and warmth. “Indians love Israelis,” he said. “We’re noisy and crazy. They love our energy.”
Ramesh Choudharg, a room service attendant at the Hare Rama guest house where the Chabad center is located, had mixed feelings about the Israeli guests he encounters.
“Sometimes they make big balagan,” he said, using a Hebrew word meaning “mess.” He was reluctant to elaborate on the specific problems that Israelis cause, except to say that they are sometimes loud and difficult to handle.
The Hare Rama is known for housing Israelis; if you ask an Indian rickshaw driver to take you to the Israeli area of Pahar Ganj, he will most likely take you to this guest house. Word of mouth keeps young tourists coming to the cheap and bustling part of the market, located within walking distance of the New Delhi railway station.
Israeli tourists have so firmly established their presence in the area that signs in Hebrew have been set up outside many shops and the Indian shopkeepers have picked up a few key Israeli words. They call out “Shalom! Shalom!” to passers-by who look Israeli. One woman ran her finger above her upper lip, saying “safam,” – mustache – meaning she waxed facial hair, and “gabot” – eyebrows. The book store around the corner from the Hare Rama guest house displayed 20 or 30 books in Hebrew.
Choudharg is a Hindu and has been working at Hara Rama for two years. He said the Friday night gatherings on the rooftop of the hotel occasionally get rowdy, but he has enjoyed learning about the Jewish religion and the Israeli culture. He’s even learned some of the Sabbath songs. Just as he was starting to sing one in the third floor hallway outside the room Chabad rents, he was drowned out by a much louder singing. A circle of five young Israeli men had formed inside the Chabad House. Their arms around each other, they danced and jumped and sang joyously:
“Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe
Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe,
Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe…”
Two young women who were rolling dough into mini challahs stopped their work and clapped along. The song was in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from persecution in ancient times. The words were about the happiness of the Jewish month of Adar when Purim falls. Choudharg remained in the hallway, watching the boisterous group from the doorway.
Naresh Fernandes, the editor of Time Out Mumbai, has been observing Israelis in India for almost 10 years. An article he wrote several years ago for Man’s World, an Indian publication, explored the relationship between Indians and Israelis: “Paradoxically, while Israelis came to India to seek peace and spirituality, Indian tourism industry workers came to regard Israelis as being loud, unruly and possessing a healthy propensity for aggressive bargaining.”
Asaf Shema, a 23-year-old Israeli traveling in India with his girlfriend, Maria Samyonov, 22, thinks that the only reason Indians might dislike Israelis is because unlike American or European tourists, Israelis love to haggle over prices. Picking up the glass of water in front of him as he sat at the Chabad House in Mumbai, Shema said, “If a European buys this glass for 20 rupees, I can buy it for 10 rupees.” He explains that bargaining is not as much about saving money as it is about not being a friar, or fool. Israelis hate feeling like they’ve been swindled.
Fernandes discussed his research on Israelis with several visiting students from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism at a reception in Mumbai. Driving a hard bargain at the bazaar, he said, is the least of Israelis’ offenses in India. According to him, the perception Indians have of Israelis is that they are only interested in drugs and parties. The post-army twenty-somethings alternate between being lazy idlers, he said, and violent aggressors.
Gavriel Holtzberg runs a Chabad House in Mumbai that caters mainly to Israelis on their way to party hotspots such as Goa and Rajasthan. Three flights a week bring hundreds of them from Israel to Mumbai and Holtzberg recognizes the nature of their needs.
A silver menorah marks the location of the Chabad House in Mumbai (Dikla Kadosh)
“They need relief,” said the young rabbi who grew up in Brooklyn, from the army, from work, from real life. “They come here to do everything the army didn’t allow them to do. Their shoes had to be polished and tied – here they wear sandals. They had to cut their hair – here they grow their hair long.”
Holtzberg is not excusing their behaviour. He just understands the reasons behind it better than the Indians that come into contact with the hordes of escapists.
Itzick Sabag, a 23-year-old Israeli who came to the United States after completing his army service and now lives in New York, is not surprised that Israelis have such a negative reputation in India. The type of person who goes there, he said, has no ambition or direction and is mainly interested in doing nothing. India is the perfect place to do just that.
“People go to different places for different reasons after the army,” he said. “They go to South America for hiking, climbing, outdoors stuff. They go to America to work or go to school. And they go to India to do drugs.”
An article in the Los Angeles Times in 2003 reported that the “post-army India meltdown has become so common that the government is crafting a policy to respond. Weary of organizing teams to scoop the wayward soldiers out of the backwoods hospitals, Israel is negotiating with the Indian government to install treatment outposts…”
The Israeli government may be aware of the problems Israeli tourists are causing and Israelis in other parts of the world may be aware of the reputation their countrymen have, but it seems that the thousands of revelers who flock to the subcontinent are completely unaware of the situation. At a time when Israeli-Indian political relations are just beginning to warm up, it is unfortunate that on the ground – at back-alley bazaars and beachside cafes – it is more of a love-hate relationship, with the Israelis doing most of the loving and the Indians doing most of the hating.