Melting bananas, popping balloons, Hindu idol worship, Baptist preachers, and prophecy, Hallelukah!
I thought we could handle the forecast predicting steady 105 degree weather in order to go to Southern India for Pesach to serve as visiting Rabbinic leadership for a little-known community of Indians practicing Judaism called the Bene Efraim. But as I reached into the seat-back to check out the airplane newspaper, headlines read, 'record breaking heat wave hits Andreh Pradesh, temperatures upwards of 120 degrees' and, well, I laughed. That kind of awkward laugh that comes with silent expletives and a simultaneous pleading prayer that the Indian news wasn't really accurate. I actually double checked to make sure it wasn't their satirical version of the news like the 'The Onion' or something. Especially since it took a bit of convincing to pull my charismatic husband away from the opportunity to lead a large seder on our beautiful rooftop in the Old City where we live…
Well the news was not a satire, and I learned quite a few things about oppressive heat. Did you know bananas could actually melt? Or that balloons simply pop or deplete almost immediately, even when they are meant to be seder decorations, in high temperatures? I nearly depleted too, sweating more than Lucy in the famous I Love Lucy 'sauna episode'… but I have survived and am eager to share the tale with you. The tale of a heart warming, prophecy revealing, humble crew of Indians.
I won't discuss here whether or not I feel that the Bene Efraim are 'officially' a lost tribe or try to prove or disprove their Jewish lineage or blood either way. For that there is plenty of literature one can turn to, such as can be found on the Kulanu.org website, the great organization that helped us plan our trip, and that is happy to help YOU do so as well (to a variety of interesting communities around the world)! Rather, I want to share the most touching part of my experience with the community.
Yes, it was totally fascinating that Adam, one of the 'shochets' walks home-to-home in the village with his young eager son actually shmearing fresh blood on everyone's doorposts from the goat ('Pesach offering') that they slaughtered, just as we did in Egypt. I am a devout vegetarian but I almost thought, oh my goodness how cool, what a funky ritual, how come we don't do this?! But that wasn't touched me.
Adam painting blood on the doorposts of the synagogue
Yes, I was taken aback by the clever tradition that Tzadok, the community leader, initiated to wrap bracelets that have attached to them little protected hand-written Shema notes on the members because, as he explained, the Torah says we have to bind these words upon our arms. But that wasn't it either.
So what was it about the Bene Efraim that brought me to tears and re-invigorated my belief in the words of the prophets? It was actually the Hindus and the Baptist preachers. Allow me to explain…
When we first drove down the dirt road to Kothareddypalem, the driver exclaimed, 'there are more than 100 Hindu temples just on this road!' It was true and visible. In fact, before we left Israel, one of our friends wished us good luck for going to the 'avodah zara (idol worship) capitol of the world!' We heard many accounts of Hindu 'gods' from the locals and how perhaps there are 384 one can serve, or even 3.4 million that one can serve depending on tradition. Truthfully, even though I studied world religion and have a deep respect for all of Hashem's creatures, it broke my heart (I actually cried) to see in the flesh that people live day in and day out with the idea there there are multiple powers and actually ascribe power to decorated idols and images. The idea of Only One God is so fundamental to to our belief as Jews. To oversimplify, One God means we are all One, it means, as my holy awesome teacher, Morah Leah Golomb teaches, that “Hashem is the cause sweetie, and Hashem is the effect.” And that's it. Not that the money god determines this or the sex god determines that.
So back to the story… when the community gathered for the Seder and for shul the next day in the sole synagogue on the block, we were told in advance that Muslims, Christians and Hindus would be in attendance, but I assumed it was just cordial neighborly behavior. Until something bizzare started to happen…
One family traveled 120 kms in the 120 degree heat to come to shul. The parents pushed their young boy up to us, he crossed his arms, smiled with a big grin and chanted a broken yet beautiful version of the ve'ahavta by heart. We were charmed, and then the leader explained to us that this man was actually a Baptist priest, but when he heard that there were Jews (the Bene Efraim) in the area a few years back, he had to come check it out. He has been 'checking it out' ever since, and has chosen to follow the ways of Judaism abandoning his idea that there is a trinity or that we can't speak directly with the One God.
Three generations of women in their beautiful bold sparkling sarees traveled 500 kms to spend chag with us, and asked me all sorts of questions about what to do about the 'mikwah' (mikvah) after relations when there was no available source of fresh water for them to immerse in. Their detailed series of questions was so humbling to me, and I could barely fathom how they could have even learned so much with so few resources. Mother and daughter approached me and needed the truth about whether or not they could kiss the sefer Torah in their time of 'impurity' because they really wanted to serve God with respect and proper fear. Then it was revealed to me that these were actually Hindu women who can't wait to convert one day who had a similar story to that of the Baptist preacher above.
Now because I have been blessed to spend time with other 'lost' Jewish communities such as in Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda, Nicaragua, China and Zimbabwe, my initial awe of 'foreign' folks practicing different forms of Judaism had worn off a bit.. but this time in India was a new-found and profound re-emergence of being blown away… Not only is there a poor village of 'Jewish' Indians truly wanting to know if they arranged the seder plate correctly, but they had also become a hub (and not a proselytizing hub) of Truth. People are streaming in from afar, at great cost and through incredibly trying conditions to hear about belief in One God. And it hit me so hard… I was witnessing the fulfillment of prophecy. In a tiny corner of the world where spiritual falsehood abounds, there is a community sweetly proclaiming the Oneness of God amidst a sea of tacky temples and endless idols. What are the odds of such an unfolding?!!
Every day we all end our prayer services with the message of the Aleinu. “Bayom hahu yihiyeh Hashem Echad UShmo Echad” “On that day, God will be One and His Name will be One.” We might not realize it as we pack our bags for the day after Shacharit, but it is happening. God is increasingly being revealed as One. Whether through your attendance at your family seder, through new developments in quantum physics, or through kosher style coconut curry given out as kiddush after shul in India… the prophecy, like all others, is shining bright, and to me that is straight-up awesome. Hallelukah!
So here I am, typing this out in a little Indian internet shop with idols with multiple arms and elephant trunks playing sitar on the wall… but just a rickshaw ride away is a group of humble, open and welcoming people who will gather around a Torah and some melting bananas in tonight's heat to continue learning about the chassidic interpretations of Sfirat HaOmer (the counting of the Omer)… and who will sing their tune of the Shema together to conclude the lesson. This testimony to prophecy unfolding touches me so deeply, and I hope it will touch your heart too. With One Love and blessings, from Andreh Pradesh