August 23, 2019

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah in India? No Problem

Young Israelis are among the world’s most prolific travelers, gravitating to hot spots like Bolivia, Thailand and India, where the shekel stretches far. Having experienced Pesach in Argentina, surrounded by more than 400 mostly Israeli backpackers, I was curious to see where I might end up for Rosh Hashanah on my around-the-world journey.

I knew that I would be in India, and given that several hotels in Delhi’s Pahar Ganj district had signs in Hebrew, there had to be something going on.

As it turned out, I would be in the holy town of Rishikesh, where ashrams and yoga studios line the Ganges. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I had fallen in with an Israeli crowd in Goa who had highly recommended Rishikesh as a place to find the inner spirituality that India is so famous for. Like so many others who visit India, I was looking to find myself, too.

During a challenging night bus ride from Delhi, in which the driver seemed hell-bent on having a head-on with every truck on the road, I found myself chatting up an Italian girl in the seat next to me. When we arrived, I followed her to an ashram outside of town. Naturally, we got horribly lost on the way, but I suppose you have to get lost before you expect to find yourself.

The swami there was world famous, and the Italian girl had flown in from Rome to spend eight months studying yoga and inner bliss. It seemed like just the ticket, so I followed her to a yoga class, where I found myself surrounded by post-high school Californians with immaculate tans in the latest, hippest designer yogaware. The instructor, an American, spoke with an unnerving calmness while the class anxiously took notes.

“Can you repeat clearly how one should position our shoulders during two-minute meditation,” asked one kid, as if nirvana would be the best possible grade at the end of year semester.

It all seemed a little ridiculous, so I quietly backed out the door, grabbed my pack and headed into town.

Unlike the lower Ganges, where the water pollutants are apparently 150 times more than the most dangerous allowable level, the Ganges here flows thick and fast from its source in the nearby Himalayas. A suspension bridge crosses the gray water at Ram Jhula, a popular neighborhood with the holy set. Pedestrians, cyclists, cows and monkeys all make use of the bridge, and as I stepped foot on the other side, I was surrounded by babas, Indian holy men who meditate all day and survive through the charity of the community.

I followed my nose to a wonderful little guesthouse at the top of the hill, dropped my things and went off in search of a beer. Easier said than done, this being a holy city after all, where most restaurants are vegetarian and the chiming of ashram bells echo in the air.

With a little perseverance, I found what I was looking for above an Internet cafe, where the signs were all in Hebrew. Seconds later, I was talking to some girls from Haifa.

“Nu, and where are you going for Rosh Hashanah?” they asked in that friendly Israeli way that makes you feel like a younger sibling.

“Wherever you are, I hope,” I replied.

Turns out there were so many Israelis in Rishikesh, that three different Rosh Hashanah celebrations had been organized. Early the next evening, I met with the girls from Haifa and followed them to the next village of Luxman Jhula, across another bridge. After passing rustic Indian shacks, hundreds of locals getting ready to sleep on the streets, beautifully exotic ashrams and more than a few monkeys and cows, the last thing I expected to see were chandeliers.

A large enclosure had been set up in a field below a hotel, with seats and tables laid out, and chandeliers hanging from the plastic tarp walls, lighting it up. The ceiling was open, the sun was setting and it looked surreally beautiful.

Unlike my Pesach in Argentina, where we had to walk through metal detectors to enter the five-star hotel in Patagonia, this Rosh Hashanah service was open to anybody and everybody, bringing together quite an eclectic mix of travelers.

I turned to talk to a Japanese backpacker, curious how she stumbled upon Chabad, and it turned out she was Jewish, too. By my rough count, there were about 300 people, and this was just one of three celebrations.

We were served a meal of chicken, potato and vegetables after a service that saw uplifting singing and dancing. I wondered how on earth Chabad managed to secure kosher food. But since it was Chabad, I figured it must be kosher. It was the first time I had eaten meat in India, as I was determined to avoid getting sick and was avoiding all meat, eggs and anything uncooked.

At the same time on the Ganges below, a traditional Hindu puja, a religious ritual showing respect to God, was taking place. Floral offerings were made and set forth on the river, young boys chanted holy songs, incense was burned and a gold urn was passed around and touched with reverence by the community, much like a Torah on the way back to the ark.

Never mind the ashrams and the yoga centers.

As I sat beneath the stars, celebrating a new Jewish year surrounded by Jewish backpackers of all nationalities, I decided the Ganges was the perfect place to find myself after all.

Vancouver-based freelance writer Robin Esrock has traveled to 32 countries in the past 18 months, posting pictures and stories on his Web site,