What's a rabbi doing on Assi ghat?

New-age travellers

What's a rabbi doing on Assi ghat?

New shores: A shop advertising its Jewish wares

Varanasi is one of those cities which claim to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Along with Hebron, Jerusalem and Damascus. And looking at the town — bruised and crumbling with antiquated infrastructure, it’s not hard to believe that. But something else sets Varanasi apart from the others. While I have never encountered sadhus and sants in the narrow cobbled paths of Hebron, Jerusalem or Damascus, it seemed quite in the nature of things when suddenly one sweltering day last week I saw a rabbi, complete in his black hat and coat climb, up the steps on Assi Ghat. I wracked my brains — why would a rabbi visit Assi in the heat of April? Could he be part of the Hin-Jew tradition which blossomed in the last decade as ties between India and Israel burgeoned?

Representatives of this community certainly abound. My friend and Israeli writer Yael Lotan, who recently succumbed to cancer, was a striking representative of this community. Her review of RK Laxman’s English translation of Mahabharat did much to disseminate information about the wisdom of this epic in Israel. And Yael (in whom India lost a wonderful unofficial cultural ambassador) was one of those who had made it a point to visit Varanasi, to ‘soak in the ethos of Hinduism’, though she always lamented the fact that Israelis mix up Hindi with Hindu.

Alas, the ethos that Varanasi today offers is difficult for a Hindu to reconcile with. The once beautiful ghats, the leitmotif of the town, are crumbling and caked with dung, roads are almost non-existent, humans have to give way to beasts, drugs are offered at the cheapest of prices and commercialism abounds. Nevertheless, that it is a hit with Israelis is easy to see.

Hotels near the ghats do not boast of names like Vaikunth or Kailash, but those like Haifa and Yaffa. Stores and guesthouses advertise their wares and services in Hebrew. Menus on offer are humus, falafel , baba ghanouj and pitta bread. And it is quite natural to walk into the modest Hayat café and order a cup of delicious Arabic kahwah laced with cardamom. And that is why perhaps the Rabbi blended in quite well in the mosaic of Varanasi, and it was quite natural to find out that he was in town to celebrate Pesach or Passover!  (I remember Yael telling me once that she ‘was amazed by the presence of orthodox Jews running around in black suits and hats in Pahar Ganj, Delhi’. Rabbis make sure that they are never too far away from their flock — even if some are on their way to being lost). And it seemed quite in Varanasi’s nature of things to host a Passover celebration. For even though the hot season is beginning and the tourist season is ending, and even though tourism, according to local tourism official, has declined after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, there are still enough Israelis — all Jews — for a reasonable celebration.

Neeraj Pande, whose Om guesthouse is the venue for the celebrations — the Rabbi and a few other Israelis had taken over an entire floor — says that Israelis account for almost 40 percent of all Varanasi’s tourists. Many of them are low-budget tourists who put up at guesthouses like his where rooms range from Rs 150 to Rs 450. They are usually war-wearied young people travelling on vacation after completing their conscription in the Israeli Defence Forces.

India is cheap, vast, varied, and one of the few places in the huge Asian landmass where Israelis can move around in relative safety, our 26/11 notwithstanding. Pande is also sceptical about the popularity of his guesthouse with them. The day I visit him, I see security officials from the police inspect the floor where the Israelis have put up. A young Israeli, who calls himself David, and studies law in the University of Tel Aviv, shows them around. He is a tourist, he says, come simply to sightsee in Varanasi, but there is a buzz in the air that he is from the security services.

There are, however, other tourists like the young sun-burnt man with dreadlocks who says he is from Haifa, but does not tell me his name. What about the security? Does he feel safe? Yes, he says, he feels safer here than home. Why is he here? To combine his search for moksha with some hashish, but that does not stop him from wishing to celebrate Passover.

Others like Ami, visiting Kolkata, combine exotica of ‘Hindu’ Varanasi with lessons in the tabla at one of the many individual tutors available there. And for yet others like Tamar, it is studying about ancient Indian history at the Benaras Hindu University.
It was the popularity of Varanasi with Israelis that made entrepreneur cum Congress activist Ravi Shankar Mishra float the now popular Haifa restaurant. It offers staple Middle Eastern mezze — the humus (a chick pea mash), falafel (chick pea pakodas), labneh (sour cream), tahina (seasame sauce dip), tabbouleh (a vegetable salad), and baba ghanouj (an eggplant dish).  Soon he also went on to establish a hotel, finding the hospitality industry lucrative. (In spite of Varanasi’s bruised and dishevelled appearance, it does fill the coffers of UP).

The brains behind the middle-eastern cuisine, however, are two brothers from Jordan — Tahseen and Mohamed. While Tahseen , who helped establish Haifa, soon moved on to other pastures like Goa, his brother Mohamed has remained in Varanasi. He runs the cafe Hayat, where the food — truth be told — is of better quality than at the other restaurants offering the same fare.

Mohamed has tried to do up the modest café on the lines of a Bedouin tent from his native Jordan. Though originally a Palestinian Muslim from Haifa, he has lived in Jordan all his life — where his parents arrived as refugees. But that does not stop him from catering to his many Israeli guests in Varanasi. “I try to help them out, they love the food here. Though Israelis try to pass off humus and falafel as Isaeli or Middle-Eastern cuisine, it is Arabic,” he says with a tinge of pride in his voice. Mohamed is not just hospitable but also a great cook and in a jiffy tosses up a moussaka — Arab style with potatoes — for me.
And are Israelis fine with him? “I offer them all my hospitality, they are my guests and here we have the Middle-Eastern bond in common. Even in Jordan Israelis are treated well.” Mohamed, who has been around in Varanasi since 1999 recalls that when the Sankat Mochan temple was bombed he had been running a café close to it. He immediately set about helping guests get back to their guesthouses. “After Mumbai attacks, I similarly helped guests contact travel agents and go to Kathmandu, Bangkok or any other place as few foreigners in Varanasi wanted to remain in India then.” So he remains trusted by his guests and by the local populace at large, recalling no instance of communalism. His only lament is that tourism in 2009 has seen only 10 percent of the usual rush. He hopes to utilise the off-peak season to refurbish the café. “Sixty percent of my clientele are Jews, either from Israel or from other countries,” he says with a contented smile.

So while Passover is celebrated in this seat of Sanatana Dharma, an Arab caters to his Jewish clientele. Varanasi, thus, remains true to at least one ancient Indian ethos — of Vasudeva Kuttumbakam, scoring in this aspect, if in nothing else, over the other claimants to the distinction of being the world’s oldest continuously inhabited town.

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