Imagine this happening to you: You’re standing in a throng of people, and suddenly they are all giving you a Standing “O.” “Wait a cotton-picking minute,” you think, “What have I done deserve this? The guy on my left, and the lady on my right, maybe they’ve done something special. But me, I haven’t done diddley-squat.”
Our OU Israel Adventure tour bus had left the coconut orchard and was letting us off in front of the Zion Torah Centre. Waiting for us there was this enormous throng of people. But they weren’t just waiting – say the way you would wait for a bus. They were expecting us; they had been expecting us for days and weeks. The entire community, or so it seemed, had turned out to greet us, and, yes, they were excited, v-e-r-y excited. You could sense it; you could feel it; you could touch it. In fact, you had to…touch it, that is. Every man, every boy – and there were lots of them, all wearing their best white shirts – had some apparent need to shake my hand (as well as everyone else’s). Now, I’m not a glad-hander. You want to shake my hand; you insist on it? Very well, I won’t be rude. But I’d just as soon not. However, there was no way I could have gotten off the bus and made my way into the Zion Torah Centre without pressing the flesh, lots of it.
But why? Why were these folks, members of the Devasahayams’ newly formed we-want-to-be-Jewish congregation, so eager to see us. We were bringing token gifts, but that’s about all. (We did later contribute money towards the purchase of some siddurs for them, but still….) Personally, I had no words of wisdom to offer, no encouragement to give them. So why did they care – and they obviously did – whether I was present or not?
Here’s what I figured out, although it took me a while to do so (I’m kind of slow sometimes). Here’s this group of people. Even when they were Christians, they were in a small minority in a very over-populated country. But having abandoned that religion, they were now in an even smaller minority. Plus they were now facing the on-going hostility of their neighbors and former friends. That must be hard. So forty people, who had come from Israel, the U.S., and Australia to visit THEM, meant a lot. An awful lot. I was – we were – honoring them just by showing up. We were making them feel respected, showing their hostile former co-religionists and anybody else who cared that SOMEBODY thought this group of renegades was important enough to hire a tour bus to pay them a visit.
Of course, we weren’t any random collection of forty people. We were Jewish, the first large group of Jews most of them had ever seen! And they wanted to become Jewish. So we were, whether we liked it or not, role models. So we were not just esteemed guests, but IMPORTANT esteemed guests.
Now if you have guests, what do you do – if you’re Jewish, or even if you would like to be Jewish? That’s right, you feed them! We all went upstairs for a meal – vegetarian Indian cuisine at its best. Lots of it. At least forty people involved in serving it all. Can’t imagine how many of people were involved in preparing it and how much time they spent getting lunch ready for us. The question arises: Why are the Devasahayams mucking around with coconuts? If they ever do get to Israel, why don’t the just open up a restaurant? That’s one of the things we really need here in The Land. (Somebody was posting on Facebook her joy that she could finally find Ziploc bags here. I guess we all have our own priorities.)
When we were done stuffing our faces, we went back downstairs for a musical presentation. I had considered photographing some of it, but there was what I assumed was a professional crew videoing everything that went on, so I chose not to get in their way. But you can get an idea of what it was like by clicking on here (from a similar event a year or so before). I have no idea what happened to the video that was created when we were there; it doesn’t seem to have made it onto YouTube or the like. More the pity, because the young people who sang for us must have spent a lot of time rehearsing their numbers.
Just rehearsing doesn’t always help. I’m sure that your basic boys choir in The States spends a lot of time rehearsing, but they still sound awful. These kids didn’t. One might ask. One does ask: “How can it be that these children, so far removed from the Jewish world, can express a love for Zion with such emotion (and in tune!) Maybe because they mean it. These fifteen hundred men, women, and children would leave their ancestral homeland for a few acres of sand in the Negev, if they only could. Of course, there’s a lot more involved in being Jewish than singing about “Tzion,” and some of it isn’t so much fun – like fasting on Tisha B’Av. And even that is not as stressful as dealing with the Israel Rabbinate. But you gotta start somewhere.
We wanted to leave them all with a token of our esteem, so each of us was deputized to personally present to the head of a family a laminated copy of the official Prayer for the State of Israel in Hebrew, English, and Tamil, the local language – beautifully calligraphed by someone at the OU Israel Center. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but for them it was. You see, these good people very much want to pray for the welfare and wellbeing of the Medina; at a later time, Samuel expressed a desire to pray for those of us who have become separated both physically and spiritually from our tradition – a remark that stunned us into a collective silence. It shouldn’t have to be that a former Christian minister cares more for us than we do for ourselves.
We had been there for a l-o-n-g time and it was time to go. But, wait a minute! It seems that there was another group of these people waiting for us at Samuel and Anne’s home, and we had no choice but to get back on the bus and head over there. It was getting dark and we were on some back roads; so it took a while to get there and then hang around. By this time I was tired and starting to get cranky. “Can we just go now. Enough is enough.” Finally, enough did become enough and we left, heading back to the comfort of our Taj hotel in Coimbatore. Even though the day was too long, it was that memorable. Once in a while you run across people whose sincerity overwhelms you, people on the outside who are more fervent than those of us on the inside. Makes you stop and think.