Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jewish Soul-Searching in India.

When reading about Westerners killed recently in Bombay, I wondered immediately if more than the Chabad couple and their four guests in the Nariman House were Jews targeted by terrorists. The surname of two Americans who were in the city for a New Age seminar-- their Virginia-centered community advocates "sonic technology" to enhance meditation-- intrigued me. (This reminded me in turn of a New York Times article about ashrams where the well-heeled cooled their boots back East. A photo of one elderly Sikh chopping veggies caught my eye: the splendidly monikered "Hanuman Leiberman.") Those associated with "Synchronicity" who were mentioned in the press, it appeared to me, also often had Jewish surnames. I figured that the next issue of The Forward would follow any lead in this direction, and I was correct.

I copy most of its article below, as their situation's probably less known to readers who understandably may have been better informed on the tragic fate of the Chabad rabbi, Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, who died, while their son Moshe was rescued and taken away by their Nepali Christian nanny to safety. The house was singled out despite its obscurity as a symbolic, if also very human, scapegoat for those who sought, in sacrificing Jews, to incite Muslim outrage. Men and women were singled out and slaughtered because they were Jewish. So was the two-year-old, and I doubt if chance had not intervened, and bravery, if he'd have otherwise survived the torture which occurred before the Jewish adults with whom he was trapped were executed. Some were draped in prayer shawls or tallit; the guess is that the rabbi did this final gesture of decency before he too was killed. One photo in the New York Times of the interior of the Chabad house after the attack resembled a scene from besieged Stalingrad.

It's sobering to reflect when studying the title of this article how many words convey the different aspects of being Jewish: the noble quest, the long burden, the nagging search that all combine in this identification. A tribal legacy that still angers jihadists to conclude a Pakistani "Army of the Pure's" lengthy title by naming it after its targets, "Crusaders and Jews." Centuries pass; the same enemies for Islamists remain. "Victim"; "Seeking"; "Following the Path of Many Jews Before Him"; and, the past forty years for many Israelis, "Went to India." I recommend Irish documentarian and travel writer (although that term seems to diminish his searching memoirs) Manchán Magan's account in his "Manchán's Travels: A Journey Through India," recently reviewed by me here and on Amazon in the U.S. and Britain. Magan's insights into the wounded psyche of IDF veterans who recuperate-- or lapse into an opiated numbness-- in India, in the aftermath of their own struggles with (post?-)colonial political and military reaction during the intifada, make for instructive comparisons.

"Following the Path of Many Jews Before Him, Victim went to India Seeking" by Gabrielle Birkner, The Forward, Dec. 4, 2008. Excerpts follow:

The Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries who died in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai have been the most prominent faces of the Jews murdered there. But about two miles from the apartment building where the couple and four others died, the attacks claimed the life of another Jewish victim, Alan Scherr. His story, it could be said, represents a much more typical example of the Jews who find their way to India: the Jewish spiritual seeker.

Scherr, 58, and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi were in India as a part of a retreat organized by the Synchronicity Foundation, a New Age group devoted to meditative practice. They died when a gunman opened fire in the Oberoi Hotel café where the father and daughter were having lunch.

The elder Scherr grew up in a traditional Jewish home, supplementing his public school education with Hebrew school at a local Orthodox synagogue. But like many other Jews, his spiritual path veered away from Judaism. Thirteen years ago, Scherr gave up his job as an art teacher in suburban Maryland and moved to the Synchronicity compound in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He traveled frequently to India, which he considered a spiritual homeland, his brother, Marc Scherr, told the Forward: “India was to him what Israel is to us.”

While not all Jewish spiritual seekers end up embracing their quest for meaning as fully as Scherr did, Jews in recent decades have acquired a reputation for their interest in India’s spiritual side.

“Jews are very prominent in the Hinduism-for-export and the Buddhism-for-export movement — they’re leaders, they’re teachers,” said Rodger Kamenetz, the author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” the best-selling book-treatment of the topic. “I don’t know if it’s something in the Jewish soul or something in the Jewish genes, but we’re always looking for a comprehensive spiritual answer; we’re always looking for meaning.”

One indication of the flow of Jews to India is the 30,000 Indian visas issued annually to Israelis. In fact, the presence of the Chabad house in Mumbai was a testament to the numbers, given Chabad’s work in reaching out to spiritual seekers on the subcontinent; in addition to Mumbai, the Jewish outreach organization also maintains centers in the Indian cities of Anjuna Village, Bangalore, and Manali.

Kamenetz told the Forward that during a recent Passover spent in Dharamsala, India, a base for Tibetan Buddhists, the Jewish presence had been so large that there were two Seders.

Many rabbis and scholars trace the Jewish affinity for India and its holistic traditions to mainstream Judaism’s embrace of rationalism during the second half of the 20th century.

“Partly because of the aftereffects of the Holocaust, the Jewish people’s encounter with the ultimately irrational, there’s a hunger for spiritual answers that rational and philosophical religion cannot provide,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who calls India his honorary spiritual home. “Those Jews who are not drawn to fundamentalist orthodoxy have had nowhere to go to seek deep spirituality. That accounts, in part, for the massive turn of Jews in our time to Eastern spirituality.”

While in recent years a number of Jewish synagogues and groups have attempted to incorporate mediation and chanting into Jewish ritual, Halevi said that those efforts have not yet proved widespread or deep enough to “draw our most serious spiritual seekers, and keep them within Judaism.”[. . .]

The lure that movements like Synchronicity hold for Jews has been a steady subject of discussion for rabbis and scholars. The executive director of the Jewish Spiritual Literacy in Baltimore, Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, said that amid the struggle to survive in the Diaspora, many Jewish leaders have lost touch with the “meditative wisdom of our own traditions” — emphasizing rituals that many spiritual seekers experience as empty.

“There is nothing in Buddhism or Hinduism or yoga that is lacking in Jewish thought or teaching,” Seinfeld, the author of “The Art of Amazement: Judaism’s Forgotten Spirituality,” said. “But too many of our Sunday schools, our day schools, and our synagogues lack the institutional ability or knowledge to teach it to its members. It’s no wonder why someone like Mr. Scherr would grow up and say ‘Where do I find it? I didn’t find it in Judaism.’”

Scherr never disavowed Judaism, according to his siblings. While he had not been observant for decades and was not raising his daughter Jewish, he never expressed a desire to convert to another faith, they said.[. . .]

“There is no disjunction,” said [rabbinical student in a Jewish Renewal trans-denominational program, Rachel] Barenblit, who has written about her own encounters with Eastern spirituality in India. “The American-Jewish community has gotten a lot better at integrating things. We don’t have to be threatened by practices that have a Buddhist connotation or a Buddhist flavor.”

But not everyone is so sanguine about the spiritual union. At a memorial service for Scherr, in Baltimore, the Orthodox rabbi who officiated the service, Rabbi Shlomo Porter, compared Scherr’s search for spirituality in Indian faith traditions to an old parable about a man who searches far and wide for treasure — only to find it within his own home: “The tragedy is that people are finding Eastern spirituality more accessible to them than Jewish spirituality, and that they feel it comes with less baggage.”

P.S. By the way, although I never got around to reviewing it as I had nothing new to add to what had been posted on Amazon, Yossi Klein Halevi's 2001 book "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land" remains one of the best books on spiritual searching I've ever found. One of the few titles that I checked out of the library but later bought. To me, the supreme compliment of a volume's value!

Photo: I could not locate on-line the NYT snapshot of the devastated interior of Nariman House. Instead, this illustration from the Dec. 4, 2008 issue of The Forward. Also noteworthy: the fact that Alan Scherr (I note the distinction of only the father in the article as the "Jewish victim.") likewise received an Orthodox funeral. Caption: "AN ORPHAN’S CRY: Two-year-old Moshe Holtzberg cries out 'Ima, Ima!' ('Mommy, Mommy!') at a memorial service in Mumbai’s Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue for his murdered parents, Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg."

No comments: