Monday, June 16, 2008

one last day in India

Before I get to Dubai, my last day in India warrants a short post.

Mumbai is far and away the most Western city I saw in India. No cattle on the street (Mumbai is an island, so it's understandable), modern buildings, Westerners. The ubiquitous cabs were all out of some 50's movie, and they were beautiful.

But hey, it's still India. There were a LOT of people. The monument you see is the Gateway of India. The people you see are Indians.

While wandering around, I found this impossibly sky-blue building that I had to take a picture of.

Unbelievably, this is a synagogue. A Jewish synagogue, in Mumbai. I walk in, but the only guy in the place is asleep in the pews, so I figure I'll get a haircut and stop by later.

In Mumbai, if you want a haircut, you're never far from a Western-style salon, with photos of celebrities and stuff on the wall. But if I want a Western haircut, I can go to Chicago. So let's walk around the smaller streets and see what we find.

Aha, a roadside barbershop. There's no door, it's just kinda an open inlet with a fan and some chairs. The three chairs are full, and I'm the third person waiting, but it's only 10 minutes.

The chair is this comfy old thing with a great engraved-metal art deco swivel foot "pad" thing for your feet, which is unfortunately way too high for my long frame, so I just put my feet on the floor. I tell the guy I want my hair very short, and a shave. The haircut involves the usual combs and scissors, but also spritzes and powders and finger massages and toothpaste tubes and tickle brushes and warm water bowls and ice cubes. It's this crazy ceremony and you gotta watch your eyes: powder and water and brushes go everywhere. Uses a straight razor on my week-old stubble, and dude, straight razors shave smooth and fast. In case he missed a spot, back with the warm lather, another shave. The whole process, shave and a haircut (two bits...), took only maybe 15 minutes, and honestly? It's a terrible haircut! At home, I buzz my own head, so it's not the fashion I'm protesting, but he barely cut any hair! Just kinda cleaned up the back and called it a day. But for 50 rupees ($1.25), I didn't complain.

Looking like I still need a haircut, let's find that synagogue again.

The formerly-sleeping man is now awake and reading prayers, and I walk in quietly and wait while he finishes. He puts down the book and smiles at me, like he doesn't get many visitors. He's very approving to hear that I, too, am Jewish. There's something melancholy about the size and fading beauty of this shul. Sky-blue paint strips are peeling from the walls, and a solitary caretaker prays by his lonesome in the cavernous sanctuary.

Ben Zion tells me all about the synagogue, and how Mumbai once had a substantial Jewish community. But when British Raj ended, the same year Israel formed, most of Mumbai's 15,000 Jews emmigrated. Now, there are fewer than 50 families left. But he tells me, with unabashed pride, that on Fridays, with the help of a couple tourists, they usually have enough for minion. His smile, and the palpaple grandeur of this shul, make that statement sadder and sadder.

Next to the shul's dedication plaques and pleas for donations, Ben Zion grins and points to the one on the bottom right.

After I'd taken my share of photos and poked and prodded around the shul, Ben Zion pulls out a modest stack of postcards he's recieved from previous visitors. Glancing at the dates, I figure he gets 2-3 a year. Ben Zion is instantly likeable: so sweet, and he speaks gently. He reminds me of Sheldon Stearns.

When I leave, Ben Zion hopefully gives me a sticker with the shul's address. I'll certainly write a post. He tells me they have three torahs, but no Jews anymore. There hasn't been a bar mitzvah in fifteen years. It's a great loss.

It really is a great loss.

Goodbye Ben Zion.

Goodbye India.


Anonymous said...

Well sweetie, you need to proofread. "Fridays" is plural, not possessive, so no apostrophe. And you keep leaving out words. And it's "fewer" for quantity and "less" for quality.

As always your mom! I will always correct your grammar.

I can see that Ben Zion even looks like Sheldon!

Much love,

Jake Cooper said...

Mommy, usually I DO proofread, but I had to type quickly because the car came to pick me up at 9am, and it was 8:30 and I wanted to hit up the buffet. I already missed tea yesterday!

Backpacking in Dubai is a lot better when your mom's former student's business contact spoils you rotten. :)

And anyway, I can sign in and proofread now, so won't your comments look silly!

Yankel Dov

Anonymous said...

I'm just so, so happy that you're being spoiled. You really deserve it.

Daddy thinks I'm a bit stiff to criticize your grammar. But I partly do it because of that card you and Josh sent us one year, thanking Daddy for giving you humor and boldness and Mommy for giving you grammar. Just a little payback.

Love you tons,

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry you missed your tea time!