Seder in India

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DHARAMSALA, India — A few weeks ago, Zev Zaidman went shopping at Costco to buy what he'd need for Pesach. His purchase: 200 pounds of matzah.

The unleavened bread was then boxed up and distributed among a few of the guests who would be traveling to the seder.

"What could be better than the mitzvah of carrying matzah?" mused Serena Shaw.

Zaidman of San Francisco and Shaw of El Cerrito were about to take part in what was dubbed the "Liberation Journey." Organized by Zaidman's brother Zak, also of San Francisco, the group was bound for a seder here in Dharamsala, the home of Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness himself, the Dalai Lama.

"Within five minutes of hearing about it, I thought, 'I'll go,'" said Shaw, who is in the midst of studying for her conversion to Judaism.

Last week's first-night seder, which drew a plethora of Israelis as well as visiting Americans, was about seven hours long, largely due to the use of both English and Hebrew, as well as a mix of Chassidic storytelling, singing and vocal percussion.

Travelers lounged on pillows on the floor, drinking homemade wine and eating the food prepared in a kitchen that had been made kosher for Pesach.

Jazzy Green, an 11-year-old from Santa Monica traveling with her parents, prefaced the Four Questions by asking guests to pray for Gedhun, the Panchen Lama, who is in line to approve the next Dalai Lama. The youngest Tibetan political prisoner, Gedhun is almost 11 and is under house arrest with his parents in Tibet.

"It's important to remember him because he doesn't have freedom like we have," said Jazzy.

In another variation at the seder, the potato, which was served as the karpas, was dipped in salt, since the water here is undrinkable.

On the second night, Elizheva Hurvich of Mill Valley led a more alternative seder, with two Tibetan Buddhist monks in attendance. Surrounded by the mountains the Tibetan exiles escaped through, she was struck by the similarities between their exodus and that of the Jews, who fled through the Red Sea.

"Our freedom came through the waters, and theirs through the mountains," she said.

SaraHope Smith of San Francisco, who celebrated her 34th birthday on the trip, said she had always felt an affinity for the Tibetans' struggle for freedom.

"It's so potent to be celebrating our freedom here."

The long voyage to northern India began April 1, when 14 people from the Bay Area plus one from Los Angeles set out on a 2-1/2-week journey to celebrate the Jewish festival of freedom in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most of the travelers were affiliated with Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley.

Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, has become a haven for spiritual seekers of all sorts: Westerners seeking enlightenment, Israelis on their post-military sojourn through Asia, hippies who have lost track of where they originally came from and how long they've been here.

The Bay Area group turned out to be seekers of a different sort. All but one are in their early to mid-30s. Most are at some turning point in their careers or, if not, at a point of significant change or transition.

The idea of the trip first came about when Azriel Cohen, a Toronto native now living in Jerusalem, came to the Bay Area in November. Cohen, who was raised Orthodox, is the founder of Ohr Olam, an institute he launched to cater to the huge number of Israelis coming through Dharamsala each year.

Cohen first came to Dharamsala in 1997, on a research mission to find out why such large numbers of Israelis were drawn here. He decided to do something to aid their spiritual quest.

For the past four years, Ohr Olam has been hosting a seder, serving approximately 250 people, mostly Israelis. With the help of some American expatriates who run the KhanaNirvana Community Cafe here, Shabbat dinners take place weekly, complete with freshly baked challah. In the middle of this stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism, Jews are establishing a foothold.

What confirms it is that Chabad moved in two years ago ó after successfully operating seders for years to serve the huge numbers of travelers in Katmandu, Nepal, and Bangkok, Thailand.

Those traveling in the region now have their pick of two seders in Dharamsala. Ohr Olam also offers seminars on Jewish teachings of various types, with faculty members ranging from an Orthodox woman educator from a Jerusalem yeshiva to Rodger Kamenetz, author of "The Jew and the Lotus," who was here for Passover.

Cohen's efforts to establish Judaism in the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist enclave received the Dalai Lama's blessing in 1997, when Cohen and his associates met with him. And when Cohen visited the Bay Area, he received the blessing of Zak Zaidman, who teaches and studies at Chochmat.

Although the initial meeting with Cohen was only exploratory, Zak Zaidman quickly began pondering how a group from Chochmat could make a contribution to the work of Ohr Olam.

"There's a certain openness that we cultivate in Berkeley and San Francisco," he said. "I thought we could bring a piece of our community here, knowing that there would be a lot of Israelis and people exploring their Judaism."

Said Smith of San Francisco, who was also in on the planning stages: "It seems that Israelis can use Buddhism to find inner peace and then connect back to their Jewish soul."

Furthermore, Zak Zaidman recognized that helping Ohr Olam fit into Chochmat's mission. Quoting one of Chochmat's spiritual leaders, founder Avram Davis, Zaidman said, "'We're sweetening the root of Jewish,' and a lot of that has to do with not just doing it on a local level but everywhere."

Moreover, since Chochmat is also a meditation school, participants study other religious traditions as a means of deepening their own. That approach meshed perfectly with plans for an interfaith dialogue in Dharamsala.

When Zak Zaidman began to circulate word of the trip, mainly to those affiliated with Chochmat and Keneset HaLev in San Francisco, he soon had 40 names. By January, the trip was confirmed. As time went on, the group dwindled to 15, the maximum number he could take.

E-mails began to circulate rapidly, discussing practical matters such as what to bring, as well as how to get an extension to file income taxes. The group also met beforehand, to learn about Buddhism and Hinduism.

And then on April 1, the group left San Francisco International Airport, bringing the matzah as well as a Torah.

In ìThe Jew and the Lotus,î Zak Zaidman had read that the Jewish delegation meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1990 brought a Torah with them, as a gift to the Buddhist leader. Kamenetz wrote that he felt it kept the travelers safe. But the Torah that group brought was a replica. The one carrying by the Bay Area group, which is currently used at KenesetHaLev, was not.

"I loved bringing it,î Zak Zaidman said. ìItís hard to carry, because you canít carry it like a bag, but I never had difficulty in finding people to carry it, and I would see them beaming when they were holding it."

The trip to Dharamsala was not easy, but then traveling in India rarely is. One group member ó the writer of this story ó was delayed when an engine quit and the plane had to return to San Francisco, causing a day-late arrival in India. Another participant was scheduled to be tardy, so the two made the journey over land together.

The rest of the group, after traveling 20 hours by air to India, had boarded a train for Amritsar, the home base of the Sikh religion and the site of Golden Temple. Between the bus strike in New Delhi and the difficulty in finding taxis, group members just barely made it onto the train.

Once in the Tibetan part of Dharamsala, called Mcleod Ganj, the group found spirituality could almost be found by breathing in the air.

One can hear the chanting from a nearby temple as often as a cow passes along the dirt road. The woman checking her e-mail alongside visitors to one of the many Internet places is likely to be a Buddhist monk, with a red robe and shaved head. Western practitioners of Buddhism walk pensively, fingering wooden prayer beads. "Free Tibet" signs are everywhere, with guesthouses, shops and restaurants all offering political pamphlets on the Chinese occupation and how one can help.

It is said that when travelers need a refuge from the chaos of India, they come to Dharamsala, where it is a tad less disordered.

But that being said, it is still India in all its extremes. It is a place where a beggar with no legs sits on the side of the road against a stunning backdrop of green mountains. There, too, bargaining for an exquisite carpet or piece of jewelry at unbelievably cheap prices will attract a young woman cradling two naked babies in a filthy piece of cloth. She will wait behind you until you complete the transaction; then she'll follow you until you give her a few rupees.

It is a place where upper-caste Indians from the cities come on vacation, and women in their expensive saris must step over the gaping holes in the dirt road and breathe in the stench of sewage, just like everyone else; where a Kodak moment lies around every corner if it's not totally obscured by the piles of trash, much of which, in many other countries, could be recycled.

As Rudi Halbright of San Francisco put it, "Every time we walk somewhere, it's an adventure."

The group arrived Wednesday afternoon, April 4, with the two late members arriving the following morning. Friday was dominated by Pesach preparations — since no work could be done on Shabbat. Group members pitched in with Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers from around the world to decorate the main building of the Yong Ling School with original artwork and festive paper cutouts, while others chopped garlic, onions, potatoes and carrots.

Everything was finished by 5 p.m., and by the time Shabbat candles were lit last Friday at the KhanaNirvana, the arduous trek to get here and the preparation for the seder were all but forgotten.

Dressed in a new white outfit she bought for $5, Naomi Fine of Oakland said Shabbat was the first time everyone came together as a group. "We were there with those we knew, and those who were strangers, but we all spoke the same language. As the Shabbat candles got brighter, the sunset faded into the mountains. It was magical."

But Shabbat also created a bit of tension. Ohr Olam's goal is to provide an atmosphere in which the most observant and the most secular Jew will both feel comfortable. It's not an easy task.

With the observant Jews needing to eat their last chametz at a particular time, as halachah dictates, as well as a few other logistical matters, there was no way the entire group could compromise on a way to hold morning Shabbat services together.

The Chochmat group conducted its own services on a lawn near the hotel, and later held its own opportunities for meditation.

There were other issues. One rabbi who had come from South Africa to teach all week as part of the Ohr Olam project left after the first day, convinced that the seder and everything else wouldn't be up to his standards.

He attended the Chabad seder instead.

"It's painful, but not surprising," Zak Zaidman said. "We're a deeply Jewish community that isn't Orthodox, and when you rub up against each other, this is bound to happen."

That tension — as well as the differences between Ohr Olam and Chabad — brought all the conflicts being played out in the larger Jewish world to this Himalayan outpost. Dharamsala may indeed be a small village in India, but even so, it also represents a microcosm of the Jewish world.

"If we can challenge each other but still continue on and not call each other names and walk away, then I like to believe we can do it anywhere," Zak Zaidman said.

The seders themselves provided an opportunity to bring people together — Israelis and Americans, Orthodox and Renewal, Jews and Buddhists.

The Jewish visitors were struck by the fact that the snow-capped mountains of such beauty, forming the backdrop for their experience, were the same mountains the Tibetan exiles had to cross over.

Two Buddhist monks were attending their first seder. One of the monks, S. Jumpa P., said he appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Judaism, as he wanted to continue the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. And he was moved by Jazzy's reference to the 11-year-old Panchen Lama. The Santa Monica girl had learned about his plight from Kamenetz.

"It was very sad for me," he said. "She is the same age as him."

At one point during Kamenetz's seminar, the author was asked what had happened in Jewish-Buddhist dialogue since that initial group of Jewish leaders met with the Dalai Lama 11 years ago. Although a reunion is in the works, he said, "You're the future of the dialogue. It doesn't have to happen with rabbis and monks. It's happening at all levels."

That dialogue, too, seemed to continue into the wee hours of the morning, as group members got to know each other, talking about themselves and their own personal journeys. As Zak Zaidman put it, "You can't come on a journey like this without cracking yourself open in some way."

Almost everyone remarked on the compatibility of the people who came.

"The highlights for me have been the personal connections both with people in and outside our group," said Halbright.

Judi Stanton of Oakland said that she debated at first about coming to India because Passover is traditionally a time spent with family. But she found the group "so open and supportive, and everyone is sharing in what their journey is. We've become like a family and a community that we can continue to build upon when we get back."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."