One of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to know the Jewish community in each location. Sometimes I witness only the scarce remnants of a once vibrant community. And sometimes I come in contact with a flourishing community. Either way, I find it incredible to discover Jews in really every corner of the earth.
More than exploring the different communities that exist and how they developed within their varied settings, what I enjoy most is finding how not so different we all are. I love discovering the similarities and the points of connection we all have, if just because we are all Jewish.
They didn’t serve gefilte fish or herring. Nor did they offer chulent. They had fried bananas, instead. This was India, after all. But they had a kiddush, nonetheless.
On a trip to Southern India, I was delighted to discover the similarities we had with a community geographically distant from Ashkenazim and Sephardim. At first glance, what could we possibly share with a population that dresses so much more colorfully? What similarities can there be with a community who speaks a language so foreign to ours? Where can there be common points with those of a complexion different from the ones I knew?
But through these differences I found commonalities.
Down in Kerala, where it is believed that King Solomon’s merchants landed centuries ago, few Jews remain but their synagogues and shops are still standing. On Shabbat, after morning prayer services, we were invited to a kiddush, a post-prayer light meal for the community. There were not enough men for a minyan and of those who came to the synagogue, a majority were not Indian but rather tourists. And still they had a kiddush.
And those who were still living there came to the synagogue because it was Shabbat, even though they were fairly certain there wasn’t going to be a minyan. They maintain their Jewish community and like many around the world, it shines most on Shabbat, the traditional day of rest. What is so exciting about the ASF Institute for Jewish Experience is that it will bring to light the Jewishness of the diverse communities from around the world. It will highlight the basic Jewish tenants, such as kiddush, that may be practiced in a nuanced way but aren’t lost in translation.