“I, however, was raised neither as Catholic nor as Jew. I was both, and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. I was–what’s the word these days?–atomised. Yessir: a real Bombay mix. ”
― Salman Rushdie,
It’s not uncommon for Jews to have to explain what their holidays are to their gentile friends, neighbors, lovers and enemies. Hell, it’s not uncommon for Jews to have to explain what being Jewish even is to friends, neighbors, all of the above. Growing up attending a liberal, largely Jewish but ostensibly Quaker school, I didn’t really understand that there were people out there who didn’t know anything about Judaism. Intellectually I did, of course, because I had seen them in books and movies, and we talked about it in Hebrew school, but although I was physically living in a neighborhood with almost no other Jewish people around, my real life happened in the confines of my home and in my school, and everyone there got it. Looking back, I had lots of experiences with people who probably knew nothing about Jews at all, from my horseback riding camp in West Virginia to visiting my father’s family in Puerto Rico, but for whatever reason, willful ignorance or the blind solipsism of childhood, it didn’t register for me until I was about 16 years old. Before than, despite world history, a subject I adored, I was still fairly confident that underneath it all, everyone was Jewish.
But eventually that pleasant fantasy had to come to an end, and spending time living on a farm on the Maine Coast, my revelation of the non-semitic nature of others came, as so many things to, through butter. Coming home from my semester in Maine for Spring Break, my mother asked me,”do they leave the butter out”?, her knowing gaze reflecting the answer. Shocked, I responded that indeed they did, what WAS that? She nodded, and told me matter-of-factly, that’s what non-Jews do, they leave the butter out to get soft. Hell, they EAT butter, when the good Jewish population of my mother’s world ate margarine, as God and modern science intended.
Returning to the program, during Passover, myself and the other scant handful of Jewish kids proudly explained to the rest of our classmates over a hastily thrown-together Seder featuring Matzo Ball soup in chicken bullion broth and a combined re-telling of the Passover story that sounded more like madlibs than mezuzah. That was my first experience in explaining to an audience with no context what it was I was doing. But it certainly hasn’t been my last, especially since I moved to Mumbai.
In some ways, being Jewish is great practice for being a foreigner. Either way, you are a going to spend a lot of time carefully contextualizing your identity and life experience all while trying to make it comfortable, adaptable, and not too difficult for others to understand. You need to be able to explain your differences in a charming, self deprecating, slightly amusing way, while knowing all the time that you are in the vulnerable position of being the outsider. It can be fun, and it can be exhausting, so take it from me, do it when you’re young.
I am told there is actually a sizable ex-patriot community in Mumbai. I say I’m told, because I really have yet to meet them. I belong to an ex-pat Facebook group, where I watch people post about apartments and ask where to find decent gyms, sell their furniture when they move out of town, and promote their businesses, but I’ve never met any of these people in real life, except for the time I stopped by a departing person’s house, delirious with a fever, and picked up some baking trays.
In some ways it’s probably a good thing. One of the pieces of advice I got from someone I knew in college who had spent a year here working on this project, was not to get caught in the ex-pat bubble. Of course, to do that, I would have to FIND them first. I saw more visibly non-Indian people in the Taj Mahal than I have ever seen in Mumbai. I’m sure they are out there, but in a city of so many millions of people, somewhere between 15 and 20 million at last count (and yes, in India that is an acceptable margin of error, thanks for asking!) a handful of non-Indians is inevitably going to get lost in the shuffle. But not being able to use an ex-pat bubble as a crutch is probably on the positive side of things for me, especially given the fact that I have the unfair advantage of an Indian spouse, anyway, to smooth the way forward for me. One big benefit deserves a small handicap to even things out, doesn’t it?
So for now, I stick to Indians who have been abroad, people who have experience different cities of the world, or even India, or who would at least like to. Because it’s really lonely, constantly being different. You would think I would be used to it by now, and I am, its great preparation for a place like India, where no matter how many people post on that Facebook group, the non-Indian community (which I can’t even FIND) is still a drop in the ocean compared to the Indian one, but there is a reason we say at our Passover service “Next year in Jerusalem”, because it would be nice, someday, to be somewhere where you can exist without explanations.
Still, as I sat at my Passover seder this year, carefully once again explaining what the hell any of this is to a group of wide-eyed Indians with almost no knowledge of the holiday, my religion, or why a week with a tasteless cracker for sustenance is both essential and unpleasant, all I could think was, at least I’m not alone. Having people who will come and listen to you has its own kind of value, and while it might be nice to feel surrounded by people “like me”, the truth is, the people I want to be like are people like that, willing to listen, willing to learn, willing to try the matzoh.