Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lighting the Menorah in Mumbai

In late November 2008 a month before I planned to fly from Hawaii to Mumbai terrorists attacked the city. They struck several places and shot it out with Indian commandos for three days. 173 people were killed.

One of the targets was Nariman House, a Jewish outreach center. Six people were killed there including the Rabi and his wife who ran the place. On their flight from New York to Mumbai, my brother-in-law, a non-practicing Jew, met a man who was headed there for a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the attack. He invited him and the rest of us traveling with him to come.

Amidst piles of rubble and riddled with bullet holes the building still stands. A crowd of mostly reporters and cameramen milled about in the narrow path at its door. It was clearly a media event but nothing was happening yet. As foreigners our arrival attracted some attention and when my brother-in-law began to chat with a French journalist the cameras all turned on him.

After a lot of waiting, they erected a huge Menorah and leaned out the window of the building to light it. A visiting rabbi made a short speech about the importance of persevering with the mission of the center and then they took down the menorah, strapped it to the top of the taxi and the whole party (which now included the five of us) along with the entourage of reporters made its way a few blocks away to the Gate of India, an important Mumbai landmark for another round of speeches and menorah lighting.

On our way to the gate some of the friends of the Nariman house got into a heated debate with police officers who had closed the road in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, another one of the terrorists’ targets. They felt the police should make an exception and allow us to pass, but the police weren’t budging. Walking around the hotel would not take us far out of our way and the argument seemed pointless to me, but our new companions were adamant and we soon participating in a sort of spontaneous civil disobedience. Being the brother-in-law of some guy that one of them had met on the plane, I wasn’t really sure why I should be risking open defiance of the police, but breaking up the solidarity of our little party didn’t feel like the right thing to do so I stuck with the group. Cooler heads prevailed among the police officers and they let us pass.

While the gathering assembled and they re-erected the menorah, rabbis kept the crowd entertained by recruiting Jews from the audience to participate the ritual of laying of tefillin, in which leather straps are bound around one’s arms while something in Hebrew is recited. I’m don’t know what the significance of this practice is but my brother-in-law rose to the occasion and I took pictures.


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