For anyone who has had to withstand the 120–degree heat of urban north India, the weather in McLeod Ganj is blessedly sunny and mild. The fog settles around the mountains, prayer flags draped from houses and stores flap in the breeze, and the smell of incense wafts from the town’s famous Buddhist temples.
I had been living in Jaipur, a major city in the northern state of Rajasthan, for two and a half months before I went to McLeod Ganj. Over the months in Jaipur, I frequently walked home from my Hindi class, dodging cows, camels, bikes, rickshaws and motorscooters, usually encountering a wedding procession or two along the way. I often got caught in a sudden downpour, and returned home soaking wet and exhausted from navigating the chaotic streets, only to find that the power was out and my ceiling fan wasn’t working.
After two and a half months of Jaipur’s oppressive weather and hectic street life I needed a vacation from my vacation. Unlike the honking, yelling and mooing I was used to hearing in the city, McLeod Ganj was filled with the sounds of muttered mantras, meditation bells, and casual conversations over tea.
McLeod Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama in exile. There are many Tibetans and Buddhist monasteries in the area. Tourists and backpackers are also present throughout the year, drawn to McLeod Ganj by Buddhism and the hope of catching a fleeting glance of the Dalai Lama. I had been in McLeod Ganj for three days, wandering the narrow roads that curl through the Himalayan foothills, relaxing and practicing my Hindi and Tibetan with locals and shop owners. There was a recurring topic in these conversations, especially amongst shop owners: Israeli backpackers.
I heard a lot about them, usually in the form of grievances against the town’s Israeli visitors. The shopowners complained about their rudeness, and said that they were loud and disrespectful. But the locals had only met Israelis who were on their way into or out of a small town farther up the road, and although I had seen traces of Israelis in my various travels in India—signs in Hebrew or the occasional lost tourist—I had never witnessed a large group of them, let alone a semi–permanent community. Despite the tens of thousands of young Israelis running around the subcontinent, I found the idea of an all–Israeli town in India incredibly hard to believe. So I decided to see it for myself.
The place is called Bhagsu, and although it is thousands of miles from Haifa, the port city lends its name to a café in the center of this little Israeli enclave. I found out later that the owners were Israeli and had happened upon the village after finishing their army service—and remained there ever since.
The café was just one product of the Israel mini–invasion: As the shop owners in McLeod Ganj told me, Bhagsu was comprised entirely of Israelis and the Indians who serve them. Nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas, the area resembled the Golan Heights, with its rugged hills and lush green vegetation. One could easily forget that one was in India if it weren’t for the occasional cow wandering down the road, or the single Shiva temple in the lower half of town. Otherwise, all of the guesthouses catered to Israelis, and all of the restaurants offered menus in Hebrew.
This seemed strange to me at the time, but I later found out that India has many semipermanent Israeli backpacker enclaves. Located primarily in the North, they serve as temporary homes for the thousands of Israelis that travel to India every year. The smallest enclaves accommodate a hundred or so travelers, while the largest host almost a thousand at a time. Despite their various locations, these enclaves are more or less the same. They sell the same t–shirts, pipes, and jewelry, and they have the same types of guesthouses—as well as restaurants advertising bhang lassi, a drink made from marijuana.
The Israelis stay in locally–owned guesthouses, which are generally the sorts of places most tourists avoid. For 100 rupees (about $2.50) a night, the Israelis get shared toilets and hard beds, cement floors and old blankets—and, of course, no heat or air conditioning. They spend as little money as possible in order to stretch their funds over the months they spend in Asia, which often results in bickering with store owners over having to pay an extra five rupees for a bottle of water. Armed with generations of backpacker expertise, they often arrive in India knowing where they want to go, what they want to do, and which guesthouse they’re going to use in each city. And they return to Israel to tell their friends about the cheapest accommodations, best beaches, parties, and activities. The enclaves— some of which date back to the late 70s—are reinforced by word of mouth between the returning backpackers and the constant flow of Israelis into the country.
The Israeli backpacking phenomenon began as early as 1970, and gained popularity in the 80s, but did not become a significant cultural occurrence until the early 90s.i These days, almost all Israelis voyage abroad at some point in early adulthood, typically after their army service. Most choose to go to either South America or Asia and very few go elsewhere.ii Those who travel to South America are generally looking for adventure and physical challenge, and engage in trekking and other outdoor activities.iii Alternatively, those who travel to Asia are usually more interested in cultivating their spiritual side or simply partying and relaxing.iv
Close to 43,000 Indian visas are granted to Israelis every year.v Although the Israelis travel all over Asia, India is often the first stop on their trip, and they spend periods ranging from one to six months, sightseeing and shuttling between various enclaves.vi They go to Hindu temples, bathe in the Ganges, smoke pot in the Himalayas, and dance at the infamous full–moon parties in Goa. While some go to India to study meditation and yoga, others simply go to do drugs. I have found that most fall somewhere in between the two extremes, wandering into ashrams some days and parties on others.
After a rigorous two or three years in the army, these young Israelis take a year off before pursuing their education or a career and beginning their adult lives. Many of the Israelis seize the opportunity to unwind and party in Asia, much the same way American youth let loose in their first year of college.vii The trip to Asia is usually the first chance these Israelis have to experience life removed from the strict supervision of the army. But the Israeli backpacker is in an awkward and more complicated stage than is the typical American college freshman. Israelis are moving past their youth and their military experience. They are leaving Israel behind, often trying to determine their own world view and Israel’s place in it—as well as their place in Israel.
In India, this process plays out in some incredibly unexpected ways. Even stranger than the prevalence of Hebrew signs in Hindu holy places is the presence of the religious Jewish movement Chabad, and its popularity among otherwise–secular backpackers.
Chabad Lubavitch is a subgroup of mystical orthodox or Hasidic Judaism founded in the early 19th century, and is one of Judaism’s best–known Hasidic movements. This is largely because Chabad takes responsibility for disseminating its ideas to non–observant Jews, and has become a fixture on hundreds of college campuses across the US and in dozens of foreign countries. This responsibility to help other Jews find the “joy within Judaism” drives “Chabadniks” to engage in outreach activities across the world. It has also sparked a certain amount of criticism, and triggered claims that the movement proselytizes. Yet Chabad believes that it does not attempt to “convert” anyone, and only tries to connect less–observant Jews to their rich religious and cultural heritage.
What makes this relationship so interesting is that Orthodox Judaism is generally unpopular amongst secular Israeli youth. Israel is a country with deep–seated religious chasms, separating religious from secular (dati vs. chiloni). Jerusalem Chabadniks and Tel Aviv tsfonim (“northies,” average teenagers) are worlds apart, if not openly hostile towards one another. But in India, the two camps find some surprising common ground, and the Chabad houses in India serve as hangout spots for Israeli backpackers.
It is hard to say exactly how many Israelis visit each center, since for every one visitor who signs a chapter’s guestbook, another four or five come to use the internet or grab a bite to eat. It seems clear that the majority of Israelis who travel to Asia interact with Chabad at some point or in some capacity.
I visited the Chabad house in the Himalayan town of Dharamkot, a place that functions as an organizational and orienting center for both the pious and agnostic Israelis in the area. The Chabad house in Dharamkot overlooks the mountain and villages below. At one end were bookcases filled with Jewish texts as well as novels, travel books, and journals in which visitors wrote notes, poems, and other travel anecdotes. On the floor next to the bookcases were pillows where people would read, talk quietly, and nap as the Rabbi wandered around the house talking to visitors.
The first time I visited the house, which doubles as a kosher restaurant, I walked to the end of the room by the bookcases and sat on a futon in front of a small table. On the table sat a menu and an ashtray. I was shocked to see an ashtray in a room that also functioned as a synagogue. Assuming this was a mistake, I turned to a girl sitting next to me and asked what the ashtray was doing there. She looked up from her book and replied, “You can smoke in here, otherwise no one would come.”
Though this liberal attitude towards social behaviors on the part of the Chabadniks initially struck me as a tactic used to attract those who are otherwise less spiritually inclined, I realized later that there was something more to it. Though Chabadniks may not allow smoking in a synagogue in Jerusalem, their view is that, as long as an act does not directly violate Jewish law, they will attempt to make people feel at home in the Chabad house by allowing them to behave as they would in their own home. This attempt at creating a “home away from home” is a common characteristic shared by all Chabad houses worldwide.
Chabad houses in India offer Israelis a place to eat kosher food and use the internet, or simply a common point to meet up with other Israelis. But some Israelis, even the virulently secular, attend Torah study—an activity they likely never would have considered, let alone undertaken, in Israel.
Part of the reason the Israelis are willing to approach Chabad in India is the context of the encounter; paradoxically, the presence of Judaism in India is exotic and even foreign to travelers who are attempting to gain distance from the world’s only majority–Jewish state.
This distance appears to make Judaism more approachable. While it may seem strange that Israelis would not interact with Judaism in Israel, many Israelis have a passive, if not antagonistic, relationship to religion. According to Columbia University Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) assistant professor Uri Cohen, a scholar of Israeli literature and society, Israelis have little reason to seek out their Judaism within Israel. “In Israel, the state performs Judaism for you, and you don’t need to pay attention to it,” Cohen said. Israeli cities shut down on Friday for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, lasting from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown), forcing everyone to recognize Shabbat in some manner. Yet although they still describe themselves as Jews, secular Israelis usually don’t go to synagogue on a regular basis or celebrate Shabbat. As Cohen put it, “It’s enough for the city to get quiet and recognize that it’s a holiday. You don’t need to go to synagogue.”
The young Israelis often don’t consider their relationship to Judaism until they go abroad when the ease of a built–in religious component disappears. As Cohen put it, they are “forced to actively engage the religious dimension in their lives.” This idea was echoed by Chaim Noy, a professor in the communications department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. With two books and numerous articles on the topic, Noy is one of the foremost scholars on the Israeli backpacking phenomenon. This past January, I spoke with him about the problem of religious discourse in a country with such a problematic relationship to both secularism and religion. When I mentioned that the Israelis I had met in India did not consider themselves religious but still made a point of lighting Shabbat candles, he echoed Cohen in saying that Israelis don’t think about their personal relationship to Judaism until they get to India.
In Israel, there is simply Orthodox and secular, the religious and the non–religious. The interaction with Chabad in India forces them to question all of their previous notions about religion, and realize that there is a greater spectrum of religious observance than they had previously imagined. It also allows them to experience Judaism untainted by the complexities of Israel’s religious–secular divide.
Many young people harbor resentments against the Ultra–Orthodox community in Israel, often blaming them for many of Israel’s political and social problems. Therefore, the separation of religious observance from its Israeli context forces the young Israelis to contemplate how Judaism functions in their life while in Israel, and allows the backpackers to experience religion without the pressures of Israeli life that complicate or discourage an interest in spirituality.
But it is not religious curiosity alone that compels an Israeli backpacker to visit a Chabad house. Rather, Chabad also functions as a site of nostalgia for Israelis who yearn for a symbolic stand–in for their far–away home country. Many scholars have written about the Israeli backpacking trip as a rite of passage into Israeli society. Though my research was limited in scope, lasting less than two weeks and including approximately twenty indepth interviews, I also found this to be true. The power of nostalgia, often inspired by interaction with Chabad, causes the Israelis to reconsider their relationship to Judaism and subsequently their relationship to the state of Israel. It is the precise combination of the familiar (Chabad) within the unfamiliar (India) that causes the subsequent and inevitable confrontation with identity. It is a confrontation that impels many Israelis to a re–examine their place within their own society, and to re–evaluate their views of Israeli society itself.
There are no statistics that substantiate the role of Chabad in reconnecting Israelis to a culture and society with which they are potentially at odds. The only reliable means of understanding how alienated religiosity and a nostalgic connection to their country of origin play themselves out in Israeli backpacking experiences is through talking to the backpackers themselves, something I had the opportunity to do in Bhagsu, Dharamkot, Delhi, and Goa. Most of the Israelis I spoke to were from relatively well–off families, and worked in various odd jobs to earn money for their backpacking trip. With one exception, they all came to India with friends, though they sometimes split up to go in various different directions and later meet up in another city. Some of the backpackers I spoke to were actively engaged with Chabad, attended daily Torah studies and even volunteered at the Chabad house. But the story that struck me the most was Ari’s.
Over a period of years, Ari vacillated between feeling animosity toward Judaism and having an interest in religious observance. He is one of the rare few who had an experience in India that led him to pursue Judaism in Israel. Though some Israelis are drawn to Chabad and flirt with the idea of religious observance while in India, most do not continue their study when they return home. Ari, who now considers himself secular, began his spiritual journey with an interest in Eastern religion that led him to India.
Like most Israeli backpackers, Ari grew up in an upper middle class family. After graduating from high school, he spent three years in a classified army post. Upon completing his army service, he worked as a DJ in a hotel in Eilat for six months before going to India. Prior to his visit, Ari felt no special attachment to Judaism. He did have a sense of spirituality, but did not grow up in an observant family and therefore had no personal connection to religious observance.
During his first stay in Dharamkot, Ari recalled visiting the Chabad center a few times. He initially looked down on them: “Vipasana (a form of Buddhist meditation) is better because it isn’t religious. I saw them praying and thought, this is bullshit.” Ari said that he and his friends from the Vipasana center went to the Chabad house on Passover and then left to eat pizza which was not only un–kosher, but forbidden during Passover. To them, this was a symbolic gesture, showing not only their disrespect for religious Jews, but also their open defiance of what they consider to be dogma. It also reflected the belief that their spiritual practice of Buddhist meditation and other alternative rituals was superior.
But Ari would leave India with an acute sense of a higher power, partly due to a harrowing, near–death experience when trekking through the Himalayas. A series of interactions with religious Jews in northern Israel made him curious about his Jewish roots. Back in Israel, he had a few short–lived stints in ultra–orthodox Yeshivot, or centers for study of Jewish tradition and text. He told me about the experience of putting on teffilinviii for the first time, of meeting spiritual “pure hearted people” in the holy city of Tzfat, known for its mystic tradition, and finding the kind of spiritual fulfillment in Judaism that he had sought but not found in Indian religion.
But this culminated in a sense of confusion. He resented the dogmatic, rule–bound spirituality found in Judaism while simultaneously experiencing a sense of fulfillment found in the practice of Judaism. Searching for answers to this spiritual dilemma, Ari decided to return to the site of his original spiritual experience: India. He spent two months in India on his second trip, and was somewhat bothered by the fact that though he had gone to India with the distinct purpose of getting away from Orthodox Judaism, he still found himself drawn to Chabad.
Ari’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Judaism was initially triggered during his experiences in India. All of the Israelis to whom I spoke had some variation on this experience; something that happened to them in India that forced them to take a step back and contemplate greater questions. Like Ari, many turned to Judaism for answers. Chabad’s presence in India serves these Israelis who develop questions about life, Judaism, and Israel. This usually has less to do with the appeal of Chabad ideology, and more to do with the fact that Chabadnicks are wiling to listen, care for, and feed Jews––just because they are Jewish.
In Uri Cohen’s view, this is an extremely powerful realization for secular Israeli backpackers. The compassion and understanding they discover in Chabad leads them to develop a sense of solidarity with Israel while in India, and within this hectic place, they find people who want to help, provide for, and listen to them. Whether it is spiritual guidance, a shoulder on which to cry, or internet service, Chabad is there for the Israelis. Their experiences with Chabad often lead them to reexamine religion and society in Israel, allowing them to develop a whole new connection to the idea of a Jewish state and to the power of religious connection
But the religious dimension of this connection is tenuous and complicated by the fact that though Chabad feels its goal is to cause Israelis to reconsider their spirituality, few Israelis permanently embrace rigorous Jewish observance. Most Israelis return home still identifying themselves as secular. Though occasionally a backpacker may develop a deep and lasting commitment to Judaism through their experiences with Chabad in India, this is relatively rare. For most, their interaction with Chabad in India, consciously or unconsciously aids their passage into Israeli society. In an odd way, a temporary brush with a kind of orthodox religiosity that most backpackers would find repellent in Israel allows them to reenter secular Israeli life.
The presence of Chabad in the Israeli enclaves in India not only stimulates the sense of nostalgia that sets into motion the transition into Israeli society, but may also be indicative of a greater, underlying desire among Israeli youth, a manifestation of a growing sense of indifference present in modern Israeli society. In the 1970s, the early backpackers or “drifters” traveled abroad as a result of their disappointment with the moral fiber of the army and the nation. Though the Israelis who now travel to those same locations in India may not be driven by the same circumstances, the feeling of separation from society and a desire and need for perspective remains the same. Israelis now travel away from home as a way of returning home. As Ari put it, their “gift” from India is often their rediscovery of Israel.
i Noy, Chaim and Cohen, Erik, eds. Israeli Backpackers and Their Society: A View From Afar. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2005. P. 10.
iii Ibid, p. 26
ivNoy, Chaim. “This Trip Really Changed Me: Backpackers’ Narratives of Self–Change”. Annals of Tourism Research. Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 78–102, 2004. P. 83.
v “Tourist Arrivals in India by Country of Nationality”, Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India.
vi Interview with Rabbi Motti Seligson and Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, April 1 2008.
vii Interview with Uri Cohen, April 3, 2008.
viii Teffilin are two black boxes containing Jewish scriptures. The boxes are attached to leather straps that are wrapped around the upper arm and above the forehead. They are worn during morning prayers.
ABOVE: Israelis relax on their extended vacations in India after their army service.
AMY MOSKOWITZ is a senior in the school of General Studies majoring in Anthropology.