A few years ago, there was a comedy sketch on Eretz Nehederet (kind of like Israel’s Saturday Night Live) in which a group of backpacking, dreadlocked hippies unsuccessfully attempt to rent a hostel room somewhere in India. When they knock over a poll in the lobby’s entrance (it’s understood that this is a “special poll” that only an uncouth Israeli could knock over), the hotel staff pretends to not understand the youngsters and avoids giving them lodging altogether.
I believe that the routine touches upon something deeper than the joke itself. It is that India has a special place in the heart of Israeli travelers (it is even known as The Hummus Trail). I was looking forward to experiencing this subculture. I would be able to dust off my Semitic guttural letters, dive into a conversation or two and feel the common bond that Hebrew creates for Jews around the world.
But that’s not what happened. Those first weeks of our trip became a month and that first month became six weeks and after forty days and forty nights we hadn’t met one Israeli!
We didn’t even see them at the Chabad House (an orthodox movement with sites around the globe where traveling Jews can enjoy a Shabbat dinner). Karen and I found one in Dharamkot, a little one-street-neighborhood with goats and monkeys just outside of McLoad Ganj and to our misfortune it was closed.
“Yes.” A village boy standing around told me.
“Really?” Chabad is never closed. Its sole mission is to make every Jew on the planet celebrate Shabbas (as they pronounce the Sabbath) at the same time.
“Yes, closed. Vacation. Israel.”
Such was my luck (and so it continued). We bumped into many Germans, Canadians, Spaniards and French too – but not one person from Eretz Yisrael. There was no immediate reason for me to believe that there was actually even one “fellow Heb” in the whole country to begin with.
And then when I least expected it after an overnight bus, a rickshaw, a boat and a final annoying push along a single dusty road next to the rice fields of Hampi (12 hours southeast of Mumbai in the middle of nowhere), I heard it.
It was a person’s accent. Karen and I passed three 20-somethings wearing baggy pants, sporting piercings and tattoos, bargaining a price with an Indian man at a bike rental shop. The unmistakable rough cadence lacked an ability to pronounce the letter H and R while saying the phrase “Two Hundred Rupees.”
“Two ‘Undred Woopies. Two!”
We had crossed the river and it was magical. Karen and I were like Caleb and Joshua (two of the Israelite spies that had discovered the promised land).
Every single conversation on the road was in Hebrew. The shops and café signs were in Hebrew too, many of them handwritten on cardboard, with sharpies and in script. My favorite one was a playful rhyming phrase “Sababa B’Dhaba.” Sababa means, “cool,” in Hebrew and Dhaba means café in Hindi (thus “cool café,” or “café cool”).
My Hebrew fantasy continued when we reached the hotel.
With more rice fields and palm trees as our backdrop, people were lounging lazily at low-lying tables, drinking coffee, reading books in Hebrew, journaling in Hebrew and talking in Hebrew.
There was even Israeli music playing on the stereo – good music too. The last lyrics of Shir H’makolt (The Grocery Song) by the 1970s Israeli rock band Kaveret (a sound that would remind any classic rock aficionado of Phish and The Grateful Dead but in Hebrew) was playing, “Ze lo hefsek, ze lo hefsek, ze lo esek, ze lo yosef!”
“What a great song!” I said out loud.
To top it all off I ordered chicken schnitzel, with hummus, salad and fries for lunch.
Not much really happened in Hampi for the two days that we were there. I think that is precisely the point of it. Like the Israelis at our hotel, we relaxed, read and wrote. I went bouldering in the mountains one morning (there were Israelis there too). Speaking Hebrew with two people at the café also made me realize that I’m getting older. I found myself recounting stories about a time when people in Israel had two cell phones (to call different people with different plans), when the train went only as far south as Ashdod and when the downtown section of Haifa was bombed out (it’s gentrified now). I spoke to a university student and man in his 60s too – no one from the military. They didn’t fit the stereotype of the post-army Tiyul (trip) that Israelis have classically taken to escape the craziness of their compulsory service. I realized that my time in the Holy Land is dated. Oh well.
Putting my own existentialist crisis about my age aside, I left Hampi with a healthy dose of bitter-sweetness. As Karen and I returned to the real India, my heart was warmed by the fact that somewhere in the middle of the subcontinent, there was a little village full of shops in Hebrew and people speaking the language too. I’m tempted to call it a Hebrew colony even though no one lives there permanently. Regardless, everywhere that Karen and I went after Hampi, I spoke about it, like it was Shangri La.
“There’s this place,” I told a middle-age Vermont couple at a hole-in-the-wall Dhaba in Varanasi, “Where everything is in Hebrew.” I continued to expound upon its greatness.
“Oh didn’t you hear? Asked the woman.
“They’ve just razed the neighborhood.”
What?” I was shocked.
“Yes – I read about it on this Facebook Group that I am a part of. Hippies in Heels!”
Apparently, there was an issue about the buildings being illegal. It had something to do with the Indian government and UNESCO, but she wasn’t sure.
And just like that, I was reminded of the fragility of things that we come to cherish and how they can be gone in an instant.
If Hampi is not Haifa anymore, where will the Israelis go next?