Between May 9th and June 17th this year, I was in the United States with my family on a vacation. More than a vacation, this was a proud moment for us. The primary purpose of the visit was to celebrate my younger brother’s successful completion of the masters program in Information Management Systems from Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. Attending the commencement was the highlight of the visit, and for a family which had come up the hard way like most middle-class Indian families, this was a major achievement for us. The icing on the cake was that this was also our parents’ first ever trip abroad and we (my brother and I) wanted to make the most of this opportunity by taking them around the US. And this is what we did for the better part of the trip…
This was also a much-needed break for me after a particularly hectic litigation season in the High Court of Delhi. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a long time and it was time for me to recharge my batteries. That apart, I was looking forward to meeting for the first time my friends from the Jewish community in the US with whom I had hitherto interacted only over emails and on social media. They were equally excited about meeting me and knowing that I am an ardent and vocal advocate of strong relations between India and Israel, they proposed that I speak on the future of Indo-Israeli partnership before members of the Jewish community in Rochester.
Given that I root for strong bonds between the two countries and its peoples, I agreed without a second thought, even if it meant I would have to fly all the way from San Francisco (where my brother lives) to Rochester via Chicago and back in under 48 hours. I asked my friends if the venue of my talk could be a Synagogue, which suggestion was received with a lot of enthusiasm. And so by May 14th, it was decided that I would speak on June 11th (the Saturday Shavuot began) at Congregation Beth Sholom, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue in Rochester.
It seemed as if everything had fallen in place. This was turning out to be a dream vacation for my family and me, one which I deserved after close to seven years of obsessed hard work as a litigator during which I had carved a niche for myself in the profession I love. I was eagerly looking forward to the interaction in Rochester and the contours of my talk were gradually taking shape in my head based on my visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York earlier in the trip. I was hoping to capture my thoughts in writing two weeks before the talk because, although without exception I speak without a prepared text regardless of the subject, the forum or the audience, the subject of my talk and the opportunity demanded that I went with a prepared speech to make the most of the time allotted to me.
Little did I know that an upheaval on the professional front was around the corner, which hit me on June 1st just when the vacation had reached its mid-point- I still had 16 days of the trip left and the Rochester talk was 10 days away. I did not share the goings-on with my family, especially my parents because obviously I did not want to mar the vacation for them. After all, we had planned the entire thing for them, and at their age they did not need to go through what I was going through. So mentally, I was on my own and for what seemed like eternity I went through a whole gamut of emotions- shock, disbelief, despair, self-pity, anger, bitterness and finally introspection.
I almost cancelled the trip to Rochester, until one day I asked myself in utter disgust- what authority did I have to ask my countrymen to draw from the sheer determination and fortitude of the Jewish Nation when I could not apply the very same sage-speak to my own life and circumstances? How was I applying the experience of the Jewish Nation to the challenge life had thrown at me? If I lacked the guts and character to pick up the gauntlet, what right did I have to offer pearls of wisdom on courage to anyone at all? And perhaps that is when I decided that if over the next few days I found myself lacking in spirit to enjoy the vacation with my family on the one hand and tackle the challenge on the other, I would call off the trip to Rochester. Each time I found myself gravitating towards pessimism, the prospect of letting myself down and having to forego an opportunity I had long awaited, gave me the push I needed to conduct myself with equanimity and dignity. Also, the company of my family, Verses from the Bhagavad Gita which lay emphasis on righteous courage, the lives of Sikh Gurus and the Judaic Tradition of fortitude kept me going through this period. In these politically correct times when it is fashionable to proclaim that one is “spiritual but not religious”, I am not ashamed to have fallen back on religion for spiritual strength because while I am not a religious person by nature, I am not irreligious either.
By June 9th, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to cancel the engagement in Rochester. But I hadn’t seriously prepared one bit for the talk because I was intent on spending time with my family, especially my parents who were going to stay back with my brother in the US for two more months. So I decided that after landing in Rochester on the evening of the 10th, I would spend the night putting together a short note on the issues I intended to cover in my talk.
However, by the time I landed in Rochester after close to 12 hours of travel, it was already 11 P.M. I was warmly received at the airport by the friend who was instrumental in putting the event together and she dropped me at the hotel where I was put up. It was close to midnight and my friend suggested that I turn in soon because she’d pick me up early the next morning for the Synagogue since I wanted to observe all the customs and rituals of the Shabbat Service. Although my talk was scheduled for the post lunch session the next day, this meant I had only a couple of hours to put something down in writing because I wouldn’t be able to write or type anything in the Synagogue, it being an Orthodox Congregation. I was keen to not violate any rule or custom or be the cause of any deviation for my friends, so I decided to get down to work.
Being an insomniac, I was wide awake but I just couldn’t come up with a coherent script for the talk. It then dawned on me that this being a cause I am passionate about, it had to come straight from the heart in order for it to ring of conviction and connect with the listeners. Importantly, I wanted to test if the stress and the tumult of the days before had dulled or blunted my ability to express and articulate without any external aids. I told myself that I would let the moment guide me, and went out for a stroll around the hotel before calling it a night.
Early next morning my friend came to pick me up and asked if my speech was ready. I told her that I did not have a prepared text and waited for her reaction. She smiled and said that perhaps that was the right way to go about the topic. Upon reaching the Synagogue, I wore a Yarmulke and a Tallit, and was introduced to all members of the Congregation including the Rabbi. The warmth with which I was welcomed by members of the Congregation, especially the older members, was astounding. Even their curiosity about me and my interest in Israel was endearing and anything but intrusive. This being the first Jewish Service I had ever attended, I chose not to think about the talk, and instead focused on making sense of the proceedings. I was given a set of prayer books and one of the senior members of the Congregation was assigned to me to help me understand the significance of the rituals and the prayers. He patiently answered every question of mine, and I had plenty to ask in the two hours of the Service. After the completion of the Service, at lunch several members of the Congregation came up to me to tell me that they were eager to know how India and Israel could forge a strong friendship at a people-to-people level. Their interest in the topic was genuine and I was hoping I wouldn’t let them down.
After lunch, I was introduced to the audience and invited to speak. My moment of truth had arrived. How I fared in the next hour or so would tell me if I had the will and the strength to deal with the situation back in India. I went up to the rostrum and could feel my body radiate intense heat as if all the pent up energy accumulated over the past 10 days was finally getting the vent it needed. Excluding the Q&A session, I was told that I had spoken for an hour on how the time has finally come for an obvious partnership between India and Israel (which I will cover in my next piece). I did not realise that I had spoken for that long because it felt like a trance, as if the moment had taken over and everything that had troubled me was out of my system. I was later told by my friend that speaking extempore was the best thing I could have done, for it had connected powerfully with the members of the Congregation at a very real and personal level, which was evident from the interactions post the talk. One of the members was even kind enough to invite me for Shabbat dinner, which I would like to believe, was proof that my talk had reached out to him and others. The dinner was another beautiful experience where I got to see first-hand the importance of religion, tradition and family in the Jewish worldview, values which are common to the Indic worldview as well. At the end of the dinner, I was given a prayer card for travellers, a Hebrew/English Bencher (prayer book for meals), and a Hamsa Hand (a palm-shaped amulet), which I cherish to this day.
Once back in my hotel room, as I mulled over everything that had happened until that moment, I realized that there was a reason I went through the upheaval. It was meant to strengthen me and to liberate me so that I could channel all my energies and put my abilities, albeit limited, to the service of the causes close to my heart. The entire experience I was put through by destiny served to expand my horizons and brought with it such clarity which I perhaps wouldn’t have got but for the experience. That there is a Jewish connection to this clarity and renewed sense of purpose only makes me happier.
It’s been over three months since I returned to India. I am happy to share that the spirit of courage and enterprise, which is common to Indic and Judaic traditions, has stood me in good stead. I hope to use my newfound freedom to contribute in howsoever small a measure to the cause of bringing India and Israel closer at every level and on every front because both nations and cultures have a lot in common and have a lot to learn from each other.