These Normal Stories Expanded Stories, Linked from This Normal Life
Thursday, November 20, 2003
The Lost Jews of Jaipur
I was walking across the street in the Old City of Jaipur on the third day of our trip to India. I had just bought a bag of ladoo, a sticky Indian sweet shaped like a small yellow golf ball.
As I focused my attention on searching for a store sign in English in order to bargain my way to another scandalously cheap Indian silk, I fingered the bag of ladoo, trying to remove the goodies one at a time.
I guess I wasn’t being as careful as usual when – wham! – culture shock hit me straight in the leg. The hard metal side of a bicycle rickshaw careening down the road at breakneck speed slammed into my side and rolled over my shoe.
Reeling from the pain and surprise, I wobbled over to the nearest shop. As I sat down, large globs of red began welling up on my pants. The shop owners quickly pulled out a scarf and we applied a makeshift tourniquet to what I could now see was a nasty little wound.
Once I was all wrapped up, the owner wasted no time. “So, what would you like to buy?”
I grunted some sort of response which, in my current condition, apparently was understood as that universal code for “not now,” and I stumbled back into the road.
Now you have to know just a little about traffic in Indian cities to appreciate what I was up against. In this part of Jaipur – as in much of India – there are no sidewalks. Indeed you’re lucky if there’s a divider of any sorts separating the two “lanes” of traffic.
Instead, the streets are packed with all manner of vehicle and creature: cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, people, cows, pigs, dogs, even monkeys darting across the vehicular madness. And they’re all moving in the same direction, cutting in and out, looking for that tiny opening to get an inch ahead.
And did I mention the honking?
In my present condition, the very thought of finding my way through this cacophony was daunting. It was at that moment that a large white taxi pulled up beside me.
“You going to the Amer Gate? Hop in, I’ll give you a ride. No charge.”
Right, I thought. I’d been in India just long enough to know that once I got to the destination, the driver would undoubtedly badger me for a few rupees.
“No thanks,” I replied.
“Come on, I give you a ride,” he persisted as he drove alongside me. Given the congestion, his taxi couldn’t go any faster than my pedestrian limp.
After a few minutes of this, I broke down and agreed.
“No money,” I repeated to the driver as I hopped in.
“Of course not,” he replied. “My Jewish father always told me to treat people fairly.”
Whoa, Nelly. This was not what I expected to hear. I immediately began to rack my brain for information on Jewish communities in India. There are Jews in Bombay and Calcutta, even a Chabad House in Delhi. But to the best of my knowledge, Jaipur did not have any indigenous Jews.
Had I inadvertently stumbled on a new tribe missing since the days of the first exile? The Lost Jews of Jaipur perhaps?
We got to talking. His name was Daniel. That sounded promising. He had three children: Jasmine, Jennifer and Justin. His wife’s maiden name I learned, too, was Emmanuel. None of this sounded like any of the Indians I had met so far on my trip.
Now maybe this was all a crafty line to sell me on his services. Maybe he had already "marked" me as an Israeli by my looks.
If so, it worked beautifully.
Before the short ride to our destination was over, I had agreed to take Daniel on as my driver and guide for a tour the next day. I needed to rest my injured leg and the thought of a leisurely car trip sounded like a nice break.
Daniel picked me up the next morning promptly at 9:00 AM. My wife Jody had come down with a fever and was unfortunately stuck in bed, so it was just the two of us on the nearly three hour drive to Pushkar, a city located deep in the Rajistani desert.
Daniel and I talked about everything Indian – poverty, travel, business, dreams. I learned about Indian wedding customs and he learned a little about Jewish tradition too.
As we neared Pushkar, I finally broached the subject I was dying to know more about.
“So, how is it you have a Jewish father?” I finally asked.
“His name is Gideon Flachsmann,” Daniel explained. “He's a businessman who lives in Switzerland.”
“OK…” I said, trying to put the pieces together.
“I met him a few years ago when I was giving tours,” Daniel went on. “He adopted me and bought me this taxi.” Daniel’s real father had died of a heart attack when Daniel was a kid.
And so Daniel, it would seem, was not representative of any lost tribe after all. So much for my great discovery. Still, it was intriguing to imagine some wealthy Hasidic Jew taking a liking to a poor Indian taxi driver and pulling him out of his poverty.
We got out of the car and wandered the sleepy streets of Pushkar together. The city reminded me vaguely of the Old City of Safed in Israel’s Upper Galilee.
Not long after we entered, I spotted a large poster reading – in Hebrew – “Come Spend Shabbat in Pushkar with Chabad.” Then I noticed that many of the restaurants had proudly written on their signs – “We serve Israeli food – falafel, schwarma, shakshuka.”
This day was getting weirder and weirder.
Daniel explained to me that Pushkar had become a haven for Israelis. He didn’t know why, but just then, two black-hatted, black-suited men rode by on bicycles. Probably looking for a mincha minyan – a prayer quorum for the afternoon service.
Daniel and I visited a few temples, sniffed some incense and bought another bag of ladoo before we sat down for dinner at the Sunset Cafe, a pure vegetarian restaurant along the banks of the artificial lake the city is built around.
The steps leading down to the shore were filled with Israelis, banging on drums and playing other instruments in what looked to be a regular nightly jam session. If not for the exotic view and the ever wandering cows, it could easily have been the Tel Aviv beachside.
As the day faded and we ate our cheese paneer, Daniel pulled out a small photograph album. There was his adopted father with a big gray beard standing next to Daniel, his wife and their three kids. So it wasn’t a line after all.
But what was this? Mr. Flachsmann all dressed up in a turban and flowing orange robes, a dot of color globbed just above his eyes.
His adopted father, Daniel explained, was a long-time devotee of the Hindu God Shiwa. In fact, the reason for his original trip to India was to purchase a chunk of land in the holy city of Rishikesh, often described as “the Yoga Capital of the World.” Rishikesh was also the place where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Mr. Flachsmann has since established a popular meditation center and ashram there.
As the sun set on the bongo-playing Israelis, nothing that day turned out to be exactly as it initially had seemed. Daniel’s father was not a dancing hasid but a new age Indian guru. And I had not discovered the mysterious Lost Jews of Jaipur.
But I had made a new friend. And, in the end, that’s all that really matters.
In addition to being a fascinating guy, Daniel is a very knowledgeable and sweet guide and driver. If you’re traveling to Rajistan, feel free to email him and ask him his prices. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him Brian from Jerusalem sent you.