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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A cultural lesson in an unlikely meeting

One of my clients from India came on a business visit to Israel recently, and I had the pleasure of hosting him and showing him around my beautiful country.

Early in the visit he mentioned to me that before he had left India, an old school chum had mentioned to him that their school headmaster was Jewish and had moved to Israel many years ago after retiring.  Having only the experience of India's billion-plus population, the old school chum didn't hold out much hope of actually tracking him down... but he suggested that while in Israel, if he had time, my client should try to find the old man and perhaps say hello.

Keep in mind that my client is an Indian Hindu of late middle age who has never been to Israel.  He had no idea of how 'small' the Jewish world is, or that as soon as he mentioned his old high school headmaster having moved to Israel, no self-respecting Israeli would be able to rest until he'd put the two of them together in the same room.

On-line directories were searched, phone calls were made and Internet map sites were employed.  And within a few hours of my client having mentioned his old headmaster, I had spoken to the man and arranged for us to visit his home in Rishon L'Zion that very afternoon.

As the appointed hour approached, we got in the car and headed towards Rishon.  During the drive over, my client worried that the headmaster might not remember him from among the thousands of students for whom he'd been responsible, and fretted that the visit might be an imposition on what must have been an extremely old man.

I reassured him that his old headmaster had seemed delighted by the prospect of a visit form an old student, and that he'd extended the invitation.  If it wasn't convenient he would simply have said so.

When we arrived all misgivings were swept away by an extremely warm welcome.  The headmaster, who must have been in his late 70s or early 80s, ushered us into his apartment, introduced us to his wife and seated us in the salon where a handsome array of traditional indian dips and finger foods (all vegetarian) had been set out on the coffee table.  Playing softly in the background on the large screen TV was an old Bollywood move from one of the Indian cable channels.

It seems that my client's extended family had sent nearly a dozen students through the headmaster's school over the course of a decade, so the family name was well remembered.  The headmaster had retired and made aliyah with his wife and children nearly 30 years prior, and had married off his children, and raised a nice crop of grandchildren, in Israel.  He'd even had a second career here as an English instructor on army bases, from which he'd comfortably retired.

I sat happily listening to these Indians - Hindu and Jew -  reminiscing in a melodic mixture of Hindi and English.  And every so often the headmaster would turn to me with a proud twinkle in his eyes and tell me how happy he was that after so many years, a student thought highly enough of him to come visit him in a country half way around the world!

The headmaster's wife graciously urged food and drink on us all, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed it very much (Zahava can tell you I'm not a big fan of most Indian food). 

Within a few minutes there was a knock at the door and we got a visit from the headmaster's best friend... another Indian immigrant/retiree who arrived with a pair of traditional Indian drums tucked under his arm.  It turns out that the day we'd chosen to drop in was the same day they met every week to play and sing traditional Indian songs together.

As I looked on appreciatively, the headmaster took out an antique Harmonium and the two of them launched into a series of what must have been classic old Indian folk songs.  My client happily joined in with the singing, and after each song the three of them tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to explain to me the hidden meaning behind the already obscure Hindi folk lyrics. 

It didn't matter that I didn't understand.  What mattered was that the three of them were awash in three lifetimes of memories brought to life by these old Indian melodies... and were visibly moist-eyed from the experience.

After a little more than an hour, we thanked our host/hostess for having us, and the headmaster graciously insisted that our visit had been an unexpected highlight to his already rich and satisfying retirement.

On the way out, the headmaster and his wife proudly introduced us to their children and grandchildren via portraits that were present on nearly every wall and surface.  They explained that their children had married here in Israel... this one to a man from Holland... that one to a Moroccan... another still to a Romanian. 

As we drove away I had a good laugh when my client turned to me and asked if I didn't find it odd that his headmaster's children had all met and married non-Jews in Israel. 

I assured him that in India, with well over a billion people, and where just the population of Mumbai (Bombay) was three times that of the entire state of Israel), the headmaster and his family had been part of a microscopic minority who were called (and who called themselves) Jews.  And that even though they had come from smaller countries, the same went for the families of their children's spouses in Holland, Morocco and Romania.  No matter where in the world we found ourselves, we were always considered (and self-identified as) Jews.

But, I explained, here in our little Jewish corner of the world called Israel, where a long-retired headmaster with an extremely common family name (Cohen) can be tracked down with nothing more than a 30 second internet search and a phone call, we tend to self identify by where in the world we came from. 

I assured him that his headmaster's children were Dutch, Moroccan and Romanian Jews... and that their Jewish grandchildren looked in the mirror and saw Israelis looking back.

Posted by David Bogner on July 21, 2010 | Permalink


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What a great story of kibbutz galuyot! Very appropriate for the day after Tisha B'av.

Posted by: Jewish Ideas Daily | Jul 21, 2010 1:26:27 PM

That is a רק בישראל post!
I am so moved. Nefesh B'nefesh where are you!!!!

Posted by: IMA2FOUR7 | Jul 21, 2010 2:14:58 PM

That is a רק בישראל post!
I am so moved. Nefesh B'nefesh where are you!!!!

Posted by: IMA2FOUR7 | Jul 21, 2010 2:14:58 PM

Great post. I used to run into people from my past every time I visited Israel, but being from the US, I guess that isn't much of a stretch. :) מדינה קטנה

Posted by: J K | Jul 21, 2010 2:56:22 PM

really, a very nice story.
i hope i am not being excessively rude here, but my intention is to enhance the story:
"I sat happily listening to these Indian's - Hindu and Jew - reminiscing..." should be Indians.

again -- a very nice story, and i always enjoy your posts!

Posted by: fred | Jul 21, 2010 3:54:43 PM

lovely lovely story! rak b'yisrael!

Posted by: Leah | Jul 21, 2010 4:23:53 PM

The first words that came to mind--like your first commenter--"kibbutz galuyot". And what a great experience of Jews and Israel for your client.

I love these posts of yours that are seemingly simple, yet move me to tears.

Posted by: Baila | Jul 21, 2010 6:10:37 PM

I really love these kinds of stories, and I hear them again and again from Israel.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 21, 2010 7:28:59 PM

Very cool. Can't help but smile.

Posted by: Jack | Jul 21, 2010 8:58:46 PM

What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing and in so many details.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 21, 2010 9:41:01 PM

Very sweet...But did you get the sale?

Posted by: MoC | Jul 21, 2010 10:08:12 PM

Lovely lovely lovely!

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jul 21, 2010 11:06:58 PM

"... that as soon as he mentioned his old high school headmaster having moved to Israel, no self-respecting Israeli would be able to rest until he'd put the two of them together in the same room."
so true! thanks for an uplifting post!

Posted by: faith/emuna | Jul 21, 2010 11:17:04 PM


Posted by: At The back of the Hill | Jul 22, 2010 12:36:09 AM

The lesson I take from this beautifully written post is that if we drive a fellow to Rishon after a bit of research, Hashem allows us wonderful adventures as a reward... and if we ignore the opportunity to do such a kindness, we only get to read such tales at Treppenwitz, rather than living them. You are an excellent teacher of one of the nicest aspects of being a Jew, my friend.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jul 22, 2010 8:36:26 AM

That was so lovely!! Thank you for sharing.
You are the master of the inspiring anecdote!

Posted by: Nir | Jul 22, 2010 2:04:59 PM

"He had no idea of how 'small' the Jewish world is, or that as soon as he mentioned his old high school headmaster having moved to Israel, no self-respecting Israeli would be able to rest until he'd put the two of them together in the same room." <-- charming!

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jul 23, 2010 2:47:17 AM

That's wonderful. And so... Israeli. ;)

Posted by: Alissa | Jul 23, 2010 6:01:06 PM

David, that was absolutely lovely. Kol ha-kavod.

Posted by: Rahel | Jul 26, 2010 9:38:45 PM

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