During my first week in Pune, religion became a part of my nightly routine. Every night, I crashed into bed, my body exhausted from jetlag, my mind spinning with stimulation. Every night, I drifted into sleep despite high-pitched songs, and chants, booming through speakers; the sounds of the Ganesh festival became a lullaby. An enormous stage, with moving statues, blocked my window. The pulsating rhythms and incessant beats embody for me the indefatigable presence of religious celebrations in India. Even in the privacy of my bedroom, there was no escaping the public celebration.
The public lights, bright colors and festivity remind me of Christmastime in New York. Yet in New York, the public symbols of Christmas are secularized and commercial, and feel almost separate from Christianity as a religion. As a Jew, I’m never confronted with the religious aspects of Christmas because those rituals take place within homes and churches. In India, it is impossible to avoid the religious aspect of the Ganesh festival. Brightly decorated streets are filled with streams of people praying at Ganesh shrines. While the celebration of Christmas in America is primarily a private celebration, Ganapati is communal and public. Many of my friends celebrate Christmas, but I only experience it when I’m invited into their homes to celebrate with their families. The Ganesh festival is an extreme contrast to my experience of religious celebrations in America. As a Jewish foreigner, I felt more involved and immersed in this Indian celebration than I have with any religious holiday in America, outside of my personal religious practices. My ability to take part in this Hindu festival is telling of the public nature of religious expression in India. These holidays are celebrated as a collective community.
The Dusshera festival gave me another taste of India’s fervent, communal, religious celebrations. My experience of Dussehra felt more intimate than Ganesh, but maintained the same energy and excitement: Streets jammed with people, neon-lit floats dedicated to Gods, piercing music, fireworks. But what was most exciting were groups of young men and women, drenched in sweat, drumming and dancing, with beaming smiles. Standing on the side, holding onto my walker, I viscerally felt the religious and celebratory fervor. Even as a non-Hindu foreigner who does not celebrate this holiday, I felt included in the celebration and excitement that it was occurring.
Interestingly, on final night of Dusshera, I was observing a Jewish Holiday, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is an introspective holiday when Jews atone for misdeeds, a contrasting mood to that of Dusshera. I have always experienced the acts of self-reflection and repentance on Yom Kippur as an individual process. Yet this Yom Kippur in India, I felt more engaged with the Jewish community as a whole and less focused on my individual self.
Services on Yom Kippur in India, like in America, take place in a private synagogue. Unlike America, the synagogue here has no security, and throughout the day the gates remain wide open. During services, windows are open, revealing Jewish prayer to the public. It felt like an invitation between the Jewish Indian community and the Indian community-Yom Kippur prayers in sync with Dusshera’s pounding drums. Another form of religious practice is through names. Many people I have met in India have names relating to Hindu ideology, and so far, every Jewish Indian I have met, has a Hebrew name. Most Jewish Americans have a secular name and a separate Hebrew name used for religious purposes. This practice separates religious names for the private, and secular names for the public. In India, Jews constantly wear and live their Judaism, continuously bringing it into the public sphere.
In India, Jews are a tiny minority. With the small number of Jews in Pune- around 250- I didn’t expect a strong Jewish community to exist. I was wrong. Despite the small numbers, there’s a significant sense of Jewish community. Every Indian Jew I met was proud to be Jewish. I also learned that they also felt fully Indian. After Yom Kippur was over, we moved from a private setting into the public domain. With the gates wide open, and everyone dressed in white, we sat outside, breaking the fast, and then stood and chanted Hebrew prayers to the moon. I felt no fear, no sense of shame, or embarrassment being so outward in a relatively unfamiliar religious expression. The public celebration of religion in India enabled me to experience two important holidays at the same time.