What is it with Jews and India? Why are so many Jews drawn to a country that looks so different from theirs? Why am I so attracted to India? Could it have something to do with random memories, a fan-cooled evening on a porch in Delhi when the conversation turned to whether, after death, our spirits will be reincarnated as individuals or as part of a cloud-like, combined spirit? Are the warm miasmas of India an ideal setting for a group of strangers to slip quite naturally from casual social chatter to the deepest of spiritual questions? Would complete strangers in New York or Tel Aviv find it normal to suddenly begin discussing their deepest mystical beliefs?
In part my own mystical experiences started me on the long road that led to this book. This was not a direct road, nor did I realize I was traveling it, but the route is apparent in retrospect.
And since I see it all now, I will freely admit that this book is both a personal chronicle and a product of considerable historical research. In part, I want the reader to see India through my eyes, to see why I feel such an attachment to it, and to understand why I am attracted by its philosophies. Yet I also want to explain to the reader the reason why I believe that so many Jews throughout the ages have felt this same attachment. First, allow me to begin with my story.
One day when I was a teenage summer camp counselor in New Hampshire, I took a day off to explore some narrow roads that crisscrossed the thick forest. I walked without any plan in mind, until I spotted a particularly inviting view that pulled me like a magnet. Alone and mesmerized by the beauty around me, I wandered through acres of white birch trees, marveling at the great oaks that still survived from the original virgin forest. I smelled the evergreens. Last autumn’s leaves and pine needles crunched beneath my feet. Later in the afternoon, I began to think about returning to my camp, and I realized that I had no idea where the road back would be. Serenely confident in my forestry skills, I simply had walked heedlessly, assuming that I would find it. Moss always grows on the north side of the tree, doesn’t it?
As the sun sank, I began looking for a landmark that I might have seen earlier in the day. The duskier the woods became, the faster I walked. What if I had to spend the night in the forest? There were no cell phones then. Would there be bears? I did not know. Were there snakes? Yes. Would I be able to see poison ivy at night without a flashlight? No.
Would they be worried about me at camp? Yes.
After choosing a direction and picking up the pace, I recognized a distinctive-looking tree stump, and I realized that I had passed it at least a half hour before. I was walking in circles. Was I lost? If I continued walking, would I just keep circling? In a growing panic, I felt my breathing quicken, my face tense up. My throat constricted. I fought off the urge to cry, or to scream. After all, I could not be childish. I was 16, and I knew what I was doing, right? It was getting darker.
I sat down on a stump and prayed as I had never prayed before. I had never been a real believer. I had little interest in religious services or formal prayer. Eyes squeezed closed, fists balled up, fingernails pressed into my palms, I just begged God not to let me be lost. Afterwards, I opened my eyes. Oddly, I saw what seemed to be a pasture in front of me, and cutting through it, then vanishing into the distance, was a narrow trail, maybe an animal path. Do rabbits make paths? I had not seen this path before.
I knew I had to get up and follow the path, so I did. Soon the path became wider, and in minutes it led me to a road, the road to my camp.
This was the moment when my young self believed that there is a God. I knew little or nothing yet of war, of genocides, of international affairs or of great national tragedies. All I had was this, my own experience. And I never forgot.
Surely any self-respecting skeptic would take apart my story, question my observations, complain that I had not looked carefully enough before my prayer, or argue that I could not prove cause and effect. Still, none of this will ever take away the sense of awe that I felt at that time, or the prickly feeling I have now in the skin of my arms when I look back at the experience.
Without knowing it, that was when I first became a believer. In something. I called it God.
While an inexplicable spiritual experience does not prove the existence of God, it does not vanish from memory either. Behind a rational facade, many of us harbor a secret belief in God. Many of us cannot help but believe, whether it be in a mighty force that fills the universe, or in a spark of the divine nestled deep within ourselves.
Some seek the answers over a lifetime. Some, probably most, do not even articulate the questions. Some find the answers within their own culture or religion, but others only find them in countries and cultures that an outsider would consider to be completely foreign.
My first trip to India just was to see textiles, vibrant colors and art. My childhood story did not come back to me right away, but it was there, under the surface, waiting for me. Somehow though, I felt an eerie sense of familiarity – with something I could not name – in India.
After my first trip, I immersed myself in Hindu and Buddhist literature. In time I began to feel guilty, as if I were a secret traitor to my religion. Still, I found this literature strangely compelling.
Only when I traveled to Israel for the first time did I discover that almost everyone I met had visited India at least once, many becoming so smitten that they stayed for months. Some had taken up Buddhism or Hinduism quite seriously. In short, I was not a traitor or an outlier. To my shock, I was a typical Israeli.
It turns out that, when Israelis finish their mandatory stint in the army, they normally take off a year for travel. One favorite destination is India, and once there, many feel unaccountably drawn to the country, as if something beckons them. Conversely, increasing numbers of Indian students come to Israel to study, and they feel at home in Israel. Is there a reason?
Soon I discovered that numerous Hindu ashrams and Buddhist meditation centers in America and India have Jewish leaders, and many still identify as Jews. What has drawn them to Hinduism or Buddhism? Do these faiths resemble Judaism in some way? Or are they interesting because they are so different?
If so, in what way? Are these travelers just attracted to India because many people speak English, or the living is cheap, drugs are plentiful, and it is safe? Is there more to the story?
It turns out that a whole series of interrelated religious traditions once stretched between the Mediterranean and India. In memory of that, do Jews sense an atavistic connection with India still today? Does this ancient history remain in the collective consciousness?
In today’s interconnected world, India has become a popular travel destination for American Jews as well as Israelis, and once there, they often find themselves awakened in a strange way. Some of them grew up in secular environments devoid of the rich rituals that have sustained and nourished Jews for centuries. Others grew up in Orthodox religious communities that maintained their traditions, but whose rituals felt like meaningless rote exercises to their children. As a result, these children grew up spiritually thirsty.
In India, Jews find rituals aplenty, pageantry, a profusion of colors, exotic temples, holy men, spicy food, and a whole country full of people who live in an environment that supports their religious beliefs. And Jews who choose to put a toe into the waters of Hinduism or Buddhism are able to explore a whole range of spiritual possibilities, without guilt, not constricted by rules, and, with a little luck, guided by experienced spiritual advisors. In the end, they may adopt elements that are meaningful to them without giving up their own religion or formally converting.
When they return home, some may continue at least one new practice, perhaps meditation or yoga. Some shrug it all off. For others, India is a life-changing experience – a great ‘aha moment.’
The combined history is important. Jews and Indians have been connected for millennia. Massive empires stretched in ancient times between the Mediterranean and India. Within these empires, languages spread, bureaucracies ruled, and religious beliefs merged, one into another, between the two poles of this vast expanse. And in the middle always was Persia.
The largest of the ancient empires were Persian. Their culture was Persian, and their dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, a Persian faith that resembled both Judaism and Hinduism more than most of us ever realized. Jews in a Persian empire were exposed to Zoroastrian ideas, and Zoroastrians in Persia shared ideas, myths and gods with Hindus in India, thus, Jews indirectly shared with Hindus. This spectrum of religious beliefs spread organically from village to village, city to city.
Meanwhile in Persia, new religions continually bubbled up for many centuries, and they flowed outwards into the neighborhood.
This discovery struck me as I wrote the book, After Saturday Comes Sunday.1 While doing my research, I was amazed at the number of religions that had started in Persia, religions I had never heard of, and I decided to learn more. And it turns out that they still matter. Now I invite the reader to join me in these explorations.
We will study why India, Hinduism and Buddhism attract so many Jews, and we will discover the many links – both ancient and modern – between Israel and India. We will study how far-flung empires of the past connected the people of Israel with the people of India over thousands of years. We will learn about the spiritual connections between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, and we will be on alert to see how these religions influenced each other.
Throughout, we will try to understand how Persia served as the bridge between east and west, how the traditional religions of Persia contributed concepts to Judaism as it developed, and how the Zoroastrianism of Persia grew up in concert with Hinduism in India. In short, we will see that the Holy Land and India were never far apart, even though they may seem to be on the map.
Finally, we will try to answer these questions: “What are the Jews looking for in Hinduism? In Buddhism? Or in India itself?”
Susan Adelman is a pediatric surgeon, writer, artist and silversmith. From Jerusalem to Delhi, Through Persia is her third book. Her first, The Rebel: A biography of Ram Jethmalani grew out of travels and friendships in India. After Saturday Comes Sunday focuses on the remaining – and endangered – Aramaic speaking people of the Middle East. From Jerusalem to Delhi, Through Persia brings together Susan's interest in India with the Middle East; it is framed by personal, spiritual experiences, many of which occurred on her trips to India.