I stepped off a small plane in Vijayawada, India, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and walked into the tiny airport building while our luggage was unloaded. Though I’d been traveling to India for 28 years, and had even been to this area a number of times over the past ten years, I had no idea what was awaiting me. I was obviously the only foreigner, the only one who had no one to talk to as we waited patiently. I scanned the crowd outside the door, those who were waiting for their loved ones to get their luggage and come outside. Right there at the entrance was a face I’d seen just a couple of times in someone’s blog online: Sadok Yacobi. Thus began my stay with the Bene Ephraim community in the village of Kottareddypalem, an hour away.
“What led you to do this?” people always ask me. Why would someone leave the comforts of a western lifestyle for remote village life where most people do not have electricity, where running water and plumbing (including toilets) are practically non-existent, and where there’s no basic comforts and conveniences that we’re accustomed to? No washing machine, no sofa or overstuffed chair to sit on, no oven, not a lot of privacy. Internet? Not always available or consistent. What really did draw me to this experience, I still ask myself.
Finding myself with time to do what I’d wanted to do for a very long time, and a desire to go beyond my comfort zone, I began searching the internet for a Jewish organization which would reflect my view on Tikkun Olam and offer opportunities to work overseas with people of any faith, anywhere. One click led to another, and to another, and many clicks later (hours and pages of websites later), one particular website caught my eye and interest. KULANU, it said on top, All of Us and a description of its mission: “works around the world to support isolated and emerging Jewish communities” This, I thought, could be something I am interested in. After spending about ninety minutes looking at the website and skimming some of the articles and newsletters, I called the office in New York City and spoke to Kulanu’s president, Harriet Bograd. That was in August 2014, and almost immediately my decision was made: I would leave in November for India and, along with my travels and volunteering with organizations related to the non-profit work I’d been doing in the past, I would volunteer in a Jewish community that just days earlier I hadn’t even known existed. Sure, I knew about the three or four other Jewish communities in India (Bene Yisrael, Bene Menashe, Cochini, and the Calcutta/Delhi/Mumbai Iraqi Jews), but even though I had traveled to Andhra Pradesh a number of times for work and volunteering, and the young man (and his family) who I’ve been sponsoring for eight years lives there, the thought that there are possibly Jews who live there never crossed my mind. Once I made that decision, my to-do list increased and I began preparing for my journey of a lifetime.
From a few emails exchanged with Sadok, the leader of the Bene Ephraim, I learned which Judaica items the Bene Ephraim needed and wanted: siddurim, yarmulkes, Havdalah candles, tallitot, children’s texts and curriculum, Hagaddahs, Tanakh, and Hebrew dictionaries, to name just a few. After I sent emails requesting items to my own synagogue’s list-serve, I received numerous donations from our members as well as donations from Kulanu. In fact, the response was amazing. I brought two 50-pound suitcases filled with books and supplies with me.
So there I was, having finally arrived at the Vijayawada airport, being welcomed by Sadok. He’d hired a car and driver to pick me up and we traveled for an hour through the dry and crowded cities of Vijayawada and Guntur and the little towns and villages in between. I remember looking out the window pensively, while Bollywood music played up front. My thoughts were all-encompassing: Do I know what I’m getting into? Never mind it doesn’t matter. There’s no turning back now, I thought to myself as I watched the lives of these people unfold before me while I sat in the back seat, mesmerized by it all. Will I have my own sleeping space? Will I have a shower? What kind of food will I eat? I was quite familiar with what life was like for so many Indians, and I was about to find out exactly what kind of life I would soon be living.
Kottareddypalem is a village less than a mile from the crowded tiny town of Chebrole, twenty-five minutes from the little city of Guntur. Its residents are of the low-caste Madiga, and many of them, women and children especially, work in the fields. People live simply and their lives are difficult. Some live in homes of thatched roofs and sides, and others have concrete walls and thatched roofs.
Most people do not have water; there is a community pump that the government controls so that only twice a day can people (usually the girls or women of a family) line up to fill their buckets. There’s what appears to be a stagnant river that runs through the village and at any time of the day one might observe people washing their clothes there, washing themselves, washing their dishes, washing their autorickshaws, and washing their buffalo. Sometimes children are swimming and playing in it. People relieve themselves nearby.
Very few cars travel these unpaved streets, but most people do ride bicycles or motorcycles, and there are occasional autorickshaws that carry passengers to and from Chebrole. Lots of the villagers walk to wherever they need to go, which could be far. There are Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews who live here, and they appear to get along. The quiet of the night is quite often interrupted by the Muslim call to worship, the pastors of the churches preaching over loudspeakers so that everyone throughout the village will hear them (even at 1:30am), and the singing, chanting, and bell-ringing at the Hindu temples (one which is immediately adjacent to Sadok’s family’s home and to the Bene Ephraim synagogue). In fact, around Christmastime, the Jews were the only ones not broadcasting our holiday spirit!
Amidst all this daily living sits the Bene Ephraim center of learning and worship, located at Sadok’s family’s home. While the rest of the members live throughout the village, and some live even a half hour to a few hours away (and do come for services as often as they can), the Yacobi family lives on this property which was actually given to Sadok by his father, who had been a schoolteacher in the village many years ago. Sadok and the Bene Ephraim believe that they are the descendants of the lost tribe of Ephraim, and they give many examples to back up their claims. Much of this has been written about in a few other articles (some posted on the Kulanu website) and in one particular book, The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Caste and Religion in South India by Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez. (I highly recommend reading this book for a history and reflection of this community; Egorova’s and Perwez research and narrative provide detailed and fascinating explanations and descriptions of what the Bene Ephraim believe is their ancient heritage, as well as queries and contrasting opinions offered by those who question the Bene Ephraim’s authenticity. This book is one that you won’t want to put down most of the time that you’re engaged in reading it! It is fascinating.)
The Yacobi family, including Sadok, his lovely wife Miriam, their son Jacob (Yacob), daughter Keziya, and daughter Beulah and her son Ryan (pronounced Ree-on) all live together in one room for sleeping, which also serves as the synagogue. When Beulah’s husband comes home monthly from working several hours away in another city to join his wife and toddler son, they are provided a separate room. This synagogue/home has what we would call a kitchen and living room on the other side of a dividing wall. There is a one-burner propane stove (though some of the cooking is done on a fire outside), and mats to sit on. Much of the food preparation is done in the back yard. The family has a refrigerator that is kept in a new building which was being completed. Eventually there will be rooms for guests to stay (I stayed in one of the rooms), a kitchen, and a sleeping room for the family.
There is no indoor plumbing, but there is a well (one of the few homes in the village that has one) and an electric pump which is used every morning to pump water to fill the barrel in the outhouse for bathing. Dishes are washed outdoors, and laundry is done the old-fashioned way, with manual labor and a large stone to clean the clothes on. The saying “A woman’s work is never done” is very true in this part of India, in this community. The women are responsible for completing most of the household chores each day, all day. I was humbled as I tried to wash my own clothes a number of times but could not master it to the point where they actually got clean. Miriam and her daughters eventually came over to where I sat wringing out my clothes and smashing them on the rock, gently taking them from me and cleaning them quickly and efficiently.
Jacob, having taken some organic farming training in the Pondicherry/Auroville area south of Chennai, about a ten hours train ride, now rents a small plot of land near his family’s home and, with a few friends, grows vegetables to sell to vendors in the marketplaces. Some of the families of the Bene Ephraim were provided with buffalo a few years ago by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, a world-renowned expert on the Jews of the Far East who has set up a charitable fund; the goal was that these families would be able to sell the buffalo milk and earn an income. The few families that are raising the buffalo have been successful at it, and now some of the buffalo have had babies which can be sold to other families, thus providing more of an income. (Side note: chai made with buffalo milk is delicious and fattening, especially given that it’s served four to five times a day!)
What did I do there? What did the Bene Ephraim need from me? I arrived just before the start of the first night of Hanukkah, and when, that evening, we lit the hanukkiya together and sang the blessings, I felt a deep sense of connection. I was with my people. Over the course of my time with the Bene Ephraim, I contemplated what makes one a Jew. Are we “more” Jewish because we are born into a Jewish family? Could people who are from an untouchable caste in India really be Jews? How did these people become Jews? They have their own story to tell which I encourage you to read in the aforementioned book, and better yet, visit the Bene Ephraim and spend some time volunteering with them.
Each day we spent time learning new melodies and preparing for Shabbat. The community has its own traditions and melodies with some infusions introduced by Israeli visitors. Eight years ago Rabbi Gerald and Rabbanit Bonita Nathan Sussman, Vice President of Kulanu, had visited and even taught them to make potato latkes. What could I teach them, then, that would be significant and lasting?
Villagers gathered for services every Friday evening, as well as twice on Shabbat morning at 8 and 11. Members of Beit Am, my congregation in Corvallis, Oregon, as well as people from around the USA (who had seen my Facebook posts) had begun sending me songs for Shabbat via email, and together we learned new tunes. The Bene Ephraim had tunes that they had created over the course of at least one or two generations and were now teaching to their young children. We shared traditions with each other: my western Jewish rituals with the Bene Ephraim rituals, some of which have hints of the Hindu influences of their Indian habitat. Many of the community can read Hebrew, and others read the transliterations in their language, Telugu. They chant the blessings before and after reading from the Torah, and they sing psalms set to melodies so beautiful that at first all I could do was listen, enchanted, while everyone sang together. Soon I found myself singing along, as I had learned the melody and words.
I began studying the weekly parsha in advance when I realized that most of the community did not understand what they were reading; when I explained what the parsha was about, I was encouraged to continue to do so weekly. Preparing a d’var Torah was challenging as I had to find a way to relate it not to our western lives but to the lives of these people whose reality was so completely and unfathomably different than ours. How could I make each week’s parsha relevant to them when I only seemed to be able to relate it to my life of opportunities? This, for me, was a journey of Teshuvah, of returning–learning what was and is real in life, what matters.
The most beautiful moments of Shabbat, though, were those of Havdalah truly ethereal. With the Havdalah candles provided by Beit Am members, each week we rejoiced in the light of the flame reflected off our fingernails throughout the darkened room. There were local spices to pass around. Each Friday the women of the family pressed grapes to make grape juice which we drank communally throughout Shabbat and Havdalah. The Bene Ephraim took to heart that we can carry that light and the sweetness of the spices, the sweetness of Shabbat, with us into our week until the next Shabbat. Then we danced another beautiful memory as the women and men experienced dances they never knew before–Hava Nagila and Mayim Mayim. Dancing for joy, dancing with joy: women and men and children who had never danced a step in their lives were filled with elation and delight that exuded from their faces, their hands, their feet their laughs.
Many evenings the children of the village, some Jewish, some Christian and Hindu, and a few Muslim, would come to visit me. We would sing children’s songs that I played on my laptop with attached speakers: Baby Beluga, Five Little Freckled Frogs, Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, and others to help the kids learn some English and then Jewish songs, including Shabbat Shalom, I Have a Little Dreidel, and Zum Gali Gali. It didn’t matter that the children were of various religions. They loved it, and I loved being with them and seeing the excitement in their eyes.
My four weeks in the village passed quickly. I left to volunteer and travel in other parts of India for two months, and then returned for a few more weeks until the triple-digit heat became unbearable. When I departed, the hugs were many and long, and tears rolled down our cheeks as we said Shalom, knowing that it would be a long time before we would be able to meet again.
As I write this, it’s been eight months since I left the Bene Ephraim to complete my journey throughout India. As I traveled around the country that has been like a second home to me, I carried with me the spirit of the Bene Ephraim, a people who are committed to deepening their understanding of their faith. Kulanu purchased a laptop computer for the community and they have been using it to learn more about the holidays, Torah, the parshas, and some are even studying the Zohar. Sadok’s children, Jacob and Keziya, as well as a few other young people, have been taking a more active role in learning and leading parts of the service, and I deeply believe that with their dedication and motivation, the Bene Ephraim will grow stronger as they find their place in the greater world of Judaism. What makes a Jew? While the rabbis and Jewish scholars have their answers, I tell myself and others that I believe that there is more than one answer, and that the Bene Ephraim do their best to live their lives accordingly.
My life has been forever changed by the experience of living with the Bene Ephraim. I learned so much, receiving the gift of friendship and rejoicing in the love of our shared faith. I encourage those of you who wish to go beyond your comfort zone to offer your knowledge and skills to a people so eager to embrace you. You will receive so much more than you will give, and you will, perhaps, find a path to Teshuvah.
For more information about the Bene Ephraim community, see www.kulanu.org/india, and to view videos of the community, pleasego to the India – Bene Ephraim playlist at youtube.com/kulanuvideo.