Saturday, April 12, 2008

Craving Judaism in India...

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

We Found It Back Home

[Note: I wrote this for our synagogue's newsletter and it was just published, and came in today's mail:]

It may be easy to find a Jewish person just about anywhere in the world these days, but finding a sense of yiddishkeit in a place like Bangalore is another matter entirely. During a recent six-month stretch in India, I’d often spend Friday night sitting with my partner Pat at the Rajgarh restaurant, where we feasted on dishes like tandoori gobi and dal makahni, but found ourselves thirsting for Jewish life.

Prior to moving into a house, we lived at a hotel for 35 days. During a party, we met a lone Jewish expat wearing a white woven kippah and engaged him in conversation. But when we asked the hotel’s concierge if she could locate a synagogue for us in the metro area, she responded, “We didn’t find a synagogue, but there’s a Methodist church….”

Pat joked with me later, “Well, you know, those monotheists all look alike.”

The experience would have been more haimish (homey) had we felt comfortable, being ourselves as a visible couple. But we almost never felt did, aside from when we were with my colleagues from work.

It was retro, being so cagey. Prior to moving into my current role in management and leadership development at IBM, I was a featured face of my employer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients, having helped start a sales team dedicated to the LGBT market. Why was I willing to take so many steps backward in my openness with this Indian assignment? After all, I didn’t even request the position, but rather was asked by a superior to help our company leaders at all levels in India advance their leadership skills.

Speaking only for myself—and not my employer—through these reflections, I’d wondered: When else would my colleagues in India have had the opportunity to get to know lesbians as people? Openly gay or lesbian colleagues are rare in India, I confirmed during my first, brief trip there in 2005, and re-confirmed this time. Yet I have a sacred sense that once people are exposed to one another, they can never again be purely ignorant of one another…and that includes Pat’s and my exposure to Indian culture and people.

The most beautiful woman I met during our trip was named Sapna, who became a visible friend to our community as a result of our meeting. She introduced herself, saying, “Sapna – it means “Dream.”

Yes, it does! I told myself silently, smiling.

Since my local boss was out of the country at the time, Sapna invited me in his place to address a group of IBMers, who were volunteering to help “freshers,” (not fressers [Yiddish for gourmands]) feel at home. “Freshers” is the expression used in India to refer to people who have just joined a company. In my remarks, I made a plug for employee networking groups, ensuring that people knew of their availability, and that any L, G, B, or T employees were welcome to contact me about starting an Indian chapter of our LGBT employee group.

Sapna approached me afterwards and said she wanted to help. She agreed to start up the chapter; she was heterosexual and deeply, traditionally Hindu with a lesbian friend, who she said confided only in her. “I like being part of anything that advances humanity,” Sapna said as her lovely rationale.

Since India is just in the early stages of further LGBT inclusion, Pat and I chose to respect the local norms to a degree, so that we could live without a measure of anxiety and worry. People can be jailed for homosexual acts, though I’m told it hasn’t happened for years. Still, it meant that during the week we lived in separate rooms, giving our maid the weekends off. Essentially, being in stealth-mode also made Jewish community life impossible for us. We didn’t want to seek out Jews and then not be able to share our full story with them, and so we thirsted....

On the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, Pat and I flew to Kochi to visit the Pardesi synagogue and experience the only shul within a several hours journey of our home. The modest stone building bore a welcome sign, but sadly it was locked in preparation for the holiday. With a little ingenuity (and a handful of rupees), we convinced a Hindu worker to let us inside to quickly glimpse the interior. The Orthodox-style sanctuary had seating for men downstairs and women behind a latticed partition above; there were several Belgian chandeliers and a floor with 1,100 hand-painted Chinese tiles. The five Torah scrolls had Sephardic-style coverings and one was decorated with jewel-encrusted gold crowns—a gift from the Maharajah. (For more on the visit, see our blog and pictures at and at

As we were ready to leave, the Hindu man said, "Chag samayach" ("Happy holiday,") and Pat and I nearly cried with gratitude. I was struck by how meaningful our two minutes at the Pardesi felt compared to the 20 minutes spent in an Indian temple the previous week. Somehow, despite the lack of ritual during those six months, I still managed to feel incredibly Jewish. A paradox, perhaps. But I’ve come to believe that seeing others' religions only strengthened my affection for my own.

More than ever, CBST has been an oasis since our return from India. Our first weekend back, we came to services and Rabbi Cohen generously asked us to light the Shabbat candles. When Pat and I stood on the bimah, singing “Shalom aleichem” with our arms around each other and the rabbi and cantor, I looked out shyly with delighted awe at the huge roomful of LGBT Jews and our friends and family. No one needs half a thirsty year in India to appreciate what we have in the CBST community, but it can’t hurt.

Sarah Siegel and her partner Pat Hewitt of nearly 16 years have been members at CBST since they moved here from Illinois in 1996. They live in Montclair, NJ.

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