Dharamsala, India -- The path to the Friday night Shabbat services passes some unusual landmarks. First, my Israeli acquaintance and I take a left at a horde of beggars who seem to be suffering from leprosy and are crawling on the ground on stumps of limbs. Then, we follow a rocky path past sari-clad women hauling water from a communal well until we reach a small clump of jungle, where monkeys claw scraps of garbage off the ground. Pushing through the jungle, we enter a small clearing and a makeshift building with a tarpaulin roof. Next to the shack, at least fifty worshippers welcome the Sabbath with fervent, wailing prayers. Many seem to be secular Israelis who might never have entered a synagogue at home: young men in dreadlocks and torn shirts, women with piercings and henna painted on their arms. But with their nation at war, they seek solace here, in community.
For years, Dharamsala, a mountain village in remote northern India home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles, has been a center of the Israeli backpacker route. Like a modern version of the 1960s hippie trail, Dharamsala, which is full of monasteries strung with Tibetan prayer flags, has become the major stop for young Israeli travelers who have just completed their intensive army duty and want to kick back, explore their spiritual side with local Hindu or Buddhist gurus, and maybe smoke a little dope before returning to the real world. (The phenomenon of Jews seeking spiritual meaning in Buddhism has become so common that it has a name --“Jew-Bu's” -- and an entire literature of its own, in books like The Jew in the Lotus.) One Tibetan friend claimed to me that, at any time, one percent of Israel's population is staying in Dharamsala's numerous guesthouses.
Whether or not one percent of Israel is here, I have no idea, but Israelis surely outnumber all other travelers. Most shops in town, which feature names like “Haifa Café,” advertise their wares in Hebrew, and restaurants serve shakshuka, felafel, and other Israeli staples. So many Israelis have descended Bhagsu , a tiny Dharamsala village, that it boasts two different Friday night Shabbat congregations. When a group of Israelis offers rupees to a beggar in town, he replies “toda,” the Hebrew word for “thank you.”
But with a hot war on in the Middle East and the prospect of Israel recalling thousands of army reservists, Dharamsala suddenly seems less blissful. Every morning, the Indian newspapers, which normally ignore most world events, splash the latest Middle East news on the front pages, making it impossible for Israelis to tune out the world. At cafes in town where Israelis and Europeans smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and toss back espressos, all discussions seem to return to the war sooner or later.
Locals, too, carefully probe Israelis for their reactions to the conflict. The owner of one Indian cooking class worries that with the reserve call-up her customers will disappear. After Israelis trek to meet one prominent local guru, he offers them personal prayers for the Israelis' homeland.
The Israelis here respond by, paradoxically, relaxing with a kind of intense urgency, since they can no longer be sure when their holiday might end. A class on Buddhism taught by a charismatic, elderly local Tibetan monk is packed with adherents trying to learn the secrets to meditation during troubled times. Travelers crowd around walls in town covered with advertisements for self-help courses on every way to salve spiritual and material longing -- intensive courses of yoga, reiki, Hinduism, ayurveda, Tibetan massage, Thai massage, meditation designed to increase your success in romance, even something called a “sub-body” experience. Or travelers organize their own quick bouts of relaxation, passing around advertisements for jam sessions and raves. At night, stoned-looking travelers stumble through Dharamsala's waterlogged lanes (it is monsoon season), past wizened Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns and Kashmiri merchants selling shawls.
Some Israelis look for a bit of love. At the central bus station in town, young Indian and Tibetan men converge on buses arriving full of Israelis, chatting them up as they unload their packs from the top of the vehicles. At night, I see some of the arrivals canoodling over drinks with some of the hipper young Tibetan men in town. “Normally, Israeli women seem very conservative -- they stay together in a group,” says one Tibetan acquaintance of mine. “Maybe now [with the war on] they might be more open.”
Others, like the secular Israelis at Friday night services, discover the spiritual side in their own religion. After the service I attend finishes, the crowd adjourns to a room upstairs, where we sit cross-legged on the floor and eat from communal bowls of Israeli salad and grilled eggplant spread. A religious Israeli who looks like a cross between a Hasidic Jew and a Buddhist lama -- he sports a thick black beard, the fringed shirt of the pious Jew, and amulets like those worn by Buddhist nuns in town -- shouts out a Biblical story. The group then belts out songs celebrating the Sabbath, with some men standing, jumping, and clapping wildly, almost resembling Hare Krishnas.
Sitting across from me on the floor, a young Israeli traveler with a shaved head and a fringe of stubble smiles broadly as he surveys the scene. “I'll stay in India as long as I can, until my visa runs out,” he says. “I never want to leave here.”
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect and a special correspondent at The New Republic.
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