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Oh! Jerusalem

A country with the fittest grandmothers is a good place to be Indian. Just don’t wear jeans to Parliament, writes Samar Halarnkar.

world Updated: Oct 27, 2007 03:56 IST
Samar Halarnkar in Israel

First, let's get this out of the way. Israeli women are not just stunning and fit but very stylish. Come to think of it, they are a lot like Iranian women. A friend who's lived in Tehran told me this, tongue very firmly in cheek: “If they procreated, you would have some of the world’s most beautiful people.” That’s very unlikely to happen, of course, given the Iranian president’s unceasing desire to wipe Israel off the map and Israelis earnestly seeking bombing runs against Iran.

Women are everywhere: Soldiers with rifles, security personnel manning the country’s ubiquitous x-ray machines, running passport controls — and most look like models. Many tour guides are women, weaving their country’s biblical past into a great national narrative with great passion. I met two energetic grandmothers, both in their 50s (one had a grand-daughter aged 22, another a grandson aged 17), sprinting up stairs and barely breaking into a sweat as they rushed our group of huffing Indian journos from historical site to museum. When we met with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, three stooping, old women brought coffee and snacks. No orderlies, no servants.

India quirks

They have their idiosyncracies. When we visited the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, two of us did not get past the initial security checks. No, they did not have traces of explosives. No, they did not have the equipment that could not be explained. They were wearing jeans. Last month, the Knesset voted to disallow entry to anyone with jeans. Er, but I was wearing jeans as well, but no one stopped me. I guess since they were black, the guards did not notice they were banned material. I was stopped, though, at the Knesset reception by a round, pink man with twinkling eyes.

“Tum India se hain na? Arre hum bhi (You from India? Me too).” Efrahim, as he called himself, was a Baghdadi Jew, who left Mumbai 30 years ago. For 10 minutes, he chattered on in Bambaiya street Hindi.

There is no country I have visited where being Indian evokes instant acknowledgement — and a smile. Young people behind shop counters, artists, bureaucrats, politicians, middle-aged university professors who may not have gone to India but know enough about it from their children. Even a grim-faced security officer at the heavily guarded presidential home in Jerusalem let down his guard for just an instant to reveal he was heading to India next month.

Mumbai touch

The biggest surprise came from a young Israeli at an airport bookstore. “Tu marathi bolto (Do you speak Marathi)?” he asked delightedly. His Marathi wasn’t particularly strong, but then he had been to India only once. Uziel Moshe was the son of Maharashtrian Jews, one of 70,000 Jews of Indian origin who streamed into the promised land over the last 30 years. His colleague, an Asheknazi or European Jew, grinned and said: “Woh Marathi bolta hain, main toda Hindi boltan houn (He speaks Marathi, I speak some Hindi).”

All this recognition is aided by the fact that 40,000 Israelis head to India every year to let off steam after their two years of compulsory military service. When you consider that Israel's population would comfortably fit into Mumbai's suburbs, the universal recognition is clear. And links appear when you least expect them.

“Ichaka dana, bechaka dana …” We were driving in the Judean desert heading for the Dead Sea when Tikhva Levin, our guide, who was really a professional archaeologist, suddenly broke into this ancient Raj Kapoor hit. She had been with us for two days and was one of those rare people who showed little interest in India. “You know this song?” Levin asked cheerfully. “It’s from a movie I saw when I was younger. I cried so much. It’s still popular in Israel this movie, The Wanderer. The Wanderer? Ah, she was talking of Awara, the universal Indian hit from Russia to Morocco.

Music kinship

Two days later, at a hip restaurant somewhere amid the 49 floors of the shiny Azrieli Towers in downtown Tel Aviv, businesswomen Anat Bernstein-Reich suddenly mentioned that her son's favourite song was, what else, Ichaka dana...How could this possibly be? How could a song — catchy, I guess, but not so extraordinary surely — from a melodramatic 1950s Hindi movie survive generations in a land so distant? “Well, you see, children have a CD of world songs, something they all learn,” said Reich.

“And this song is there, and my son loves it.” Like us, the Israelis are close to families. There are many things that are different obviously. One of them is the easy ability to get naked, as I found in the open showers at a Dead Sea resort. Like a good Indian, I've always found public nakedness difficult, even in the changing rooms of some Mumbai clubs where the men run around nanga.

So, faced with a bunch of naked men soaping or drying themselves, I wondered what to do.

Well, I thought, I couldn’t possibly be the only one having a bath in trunks, an Indian wuss. Thus, with national interest at stake, off they came. It was really quite liberating, so to speak.