Soulmates – the story of India and Israel

Artist, writer, photographer, curator and researcher in the fields of Indian Studies, art and literature, religion and travel, Shimon Lev has extensively studied the mutual influence of Jewish and Indian cultures not explored before.

When he first came to India in 1985 after completing three years of Army service in an elite intelligence commando unite, it was almost impossible for Israelis to get a visa to India. Since his father’s escape from Berlin and Nazi Germany to Canada, the family got a Canadian citizenship due to which Shimon got his visa to India easily. While travelling around India for eight months, he rarely met any fellow Israelis, unlike today where there are many Israelis visiting India. He says India is his second home, which he has been visiting regularly for 30 years, and his personal journey is reflected in the political and cultural changes in the relationship between the two countries.

You have such varied interests – art, photography, and writing. What influences have shaped your artistic sensibilities?

This is very difficult to answer and personally in some ways I pay a price for the fact that I am involved in different fields. At least in Israel, people especially from the art world expect you to ‘decide’ who you are.  But through the years, I learnt to be in peace with living in different worlds. I was a very bad student at school and even when I was thrown out from high school, I didn’t study anything and I was mainly interested in outdoor activities doing a lot of dangerous things.  I never thought that I would write. I studied photography after returning from my first trip to India in 1986, but like many other things in my life, my writing started in India. I photographed the Kumbh Mela of 1991 at a time when no one in Israel knew anything about it.  I offered the photos to the leading Israeli geographical magazine and the editor told me to write an article along with the photos. So I had no choice but to write the first article in my life about India. This was followed by many articles about India. When I saw that I was going to get divorced, I thought ‘what should I do next?’ I decided to start studying Indian studies at the Hebrew University. All my lecturers knew my name because I was publishing extensively about India and knew India practically (but not academically) much better than most of them. So I did my BA, MA and PHD, one degree after the other and at the same time raising my three babies since the custody of the kids after the divorce was mine. It was a crazy time. Generally speaking, for me the main motivation in my life is ‘doing’ and for this I use different mediums – photography, writing, films, exhibitions and publications. In the recent years I discovered that being a curator is really a good option for me, since I can combine the ability and the love of research and the love for art and photography. This for example can be seen in the last major exhibition about The Temple Mount at the Tower of David Museum.  So in many respects everything started from my Indian experiences and from that I developed gradually as a person.   

How have your writings and pictures of India become a channel to inspire people from Israel to visit India?

I cannot forget the day I crossed the border from Nepal to India at the end of 1984 and stayed in a small temple in Gorakhpur. I do not want to (and I am not trying to) sound romantic. Since then my perspectives have changed and developed but in that moment I knew India was the place for me.     

I began my travels after my Army service which was very demanding and ended with the Lebanon War in 1982. But I decided to travel to the Far East and not South America as my brother Nachum traveled to South America and as I jokingly say, ‘who wants to follow his brother’. I have been to India many times and sometimes for long periods.  In 1988 I travelled to India on an Enfield motorcycle and when I returned to Israel there was a huge article about me. This led many Israelis to visit India.

I even lived with my ex-wife with our three small babies for almost a year in South India. I love trekking in the Indian Himalaya – in my opinion it is much better than trekking in Nepal. Of course some of the places have become more difficult to stay due to the pollution and traffic jams. I have seen so many layers to India, it is difficult for me to say which places I like more. I was the first Israeli to write and photograph the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in the early 90s – and this was a very unique and fascinating experience for me. 

Over the last few years, I have come mainly for academic conferences, lectures and for conducting research. One of the most interesting researches I have am involved in now is studying the ‘similarities’ but also actually the differences between the sensitive and explosive subject of The Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple. My last big curatorship project was dealing with the history of photography of The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The exhibition is still going on till Jan 2020 in the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. I would love to exhibit it also in India – I think it is very relevant –

 Much has written in India about Ayodhya but very little on comparing Ayodhya and The Temple Mount (and what I read is not good enough in my humble opinion), so I really want to work on it. I have never been to Ayodhya and I hope to visit it during my next trip.

Your book ‘Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach’ threw light on an important friendship in Gandhi’s life. How much were Gandhi’s thoughts on nationalism influenced by this friendship?

My book Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach deals mostly with the formative years of Gandhi in South Africa and the role of Kallenbach as his soulmate’ between the years 1903-1915. But what makes this story more interesting is that their relationship had a second round after their separation in the end of 1914. When the Zionist leaders hear that Gandhi was a close friend of Kallenbach, who had become a Zionist himself in South Africa, the future Prime Minister of Israel approached Kallenbach asking him to influence Nehru and Gandhi’s objection to Zionism. It is a very complicated and fascinating history which is very much connected to the shared history between the two national movements and the formation of India and Israel almost at the same time (1947, 1948 respectively). I have published this story widely since this history is relevant to anyone who wants to understand the great relationship between India and Israel.

Kallenbach’s personal relationship with Gandhi effectively made him the most significant link between the Indian National Movement and the Zionist movement. The complete absence of any diplomatic relationship between India and Israel (which ended only as recently as in 1990s) can only emphasize the importance of this story. 

Recently I published my last major research, which is still waiting the English edition: Clear Are the Paths of India: The Cultural and Political Encounter between Indians and Jews in the Context of the Growth of their Respective National Movement. This book examines key trends and elements of the Jewish and Zionist world’s perception of and affinity with India and its culture from the end of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) till India and Israel were granted independence. The encounter between the two cultures is characterized by rich, diverse facets: textual, intellectual, interpersonal relationships, and political efforts that played a significant role in the Jewish and Zionist self-perception in relation to their environment in Europe and as a component in the establishment of the Jewish national identity as Asian (returning to Asia). The book serves as an analysis of these trends, which point to discourse on the textual and intellectual level, as well its accompanying and consequent political activity that emerged concurrently to historical events.

On the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, do you think his dharma of Non-Violence can be practiced today when everyone is going nuclear?

This is a good question and the answer is not very clear. Actually the question could be put up in a broader context – What is the relevance of Gandhi’s teachings today? It is important to ask ourselves this question even before we are discussing the question of nuclear weapons. Obviously the Non-Violence strategy would remain a Utopian idea especially when speaking about states’ relationship and terror groups.

 I personally always prefer to look on the positive sides – meaning, what one can take or benefit from Gandhi and not what one should give up. It is too easy to give up Gandhi’s teachings especially Ahimsa in the political world as naïve, impractical or even dangerous in a cynical-political world. I think that the most important lessons that we can learn from Gandhi has implications for state powers, but can be realized (even only partly) more profoundly on the personal life then on a national policy.

One of the main contributions of Gandhi on the political and state studies is to try not to ignore as much as possible the complicated relationship between Morality and Politics – not to take it as granted that politicians are allowed a different kind of Morality then the lay person. We shouldn’t accept the prevailed and common separation between the two as a fact.  We should demand from our politicians and decision makers, whenever it is possible, to minimize the gap between the two.

In our private and close social circles we can use Gandhi’s teachings in many ways especially with respect to technology. One has to only look at Gandhi when trying to deal with the cellphone addiction, especially of the young generation. You do not have to be a Gandhian in order to understand who is controlling who and how much you allow yourself to be controlled by technology.    

How did you come upon Gandhi’s letters and how did your book lead to installation of Gandhi’s statue in Lithuania, where apparently there is a significant population following Hinduism.

Though I was already pursuing Indian studies, my knowledge of Gandhi was not extensive. A strange coincidence led to the Kallenbach archive. I was writing a series of 27 articles as I followed a hiking trail – the ‘Israel Trail’ cross Israel. As I reached Kibbutz Degania Alef, near the Sea of Galilee, I visited a famous cemetery and chanced upon the grave of Hermann Kallenbach. In the piece I filed, I wrote a few lines based on whatever I knew about Kallenbach back then. Two weeks later, I got a call from Isa Sarid, the daughter of Kallenbach’s niece, who invited me to Haifa to see an entire archive dedicated to him. I was amazed. This tiny room was packed with files and most bore the name Gandhi. One of the first files that caught my eye carried the name ‘Tolstoy Farm’. Kallenbach’s niece Hanna Lazar had brought the archive from South Africa. In that very first meeting, I knew that this material was going to make a book.

The archive comprised Kallenbach’s correspondence with Gandhi and other close associates, original glass-plate photos of the time spent on Tolstoy Farm, official documents from the period, Kallenbach’s architectural drawings, material related to Zionism from Kallenbach’s visit to Palestine in 1936-37, and his endeavor to spread the Zionist cause in India.

The discovery of this archive in Israel pointed to an entire missing chapter in Gandhi’s biography. I took (writer-historian) Ramachandra Guha to the archive and he brought the Indian ambassador. This started the Indian government’s negotiation with the family to buy this archive. It was eventually purchased for the sum of $1.2 million (around Rs 7.6 crore now) in 2012 and is now housed in the National Archive in Delhi.

Later I was approached by the Lithuanian ambassador in Delhi who initiated, after reading my book, the joint monument in Kallenbach’s birth place in a small village named Rusne. It is quite surprising to see in that small and remote place on the banks of the river the beautiful Gandhi and Kallenbach statues.

Source: Elite intelligence commando unit 1983

Your research includes studying the common thread between India, Israel and Lithuania, seemingly very different kind of nations. What have you found?

There is a special bond between Lithuania and Israel.  Probably the largest number of murders of Jews during the Holocaust occurred in Lithuanian (over 90 percent of the Jewish Lithuanian population was murdered).

I think that it is quite fascinating that two Lithuanian Jews  Schlomith Flaum and Hermann Kallenbach – were in a very close contact with the most important Indians and ‘representatives’ of India of the Pre-Independence time. Flaum was born in Kaunas (Kovna), Lithuania, in 1893 and died in Israel in 1963 lonely, miserable, penniless, and forgotten. Flaum traveled extensively and as an educator and kindergarten teacher, she focused mainly on studying new methods of teaching. Of all the people she met, however, it was the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who became the most important and influential figure in her life. This contact was long lasting and one which she yearned for again and again. Her sojourn of almost two years in India (1922–1924) divided her life into the time before and the time after she met Tagore. After meeting the poet, Flaum felt “as one who had been privileged to receive God’s blessing” and she regarded him as one of “our generation’s prophets.” She recounted years later that she found herself so deeply involved in the world of creativity and intellectual thinking “that I reached the state of mind that Indians describe as a state of permanent ecstasy.” This encounter with Tagore, his writings, his philosophy, and above all his personality, meant that she devoted most of her publications to Tagore. Her two-year stay in India also made her the informal ambassador of Tagore, Santiniketan, Gandhi and every aspect connected to India and its culture during her extensive travels all over the world. Flaum corresponded with Tagore until his death in 1941. She addressed him in her letters with the traditional Indian “Gurudeva.”

My recent book about her accounts of Tagore and his unique establishment, Santiniketan, has been published in English in India in 2018 titled – From Lithuania to Santiniketan: Schlomith Flaum and Rabindranath Tagore. I have long felt the need to publish these accounts, which provide a firsthand, romantic and idealistic view of Tagore and Visva Bharati (which had opened shortly before her arrival) and describe her meetings with key figures during her time in India.

Flaum was not the first Jewish Lithuanian to write a travel book or to establish a close relationship with prominent figures in India. If we examine this subject from a broader perspective, at least two other names should be mentioned: Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, about whom little is known, and Hermann Kallenbach (1871–1945), Gandhi’s close associate and his “soulmate,” who had an important relationship with Gandhi during Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa.

One of the earliest and a very rare travel book, which was also the first book printed by a Jew in India, was The Travels of Rabbi David d’Beth Hillel, published in Madras in 1832. Another prominent Jewish Lithuanian scholar, Kalman Shulman (1819–1889), published many books about geographical and cultural aspects – all were published in Vilnius. In 1874, Shulman published an eight-volume book entitled Mosdey Eretz.[1] The second part of the book discussed the East, including ‘Arabia, India, and China’. In addition to his encyclopedias, however, Shulman appears to have been the first to fully devote an essay in Hebrew, Sefer Eretz HaKedem (Book of the Land in the East), to India’s geography and culture. Shulman chose this title because of the ambiguity of the word Kedem in Hebrew, which means both precedence and East, the land of Kedem.

It is also worth mentioning other important and popular books about India, published in Vilnius in Yiddish and Hebrew by Jewish writers. The first, India,[2] is by the Yiddish playwright, novelist, journalist, travel writer, and theater director, Peretz Hirschbein (1880–1948), who identified personally with Tagore’s poetry. Hirschbein’s book about his travels in India generated much interest in Europe and among the small Jewish population of Palestine. They found their acquaintance with India deepening. Hirschbein devoted a large part of a chapter to Tagore out of solidarity with “gentle-souled poets” who see the world via their poetry. The two spoke about the discrepancy between the world of poetry and practical politics. Another important book was the Yiddish translation of Tagore’s political essay, Nationalism (1917), published in Vilnius in 1929.[3]

Finally, a prominent Jewish Lithuanian woman traveler to India, Bracha Habas (1900–1968), deserves a special mention. Upon growing up, Habas became one of the first women journalists in the small Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. She was also a proficient author who published her works widely. In 1948, she published a book, Twenty Days in India, a collection of her mostly political accounts of her visit to India. She was one of the senior delegates to the Inter-Asian Relations Conference, which took place in New Delhi from 23 March to 2 April 1947.

Source: Kallenbach Archive

What are the things that connect India and Israel today in terms of culture, cuisine, music? A lot more Indians are traveling to Israel and vice_versa. Are there more Indian cultural products being consumed in Israel now?

Apart from the increasingly strong relationship between the two governments, one has to talk about the travel experience of thousands of Israeli backpackers each year to India.  This has many implications on the Israeli social – cultural life. For most of these visitors it was a very positive and fundamental experience and many are coming back again and again. Obviously, some of it is a very fake and superficial image of India, but the bottom line remains that India and its culture is very present in Israel due to the huge numbers of travelers.

One example is the popularity of Indian studies and culture in various universities. As a result of that and due to the work of Professor Shulman, Israel had become an important hub for Sanskrit Studies. Some works of Indian literature are being translated into Hebrew. Over the years, I have had the privilege of writing many reviews about many Indian literature books. 

There are of course Indians restaurants and many festivals celebrated – mostly ‘Goan style’ but also others. Many are learning Indian music and dance and of course there is Yoga. Tel Aviv is privileged to have the highest rate of people practicing Yoga per capita in the world.  There is also growing self-awareness among the descendants of the three Jewish communities who existed in India and immigrated to Israel after independence.

[1] Kalman Shulman, Mosdey Eretz,Vol. II (Vilnius: The widow and the brothers Reeam, 1874).

[2] Peretz Hirschbein, Indye fun Mayn Rayze in Indye, (Yiddish) (Vilnius: B. Kelektzin, 1929).

[3] Rabindranath, Tagore, Nationalism (Yiddish) (Vilnius: B. Kelektzin, 1929).

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