By Steve Kahn
My wife and I have just returned from travels in India. We were visiting with our daughter, who is spending the second semester of this, her junior year, abroad, and we wanted to make sure of a couple of things: not to pass up on the opportunity to visit with her in another part of the world; and not to pass up on seeing another part of the world for ourselves under the pretext of not wanting to miss out on visiting with her. Visitation – that was the underlying motivational principle.
Until it wasn’t. It took my wife no more than three hours of walking the crowded streets of Mumbai, around the once-named Victoria Terminus station, towards Flora Fountain, up and down the bustling, jostling streets of the Fort neighborhood, to decide both that she was feeling conspicuous, and that she was done with feeling conspicuous. Western clothing begone. No more of [what was Rachel wearing that first day?]. We slipped into a stall near our hotel that was not as much filled with traditional wear as it was constructed by such garments. They were all folded into individual packages and stacked one atop another – three vibrant walls of textile brick, seven feet high, 10 feet deep, which defined a sanctum of style. It felt like a chamber immoveable. That no earthquake could knock down. That no wind could rend asunder. Here, among selection, was stability – defined, in part, by the opportunity to don different and, hence, be different; to be other-than and less-other-than at the same time. My wife’s purchase of her kurti was a foregone conclusion before she ever set foot inside. Earlier, walking and looking meant that she felt she was being watched. Perhaps there was no way out of the gaze. But if not … what better move to make than to dive in? To attempt to partake-in, regardless of whether or not it was possible to become one-of. Immersion, not visitation: that’s the example our daughter had set for us.
Of course, my wife’s purchase dared me to dare. Would it feel appropriate, or like an appropriation, to put on something that could only fall under the category, as our (at this point in her semester) well-informed daughter phrased it, of “traditionals”? I dared. The chance to wear something I’d never worn, never considered wearing, before was an allure, and an irresistible one at that. My kurta came from the men’s section of a boutique clothing store near Crawford Market, a still interactive gathering place of commerce and exchange that, nominally at least, pays homage to Mumbai’s colonial past even in its present practicality (people still need a place to buy toothpaste and spices and fresh vegetables). Color after color was laid out in front of me, and I found myself gravitating towards a simple, straight-cut Punjabi style in a subtle shade of sage. Here was a garment that wouldn’t be an imposition. I could wear it to experience a sense of place without laying a claim to that place; I could wear a local piece without declaring ownership of the locale; I found myself recalling a tiny sign I’d seen affixed to a shelf in The Bombay Store, about souvenirs. The sentiment was straightforward – in essence, it said, “Enjoy the hunt for those items large or small that will help you recall the thoughts and feelings of time spent somewhere new.” This outfit would be fitting. Wearing it after returning from our trip would be to wrap myself in the memory of where I’d been; sliding the wide-necked opening over my head and feeling the cool breathability of the cotton would be like tasting Proust’s madeleine, sensing and being transported at once, parting from the present and re-presenting myself to what had passed by living in the then and the now in an involuntary awareness of is and had been.
When we arrived back in the States, one of the joys and sadnesses of our return was unpacking from our trip. Unbundling felt like undoing, and neither of us wanted the time we’d passed, in Mumbai with one another and in Pune with our daughter, to come undone. There was, of course, therefore, the inevitable delay: the suitcases lay, closed, for a couple of days, and then were only slowly unpacked, with a pause and a sigh, as items were removed and fingered gently: the earrings from the stalls on the Colaba Causeway; the scarves (with the call “Pashmina! Pashmina!” still ringing in our ears) purchased from the tables along FC Road. And the clothing. The dress shirts in colors and patterns and with a collar size not available in the states. My new in-house tailored “trousers” (I find myself no longer fond of referring to “pants”). And my drapey kurta. I cleared space in my closet, and hung it thinking “when … when will I put it on?” And then: the answer. Shabbat, of course. A fine time for presentation of finery. Of thread and of cloth, yes. But stepping into, surrounding myself with, my kurta would offer a chance both to relive the experience of our excursion, and for others to live in that experience, too, in their asking us to retell our tales about where we went which, upon our return home, we realized were so interwoven with what we purchased to wear.
On Saturday morning, March 26, I strode towards the open door of our shul, walking with a heightened sense of self-confidence to counter-balance the self-consciousness I was feeling about wearing a garment so different from the other garments worn to synagogue, worn to daven in, and appearing so different from the other garment wearers I knew I’d soon be seeing. The rabbi greeted me at the door; “shabbat shalom,” he said – and then, “is that in solidarity?” My progress stopped. Not only because I was shaking hands, but also because I was made to halt.
“Yes. With the Muslim community in New Zealand.”
And then I understood the question. Just the day prior, news outlets were reporting the gut wrenching news about the 50 gunned down while reciting Friday prayers in their mosques in Christchurch. Now, here I was, at my place of worship, some 15 hours after those awful initial reports, in my flowing top-piece with my equally flowing pyjama pant, and my spiritual leader was asking me if I was wearing what I was wearing to align myself with the terrorized. If I, in my living practice of my faith, had come to shul with those who were massacred for theirs on my mind.
“No,” I told the rabbi. “We just returned from India. I wanted to wear something I bought.”
Stepping past him and through the doors, though, and into the sanctuary, it dawned on me. Yes. Yes, I was wearing my kurta in solidarity with those done-in by a madman. Yes, I was, in fact, in communion with those who perished, in effect, al kiddush hashem, uttering words of glorification and sanctification, with the name of G-d on their lips and calm in their hearts as they intoned and genuflected just as I was about to. In this moment, I learned. About intention. That it doesn’t have to begin with what we conscientiously intend to do. Sometimes, intention emerges, reveals itself, makes itself known as something more beyond our control than manipulable. I hadn’t intended what I intended – but no matter. We don’t have to plan how we feel – we perhaps miss the mark we need to hit by over-emphasizing needing-to-know over permitting-to-become – in order to align with or feel empathy for.
Kurta-clad, I consider: how often we have to look before we can see.
Steve Kahn is Dean of Academic Affairs at San Diego Jewish Academy.