Selective Sympathy and the Mumbai Chabad House

Like lots of other people, I got online as soon as I woke up this morning and checked the news from Mumbai. I turned to my husband and said, “The Chabad Rabbi and his wife were killed.”

“That’s too bad,” he answered. Then he continued, mildly. “Aren’t there over a hundred casualties?”

“A hundred and nineteen so far,” I said, reading aloud from the screen.

But I knew what he was saying. Over a hundred people dead and you’re concentrating on two of them. It’s their story you’re following obsessively, their fate you care about. Of course you care about all of them, John seemed to be saying, but you sure seem to care about some of them more than others.

Was it the old Jewish solidarity in the face of the anti-Semitism? Maybe yes, in part. But it wasn’t entirely clear, at least to the New York Times, that this was an attack on Jews and not just a random targeting of that building. (I can hear in my mind the disgusted snorts of Jews everywhere at this possibility).

But even if the terrorists were targeting Jews, the vast majority of the victims were not Jewish, and the news organizations spoke of Western—especially British and American—targets. In this regard, they were mirroring my own selective sympathies, openly preferring some victims, some stories, over other, less “Western,” ones. Like these organizations, one reason I was drawn to the story of the Chabad House was that it was a Jewish story. More than that, the Chabad Rabbi and his wife—Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg—were Orthodox Jews, people I knew and recognized in a way the newspapers didn’t, even if I had never met them or heard their names before yesterday.

“A Jewish center,” the reports put it, unsure at first how to characterize it, to explain what Brooklyn Jews were doing in Mumbai. Today, a photo finally appeared of the couple, performing a wedding a few months ago, in India. They looked like any one of my nieces or nephews, young newlyweds. Rivkah wears a sleek wig that others—not in the know—might mistake for her own hair (when I was growing up, wigs were more obviously wigs).

But I knew Chabad, too, from my own travels. Everywhere I went, when I was still Orthodox, I could count on finding a kosher meal, a hospitable family, through the network of Orthodox Jews which acted as a single far-flung family. In Zurich, one friend of the family called another in Paris, who sent me along to a cousin in London’s Golder’s Green. After I left that world, I would joke that I had traveled to Europe but seen very little, because I’d gone from Boro Park in Switzerland to Boro Park in France to Boro Park in England, surrounded everywhere by the same sort of people I’d left behind.

In Eastern Europe, Jews could travel like that from town to town, finding a place to sleep and a meal just because they were Jewish. In the postwar world, Chabad had kept up that tradition, making Jewish connections—playing “Jewish geography”—in the unlikeliest places. The Orthodox community had turned in on itself, providing such a network only for their own. Chabad tried to mimic this network for Israeli backpackers and American Jewish business travelers.

Mumbai, it was clear to me, was a natural place for a Chabad House.

Even after I left Orthodoxy, I didn’t entirely lose sight of Chabad. When my mother came to visit me on the West Coast, we both stayed at the Chabad House in San Francisco, where she could be sure the food was kosher. I enjoyed myself, I’ll admit. It wasn’t Boro Park, the Orthodox community in which I was raised; Chabad is based in Crown Heights, a different Orthodox neighborhood. And taken out of Brooklyn, these Orthodox enclaves were freer, less homogenous; they seemed more interesting, less oppressive.

I imagine that it works both ways: In Mumbai, the rabbi and his wife must have seemed like just another variety of spiritual seeker. I imagine, too, that an adventurous young Chabad couple must have welcomed the opportunity to expand their horizons.

But as a secular Jew, an ordinary American not distinguished from others by outlandish food requirements or strange garb, I travel in different circles, even if the map takes me to some of the same places I’ve been to before. In Europe two summers ago, we stayed in hotels, walked through museums, picnicked on the banks of one river or another.

Walking through residential neighborhoods, I’d look up and see a lit window and suddenly wish I could be inside. To hell with the Louvre, I wanted to sit in someone’s house, have cup of tea, make myself at home.

Maybe my search for news about the Holtzbergs is part of that same set of longings. I move through the world more anonymously now, but I’m always on the lookout for connections.

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