City Landmark – Chabad House, Paharganj
The Jewish dharamshala.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Found! The place where you will get the best pita bread in the whole Delhi region. It is thick with a proper, sturdy pocket to hold the fillings. Hummus and Shakashuka are super-tasty too. But the Chabad House in Paharganj is even more special than its yummy Israeli dishes. It makes you feel like an insider on the so-called Hummus Trail, that links the destinations Israelis visit in India. Each place on the trail has a similar Chabad House — a kind of dharamshala for Jewish travellers whose chapters are spread across the world, and where travellers drop by to celebrate festivals like Hanukkah and Passover, share the weekend Sabbath meals, eat kosher food, and be embraced by a familiar milieu.
This afternoon, the second floor dining is buzzing with Hebrew gupshup. Everyone in the crowded hall looks in their early 20s. Some men are wearing the tiny skull-clasping kippah cap. Many have artwork of their bodies (one guy has interlinked cubes and squares tattooed on his entire left leg). Busy with her schnitzel and fries, a friendly woman with long curly hair and blood red nail paint agrees to transcribe the hubbub. “The girls there are discussing their departure to Israel, tonight… that flirty man is talking of his problems in identifying colours… and the group over there is soon leaving for Kasar Devi.” That’s a village in Uttarakhand, she explains, giving its brief biography: “Discovered by European hippies in the 60s… Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg have been there… discovered by the Israelis in the early 2000s.”
Delhi has two Chabad Houses. The one in Vasant Vihar is mostly frequented by Israelis who work and live in the city, and thus does not have the thrill of travel and adventure so palpable in Paharganj. This Chabad House is also unique for being the starting point of the Hummus Trail that passes through places like Leh, Dharamshala, Manali, Kasol, Kasar Devi, Rishikesh, Benares, Pushkar, Mumbai, and Palolem beach in Goa.
Indeed, this great Indian tour has gradually become a rite of passage for young Israelis, the woman explains. “You finish the school, complete the mandatory army service, get a job — any job, save money, finally leave for India or South America for a few months, return home, study, get married…” The woman turns to look at the young faces, and says, “and then they all join the bourgeoisie.”
On the floor below, a curtained hall is stacked with prayer books, the lounge next to it is littered with backpacks, while a board in the balcony asserts that “the main thing is to keep the main thing, main thing.”
And the main thing here, for some, could as well be Delhi’s best pita.
The Paharganj Chabad