Rite Of Passage
Many young Israelis are flocking to India.
Special to the Jewish News
hand-written sign reading "Shalom" might
be the first thing a visitor notices in the
tiny Himalayan village of Dharamkot, in
northern India. The greeting, painted
white and blue, is followed by the general appeal:
"Please be respectful towards India and its people."
Then come the finer points: "Dress modestly, not
vulgar. No techno parties." And finally: "This is not
Tel Aviv or London or New York."
It takes only a few minutes to find the man behind
the sign: Anil Singh Pathana, 30, a native of
Dharamkot who runs the local tea shop, owns a guest
house and is also a hiking guide.
"I feel very uncomfortable in my own village, like I
am in Israel, not in India," he lamented. "When the
Israelis are in a big group, they have no honor. They
are rude and noisy. They smoke drugs, hug and
shmooze in the middle of the street. Some people just
stand here and shake their heads, dance to no music
at all. If you tell them to stop, they just insult you
and go on."
Since large groups of young Israeli backpackers
have made Dharamkot one of their chosen hangouts,
other Western tourists tend to avoid it, nicknaming
it: "Tel Aviv." According to Singh Pathana, "Today
there may be two Europeans out of a hundred
In the last five years, many families in the village
have converted their farming plots into guesthouses
for Israelis. A prosperous side business, managed
mostly by teenagers, has sprung up selling drugs to
the guests. Restaurants and Internet cafes have sprung
up along the main road. And an imposing "Jewish
House," run by Chabad, recently opened in the cen-
ter of the village, its huge yellow flags inscribed
Mashiach (messiah) dominating the green surround-
And for Rosh Hashanah, some 600 Israelis flocked
to Dharamkot, a village of only 1,200 inhabitants.
It's all part of the rite of passage than many young
Israelis undertake after they finish their army service.
But the attractiveness of India for many Israelis also
comes from the growing rapport between the two
countries: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited
India recently, the two countries do a brisk weapons
business and they are even planning a joint military
That closeness stems from the old adage that "the
enemy of my enemy is my. friend" — India is con-
stantly at odds, sometimes violently, with Muslim
Pakistan, while Israel faces a continuing threat from
the rise of Islamic terrorism.
Above all, perhaps, India is a place where Israelis
can feel safe, a place where they don't have to live on
the edge, a place where taking a public bus is an
Photos by Ayelet Bechar
The Israeli movie "Letters from Rishikesh" was filmed in India.
everyday occurrence, not an act of defiance.
Life Without Stress
Some 20,000 to 30,000 Israelis travel in India year-
round. They are just a fraction of the total number of
about 2.5 million tourists who visit India yearly, but
their presence is very much felt.
The Israelis tend to stay between two months to a
year, and some return again and again.
Many come to study yoga, meditation, Indian
medicine, music or Buddhism. Middle-aged parents
often join their backpacking children, while some
Israelis bring their whole family along, including
young children, who happily skip a semester of
The low cost of living is a major draw for long-
term travelers to India. Outside the big cities, a full
lunch costs the equivalent of 50 cents to a dollar,
while a basic double room ranges between $2 to $7 a
Cheap drugs are another major attraction.
One Israeli agency that fights drug use estimates
that up to 90 percent of Israelis try drugs at least once
during their passage to India. Drugs are consumed in
the streets, in guesthouses and at parties, and are
readily available almost everywhere.
Asher Shmuel, 28, says he has had to help a num-
ber of fellow Israelis who "had a bad trip." They are
"young people, fresh out of the army, like a bird liber-
ated from its cage. They can't contain- this freedom, so
many start using drugs."
As backpacker Gili Davidi puts it, "I didn't only
come here to smoke drugs and do nothing all day,
but I am really enjoying it."
Davidi, 22, has been sitting in the restaurant where
I met her for the past six hours, going straight from
breakfast to lunch. During our meeting her hands are -
constantly busy preparing new cigarettes from jaras, a
locally grown relative of hashish.
Davidi is having such a good time that she decided
to delay her studies and stay for a few more months.
Though she can't recoup the money for her ticket
home or her first semester's tuition, she feels she is
doing the right thing.
"India has a special magic to it. There are good
energies, something in the air. I meet amazing people .
and live a life of luxury."