By the rivers of Babylon
There we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
—Jewish lament from the time of the exile from Israel (Zion), some 2,000 years ago
“I’m sitting by the rivers of Goa, and I gotta tell ya—I ain’t weeping!”
—Miri Levy, an Israeli dancer who has decided to relocate to Goa
It’s a sweltering mid-April morning in Anjuna, the sprawling village at the centre of the international Goan scene. Many of the ‘Israeli crowd’ (and other nationalities as well) are sitting at Artjuna, Moshe Inbar’s art gallery-showroom-café, the place to start the day. Later, quite a few will be off to a full day of work and production: Tzuri to his acclaimed cliff-top restaurant, Ori to the recording studio, Nachum to the workshop where he makes his exquisite, exclusive jewellery. But for now, with the breakfast crowd lingering over espresso and morning gossip, and a rainbow coalition of children toddling underfoot, this seems like a moment frozen in time. “I wanted to have a place that suited the creative, irrepressible character of the Anjuna community, and to provide a showcase for our international-standard artisans. It also feels good to be able to give back something to Goa, a place which has given me so much,” says Moshe, a master leather worker living here for over a decade. His made-to-order handcrafted handbags, embossed and embedded with engraved precious stones, gold beads and unique closures have become collector’s items, and cost anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 1,00,000 a piece.
A resident since ’93; her label Goa Magic is gaining popularity
Close by, at Goa Magic—one of Anjuna’s fashion destinations—owner and designer Naomi Todres (39) is going over designs with her partner Odelia Susak, both Israeli immigrants to the ‘United Nations of Goa’ circa 1993. Goa Magic is both a showcase for designers belonging to its expat community, and the name of Todres and Susak’s own label, which features current European fashion with a decidedly Goan twist. “I wanted the name to bring to mind the essence of Goa,” says Naomi, her eyes twinkling, red hibiscus in her hair. Goa Magic, visited by an increasingly sophisticated clientele (including some Hollywood and Bollywood names), is poised to take its stylish beachwear and partywear into the world of high fashion in India and abroad, but the designer promises the prices will always stay affordable.
Things have changed among the Israelis of Anjuna, and markedly. The old, hard-to-die stereotype of Israelis in Goa as a partied-out, drugged-out, loud and uncouth crowd is finally fading, with long-time Israeli residents, as well as new arrivals, upgrading their crafts and trades. The tougher enforcement of anti-party and anti-drug laws, stricter visa regulations and a steep increase in the cost of maintaining even a simple lifestyle in Goa, all help to explain the growth and steady success of their business, artistic and entrepreneurial endeavours. It is also the culmination of a natural maturing process, a coming of age, of the fact that a bunch of once-single young people have produced among them an explosion of children, with a range of needs.
What’s striking about this little community is that its members combine hard-earned business savvy with a deep understanding of local mores, gleaned from many years of all-season, hands-on village living. “We are first and foremost a fair trade business,” says Naomi. “We are not here to exploit cheap labour. On the contrary, we enjoy sharing with our workers the most professional and advanced tools.” Past the paddy fields and over the bridge, Shanti (formerly Ronly) Erez, 46, busy overseeing the loading of a big order to one of his clients, echoes her comment. “One of the best aspects of the growing success of our business is the ability to constantly upgrade our workers’ wages and bonuses,” he says. Shanti’s company, Pure Vakhos Trade, which he runs with his Greek wife, Maria, imports a wide variety of olive oil and olives, used by leading hotels in Indian metros, as well as cheese and other gourmet items sourced from around the world. “We live in the same village, our kids are in school together, my workers are like family,” he points out, as he works, shirtless and barefoot in the afternoon heat. Gleefully pointing to his beat-up Activa, he says, “Business success won’t be changing me. No fancy sunglasses or new car for me.”
These Goa residents are just a few among the many Israelis who have emigrated or, in local Israeli slang, ‘gone down’, since the founding of Israel in 1948. This ‘going down’—once regarded as a deeply shameful act, but now much more acceptable—has almost always been about people leaving Israel to seek a higher ‘standard of living’ in the West, usually the United States. The statistically insignificant number of Israelis who ‘go down’—resettle—in India, remain an enigma not only in India but even more so in Israel itself.
Was one of Israel’s best drummers; now exports drums from India
“I didn’t leave Israel looking for money or success,” says Moshe, who came to India on a one-way ticket after a stressful army experience during the first Gulf war in 1990-91. “I told myself that if I come out of this alive, I’m not going back to the army, ever. I realised I was not someone who could sacrifice my life for a country and for politics.” He is now happily married to a German woman, Anastasia, the co-owner of Artjuna, and has two little girls. For Naomi, too, serving in the army was a defining experience. “I saw a lot of death, inhuman things that no 18-year-old should ever see,” she says, the light momentarily leaving her eyes, and then coming back, as she adds: “Here we have the freedom to be who we really are, and we will always be deeply grateful to India for that.”
This little community combines hard-earned business savvy with a deep understanding of the local mores.
“You have to understand that because of Jewish history, the endless persecution, exiles and struggles for freedom, we were brought up in an extremely patriotic environment—dying for your country was the best thing you could do,” says Ori Balak, one of Israel’s best known and finest drummers. Explaining why he has been living in Goa for the last decade, he says, “I was very tired, and looking to disconnect from the violent, consistently stressful reality of Israeli life, and from policies of which I was extremely critical. I came looking for peace.” A decade later, he has found peace, and more. His Pune-based company, Drumwalla, manufactures hand-made drums of exceptional quality that sell around the world from Rs 2,000 to Rs 20,000. Ori, who collaborated with top music groups and performers in Israel, including the late singing sensation Ofrah Haza, now drums in Goa for the popular if laidback fusion band Kundalini Airport, and professes himself more than fulfilled by the life he leads.
“In India, in Goa, I have encountered musical influences from around the world and my style and ability as a musician and drummer have grown and deepened,” he says. It is a sentiment that Moshe and Naomi echo wholeheartedly. “We work with designers from every possible culture,” says Naomi, “and with clients from the whole world. We are a community of all colours, religions, economic backgrounds; a flourishing community based on love and acceptance.” And in this relaxed environment, leading carefree yet rich and pluralistic lives, a new generation of Israeli Goan children, or call them Goan Israelis, picking up Hindi and Konkani, along with Hebrew, is also coming of age.