I watch, fascinated, as Raj deftly wraps, twists, and tucks the long red-and-gold sari around my friend. Raj hands her the material, directing how to adjust it. One final tug, and the transition from “tourist” to “local” is complete. With her dark skin, my friend Ruti really does look like an authentic sari-clad Indian.

She puts her hands together in the classic “namaste” fashion and grins coyly, waiting for me to snap a photo of her—the very reason we entered the shop. I’m mesmerized to witness how, in just a matter of moments, my fellow foreigner was suddenly transformed to appear identical to the thousands of local Indian women teeming around us. I take the photo, and she nudges me to dress up as well. I feel guilty misleading the shop owner into thinking we were sure about purchasing the saris, but she reminds me that Raj had invited us numerous times as we passed his shop in town. “Come to take pictures with my beautiful saris,” he would wave to us cheerfully. “All the Israelis and guests are doing it. It’s not problem.”

I turn to the mirror, eager to be faced with another newly born IndianIf that’s the case, I’m ready! I long to coalesce into my surroundings, and bedecking myself in their glamorous and flowy garments is definitely a prerequisite.

I giggle throughout the whole process, and when Raj proclaims me done, I turn to the mirror, eager to be faced with another newly born Indian. What I see, instead, is a tall, fair-skinned young woman with short hair, draped in an orange-and-burgundy sari, a bright green sweatshirt hood sticking out from the neck, and gray sneakers peeking out from the bottom. In short, I see an American pretending to be an Indian . . . and failing miserably.

I sigh, disappointed. Truthfully, I’m not shocked (my face doesn’t know the sun!), but I had been hoping to appear slightly more Indian and less American. Nu. Maybe my upcoming three-day camel trek in the Rajasthan desert will do it. I mean, it’s not very American to travel on camelback through a desert, equipped with only a small rucksack and a smattering of Hindi. Surely then I will feel properly assimilated.

But riding through the desert I meet up with other groups of foreigners, mostly Europeans, and boisterous greetings—in English—are exchanged. Our respective Indian guides know the desert better than we know the palms of our hands, and each leads his group on a separate trail, meeting for dinner. The guides cook food for everyone, and I pull out my kosher tuna and chips. We sit around the bonfire. We sleep under the stars, shivering, even under three layers. The guides walk barefoot. We yelp when we brush against the thorns. The guides smirk.

The camel-riding experience was exhilarating, but I felt no more Indian than before setting out. “Whaddaya mean?” my friends back home exclaim, incredulously. “You were in the middle of nowhere, with no outside communication, relying solely on the savviness of some Indian shepherd, and living the desert life day after day!” Eh, could be, but with the guides everything went so smoothly that even with the absence of toilets and running water, warm clothing at night and cool clothing in the day, proper food and a map, I still didn’t quite feel that I was “roughing it” like the Indians do. Specifically, I couldn’t train myself to think like the native Indians, to operate according to their rhythm.

It’s so frustrating! Try as I may, I simply cannot be, cannot feel, Indian! Why?! Why is it so hard for me to embrace the Indian lifestyle not merely from the outside, but from within as well?! I’m following all the steps—I’m wearing the saris, traveling on the camels, dousing my food in cumin, even getting “adopted” by Indian families, but it’s not changing my inner core. I still don’t feel like a real Indian! Where am I going wrong?!




I’m wondering what I am doing wrong. Yet, perhaps I am not doing anything wrong. Perhaps I am actually doing everything right.

Isn’t it a wonderful gift, as well as a powerful tool, to be able to be submerged in another culture, yet not drift away with it? To absorb their language, clothing, music, traditions, yet not get absorbed by them. To see, to hear, to taste, to appreciate, yet remain apart. Different.

After all, I am differentAfter all, I am different. I’m not Indian.

A co-therapist once explained a typical behavior where kids without sufficient self-esteem constantly change themselves to adapt to their surroundings. “Think of tofu,” he said to me. “It’s got no substance of its own. You stick it in meat, it becomes meat. You cook it with cheese, it becomes cheese. The flavor and smell is only a result of what it’s been hanging around. It’s nothing on its own.”

The imagery bounced around my head for days.

Am I a chunk of tofu sometimes? Does it ever happen that my essence is ignored as a means to take on the face of my peers? Am I able to withstand what’s cooking around me and stay true to myself, even in the intense heat of my environment?

I resolved to stay far away from the fragile and ever-evolving lifestyle of the tofu.

Shortly afterwards, my friend Naamah mentioned how her father opened up a yeshivah in Tel Aviv in order to spread light and Torah to the people there. Unfortunately, many of the teachers who had moved from their mitzvah-observant communities to Tel Aviv got influenced by their new atmosphere, and were no longer fitting to be role models in this school.

“You see,” Naamah concluded sadly, “it’s just much too hard to be a good influence in such a place. You’re definitely going to get affected.”

Instantly, the tofu image came to mind; but this time, something was nagging at me. Something in the tofu comparison didn’t seem so appropriate anymore. I recalled a conversation regarding this very topic of moving out to spiritually desolate communities at the risk of your own spiritual health.

“Sure, you can be a learned and pious individual, but moving away from your source of life, the Torah, is bound to make you stumble,” stated one individual. “No matter how energetically the water is bubbling, moving the pot off the stove will cool it down eventually.”

“Aha,” responded the other. “That’s if you take it off the stove. But if you make sure to continuously stay connected, if you never pull out the kettle’s plug from the outlet, you can go as far away for as long as desired, and you will remain boiling hot. The danger arises only when you sever your soul’s connection with its Source.”

“Naamah,” I comforted my friend, “It’s not impossible. If you continuously and actively remind yourself who you are and where you come from, you will stay true to yourself. If you keep up your learning and make regular accountings of where you are spiritually, you will stay on the right path.”

That turned the tofu analogy upside down. Tofu leaves its simple comfort zone and enters into a realm of flavors and smells it has never encountered before. It’s definitely overwhelming for our little white tofu, as he’s steamed and broiled, frozen and crumbled, chopped and blended, all in a dizzying medley of colors and textures.

Thus it appears to be, as the therapist believed, that tofu abandons its essence when it associates with outsiders.

However, in fact the opposite stands true.

When questioning the identity of an unfamiliar dish whose main ingredient is tofu, you will never hear “meat” or “cheesecake” as a response. You will hear “tofu.” It may look and taste and feel just like the chicken or fish in front of you, but the cook will not deny that it is, in reality, tofu.

The trick is to be yourself in someone else’s living roomHence we see that tofu does not, in fact, desert its essence. Regardless of what it’s being presented as, tofu remains tofu.

And that is our ideal.

To be true to yourself while sitting in your living room is no big feat. That’s what the angels do in heaven, and they get absolutely no credit for that.

The trick is to be yourself in someone else’s living room. To remain who you are no matter where you are.

So now, when I travel about the world, whether it’s to India, the Caribbean islands, or Portland, Oregon, rubbing shoulders with the locals and with fellow tourists, I always keep in mind where my journey started. In order to make sure the changes in climate, language and culture do not effect essential changes in my heart and in my convictions, I pause often to reflect upon my roots, my direction and my growth.

I’ll wear that sari; but I won’t enter that temple.

I’ll ride that camel; but I won’t stray from the path of the Torah.

I will be the tofu that can mesh with anything, but at the end of the day, stands up proudly and declares, “This is who I am—and nowhere that I go, and nothing that you do, will ever change that.”