Living in many worlds

Meylekh Viswanath of Teaneck is such a seamless embodiment of apparently exclusive worlds that it’s clear when you see him. He can telegraph it effortlessly.

Take, for example, Dr. Viswanath, just back from a run on a sunny day. He’s a compact, wiry man, with dark skin and a runner’s build; he’s wearing a large knit kippah and a dhoti. His tzitzit dangle from it.

He’s Jewish. He’s Indian. He’s a runner. He’s a typical extremely well-educated, cosmopolitan (in the apolitical sense of that much-abused word) Orthodox Jew from Teaneck, except he’s also Indian. He’s an Indian, a professional, an academic, except he’s also Jewish.

Oh — and he’s also married into a family of prominent Yiddishists, maybe one of the most prominent Yiddish families in the world right now. And by the way, he is fluent in Yiddish, along with many other languages.

Who exactly is he? And how did he come to be who he is? Where he is?

Not surprisingly, there’s a story there.

Plachikkat Viswanath was born in a town called Palakkad, in the state of Kerala, India, in 1954. He was born into an upper-caste family, although, Dr. Viswanath said, the caste system in India is far more complicated than we either know or understand here in the United States. All religions in India have castes — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, even Jews, he added.

At his uncle’s wedding, young Plachikkat Viswanath is sitting down, third from left. His parents are standing in the back, on the left.
At his uncle’s wedding, young Plachikkat Viswanath is sitting down, third from left. His parents are standing in the back, on the left.

Despite the family’s caste, and although it owned land, still they were poor.

“My father came from a family that was very orthodox,” Dr. Viswanath said. Although the family’s theology is not similar to Jewish theology, their customs were not entirely dissimilar. “They practiced something like taharah,” he said. Like Jews, he added, they understood the world to be divided into the ritually pure and ritually impure, and they would immerse themselves in water to go from impurity to purity, using ponds for ritual baths, much as observant Jews use a mikvah.

“My father finished high school, but he was the eldest son and had to support his parents,” Dr. Viswanath said. “My grandfather had land, and I don’t think he farmed it himself. He rented it out.”

Plachikkat Viswanath at about 8.
Plachikkat Viswanath at about 8.

During World War II, Dr. Viswanath’s father, Venkatachalam, who had been born in the 1920s, went to Burma to look for work. “There were a lot of Indians in Rangoon in those days,” Dr. Viswanath said. When the Japanese invaded, he had to get back to Calcutta, a monumental trek. “He walked across the hills to get there,” Dr. Viswanath said. “A lot of people died on that walk.”

Once he got back to India, he was safe.

Later, “he also worked with the U.S. Army as a stenographer,” Dr. Viswanath said.

And then after 1947 — when the British, who had colonized the subcontinent, left it — “the area was a hotbed of communism, and when what was supposed to be land reform was done, my family lost its land. And my father had to find a job.” Eventually his father went from Calcutta to Bombay, where he became an airport manager for an American airline, TWA. He held that job for 29 years.

Dr. Viswanath’s parents’ marriage was arranged. His mother, Jayalakshmy, came from a poor family in a small village, and his father came from further out in the country. His father had been married before — his first wife died in childbirth, and left him with a son. When the marriage between his parents was proposed, “I don’t know if my mother was asked, but she didn’t really have a choice,” he said. “My father was a catch, and she was very poor. He was poor too, but he had land.

“The tradition was that a woman goes to her mother’s house to give birth,” he continued. “She comes home in about six months, and before that he would visit her. So I was born in my mother’s village.” In Palakkad.

10-year old Plachikkat with his sister, Premah, and his brother Suresh.
10-year old Plachikkat with his sister, Premah, and his brother Suresh.

“I would say my parents were happy together,” he added. The relationships between men and women were defined, and they were not equal, but “my mother was a strong woman, and the woman would have her say in big decisions. My father took care of the whole extended family, and everyone looked up to him.”

Dr. Viswanath grew up in Bombay, the second of four children.

“We grew up in a crowded apartment,” he continued. “It was in north Bombay. We lived in two rooms. One was more private, and the other more public. We would spread out our mattresses at night, and role them up in the morning. And then we moved to a bigger place, with more rooms.

“My family was middle class. Maybe we started lower middle class and ended up upper middle. We were upwardly mobile. We didn’t have servants, but somebody would come and do some housekeeping for us every day.

“My family was very traditional,” he said. “Very conservative.” And it continued to be not unlike Orthodox families, with similar customs and taboos, although their expressions were more extreme. For example, he said, menstruating women could not touch anyone else in the household; “they would not go into the kitchen, the temple, or the part of the house that had a shrine.” And to be sure that there were no mistakes, no inadvertent touches, women would wear different clothing to mark their condition.

Dr. Viswanath went to an English school run by Sindhis, “an immigrant community often compared to Jews,” he said. And then later he moved to another school, Don Bosco, a Catholic institution. He flourished in school, earning high grades, realizing that he loved to learn, and that he was good at it.

“Bombay is a hodgepodge of people, and it has been throughout its history,” Dr. Viswanath said. “It’s also been the center of the Jewish community in India, and it’s had at least two Jewish mayors.”

Throughout his life in multilingual India, Dr. Viswanath learned languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu, French, German, and English.

When he graduated from high school, Dr. Viswanath went to college. Acceding to his father’s wishes, he studied commerce — more or less business — instead of the science that he would have preferred. He lived at home and matriculated at Sydenham College, the city’s premiere undergraduate business school.

Getting there was an adventure. “You had to take the train,” he said. In those days, India didn’t have highways, the trains were packed, and people fell off all the time and died. We’d had to jump on and off running trains.

“And at the same time, men and women had different compartments.” Had they been jammed together in the same car, he said, “it wouldn’t have been tzniusdik.” It would have been immodest by both Indian and Orthodox Jewish definitions.

Dr. Viswanath did very well at college, spurning accounting for statistics, which at least was satisfyingly abstract, and finishing second in a class of 5,000.

What next? The situation in India was not particularly appealing. There did not seem to him — or to his father — to be much opportunity for a smart, academically gifted young man just then, just there. So Dr. Viswanath applied for a scholarship, and he got one. A full scholarship.

In Kentucky.

Dr. Viswanath left India for the University of Kentucky at Lexington.

Like so many people before him, like so many people after him, Dr. Viswanath came to America.

“It was a culture shock,” he said. “Mainly, that was because it was a small town. New York wouldn’t have been nearly as much of a shock. Kerala was very urbanized — and then I grew up in Bombay.

“English wasn’t a problem for me in Kentucky, but homesickness was. People were so different, and homesickness became a physical thing. Everything was so different,” he said.

Getting used to eating in Kentucky was a challenge. “In Kentucky, people used no spices, and dinner was so early,” he said. “I came from a purely vegetarian home, and we had a servant to do a lot of the cleaning. I never cooked at home. And here I was, cooking and cleaning.”

He made only one telephone call home his first year away, in that pre-cellphone and Skype era. Calling was very expensive. “It was a 19-minute call that cost $4 per minute,” he said.

Everything was different in Kentucky. The roads, the colors, the assumptions. “Everywhere in India there always are a lot of people,” he said. “This was really strange. There were hardly any people on the streets. Even the colors were different.

“And I had to cook for myself. I had never done that before. And I had to clean. I remember using a broom to clean a carpet. It took me a while to figure that out.

“And everything was so expensive!”

Religion posed another set of questions. “I’d been to a Catholic school, but they didn’t try to convert us there,” Dr. Viswanath said. Well, welcome to Kentucky! “There were evangelical centers there,” he said. “And I went to a Baptist church a few Sundays.”

Although he was on a scholarship, which came with a small stipend for food, Dr. Viswanath found that more money would be useful, so he took a weekend night job working at a hospital morgue, and another one chopping vegetables in a university cafeteria. “There I got to meet black people, and I got invited to black churches, and also white Baptist churches. I remember the music in black churches. That experience was new to me.

“In the white churches, they would ask things like ‘Did your god send his own son to die for us?’ When you are asked a question like that the answer is no. But they were friendly. I remember feeling conflicted about not being able to answer the question.”

His own religious education had been by osmosis. “For the most part, religious education in India is in the home,” he said. “It’s complicated in the cities, because so many of the traditions had given way. People adopted shortcuts.”

So when he was asked direct questions about his own religion, theological rather than practical ones, often he was stumped. So he started reading.

In church, “I found myself interested in Christianity, but I was not emotionally drawn to it,” he said.

That was when he first went to shul. “I attended a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said. He had met some Jews and they had become friends, and his wide-ranging intellect and active curiosity about everything and everyone made such a visit inevitable. “I don’t remember too much about going there,” he said. “There were a lot of people. It was interesting. But I didn’t have anything to compare it to.

“I had always been interested in religion intellectually,” he continued. “I certainly was interested in science, in logic, in analytics. I did not have a lot of emotion invested in religion.

“I don’t think I ever thought of the possibility of there not being God. I was brought up with it. It was baked into me.”

He also learned about race relations. “Black people were so friendly to everyone who was not white,” he said. “Amazingly friendly. They would wave at me and say hello to me. That was unexpected. I didn’t get it.”

It is obviously a pathetic understatement to say that race relations in the United States are complicated. They are in India too, but the complications there are different. (Not better, not worse, just different.) Dr. Viswanath had to adopt to an entirely different set of cues and nuances, all in a language he did not understand. He went from being a privileged person to being a person of color (a term of art not in use at that time).

After a little more than a year, Dr. Viswanath left Kentucky with an MBA in management science. His next stop was the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in finance; he began in 1977 and finished in 1984. His sense of adventure and active need to learn as much as he could about absolutely everything took him, among other places, to Mexico, where he taught for a semester. Although he was not overtly interested in religion, his search for it continued. “I was there for six months,” he said. “I once took peyote. We went into the desert and took peyote, but I just threw up. They said that you had to have a pure heart. I guess I didn’t.”

In Chicago, Dr. Viswanath continued to learn languages; he’s preternaturally gifted at picking them up, and gets pleasure from it. He studied Armenian, not only learning the language but also finding out about the genocidal war the Turks waged against them. “It was a foreshadowing” of later interests, he said. He also began to study Hebrew, at Chicago’s Spertus Institute. And he continued his study of religion; although he says that he is not particularly spiritual — a concept that is notoriously hard to define — his interest is undeniable. “I learned a lot about Christianity, and Sunni and Shia Islam, and Judaism,” he said. “I lived in a Swedenborgian house because they rented rooms.” (The Swedenborgians are a Protestant denomination.) “There I met  a Chinese woman who went through the Chinese revolution, and I learned some Chinese from her. Under her influence, I drank tea without sugar for a year. And I lived across the street from Hillel and for about a year I went to egalitarian minyan there, wearing my dhoti, every Shabbes.”

Why was he doing it? “It wasn’t that I was that interested in it,” he explained, aware that he was not explaining in a way that anyone could understand, but knowing that he knew exactly what he meant.

During his years in Chicago, Dr. Viswanath roamed and experimented. “I remember going to the bars on the South Side by myself. There was one where the bartender was a Buddhist woman. She quoted such a high price for the drinks that I had to give up all the money I had.” He met Black Panthers. “I didn’t feel threatened by anything,” he said.

After he finished in Chicago, Dr. Viswanath accepted a job at Rutgers, moved to Jersey City, where he began to learn Irish, and he spent time in New York. “I remember the first time I saw Yiddish letters on a building,” he said. “I went in and asked about it. It was the Arbeter Ring’s building — that’s the Workmen’s Circle in English. He met the Yiddishist Pesach Fishman, who sent him to YIVO. That was the start of what has become a lifelong romance with Yiddish.

Although he never moved back to India, Dr. Viswanath retained his citizenship. Although he qualifies for American citizenship, he never has taken that last step to naturalization. That is by choice. “The only place I have ever voted is in shul elections,” he said, joking, but not joking. There is something in his sense of not-quite-belonging that comes through constantly. He uses it to see clearly, it seems.

It was around this time that Dr. Viswanath had to decide between continuing his study of Irish or of Yiddish. He found himself drawn more and more to Yiddish, and to Jewish culture. It wasn’t the religion, not at first, maybe not at any point, but the religion was part of the culture, and the language was immensely appealing. He started shedding other interests as this one took over. “At one point, there was a summer program in Irish and a summer program in Yiddish, and I decided to go forward in Yiddish,” he said.

It was around this time, too, that he took the first name Meylekh, Yiddish for king. Viswanath means lord of the universe, so it’s just a step over from his Indian name, he said.

It was then, in 1985, that Dr. Viswanath met Gitl Schaechter. It was at a summer Yiddish immersion program. “I was the only Indian there,” he said. “Every year there are some non-Jews. One year there was a Chinese girl, and there was a Japanese man, who converted in Israel and now teaches linguistics at Bar Ilan.”

As for religion, “In principle, I could have become a Muslim. If I’d met a woman in Kentucky I could have become a Christian. But it would have been much more difficult, because in India those categories already exist, so there is animosity. Being Jewish is just so unknown.”

Back to romance — “I met Gitl that summer at the Yiddish immersion camp,” he said. Gitl, who now is Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, is a poet who writes in Yiddish, and is active in the Yiddish world. They started dating in the fall, and went to High Holy Day services together. “I had a long association with Judaism in Chicago, so it was not new to me,” Dr. Viswanath said. “It was probably true that my interest in Yiddish fed off my being familiar with Judaism, and also the relationship with Gitl fed into it. It all reinforced each other — so I asked her what she’d be doing for Yom Kippur.”

Dr. Viswanath was living in Jersey City then, teaching at Rutgers; he taught there until 1995, when he moved over to Pace University. That’s where he teaches now — he is a professor of finance at the university’s Lubin School of Business. He took courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as continuing his study of Yiddish. At some point, his interest in Judaism went beyond his interest in religion in general.

Why? “Probably because religion was so important to me when I was growing up,” he said. “I was always very interested in theology, from the time that I was exposed to the Vedas by my grandmother. I was always interested in logic, and this was such a logical thing. How do you prove the nature of God? I’ve always been interested in the relationship between logic and theology. God is beyond human feelings, so it is unnatural to develop a personal relationship with God. Having a personal relationship with God is both a contradiction and a necessity. It is a built-in contradiction.”

In Jersey City, he continued to explore Judaism. He was drawn to Orthodox shuls; he is someone who does not do things by half. If he is going to do something, he said, he will do it all the way. And “I got the feeling that Orthodoxy was much closer to the religious ideas I grew up with, with its focus on text.

“And it’s also part of my interest in logic. The Haggadah is amazing. You have all these hermeneutics. And then I started reading the Gemara. When you come from the outside, certainly the Mishnah seems like you have the text and through the use of logic you extract all sorts of meaning from it. That’s something I found very familiar. Orthodoxy is a lot closer to the texts.”

Also, he added, “I liked the separation of the sexes. In India there is a general understanding that men and women don’t mingle. It’s what I was used to. And also it makes sense to me, especially if you are not old and beyond sexual desires.”

As his interest in Judaism continued, Dr. Viswanath continued to study. He worked with Gedalia Dov Schwartz, today at 92 still an eminent figure in the Orthodox world. Rabbi Schwartz lived in Brooklyn then. “We were speaking in Yiddish,” Dr. Viswanath said. “He gave me a book, ‘How to Pray as a Jew.’”

In 1987, Meylekh Viswanath and Gitl Schaechter married. They lived in Flatbush for a short time, where they joined a black-hat shul. They were not comfortable there. “There was no women’s section at all. On the Yamim Noraim they created a space in the back, in the kitchen, but then it turned out there were so many men that there was no room for the women, so they made a hole in the floor, and the women were in the laundry room.” It was not a good fit.

Meylekh and Gitl sit at their wedding while their guests dance to amuse them.
Meylekh and Gitl sit at their wedding while their guests dance to amuse them.

So at the end of the year, right after the High Holy Days, the couple moved to Teaneck. They came to visit one Shabbat, fell in love with the town, and that was that. They are members of Congregation Beth Aaron. “I loved it because it was a small shul then, and everyone knew everyone. The first year we were here, we were invited out every Shabbes.”

Their three children all were born in Teaneck. They were raised to be trilingual — they speak English, Yiddish, and Tamil. In practice, they speak more Yiddish than Tamil, “and their Hebrew is quite good

“There was a big thing about naming them,” Dr. Viswanath said. “We wanted their names, as far as possible, to be both South Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish. And we gave them all double names.

“So we have Meena — there is such a name in the Ashkenazi tradition. It is not common, but it exists. And Meena is a southern Indian name. My grandmother’s name was Meenakshi. That one worked out.

“Her full names are Meena Lakshmi and Meena Lifshe.

Meylekh and Gitl today.
Meylekh and Gitl today.

“And then Arun is more difficult, but it is not far from Aaron. One Yiddish pronunciation of Aaron is Arun.

“Our third child is Mallika Laya. Mallika means jasmine in Tamil; in Urdu it means queen. Her Jewish name is Malka Leya.” (Malka also means queen, in Hebrew and Yiddish.)

His children all have impressive careers. Meena, who graduated from MIT, is an engineer. “When she was a kid, she said ‘I want to build bridges,’” her father said. “Someone said to her, ‘That’s great, building bridges between people,’ and she said, ‘No. I mean building bridges.’” And she does. She is married, and has a child.

Arun, who graduated from Harvard, works at a startup. He’s married, and his wife, Tali Adler, is studying to be a maharat.

Mallika graduated from Princeton last year and is working in New York.

“I feel very accepted in the community,” Dr. Viswanath said. His curiosity about the rest of the world still unabated, he travels frequently — often back to India, where his mother still lives — and reads ceaselessly. Just as he moves between the different parts of his world physically, he does so intellectually as well, finding more and more ways to fit them together, constantly forging new understandings. Building not physical bridges, like his daughter, but metaphysical ones, bridges that we all can cross.


Celebrating with nieces and nephews, and with his son, Arun, at the far right.
Celebrating with nieces and nephews, and with his son, Arun, at the far right.
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