Did you know it's said that Hinduism has 330 million gods? There is no list, and no one attempts to count, especially since the real number is closer to 33, expanded to express the infinity of the universe. Learning about different religions is a vital part of traveling in India. Here is a sculpture from the 7th-century Elephanta cave temple off the coast of Mumbai, a World Heritage site that we visit in our pre-tours. It is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Roti, naan, chapati, paratha...bread by any name in India is heavenly. It can be fluffy like naan, crisp and crepe-y like dosa, stuffed and spiced like onion kulcha and aloo (potato) paratha, or made from rice like uttapam. Bread is an integral part of Indian cuisine and reflects a diversity of culture and geography.
Here is a recipe for naan from the New York Times and an easy one from Genius Kitchen:
At the community kitchen at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple in Delhi, volunteers of any faith can sit with others and roll out prepared balls of dough into roti. The kitchen feeds 10,000 people a day! Here I am making roti!
A few years ago, I was honored to be part of a tour of Philip Roth's Newark on the celebration of his 80th birthday and his announced retirement from writing. As I wrote in Hadassah magazine, (link below) the tour bus stopped in front of 81 Summit Avenue and a cadre of unlikely sightseers—mostly professors of English—filed out excitedly in front of a literary landmark: Roth’s childhood home. We milled around despite the rain, taking photos on the stoop and admiring the plaque designating the house a historic site. Unremarkable in its outward appearance, the Colonial-style home nonetheless served as the birthing place for one of America’s most remarkable writers—one who some scholars and critics consider the greatest living American novelist.
Read about Roth here:
I am in no way comparing myself to Roth, but I do know the feeling of attachment to a home, be it a city, a building or a house of worship. They are characters in and of themselves. On my trips to India, I have made "pilgrimages" to the Calcutta sites where my family lived and where their souls still live on.
I wrote about my travels "home" to Calcutta for Hadassah. Here I am at the entrance to 11 Bowbazaar, which had been the Musleah family home for decades. My first tour group (2015) is behind me on the staircase.
Hiring an amazing tour guide doesn't have to be a luxury. Explore Jewish India's main accompanying guide, Joshua Shapurkar, is superb and ensures a memorable and meaningful experience.
Check out this article about hiring a guide in The New York Times and you'll see why Joshua gets 5 stars every time! https://www.nytimes.com/…/trav…/finding-tour-guide-tips.html
Photo by Joan Roth, photographer.
Here's a short Q&A with Joshua:
Q: What do you enjoy about being a tour guide?
A: I love interacting with people, helping them and solving whatever problems arise. I have helped people find lost jewelry and even saved lives!
Q: What are some of your favorite places to visit?
A: I love Kerala because of its lush greenery. I find my inner peace there. Jaipur and Agra have a rich history and stunning monuments. Bombay is my city. I've lived there all my life and I think it's the best place to live. I like the people and the contrasts. It's a vibrant city that's full of life.
Q: What's important for people to know about Jewish India?
A: India is one of the few places in the world with hardly any history of anti-Semitism. Jews have lived here without trouble or fear. We have lived here as proud Indians and proud Jews. That is very rare!
The holiday of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. The founders of the synagogues in Calcutta made sure that there would always be at least two Torahs in the ark for perpetuity. At one time the ark (hekhal), which is actually a separate room, held as many as 80 Torahs! The scrolls were encased in wooden cases overlaid with silver or covered with velvet. The Ten Commandments figure prominently in the intricately decorated plaque above.
This is my maternal grandfather. His name was Simon Sion Judah, but I knew him as Nana (pronounced Naa-naa. In many parts of India maternal grandparents are called Nana and Nanee; paternal grandparents are Dada and Dadi.) He came from Baghdad to India by ship as a boy of 14 and married my grandmother Rachel when he was 27.
I thought about him on Shavuot with its many luscious dairy specialties because among his various professions he was a cheesemaker. In fact, he was one of three incredible Jewish cheesemakers in Calcutta.
There were two kinds of cheese, called jibben in Arabic: plain, made into blocks; and plaited, or braided. Kosher vegetarian rennet was ordered from Bombay and added to whole buffalo milk so it would break up into lumps like cottage cheese. My mother remembers that the verandah of their home in Bentinck Street was lined with huge earthenware jars. After the milk was delivered and poured into the jars, he added the rennet and waited for the milk to curdle, Often he was so eager that he would wake up in the early part of the morning to see if it had curdled enough to produce soft curds. He drained the curds, put them into a large cheesecloth, twisted the cloth tightly, turned it over on a flat surface and placed a heavy brick on it. When the cheese solidified, he salted it, cut it into blocks and stored it in the cheese water ready to be purchased.
For plaited cheese, he sliced the plain cheese and cooked it in boiling water over the stove until it became elastic. When it cooled a little, he took it out and braided it. Customers came to his door to buy the cheese, which was not only relished plain, but also enjoyed in the filling of cheese sambusaks. You can still buy fresh cheese and cheese sambusaks at Nahoum’s, the Jewish bakery that continues to operate in Calcutta’s Newmarket. In the U.S., Syrian cheese, which is similar to jibben, is available in specialty Middle Eastern shops.
My grandfather passed away in London in 1976. Yehi Zichro Baruch.
#jewishindia #indianfood #jewishholidays
A floral display at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, Mumbai.
I'm a journalist who loves words, but even I know that sometimes, pictures speak louder than...you know the rest! Each time I lead another tour, I think to myself that I have already snapped hundreds of pictures, and that I will not find anything new to photograph. But India is so full of color and adventure that I cannot resist another angle, another vivid portrait, another sunset over the Taj, another artfully composed bowl of flowers or sumptuous plate of food. I'm always filled with delight at what awaits me around the corner: beautiful, poignant, complex and compelling. I thought I would share some of my photographs from our recent tours in my next few posts. Here's a taste to get started. India truly awakens all the senses!
The Taj Mahal in Agra at sunset.
Women posing at Amer Fort, Jaipur.
Heading out: Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai.
Women's section: Maghen David Synagogue, Calcutta.
Crawford Market, Mumbai.
A school group visiting the Chendamangalam synagogue north of Cochin.
With a new friend at Jantar Mantar Observatory, Jaipur.
Please enjoy this feature on Hanukkah, which highlights India's gift of freedom and the distinctive culinary traditions of India's Jewish communities. Thanks to writer Gowri Chandra for an illuminating article! Yours truly is one of the three women of Indian origin she interviewed.
Here is my adaptation of aloomakalas, the potatoes mentioned in the story that are distinctive to the Calcutta Jewish community. The recipe originally calls for round potatoes but the right variety is hard to find in the U.S., so this version, created with my mother's help, features sliced russet potatoes. Aloomakalas are traditionally eaten on Shabbat and holidays as a treasured side dish but they are great any time, and would also be perfect for Hanukkah!
8 Idaho (russet) potatoes, peeled, cut in half, or thirds if they are large. Cut off the ends of the potatoes to make them flat.
Boil water in a large pot and and add 1 tsp. of turmeric (haldi). Add potatoes and boil 10-12 minutes. They should be a little soft, otherwise baking will take a long time. Drain.
Put a thin layer of oil in a 9x12 pan. Add the potatoes and turn so they are coated in oil. Roast uncovered in a 400-degree oven. Turn the potatoes every 20 minutes until they are an even golden-brown. They should be crisp on the outside and fluffy inside.
You might not be able to wait to bite into them but be careful as they will be hot! Enjoy!
Imagine that it's Hanukkah—but there are no latkes on the table, no jelly donuts, gelt or gifts. There are no dreidels in vivid colors ready to be spun or piles of pennies and peanuts for payment. “I Have a Little Dreidel” would be as foreign as another country’s national anthem. There aren’t even spindly, rainbow-hued candles waiting to be placed in the hanukkiah.
Hanukkah in India is celebrated far differently than it is in the United States or in Israel today. But the meaning of Hanukkah has a deep resonance in the Indian Jewish communities because India is, in fact, also the site of great miracles, a refuge for Jews all over the world.
The history of the Jews of India is a story of faith and refuge, survival and identity. In fact, the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay (Mumbai) say that they arrived in India fleeing the Hellenist persecution that caused the Maccabees to rebel. According to their tradition, they were shipwrecked off the coast of Bombay. Only seven couples survived. But as they integrated into the village communities along the coast, they held onto the faith and customs they remembered: circumcision, kashrut, refraining from working on Shabbat and reciting Shema Yisrael at every auspicious occasion.
Cochin, in south India, may be the most ancient Jewish settlement, with trade routes to and from the land of Israel as far back as the time of King Solomon. During the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews found refuge in Cochin under the protection of its benevolent maharajah. Baghdadi Jews, too, fled persecution in Iraq and, attracted by India’s rich trade route, settled in Bombay and Calcutta.
The larger tolerance that India extended cradled distinct Jewish communities and allowed them to flourish, both on their own and as part of the broader Indian context. There was never any indigenous anti-Semitism in India, so we lived alongside our neighbors in harmony and freedom. Interestingly, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is often celebrated at the same time as Hanukkah.
In our Calcutta community, every boy over the age of 13 had his own hanukkiah (today we would include girls), made of brass, shaped in a triangle or Star of David, with rings that protruded to hold glasses of oil. We use a candle to light the flames, because the shamash cannot be moved. Each child also had a glossy, colorful Hanukkah paper with God’s name printed in gilt letters at the top, and the child’s own name inscribed at the bottom. Underneath, a seven-branched menorah was drawn with the words of Psalm 67 (Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habayit LeDavid). The psalm, which is about the dedication of the temple, is chanted after the Hanukkah blessings. The papers were hung up near the hanukkiot, which also hung on the wall.
Indian cuisine, famous for crisp fried specialties like samosas, pakoras and piaju, are fine reminders of the miracle of the oil. We also enjoy fancy confections made from milk, sugar, flavorings and nuts. Recipe at the end of this post.
In Bombay today, Chabad lights a huge menorah at the landmark Gateway to India, a monument built by the Sassoon family, Baghdadi leaders, philanthropists and traders who contributed so much culturally and economically that they are considered the Rothschilds of the East.
And in Calcutta this year, Hanukkah will be marked with an extraordinary celebration, as two of the three magnificent synagogues that are still standing will be rededicated after months of renovation. There are only 18 Jews left in the community, but they are intent on preserving our heritage, embodied in the awesome sacred spaces of the Maghen David and Beth El synagogues. Neve Shalome, the third synagogue, was renovated a few years ago. The synagogues, grand edifices soaring with light and beauty, are shining examples of faith that never fail to provoke heart-stopping moments of wonder.
Back in the warmth of my own home, I am also inspired by the light of my own hanukkiah, a family heirloom. Often, I think of the flames as the seven generations of my family who lived in India, and my daughters, the eighth generation, born in the US. And the hanukkiah turns into a family tree of sorts, each flame radiating the sparks of our tradition.
Originally published in https://jewishfoodexperience.com/time-dedication-india/