The white silk kippah my great-grandfather wore every Yom Kippur in Calcutta is embroidered with light purple squares linked together. Meir Ezra Musleah was a lover of mystical texts, the gabai of the Maghen David Synagogue and a sweet singer. I don’t have a photo of him in this “cap,” as it was called, just one of him in a black cap choosing a chicken for kapparah, atonement, in the open marketplace in Calcutta. He didn’t know that my Uncle Meyer, who was named for him, was taking the photo; he would have considered it a graven image.
When I wear his white kippah myself on Yom Kippur I don’t mind that it is not new, or even that the silk has frayed to the point where you can see the individual threads. It connects me to a beloved person that I wish I could have known, in a time gone by. But I have rediscovered the place and made it my own.
L’Dor Vador. From Generation to Generation.
I took this picture in Bombay's Crawford Market, where vendors sell an amazing array of fruits and vegetables. I love the pomegranate, shown here in its mysterious splendor, sensual and replete with seeds. The rabbis say the pomegranate has 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot in the Torah! I've counted and it's pretty close!
It's no wonder that the pomegranate is a central symbol for Rosh Hashanah. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (including Jews from India and Baghdad) use the pomegranate as part of a mini-seder on Rosh Hashanah during which we make blessings on different fruits and vegetables that symbolize our wishes for the new year.
The blessing over the pomegranate is:
Yehi ratzone milfanekha, Adonai Eloheinu velohei avoteinu, she-nihyeh meleím mitzvot ka-rimon.
May it be your will, our God and God of our fathers, that we should be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds.
Here are some tips on how to cut a pomegranate!
Pomegranates are also healthy for you! Check out 10 top reasons to love the pomegranate:
For more on the Rosh Hashanah seder, please see my book, Apples and Pomegranates.
Leave it to us to find the Indian connections to Operation Finale, which details the capture of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann. Legendary actor Ben Kingsley, who portrays Eichmann, was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in Yorkshire, England. His father was a doctor of Gujarati descent; his grandfather was a successful spice trader nicknamed "King Cloves," which his grandson adapted to create his screen name, Kingsley. His mother, an actress and model, may have had Russian- or German-Jewish roots. Kingsley changed his name because he was afraid his given name would hamper his career. Audiences the world over traveled with him to India through his seminal role as Gandhi, for which he won the Best Actor award in the 1982 film of the same name. He also played Jewish roles: Simon Weisenthal (Murderers Among Us,1989); Meyer Lansky (Bugsy, 1992); Itzhak Stern (Schindler's List, 1993); Moses (Moses, 1996), and Otto Frank (Anne Frank: The Whole Story, 2001).
I loved working on the latest story I wrote for Hadassah magazine: "Growing Older Beats Getting Old." It features Jewish thinkers, leaders and activists who have focused on how to enrich the new stage of life Baby Boomers are entering. Link below.
One of the key ways Boomers keep their mind and bodies healthy and alert is through travel. According to AARP, this year 17 million Boomers will take bucket-list trips. The once-in-a-lifetime journeys tap into Boomers’ lifelong core values of exploration, adventure and learning. According to a recent study by Destination Analysts, exploration is the top vacation priority among Boomers. Another study by Ipsos reports that two-thirds of Boomers value being able to learn something new on vacation. Enjoy the story below and come explore a once-in-a-lifetime Jewish India adventure with us!
I am honored to have received the Simon Rockower Award for Jewish Journalism for my personal essay, "Remembrance of Things Past in Kolkata," published in Hadassah magazine. The award, from the American Jewish Press Association, is especially meaningful since it celebrates both my 26-year association with Hadassah magazine and my dedication to my Baghdadi-Indian heritage.
Please enjoy the story, link below, or just scroll down to read it here.
Join me on my return trips "home" to India this coming November and February!
Remembrance of Things Past in Kolkata
You could call it traffic, the dizzying crush of cars, bicycles, taxis, trucks and handcarts on Brabourne Road, the street that leads to the Maghen David Synagogue in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Unable to cross, I am standing at the corner, gaping at the synagogue’s steeple that pokes up unexpectedly into the sky like a lofty wizard’s hat. Despite its solid brick-red façade, it seems almost a mirage.
The Indian city I left for America with my family as a child of 6 has bewitched me like a distant lover for much of my life. I have returned twice before with family, and it’s been eight years since my last visit. This time, in 2015, I am leading a group of 20 travelers on a tour of Jewish India; they will witness my homecoming, the most personal part of a broader tour of the Indian subcontinent.
My heart is a brew of emotions as we turn down Canning Street. The heft of the Maghen David synagogue rises dramatically in front of us with its layers of red and beige stone, its steeple buttressed on top of a clock tower that will tell you it is 12:20 from any of four directions—no matter what time it really is.
Before we enter the synagogue through the wooden doors that the Muslim caretaker has unlocked, I pass a plaque noting my father’s role in organizing Maghen David’s centennial celebration in 1984. My father, Ezekiel Nissim Musleah, was rabbi of this once-flourishing community from 1952 to 1964, the only officially ordained religious leader since the first settler arrived from Aleppo, Syria, in 1798. Over the next 150 years, Baghdadi Jews fleeing persecution and seeking fortune in the capital of the British Raj fattened the community’s ranks to about 5,000, but the numbers thinned out following the chaotic partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and, a year later, the creation of the State of Israel.
A few people await us inside the synagogue, including a one-time girlfriend of my father’s and a former student of his from the Kolkata Jewish Girls School. Others remember my mother, Margaret. Excited, they crowd around me, introducing themselves.
I turn toward our family seats—or at least, the benches where the male members of the family used to sit. I see the lidded wooden box that used to hold their personal siddurim. My father had told me where to find the key to unlock the box but I don’t need to. It’s open, and empty, except for the smell of camphor and a stray camphor ball that had once protected the books. I weep.
Composing myself, I look around at the building that was constructed 133 years ago and that served as a religious and professional home to generations of my family: It is even more beautiful than I remember it. The entire synagogue is lit up and though we have visited a dozen Indian synagogues on our tour, Maghen David’s grandeur and beauty are unsurpassed. Above the Ark are the biblical words that capture the space like no other: Mah norah hamakom hazeh. How awesome is this place. In the room that once gleamed with 75 sifrei Torah in their silver cases, I kiss the two that remain, bequeathed for eternity by the synagogue’s founders. I walk around and touch everything—even the grime that now marks the walls seem holy somehow.
Members of the community had invited me to lead the evening service, that night making Maghen David one of the few egalitarian Sephardic synagogues in the world. “I do not believe that HaKadosh Baruch Hu finds a man’s baritone more pleasing to the ear than a woman’s soprano; surely both are equally acceptable to Him,” explained Jo Cohen, 70, one of the community’s administrators ; she is of French and Portuguese descent and converted from Catholicism when she married in 1970.
I had learned to chant the Baghdadi melody from a recording my father made, trying to follow his every note carefully and rendering my version of his quartertones. But then I had to find my own voice. I ascend the tebah (bimah) where my father, grandfather and great-grandfather had stood. My voice soars and echoes in the vast space and brings the synagogue alive. Mah norah hamakom hazeh.
Though there is rarely a minyan in any of the city’s three synagogues—and there are only 18 stalwart Jews left in Kolkata—tonight there is a minyan. After the service, we sing traditional liturgical songs and “Gesher Tzar Me’od”--Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s transcendent words in Hebrew, followed by a Hindi translation, “Yeh sari duniyah, ek chota sapul.…” The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid. The words originated in the Ukraine, but they could not be more appropriate. I feel myself a bridge, linking past and present, East and West.
Earlier in the day, looking for my links to the past, I walked with my group along Bowbazaar (now called BB Ganguly Road) toward No. 11, where my father grew up amidst an extended family. We called my great-aunts and uncle “the Bowbazaars” and their home, No. 11. But my last relative passed away in 2006 and I wondered what I would find. Memories from my previous visits are thinly veiled by a scrim of anticipation and trepidation.
We passed the rickshaw wallahs—Calcutta is the only city in India that still permits the hand-pulled carriages—and the snack–sellers deep-frying samosas and puchkas filled with potatoes and chickpeas. Jewelers, optical shops and typists with old-fashioned machines catering to illiterate customers line the street, and a sign tacked to a tree advertises surgery-free cures for “piles, pissures [stet] and fistulas.” The mistake is funny—until I think about the poverty and health issues it signifies.
Finally, we arrived at No. 11. A sign with my grandfather’s name used to hang at the entrance, but the house that the family had rented for decades had reverted back to its owner. A friend had brought the sign to me and I had hung it above my desk at home. Yet standing at the entrance, I foolishly expected I would still see it.
The steps I climbed to get to the second-floor apartment, however, were exactly the same—winding, wooden, dusty. The group lined up behind me like a twisting row of dominoes. But when I reached the top of the stairs I stopped cold. The heavy wooden door was gone. There was no mezuzah or even the impression of one. I touched the space anyway, kissing it in my mind. I pushed the glass door open and walked inside to find a light, modern office. The Indian staff looked at me in bewilderment as I explained that my relatives used to live here. Though the heavy rosewood furniture was gone, and I doubted anything familiar remained, I asked if I could walk through anyway. “Come back tomorrow when the manager is in,” one of the women replied. My short visit would not permit a return, I responded. In that case, she said, “you cannot inspect it.”
I left, disappointed. At the Kolkata Jewish Cemetery the next morning, I thanked my great-grandfather for the sweet voice I was told he had, and which I hope I had inherited. I leaned down and told my grandparents, whom I had never met, that I had visited Bowbazaar, that I had sung for them in Maghen David and that I carried them everywhere with me.
One year later. I am back in Kolkata with another group. This time my daughter Shoshana, 23, accompanies me, her first trip to India. It is eye-opening to see everything through her eager youthfulness and, at the same time, her profound maturity. I take her to the family landmarks.
I am wiser now, so we have made an appointment at No. 11. The long rows of office cubicles provoke a sinking sense that we have come on a wild-goose chase—until I describe the veranda that once housed the sukkah. Suddenly, a set of keys is procured and a concealed door in the wood-paneled boardroom opens to reveal another door, this one slatted and dingy green, and then the screened-in porch. I feel vindicated. When the manager brings us tea on the veranda, the atmosphere changes. We are not strangers here anymore.
For Shoshana, the experience is one of trying to find connection. “I thought about all that had changed—but the history was still there in little hints of home,” she says later, acknowledging that despite the many stories she had heard it was difficult for her to feel connected with people she had never met.
We visit the cemetery, especially the grave of my grandmother Flora, for whom Shoshana is named. The vegetation that used to sprout untended amidst the forest of blackened, aboveground tombs has been cleared with machetes and we walk straight back to the family plot. (My maternal grandparents are buried in London; they moved there in 1960.) Many of the inscriptions have faded, but the words on my grandparents’ graves are vivid.
“I didn’t know my ancestors,” Shoshana says, “but I felt I could make them proud by who I’ve become. I was thinking, ‘Would they like me?’ I do know Saba, and I could only imagine where he got his compassion and helpfulness and tradition—from his family.” We put some stones in our pockets to take back home to my parents, as if the rocks could vicariously transmit the powerful spirit of that moment.
Before Shabbat morning services at Maghen David that I am again privileged to lead, Shoshana sits in her grandfather’s seat and I sit in my grandfather’s seat—mirroring how my father and I sat here almost 20 years earlier. “I tried to channel Saba the child,” she says, wondering if he daydreamed when he sat by the open window. She is awestruck by the synagogue’s beauty and the energy she feels still coursing through it. In the balcony we find my mother’s seat.
Shoshana has prepared a short aliyah, “a rite of passage,” she says. She has not read Torah in seven years, and though she is nervous she is inspired by her savta’s dedication to reading Torah—she learned to read when she was 65. Wrapped in the talit I made for her bat mitzvah with my sister’s help, sitting in the place her grandparents had started their lives together, she feels surrounded by family. The words she chants describe the way the children of Israel carried their knapsacks filled with matzah on their shoulders as they left Egypt. As she stands before the open Torah, the eighth generation of our family in India, the words she sings resonate beyond their original meaning.
Misharotam tz’rurot b’simlotam al shichmam. We carry our heritage with us.
It can hardly be a coincidence.
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.