India and Its Jewish Communities
Contributed By Harriet Rosenberg Mann
I experienced India and its Jewish communities in January 2016. India is home to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Its population is three times greater than the U.S. in one-third the area. It presents extreme contrasts and challenges assumptions about religion, space, science, social hierarchy, education, food, dress, and weather. Against this backdrop are the resilient Jews of India, who reinforce belief in the word of Torah and commitment to survival of Judaism.
Rahel Musleah (award-winning author whose father was Rabbi of Calcutta) and Joshua Shapurkar (India guide and member of the Bene Israel) provided a comprehensive tour of India and unique "behind the scenes" encounters with its Jews, including celebrating Shabbat in Mumbai and Calcutta.
There is stunning beauty (beaches, gems, textiles, opulent palaces of Mughal emperors and Maharajahs, magnificent Hindu temples, mosques and synagogues); ancient astronomy, architecture, engineering, cultural accomplishments. Yet streets are crowded beyond description—with cars, motorcycles, buses, rickshaws, animals and a crush of people. The sidewalks are full of people selling, bathing, and cooking. You see modern businesses next to enormous slums; begging children next to people paying to feed grass to a sacred cow for good “karma.”
The Bene Israel Jews of Bombay trace their roots to seven couples shipwrecked during time of the Maccabees. Isolated, they maintained Jewish rituals they remembered. In Cochin, the “Black” Jews may date from the time of King Solomon or after the destruction of Second Temple; “White” Jews (Paradesi) fled the Inquisition. In Calcutta and Bombay you encounter the Baghdadi community that left Iraq in the 1800s. Two additional groups claim roots to the lost tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim.
Today there are 4,500 Jews in India, mostly in Mumbai and a handful elsewhere, as most made aliyah after Indian independence in 1947 and the birth of Israel in 1948. This is a “glimpse” into the trip of a lifetime.
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Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.