Contributed By Shoshana Klayman
Namaste from India! Had a great first day in Mumbai. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is absolutely stunning! I’ve never seen anything like it. We took the pre-tour to Elephanta Island, leaving by ferry from Gateway to India. On the island we walked up to the ancient cave temple of Shiva (originally the Hindu god of destruction). We learned a bit about Hinduism from Joshua, our tour guide. The entire temple was carved from one single stone!
Today was the first full day of the trip and it was jam-packed. We visited two lovely synagogues: Magen David (Baghdadi) and Tipheret Israel (Bene Israel). At the Hari Krishna temple, we had to take off our shoes before entering. We watched the priest light candles while others chanted and banged on drums. After that, we enjoyed a “Thali” lunch—a large round metal tray with different types of vegetables, bread, sweets, and lentils.
Gandhi's house has been transformed into a museum. We saw his room with his few earthly possessions, including a spinning wheel, sandals, three books (Bible, Quran, and something else I can't remember), and a notepad. We saw his library of over 40,000 books, where students often come to study today. We stopped to read the letter he wrote to Hitler, which brought up various questions: Why did Gandhi refer to Hitler as "my friend?" And why did Gandhi preach that the Jews should be non-violent, telling them to do nothing as their friends and family were killed? After the museum, we went to Banganga, an old village in the middle of Bombay. We visited a family in a small house, and walked around the tank, a holy body of water. We interacted with the local Indians and one took a Selfie with me on his phone. LOL.
We walked from the hotel to Friday night services at Knesset Eliyahu, a Baghdadi synagogue, and joined members of the congregation for a festive dinner of bhajees, rice, and chicken dishes. I was able to sing along during Eshet Hayil, something I have never really been able to do outside of our family dinners. It felt really great to recognize tunes and understand that we are not the only family left still carrying on these traditions. I was very touched.
On Sunday, we spent the day learning about the history of the Bene Israel in the villages where they first landed centuries ago. We rode in “tuktuks” (auto rickshaws) around Alibag, met with the hazan of the Magen Avot synagogue there, and saw the memorial and gravestones in Navgaon. We even saw a camel on the beach!
Highlights of our first day in Cochin: the graceful Chinese fishing nets; the colorful and stunning lanterns (fanus) in the Paradesi Synagogue; walking on Jew Town Road; tasting a Southern Indian dinner served on a banana leaf.
On our second day, we woke up for early morning yoga and focused on our breathing as the sun rose from the garden. The yoga teacher helped everybody breathe from their diaphragms and confirmed that most of American yoga is commercialized. After yoga we had breakfast and went to visit a few synagogues. We walked through a local market, past huge piles of okra, bananas, string beans, and all sorts of nuts. We then took a scenic boat ride to our lunch destination, where we saw the Chinese fishing nets live in action (although no one caught any fish :(. We enjoyed a short time at the beach.
After lunch we went back to Fort Cochin everyone got time to shop before an interesting theater presentation called Kathakali. The actor did not speak, but he could perform various facial movements, such as rolling his eyes around and around, or isolating his jaw movement. Without making a sound, he demonstrated different emotions, such as love, anger, and fear. Then a narrator told us a story, and two actors acted it out without ever actually talking- like a silent movie but a little creepier and with more outrageous costumes.
Today was an INCREDIBLE day filled with beautiful sights and adventures. We began our day driving through the old pink city of Jaipur. All the architecture was the pink/salmon color of the maharajah, the king.
As we got off the bus to take pictures, we saw snake charmers who took us by surprise! It was hard to believe the snake was real. We drove to the Amer Fort, the main palace of the maharajah, and we rode elephants to the top. We had a baby elephant who was struggling a bit but she made it! We passed elephants with beautiful painted trunks and bedazzled foreheads. The ride was bumpy (as to be expected) but we had an amazing view of the lake and beautiful palaces around the water.
We bought a couple of pictures and were very proud of our purchases. From there we explored the palace and marveled at the detailed walls, ceilings, and gardens (and the view!). After the palace, we took jeeps back down the mountain. The beggars selling junk followed us all the way down and tried to hop into our cars! Talk about perseverance.
We went to see the observatory (Jantar Mantar). We saw the biggest sun dial in the world (actually) and counted that the time was 10 minutes before 4 pm. We also observed that the maharajahs were very into zodiac signs and had a whole calendar build into the ground which took into account the alignment of the stars and planets.
After this we went to a textile shop where we saw how they make, paint, and thread their beautiful wool and silk rugs (I was incredibly tempted to buy a small one but I'll come back one day when I'm rich)... It was amazing how careful the workers must be with every stitch—and they do everything by hand. We explored the tablecloths, scarves, and pillowcases, and I bought my very first sari.
We then went to a place that cuts and polishes precious and semiprecious stones. We looked at all the amazing jewelry and I wanted to buy everything in the store! It was amazing to see these gems in their original, rock form and then see the finished product in a ring or necklace.
There was a kite festival today in Jaipur, a holiday where no one has work or school. All across the sky there were kites flying high. I tried to take pictures but they just looked like dots on my camera. It was absolutely amazing, straight out of Kite Runner. The whole sky was filled with colorful kites, twirling around happily. As night began to fall, we saw Chinese lanterns lit across the sky, balls of fire flying all around. Fireworks erupted all over; it was incredible.
We had dinner outside where the trees were decorated with lights, and fires burned in pits around the tables. Dancers performed in twirling saris, balancing pots of fire on their heads. One of the dancers balanced six pots on her head at once! Then a man balanced two glasses and a pot on his head while stepping on a pile of sharp needles. Our own Big Apple Circus here in Jaipur. It was incredible! The dancers then got the whole group on their feet and we did a little Indian hora.
I was able to cross many things off my bucket list today. It was a day of adventure and beauty. We saw a peacock perched in a tree as well as camels along the side of the road—so cool.
Calcutta is completely different from what I expected (although I am not entirely sure what I expected). Perhaps I didn't expect the traffic to be so bad (although I was warned!). We had services at Neve Shalom and dinner outside of Maghen David.... Wow. However crowded the streets may be, Maghen David makes up for in beauty. I have seen pictures but they have not done the synagogue justice. I sat in Sabba's seat and tried to channel his energy. Members of the community joined us for dinner.
On Shabbat morning we had services at Maghen David. I read Torah and I didn't mess it up! It was very emotional and members of the community teared up at the fact that there was once again music in Maghen David. I channeled Sabba as I read Torah and I channeled Savta in trying to find the right key to sing on! I channeled Auntie Flora because I was wearing my tallit that she helped make for my bat mitzvah, and I channeled Auntie Aliza in the power that the music was able to heal the hearts of the Jews left in Calcutta, who crave a community that no longer exists.
We had lunch in the courtyard and then Ima and I climbed the clock tower and enjoyed the view from the top: we saw a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, all existing together in harmony.
We took a taxi ride to the cemetery and I found the graves of our ancestors. Although I do not know much about them I can only imagine their scholarly, wise, kind spirits. I tried to connect with my namesake, Sabba's mother Flora, and I hoped that she would be proud of the person I have grown to be. I kissed Auntie Ramah’s grave and wished that I had known her. So many amazing people that I have heard so much about, but have never met. It saddened me that I never will but I can only imagine strong, spiritual and artsy individuals who value education, tradition, and compassion. We took another taxi back (did I mention the taxi only cost about $1.00 for a 40 minute ride?). We relaxed the rest of the day at the hotel and then went to Flower’s house for dinner.
In Delhi we saw a Sikh temple and witnessed their worship service as well as the kitchens which feed hundreds every day. We drove around New Delhi and saw the Parliament buildings and Humayun’s tomb (which is the inspiration for the Taj Mahal); completely breathtaking.
We survived a bicycle rickshaw ride through old Delhi and it was incredible! My senses jumped, from the colorful sight of saris and jewelry to the sounds of honking horns to the feel of other rickshaws whooshing past me, practically grazing my legs. We visited the Gandhi Memorial, which had a very peaceful aura (I'm sure he would've loved it), and Qutab Minar, a mosque that is open to people of all religions. We had a pasta lunch (yay) and then went shopping at the Khan Market. A professor spoke to us at dinner Indian Jewish and Muslim relations—very interesting.
The Taj Mahal is really is as breathtaking as they say—and I cannot believe that I saw such a wonder. It is great way to say goodbye to India. Namaste!
Pani Purim: Celebrating the holiday with the Jewish community of Mumbai -- A local celebration mixes hamantaschen with traditional Indian dishes, and reveals a vibrant, if modest, community with a rich history and abundant pride.
Written by Haaretz correspondent, Danna Harman, this article speaks beautifully about the Jewish community in general in India, and the celebration of Purim by the Mumbai Jewish community. Thank you to Cheryl and Neil who shared this article with Rahel Musleah and their comments. In the piece readers will come across the following:
MUMBAI – The make-your-own-hamantaschen stand had them stumped. “Do you have to bake it?” “Jam?” “What is the point?” – these were just a few of the polite queries from the curious crowd, comprising women in yellow, orange and green flowing saris, men in their best festival suits, and children turned Queen Esthers and Mordechais.
The adjacent pani puri stand was doing a far brisker business – with the hundred or so members of the Mumbai Jewish community who arrived for the Purim celebrations lining up for the fried crispy snacks filled with flavored water, tamarind, chili, potato, chickpeas and Masala spice.
The event was called for 5 P.M., but the small Jewish Community Center, located on the grounds of a local Mumbai college, was packed more than an hour earlier. Colored balloons and streamers festooned the room, with the requisite Israel posters of the Western Wall pasted up on the walls.
In the main hall, Nissim Joshua Pingle, senior manager of this JCC – run under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – got the official program started with a Purim quiz. And these were no softball questions: What famous Jew did Mordechai descend from? What other Jewish scroll does not mention God’s name even once? How many days did Queen Esther spend on beauty treatments before presenting herself to the King?
Translations into Marathi were called for, hands were raised, Cadbury’s chocolates were handed out as prizes, and a designated tea man scurried between the plastic chairs handing out small cups of sweet Masala chai.
A Purim princess at the Mumbai Jewish Community Center. Danna Harman
A Purim “spiel” – imagine squeals of shock at the cross-dressing of the JCC actors on stage; a standing ovation for Queen Esther; and a sea of mobile phones being waved in the air to record it all – was still ahead. So too was a costume compeition and a raffle. First prize: a choice between a laptop bag and a cooking pot.
Diversity, and a long history
In this Hindu country of close to 1.3 billion people, the Jews in India number fewer than 5,000. “We are quite microscopic,” chuckles Elijah Jacob, the Mumbai born-and-bred JDC executive director in India. “But I believe we are proud of our contributions here, and of being Indian – and I do believe we are here to stay.”
At its height, in the mid-1940s, there were some 55,000 Jews in India. Then India and Israel both gained independence, within nine months of each other, spurring a mass exodus from the former to the latter. Today, a majority of these former Indian Jews and their descendants are in Israel. Other Indian-Jewish communities can be found in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
Today, India’s capital, New Delhi, has a community of about 12 Jews. A handful remain in the once thriving communities of Cochin and Calcutta. Some 300 live in Pune, 180 in Ahmedabad, 200 more are scattered around the Konkan villages, and single families can be found here and there.
But the vast majority live in Mumbai and the nearby suburb of Thane, which itself has a big enough community to warrant a Hebrew library, Torah and Hebrew classes, and even its own “Gan Katan” program for schoolchildren.
The Indian-Jewish community here has always been ethnically mixed. The largest group within it is the Bnei Israel – descendants, as legend has it, of seven women and seven men who survived a shipwreck and came ashore here, possibly as they were escaping the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 B.C.E.
At one point, there were over 30,000 Bnei Israel in India, some of them poor, others reaching great heights in the army and civil service, says Jacob, whose own grandfather was India’s first native postmaster general.
The so-called Baghdadi Jews came to India much later, arriving in Calcutta during British rule as refugees and traders from Iraq, as well as Syria, Yemen and Iran. In many cases, they prospered. Statues and monuments commemorating favorite son David Sassoon – probably the most famous Jewish philanthropist and merchant from the community – are dotted around Mumbai.
The oldest group of Jews in India – and the smallest, numbering fewer than 30 today – are the Cochinis from the southern state of Kerela. These 30 are subdivided into two separate groups: The original community, who are said to have come over as traders from Judea during the reign of King Solomon; and European immigrants who joined them much later, around the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century.
Another community that has come to light in recent years, the Bnei Menashe, is another story altogether. Some 3,000 members of this group, who practice a form of biblical Judaism and say they are descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes, have been quietly brought to and settled in Israel with the help of the current government. An additional 6,000 or more still live in northeastern India.
Women at the Mumbai Jewish Community Center, celebrating Purim. Danna Harman
This group has almost nothing to do with the more established Jewish groups in India. “There is no connection between us. We don’t have family among them and don’t really know them at all,” says the JCC’s Pingle. “No one knows if they are halakhically really Jewish – but then again, they are not hurting anyone either.”
Local synagogue politics
Nine synagogues can still be found in Mumbai and its suburbs, all of them fraying around the seams. They all host holiday services; six manage weekly Shabbat services; and two aim for daily minyans as well. There is also a fortressed Chabad house, rebuilt since terrorist attacks there in 2008 left the rabbi, his wife and four others dead. It still attracts traveling Israelis and other Jewish expats.
For the most part, and with the exception of a small Reform community, the congregations are not divided by streams of orthodoxy. Nor are they split, as they once were, along Bnei Israel-Baghdadi lines. If, in days past, the Baghdadis refused to recognize the Bnei Israel as equal Jews – or, in some cases, as Jews at all – today the Baghdadis, whose numbers have dwindled tremendously to an estimated 200, are more likely to ask their Bnei Israel brethren, who make up the bulk of the community, to help fill out their minyans.
“We just go to whatever is near to us,” says Ralphy Jhirad, a well-known personality within the community who has held various leadership positions over the years. Jhirad is working on creating a large Bnei Israel heritage center. He also established a module for the government’s official tour-guide course on “Understanding the Jewish Tourist,” addressing questions such as “What is shabbat?” and “What is kosher?”
Jhirad used to be a member of Tipheret, a Bnei Israel synagogue soon to celebrate its 130th birthday. But when members of the traditionally Baghdadi Eliyahoo synagogue – built by Jacob Elias Sassoon and his brothers in 1884 – told him they needed more men for their minyan, he rose to the task, he says.
The Purim talent show at the Mumbai Jewish Community Center. Danna Harman
This means that in between the Hebrew, Talmud and kabbala classes, one can find Power Yoga and the ever-popular Bollywood dance class on Sunday evenings. There are “selfie treasure hunt” nights, hypnosis and meditation seminars, summer camps and opportunities to find out more about all-Indian Jewish groups heading to international programs like Limmud or Birthright.
A new community-wide WhatsApp group, open to members of all congregations, called “Chosen People,” allows members to share photos of their kids and keeps everyone informed on communal special events, death notices, upcoming bar mitzvahs and who has successfully passed a matriculation exam.
Affiliated Jewish programs, such as the Gabriel Project – which organizes volunteer work in the slums and is coordinated by Leya Elias, one of the last young Cochini Jews in India – attract young adults, Indian and foreigners alike. Over at the OM Creation Trust, Jewish volunteers teach children with Down syndrome how to bake challahs.
There is also talk of creating an online database of young Indian Jews worldwide. Such a thing, culled from family trees and histories of the community, actually already exists, the Jhirads point out. But it’s only accessible at the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv - hardly the place anyone looking for a date would turn to. “An app is forthcoming,” they say, hopefully.
At the end of the day, though, the best opportunities for the young to socialize are the holidays. “We met on Simhat Torah,” “We were introduced on the fourth night of Hanukkah” and “Will you be at the Yom Hashoah event?” are common refrains here.
“There are basically too few Jews here. And they are a bit spread out around town, too,” says Ellana Joseph, 24, a dentist who has come to the Purim party with her younger brother Shakhaf, 17. “Except for at events like this – when almost everyone shows up.”
“Most of our cousins are in Israel,” says Shakhaf, who is in his last year of high school in Mumbai. The siblings have both been on a Birthright program, and fully enjoyed it, they say, but are not planning to immigrate.
The reasons why are the sort of reasons anyone might give for not wanting to leave home. They throw a few out as they dig into their pani puri. “People are good here,” says Ellana. “I am happy being around my parents,” admits Shakhaf. “I like my job,” notes Ellana. “I like the food. Especially the spices,” adds Shakhaf, reaching for answers now, and laughing.
‘They say, “I have never met a Jew before”’
“It used to be that 50-100 young Jews would leave every year,” says JDC’s Jacob. “But the momentum has slowed. In the last five years, many fewer are leaving, and there are even a few cases of those who tried moving – and are now coming back.
Take Moshe Shek, one of India’s best-known chefs who started his own popular Moshe’s restaurant chain. He moved to Israel, enjoyed kibbutz life and then Tel Aviv for three years, worked at the Tel Aviv Hilton, and then returned to India. He felt, he admits over stuffed chicken and rice at the Eliyahoo synagogue’s dinner, more of a sense of connection to his Judaism here in Mumbai than he ever did in Israel.
Concerns about anti-Semitism, often a factor for Diaspora Jews considering a move to Israel, are not an issue here, according to every person interviewed.
“People often think I am Catholic,” says Ellana. “And when I say Jewish, they always say, ‘Oh! I have never met a Jew before.’ Then I say ‘We are the people from Israel.’ That, they usually know – and like.”
“But we don’t face any anti-Semitism because, well, no one even knows what a Jew is,” adds her brother.
Unlike in other parts of the world, where anti-Israel sentiment can fuel anti-Semitism, the association with Israel is typically a big plus in India, says Elkan Michael Bhastekar, a software programmer from Thane whose work email address is “ElktheJew.”
“Being a Jew in India, you get immense respect because of the history of Israel. It’s the only country we know that has managed to face down Muslims and Arabs,” says Bhastekar, who had brought his 6-year-old daughter and her two friends to the Purim festivities. This is the case, he stresses, despite the fact that approximately 130 million Indians are Muslim. They are also impressed by Israel’s prowess, he claims.
“Sure there are some Muslim fanatics in India,” adds Abraham Shapurkar, hanging out near the face-painting stand with his wife Sheba. “But we just don’t associate with them.” Shapurkar, who grew up in Mumbai and has worked for Air India for 20 years, says that as a young man he thought to immigrate to Israel. He never did because his parents wanted to stay in India and he felt he could not leave them. But he has no regrets. “We have a comfortable and good life here,” he says. “And we never hide our religion.”
Shapurkar’s daughters, Maayan, 22, who is the program coordinator for youth and young adults at the JCC, and Adi, 18, are planning to stay in India – at least for now. He is pleased to have them near, he admits, but if one day they want to leave, “we would not stand in their way.”
Back at the hamantaschen table, Ariela Wallace, one of the JDC’s two Jewish Service Corps fellows in India this year, is still busy fielding baking questions. “Yes, they have to be put in the oven,” she smiles gamely. “It’s a Yiddish word,” she explains, getting into semantics of Haman and his pockets.
“Very interesting,” says one old man, shaking his bald head back and forth. “Thank you kindly,” says a 7-year-old dressed, originally, as a Hanukkah menorah.
One woman, her dark black hair pulled back and decorated with tiny white flowers, samples the unfamiliar Purim treats and laughs at everything and nothing in particular. It’s getting late, but it seems no one wants to leave. Outside, the college’s two gatekeepers are sitting cross-legged in the evening heat, peeking through a gift Purim basket and discussing the strange shape of the cookies inside.
Read the article here.