If you are surprised there are Jews in India, you'll be even more surprised to learn that one Indian Jew was among the country's greatest military heroes. Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob served as chief-of-staff of the Indian Army and successfully led its Eastern Army during the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 (he is pictured standing, fourth from left). With courage, strategic thinking, and daring, he enacted a bold plan to negotiate Pakistan's surrender and stopped the bloodshed that had taken thousands of lives. His actions changed the course of Southeast Asian history. He later served as Governor of Goa and Punjab, battling corruption, fighting for the poor, and helping to forge the diplomatic bond with Israel that has become so crucial to the region today.
Born in Calcutta in 1923, Jacob's Baghdadi-Jewish family adopted a family of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Appalled by their stories of atrocities, he enlisted in the British Indian army in 1942. He continued to serve in the Indian Army after India won its independence in 1947.His books include: Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, and his autobiography, An Odyssey in War and Peace.
Jacob, who died in Delhi in 2016, will be honored posthumously on April 30, 2019 at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, where a special Wall of Honor commemorates Jewish soldiers who served with distinction in foreign armies.
India is home to all sort of "marbleous" art! The families of the artisans who adorned the Taj Mahal with their exquisite work continue to craft marble inlaid with minerals and stones that include malachite, lapis, jasper and carnelian, which is translucent when you shine a light on it. The amazing artistry requires meticulous attention as the stones are often tiny. In addition, the marble is so durable that you can spill anything on it and it will not stain!
Merav Darzi, 31, is a Physician Assistant who lives in Brooklyn and works in the Bronx. She went to India with us partly to deepen her knowledge about her Baghdadi roots.
Q: How was this tour different from all other tours?
A: We didn't just stop at a couple of synagogues in Mumbai and then on to the Taj Mahal; we visited Jewish communities in Mumbai, Cochin, Calcutta and Delhi, and heard stories about our ancestors’ legacies that we must preserve and pass on to the next generations. In Cochin, for instance, we learned that on each holiday the ark curtains were changed to a special color (For Pesah it was blue). There was a special hollow rolling pin for the matza dough. It had a metal bead inside so it made a bell-like sound. Just listening to the stories was like being transported in time!
Q: How did the tour help you connect to your Baghdadi roots?
A: The tour was an intense and immense experience. There is a special spiritual atmosphere in India as well as great history that shows in the beautiful architecture of the synagogues. It was emotional seeing the Magen David synagogue in Mumbai, a near-replica of the synagogue in Baghdad (Merav is pictured above at Magen David). While it is still impossible to attend prayer services in Baghdad, we are fortunate to have Baghdadi-Indian services still being practiced today in India.
Q: What was the experience like from a young person's perspective?
A: It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of a group of people who are more knowledgeable about the world and have experienced so much of life. It was fascinating to hear what brought them to explore Jewish India and how it connects to their own Judaism and spirituality. I felt a deep connection to everyone on the tour just by listening to their stories!
Q: What experience do you think no traveler to India should miss?
A: That is a truly difficult question! It’s almost impossible to pin down one experience when there is no shortage of so many memorable and joyful ones! Bombay, Cochin, Calcutta are at the top of my list for their Jewish life and Udaipur has the most exquisite natural vistas. India is a place where each person will find a unique connection.
Folke and Noomi Flam, both physicians from Stockholm, Sweden, joined us on our February 2019 tour. We asked them for their thoughts about the tour.
Q: Why did you choose a tour of India? Why a Jewish tour?
A: For several years we have wanted to go to India. In school we learned about faraway India with all its religions and old culture. Today India is emerging as a powerful democratic nation. Virtually all people who have visited India and have told us about their experiences are enthusiastic. Thus we wanted to see this with our own eyes. We have been on Jewish heritage tours to Ethiopia as well as Peru/Bolivia and we find it interesting to learn about Jewish history in faraway countries. It is amazing how Jews have kept their identity for thousands of years in India.
Q: How did you find out about our tour?
A: A non-Jewish friend who has visited India many times found your tour on the Internet and thought it would be perfect for us. It didn´t take long after reviewing the program for us to sign up!
Q: What was surprising or eye-opening about India?
A: We were astonished by the warm and generous attitude of the Indian people. It was interesting to learn about the coexistence of all religions and that anti-Semitism never existed. We were astonished to see what people could accomplish in building beautiful palaces and worship places many hundreds of years ago.
Q: What memories will you cherish?
A: We will always remember the people we met: the lovely family in Mumbai whose daughter wants to become a doctor; Mrs. Silliman and her daughter in Calcutta; the home hospitality in Jaipur. We will remember the marvelous teamwork and knowledge provided by our two guides… not to mention Rahel’s singing.
Sometimes there are objects in our lives that we take for granted. We don’t know much about their history but they seem to have always been part of our customs, rituals or celebrations.
In my family we use a large cotton scarf to tie up the afikoman. The light, white cotton is splayed with large pinkish-purple flowers and green leaves, appropriate for Pesah, the festival of spring. It’s obvious the scarf is old and well-worn, with several spots browned with age. Maybe they are wine spills or remnants of halek, the date syrup we use for haroset. We create a makeshift knapsack by knotting the diagonal corners of the scarf together, two at a time.
This scarf has always been in my family. But I had no idea where it came from or to whom It belonged. When I asked my father I found out that it was probably my great-grandmother's. Her picture is below. Can you imagine her at the age of 12, when she was married to my grandfather (he was 18)? Obviously, it was an arranged marriage!
The scarf was always used for this purpose. My father remembers from when he was the youngest child, whose job it is to slip it over his or her shoulder. Presto, it’s as if he or she is leaving Egypt with matza in a knapsack. We do this to manifest the words of the Torah and the haggadah that describe how the children of Israel left Egypt: mish’arotam tzerurot b’simlotam al shichmam. Their kneading bowls were wrapped and bundled into their clothes and carried on their shoulders.
Then, the leader of the seder asks the child three questions in Hebrew and the same questions in Judeo-Arabic.
Q: From where have you come? (A: Mitzrayim.Egypt)
Q: Where are you going? (A: Yerushalayim, Jerusalem)
Q: What are your provisions? What are you carrying with you? (The child points to the sack with the afikoman)
The answer to the first question is not Calcutta or Bombay or Brooklyn, but Egypt. We have all emerged from the same narrow place and no matter where we are going in our lives today, hopefully we are all headed to a space of spiritual peace. Our provisions are the heritage we carry with us.
You can still see the special tandoor, the clay oven in the courtyard of the Beth El Synagogue. The tandoor was only used once a year for baking matza on Pesah.
Tizkoo l’shanim rabot!
Above, my great-grandmother Masooda.
Below, matza-making in the courtyard of the Beth El Synagogue, Calcutta.