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.
The Jewish holiday of Purim often coincides with the Hindu festival of Holi, both joyous and colorful celebrations that emphasize the triumph of good over evil. India is always colorful, but on Holi, colors from saffron to vermilion reign supreme.
Enjoy this article about Holi in the Smithsonian magazine.
Below, a vendor on Jew Street in Cochin sell Holi colors.
Did you know that India is mentioned in the Bible? The Book of Esther tells us that King Ahasuerus ruled Me-Hodu ve-ád Kush...from India to Ethiopia. The Hebrew word for India is Hodu, which also means "praise God." I love that double meaning!
When you think of Purim, you probably think of groggers and hamentaschen. In India, we didn't have either of those. We stamped our feet to drown out the mention of Haman's name, and sent gifts of Middle Eastern and Indian sweets. We did, of course, read the megillah in our special trope. Above, a family heirloom megillah written on deerskin. Each page of the scroll begins with the word hamelech, the king.
We can't all be royalty, but India is always divine! Here I am dressed as an angel for Purim when I was a child in Calcutta!
Ever go into Starbucks and order a "chai tea," or "chai tea latte?" Since chai means tea in Hindi, you are actually ordering "tea tea"... a knock-off of India's heavenly, rich, spiced milky tea, or masala chai, which quickly becomes a favorite of many of our travelers. The British popularized chai in colonial times. Now it is almost synonymous with India: Chai truly reflects life in India! Chai wallahs--people who make or sell tea on the streets--are ubiquitous in India, offering tea brewed with jaggery (unrefined sugar), ginger, cardamom and other spices, and mixed with warm milk. Chai wallahs revel in pouring a stream of the tea from high above the pot (called pulling the chai), almost like a pizza maker twirls dough high in the air. Often, chai is served in small biodegradable clay cups and enjoyed with savory snacks like samosas.
Check out stories of chai wallahs in different regions of India on this fascinating blog: http://chaiwallahsofindia.com/about/
Here is a simple recipe for cha you can make on your stovetop: https://foodess.com/authentic-indian-chai-tea-recipe/
Join us on our next tours of India, Nov. 7-20, 2019, and Feb, 13-26, 2020, and taste the magic of chai for yourself!
Rahel and Joshua enjoying a cup of chai
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27. 2019.
Throughout history, India has welcomed people from all faiths seeking refuge. India even helped rescue Jews fleeing the Holocaust. German and Indian scholars and filmmakers are now studying this little-known rescue, which may have saved up to 5,000 lives. Those granted refuge usually had exceptional skills--they were musicians, pianists, artists, architects, doctors and dancers. They often became consultants to the maharajas.
One rescuer has even been dubbed India's Oskar Schindler! In 1942, Maharaja "Jam Sahib" of Nawanagar, in the state of Gujarat, became benefactor and father to a group of 1,000 Polish children. including Jews, who had been transported to Siberia. When the Soviet Union joined the Allies, Britian decided to release the children. They traveled by kindertransport via Persia but were refused entry at other ports until they arrived in Bombay (India was under British rule). Jam Sahib found out about their plight and welcomed them to the village of Balachadi. According to Polish sources the maharaja told the children: "You may not have your parents but I am your father now." The children called him Bapu, father. Warsaw even has a Good Maharaja Square!
A documentary, A Little India in Poland, tells this story. http://aakaarfilms.com/little-poland-in-india/
You can read more here: https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-the-indian-oskar-schindler-took-in-1000-polish-children-during-wwii/
Gateway India: by Dr. Margit Franz, has been published in German and is currently being translated into English.
A conference entitled In Global Transit: Jewish Migrants from Hitler's Europe in Asia, Africa and Beyond, was held in Calcutta in 2018.
Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar
And This is What Happened!
I got to know Mayim's mom Beverly very well on our November 2018 tour. Mayim has just published a story about her mom's trip on her blog, GrokNation.com. It's captivating, warm, funny, and personal. I am thrilled and grateful for her fabulous endorsement. Read it here:
A little about the trip in Beverly's own words:
“I found this tour very spiritual, enlightening and consciousness-expanding. The people were like-minded and kind; a zen atmosphere was present (whenever I needed it to be!). We had soooo many Jewish life-altering experiences, and equally as many fun, Indian experiences. Can anyone forget the services in a local synagogue and Shabbat dinner with members of the community under the stars? To balance that out, an elephant ride around—and up—a fortress (oy!). The tour guides led with their hearts, and guided us wisely and well. India, where “Guest IS G-D!”
Bombay Municipal Corporation Building
New York Times "Frugal Traveler" columnist Lucas Peterson has been on the beat...in India!
Mumbai, he writes, "is an electric and complicated city, an extraordinary place, both uplifting and heartbreaking. Its eclectic composition of different groups and cultures makes it a difficult city to define, but for many, it’s a city that represents possibility." It's a "happening" city much like New York.
Peterson spent hours walking the streets of Kolkata and found it the best way to get to know the city. Kolkata's rich literary tradition, strong educational institutions, spicy Bengali cuisine and love of fried street food make the city "a rewarding place to explore."
Peterson also offers India travel tips. Read his stories here:
Peterson does not mention the rich Jewish heritage in both Mumbai and Kolkata. Alongside our exploration of India's general travel sites, that's the specialty we can bring to travelers who join us on our tours.
Magen David Synagogue, Mumbai
December 2018 was a month of celebration in Cochin. The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry marked its 450th anniversary in the presence of 200 joyous former Cochin residents who traveled from all over the world. They joined the few stalwarts who remain in Jew Town, including Queenie Hallegua and nonagenarian Sarah Cohen.
In nearby Ernakulam, rededicating the centuries-old Kadavambagam Synagogue was a dream come true for Elias “Babu” Josephai, who has maintained the synagogue behind Cochin Blossoms, his garden and aquarium shop. The building, which dates to the 16th or 17th century, had fallen into disrepair and closed in 1972, but a recent campaign to renovate it has restored it to its former beauty. Accompanied by drummers and Hebrew chanting, a Torah from Israel was paraded through Market Street and placed in the newly repainted ark.
Renovated Kadavambagam Synagogue, Ernakulam
Read my story about Cochin's Jewish community, published in Hadassah magazine:
Elias "Babu" Josephai