Indian Rosh Hashanah and Other Jewish Traditions
Q: India is home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Tell us how Rosh Hashanah is celebrated there.
A: The celebration begins with the lighting of oil lamps and recitation of the b’racha before sundown. We hold New Year seders two nights, attended by close family and Jewish friends; in my case, around 25 people. The elders explain the significance of the seder components—fish, lamb’s head, apple and honey, beet root, pumpkin, cluster beans, fresh garlic with leaves, pomegranate, Kiddush wine, challah (two flat chapattis, roasted crisp), dates (Ha’etz), and bananas (Ha’adama).
Before starting the service on the first night at home, we distribute the special Rosh Hashanah halwa. We have a hearty meal together, consisting of jeera rice, chicken or mutton curry, potatoes, kofta (meatball) curry, potato patties (stuffed with mince), and salads.
We attend synagogue services starting at 7 am, most importantly to hear the Shofar, and then go home to do the Kiddush and Hamotsi, eat and rest a little. At about 5:30 pm we attend tashlich prayers near the sea where we would meet a lot of friends and family who go to other synagogues in Mumbai; this is a popular time for matchmaking and introducing young boys and girls. We then rush home for the second evening seder with our family.
Q: We loved your halwa recipe. Can you tell us about your other favorite dishes for the Jewish New Year?
A: The nankhatais (cookies)! We break the Fast of Gedalia (the day after Rosh Hashanah) with rice kheer—coarse basmati rice cooked with jaggery and coconut milk—after reading the Yizkor service (remembering the departed souls of close family).
Before Yom Kippur we prepare Kalna puris—like a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly fried fine semolina, nuts, and raisins and deep fried in ghee. The afternoon before Yom Kippur we read the Yizkor service and eat the Kalna puris, coconut-stuffed puris, and sandans. Before sunrise the day after Yom Kippur (Simhat Kohanim), we make gharis (like donuts). Between Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabah, we visit our relatives and friends to ask forgiveness for any wrong we may have done to them.
Q: Can you tell us more about your family’s history in India? And any special holiday traditions that you have?
A: We had a house in a village named Galsur, a sea port in Maharashtra. We had rice fields and an oil press—operated manually by a bullock—that extracted oil from peanuts, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, and other herbal oils. We grew vegetables and fruit trees, and had poultry as well. Water had to be brought from wells, and we washed our clothes at a river or stream. There was no electricity then. Our house was a gathering spot for lots of our family during school vacations.
My in-laws lived in this house, with other retired family members. We, the younger generation with children, relocated to Mumbai much earlier, where we worked in offices and factories while our children attended recognized (and often English) schools where they received a superior education to that which was possible in the villages.
Many of us Bene Israelis got our surnames from the villages our families had settled in hundreds and thousands of years ago. Later, family names were modified as people relocated to Mumbai.
Q: In your experience, what is the importance of JDC’s role in India?
A: JDC has helped the Bene Israelis a lot, especially in bringing them closer. JDC supports the community’s Jewish holiday celebrations, which includes sending people (through the JDC-supported Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai) to conduct High Holiday services and seders in villages with synagogues such as Pen, Panvel, Alibag, and Nagaon.
Young and old are involved in JDC’s activities: they created a Jewish old age home, gatherings for seniors, have year-round Torah and other Jewish classes, Gan Katan (kindergarten) for kids, and get-togethers for teenagers and young adults, who are also sponsored by JDC to take part in seminars in Israel and in Europe. This not only gives them a chance to learn a lot and mingle with other youngsters around the world, but now the world has started learning about Jewish life in India, too….
Q: What would you like readers to know about Jewish life in India?
A: The Bene Israelis are peace loving people, characterized by strong family bonds and real caring. We have always been friendly with Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Parsis; we never experienced any anti-Semitism. We observed and did not work on Shabbat. We walk to our synagogues, distance permitting; eat kosher food; and hang mezuzahs on our doorposts. We were known as Shanwar Tellis (oil pressers who did not work on Saturdays).
Though the Bene Israelis have a small prayer hall for the Reform or Liberal Jewish Congregation in Mumbai, the majority of the community still chooses to visit Orthodox synagogues because we love the melodious tunes that convey the essence of more than 2500 years of Jewish life in India. We, the Orthodox community, have several synagogues—I believe 8—in Mumbai. Prayers are conducted every day, morning and evening (including Minchah and Ma’ariv services). On Shabbat, we have a minyan and a bigger crowd, but many have to use the public transport or drive because of the distance.