The lost tribe of Mumbai: How the city absorbed the Bene Israelis

Kunal Vijayakar takes us through the food customs of Mumbai’s Jewish Israeli community

Cosmopolitanism is a word that is slowly getting eroded from our city.
While Mumbai has always had its ghettos, some parts of the city have always been a little more hybrid, motley, and all-embracing than others including Malabar Hill, Carmichael Road, Breach Candy, Marine Drive and Worli.
Yes, these were elite districts and still are, but there were a variety of elite families living in these neighbourhoods. Gujaratis, Parsis, Maharashtrians, Christians, Khoja Muslims, Bohris, Sindhis and others all living together — not just a predominance of one rich jeweller community, as it is now.

In the older parts of Mumbai, like in Byculla and Mazagon (where I lived for the first few years of my childhood), there was a strong mix of middle-class Parsis, Christians, Anglo-Indians and Jewish people; not just a predominance of middle-class Muslims, as it is now. This is where I first met the wonderful people from the Jewish community. I grew up in Mazagon surrounded by the Davids, Ezekiels, Solomons, and the Sassoons.

When you think of the Jewish people, you think of either the Biblical stories, or the Middle East crisis, or Barbra Streisand . You don’t really imagine a thriving Jewish community living right here under our noses (no pun intended). That’s because there isn’t one. At least not any more. But there was once, your grandparents would have remembered. One such Jewish community from coastal Maharashtra are the Bene Israelis.

The Bene Israelis trace their origins to the ‘lost’ 10 tribes of Israel. So goes the story: their ancestors escaped by sea from Israel in the year 175 BC and they got shipwrecked and washed ashore near the village Nagaon, near Alibaug, just south of Bombay.
These Jewish people made this coastal area their home. They adopted Marathi, the language of the natives and some embraced surnames similar to the Maharashtrians, suffixing their village names with a ‘kar’ — Nagaokar from Nagaon, Penkar from Pen, Wakrulkar from Wakrul and Cheulkar from Cheul.

A few years ago, in search of Jewish food, I visited the area in and around Nagaon and Alibaug. On the beach is a rock, which commemorates the landing. At last count, there were less than four Bene Israeli families living there. A beautifully maintained synagogue stands witness to the prosperous days. I managed to find just two Bene Israeli families. The others have all left the village if not the country. And we talked food.

The Bene Israeli cuisine is nearly indistinguishable from their coastal neighbours. After 2,000 years of amalgamation, it’s pretty much like Maharashtrian coastal food. It’s all rice, mango, fish, meat and coconut milk. But they still follow the basic rules of ‘kosher’. The meat is blessed by a rabbi and dairy produce is never cooked or mixed with meat, neither eaten immediately after eating meat. So, no marinating meat in yoghurt or dahi, and kosher fish must have fins and scales.
But while the food is very Maharashtrian, a few traditions stand out. Like the festival of Malida. It is a thanksgiving ritual in which the men sit around a plate full of roasted rice, fruits, spices and flowers. On that day, a dish also called Malida is lovingly prepared. It’s made from poha (beaten rice). Regular poha is boiled in water, sweetened with sugar, mixed with shredded coconut and cardamom, and then garnished with five to seven symbolic fruits. It’s like a rice pudding, or a kheer and it’s iconic for the community.

Their food otherwise is spicy and aromatic, flavoured with chili, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander and garam masala, much like their Konkani neighbours. The Bene Israelis also celebrate the Sabbath, or Shabbath, as they call it in a distinctively Marathi accent, the day of rest as commanded by God. But no wine on the Sabbath for this community. Instead, they break the Yom Kippur fast with a sherbet of black currants or raisins, and sweet puris. The sweet puris are actually a seven-layer fried crepe filled with coconut, raisins and pistachios. The sherbet is made by boiling raisins in water for ages and then squeezing the juice from the plumped fruit.
Chik-cha halwa is a signature Bene Israeli dessert, often made at the Jewish New Year. Chik for the Chik-Cha Halwa is complicated to make. You have to soak whole wheat in water for three days till the wheat puffs up. Then you blend the wheat to a smooth paste, spread out on a plate and dry it in the sun. When dry and hard, you break the dried Chik into pieces and store.

When making the halwa, the dried Chik is ground and mixed with coconut milk, sugar, vanilla and almonds, and cooked on a slow fire, for a few hours, till the paste thickens. Then it is cooled, cut and eaten.
This year, some 700 more Indian Jews will probably immigrate to Israel, a three-fold increase over last year. Israel’s government has doubled the budget marked for their immigration. They will leave behind empty houses, abandoned synagogues and a cuisine that is fast fading.

Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar


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