Discovering the Passover traditions of India’s largest Jewish community
“And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.” Exodus 12:7
My mom has vivid childhood memories etched in her mind of visiting Virjoli, a village south of her hometown Mumbai, witnessing members of her Bene Israel community slaughtering a goat for Passover and marking their door posts and lintels with palms dipped in its blood. Virjoli, also known as Satamba, was my mom’s maternal grandparents’ village, where they owned much land and two homes.
Imagine my surprise, after growing up in a predominantly Indian household in Ashdod, living and breathing Indian Jewish culture and food, to only learn about this ritual on my most recent trip back to Israel last month. I had had myriad conversations with my mom and others in the Bene Israel community over the last three decades, yet only discovered this elusive-to-me custom during a Shabbat dinner in March. The stories were flowing out my mother that evening; on any other given day over the years she had been impatient with my questions and puzzled at my interest in the past.
The ritual, practiced in the community’s native India but not imported along with the immigration to Israel, came from the only book the Bene Israel knew, the Torah. As inscribed: “For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt… And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” Exodus 12:12-13.
“The Bene Israel, the Indian Jews, and the Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews, were the only two Jewish communities in the Diaspora who continued the ritual, which otherwise completely ceased to exist with the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.,” noted Dr. Shalva Weil, a senior researcher, in an interview at her Hebrew University office. The Samaritans also practice the sacrifice custom, pointed out Sharon Horowitz, librarian at the Hebraic Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress.
There are three distinct Indian Jewish communities: Our community, the Bene Israel, the largest of the three; the Cochini Jews, the oldest community; and the Baghdadi Jews, more recent, 18th-century arrivals to India. Two smaller Indian Jewish communities, the Bene Ephraim and Bene Menashe, were discovered more recently.
Legend has it that the Bene Israel community’s ancestors were seven men and seven women who were shipwrecked ashore, near Navgaon – where my father was born – on the Konkan coast, some 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple. With only an oral history passed down for generations, several theories seek to explain when the Bene Israel left Israel and arrived in India.
For centuries, the Bene Israel lived in isolation, with no contact with the rest of the world’s Jewry. All the while, they fervently preserved their Jewish identity. They kept the Shabbat, kashrut and circumcision laws, recited the “Shema,” and buried their dead, as opposed to their Hindu neighbors, who cremated theirs. The revival of the Bene Israel religious life occurred after Rabbi Rahabi, whose origin is also shrouded in mystery, arrived from Cochin and introduced Halacha to the community, possibly as early as 1000 CE.
Elijah the prophet holds a significant place in the Bene Israel’s folklore and the year-round Malida ritual, the preparation of a ceremonial food offering to celebrate life cycles and mark special occasions. I clearly remember congregating in our home for several Malida ceremonies – when my younger brothers were born, for a house warming – with the cantor singing Eliyahu HaNabi (as pronounced by the Bene Israel), and family and guests joining along. With no rabbis in the community, the cantors were the religious leaders of the Bene Israel.
In the Indian villages where they lived for centuries, the Bene Israel were “shenwar telis,” Saturday oil pressers, who didn’t work on the Sabbath. They began moving away from the villages in the mid-18th century, mainly to Mumbai. In the city, they assumed middle-class lives and prominent positions in the British army, film industry, government, railway system, and medical and education professions, among others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some 60,000 Indian Jews immigrated to Israel, including my parents, who met and built a family there. In Israel today the Indian Jewish population totals approximately 70,000. In India some 4,440 Indian Jews remain, by the American Joint Distribution Committee’s account, with approximately 200 in Konkan coast villages and the majority in Mumbai.
Over time, the handprint custom evolved – they were printed on paper and not directly on the door, as Nissim Moses, a historian of the Bene Israel community, wrote in Asian Jewish Life magazine. The hand markings were then taped to the top, left and right of the entrance. Erica Lyons, the magazine’s editor, observed that the pieces of the paper with the hand prints are left there year-round, following a trip to the home of Binyamin (Benjamin) Waskar, the last remaining Bene Israel shenwar tali, in Revdanda, Alibag, south of Mumbai, in December 2013.
Researchers agree the Bene Israel practiced the “sacrifice” and bloody handprint ritual only in the villages. For the most part that holds true, with isolated evidence to the contrary. In 1995, Rabbi Hyim Shafner was sent by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to India to serve as a community rabbi for a year at their office in Mumbai’s neighborhood of Byculla. Writing in 2012 for the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, he recalled:
“Later that day I entered the Jewish community office. Excited that it was Erev Pessah the secretary ran toward me: “Rabbi, do you want my eldest brother to dip his hand in goat’s blood for you?” she asked excitedly. “Goat’s blood?” I repeated, confused. “Yes, yes,” she exclaimed, “Passover is coming tomorrow. You know, for your door!” I looked up and sure enough, there above the front door of the office was a sheet of lined loose leaf paper with a big red bloody handprint.”
“And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” Exodus 12:8
My mom was born in Byculla and lived there with her family from the early1940s through the early 1960s. Growing up, she often accompanied my grandfather, who worked for the railway, on trips to the kosher butcher shop before holidays, special occasions and sometimes also on Fridays. The kosher butcher shop was located within a small meat market in Bandra, a nearby neighborhood, where they bought choice cuts of goat or lamb. An Orthodox man was butchering and always about the shop, she said.
On holidays, some Bene Israel families would group together to buy a whole goat or lamb, to be butchered by the kosher butcher at their local synagogue. It would then be split among the families.
A fragrant lamb or goat biryani, an aromatic layered basmati rice dish with masala (“curried”) lamb or goat, was then laboriously and patiently prepared. The biryani was topped with vibrant and textured garnishes including fried crispy onions, cashews, plumped raisins and cilantro leaf chips. This was and still is our family’s classic, celebratory dish on Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
During the eight days of Passover, the Bene Israel in India would use only fresh ingredients, and not dry spices, to eliminate the risk of eating hametz – the leavened bread products forbidden to all observant Jews on Passover. Wet masala was made from fresh cilantro, onions, garlic and hot green chili pepper. Fresh turmeric and ginger roots took the place of powdered turmeric and ginger. Nowadays, due to the abundance of kosher-for-Passover products in Israel, the Indian community uses both dry spices and green wet masala.
Other adaptations were made on Passover. In place of wheat flour bakhri, an Indian flat bread similar to chapati, a crispier rice flour version was made. On some days for dinner, during the intermediate days of the holiday, crepe-like polis were made from rice flour, as my friend Shayela Cowen, a member of the Bene Israel community now living in Australia, shared. The crepes were then sweetened with shira, a thick date syrup similar to Israeli silan. Shira was also served as the community’s version of haroset, although recipes vary from one household to the next. Instead of dried tea leaves, lemongrass leaves were used to steep tea. Sugar wasn’t used on Passover, so instead, my mom said, they would bite into a date while sipping the tea. Non-alcoholic “wine״ for the Kiddush was made from rehydrated currants, as was done year round.
Passover preparations began days in advance with matzah making, fittings for new clothes at the tailor’s, whitewashing the walls, re-tinning the pots, storing and replacing the earthenware, and ridding the home of hametz. With no refrigeration, most cooking ingredients were bought fresh daily, meaning there was hardly any hametz to purge, my mom pointed out.
While some recall the Bene Israel made matzah at their homes, my mother’s family in Mumbai never did. The community came together to make round matzahs, similar to today’s artisanal, labor-intensive matzah shmurah. My grandmother had a short-lived stint one year at the communal matzah making at the Baghdadi Indian synagogue, Magen David. My grandfather wasn’t too pleased she was working outside of their home.
For the Seder in India, the Bene Israel community had its own illustrated Passover haggadahs, written in Marathi and Hebrew. The first Bene Israel Bombay Haggadah was printed (lithographed) in 1846; a second illustrated haggadah came out of Poona in 1874, the second largest center of the Bene Israel, after Mumbai. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi captures the differences between the two haggadahs in the book
“Haggadah and History”:
”While the  Bombay illustrations were still closely linked to Amsterdam prototypes, this in the  Poona Haggadah have managed to drift into a sphere of their own. Even as they retain the basic pattern, they are now palpably Indian in tone and detail,” he wrote.
In Israel, most of the community uses standard Israeli haggadahs during the Seder. I grew up watching my mom and the elders of the community reading the prayers from a Siddur and Mahzor with Hebrew transliterated into Indian (Marathi) script. Not knowing how to read in Marathi, I found these transliterated holy books curious and mesmerizingly magical.
I felt spiritually connected to my ancestry in India at the sight of the tattered original 1874 Poona Haggadah at the Library of Congress. Reverently leafing through the frayed pages adorned with Marathi and Hebrew, and burnt at the edges, I was transported to another time and place, walking in my mother’s shoes, running through her grandparents’ village in India, later attending nursing school. Imagining myself walking with her and my grandfather to that butcher shop in Bandra, that is by now long gone.