Falafel meets chana masala at the Indian Embassy

Attendees at the Indian Embassy’s Chanukah party feasted on such dishes as chana masala, fish tikka and mysore pak.

So why have a Chanukah party at the Indian Embassy of all places?

How about this – Jews have lived in India for 2,000 years. There are more than 80,000 Indian Jews living in Israel, and there are about 4,500 Jews calling India home.

“There is so much commonality, a kinship, between our communities,” said Melanie Maron Pell, director of the American Jewish Committee. Her organization, along with the Indian Embassy and B’nai B’rith, sponsored the Dec. 22 Chanukah bash.

This annual party, which started in 2002, has become the most popular embassy Chanukah party in the District.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s become the most sought after invitation,” said Dan Arbell, who spoke during the evening’s program on behalf of Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States.

The party is usually held at the ambassador’s residence, which can hold about 400 people. But Ambassador Nirupama Rao is currently in India and so the party was moved to the embassy, where Datta Padsalgikar, minister of personnel and community affairs, said he was only able to invite 150 people.

He shyly shrugged off questions about how much pressure he receives for an invite, noting he just asks people affiliated with the American Jewish community, the Indian Jewish community and the Israeli Embassy.

While he claimed to have only invited 150 people, there were easily 250 people crowded into the embassy. With limited space and few chairs, people took their plates piled high with Indian and Israeli food and sat on the stairs, along the stage or just leaned against the walls.

The evening began with the menorah lighting. Although the prayer was the same one heard in homes throughout the world, the Indian melody was different.

Actually two menorahs were lit simultaneously, one by Nissim Reuben, program director of Indian-Jewish American relations at American Jewish Committee, and his father, Benjamin. The other one was lit by Jarron Bernstein, director of Jewish outreach at the White House, and Arbell, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy.

“There is tremendous mutual goodwill between the people of India and Israel. India is the most popular and safest destination for Israelis to visit after their army service with 60,000 Israelis visiting India annually,” Nissim Reuben said.

“Both communities respect each other very much,” he noted. “On the 20th anniversary of the upgrading of India-Israel relations, we look forward to expanding our partnerships with India and the Indian-American communities.”

He smiled as he reminded everyone, “You are standing on Indian soil right now.”

The mood was festive with lots of mingling despite the numerous languages spoken.

In one room adjacent to the main room where the speeches were made, were two large tables piled high with Indian food. The room was filled with aromas from chana masala, cabbage poriyal, fish tikka, spinach tofu, lemon rice and several very sweet desserts.

In a third room, there was a table filled with all the trimmings to made falafel for those who were kosher.

The 10-member Makela Jewish Acapella, who were all dressed in blue and black, treated the audience to three songs.

Via video on a huge screen, Ambassador Rao called the party “a tradition,” adding, “Chanukah is an occasion to come together.”

She explained that Indians also have a holiday, called Diwali, which is “observed by the lighting of lamps.”

The Jews in India “came to our country in search of peace, knowledge and prosperity,” the ambassador said. They have “blended well in our society while adhering to their faith.”

Arbell praised relations between India and Israel in technology and finance, calling the overall relationship “splendid.”

He anxiously awaits the February visit of the Indian foreign minister to Israel, calling it “historic.”

Pointing to grave concerns over Iran and the results of the Arab Spring, Arbell said there is a “stong need” for Israel, the United States and India “to show the way, to project the light, to strive together.”

Bernstein, a New Yorker who has only worked at the White House about nine weeks, called the evening a confirmation of a positive relationship. “We are all working to step forward and light a candle” and escape the darkness, he said.

But he couldn’t help adding, “I felt like I was having an only-in-New-York moment” when he thought about heading to the Indian Embassy for a Jewish celebration.

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, expressing optimism about future collaboration between Israel and India, noted, “The sky is really the limit for what this relationship can produce.”

Harold Luks, whose company is involved with exports and trade, praised the evening. “I think both people really admire each other and need each other,” he said of Indians and Israelis.

“We need smart people and dedicated people to manage that relationship,” he said, clearly believing the caliber of people at the party fit that bill.


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