Gujarat’s unique Jewish heritage to get facelift

Gujarat’s unique Jewish heritage – the Israeli Kabrastan at Nizampura – is expected to get some permanent face-lift after years of yearning. Israel’s consul general in India Orna Sagiv will be visiting the Jewish cemetery on Thursday.

This is the fist visit by an Israeli official at the Jewish cemetery which has some of its graves dating back to 1850 AD.

TOI has been consistently highlighting the fact that this unique heritage of the Bene Israeli community of Gujarat is facing threat of commercialization and encroachment.

After TOI in December last, highlighted that the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) had given permission to put up a hoarding on the graveyard to a private advertising agency, further exploitation has stopped.

Young volunteers of the ‘Friends of Israel’ and Sheth Faramji Cavasji Contractor Community College have also taken up a beautification project to provide a face-lift to the cemetery by putting up solar light, resurrecting the graves and planting saplings.

“We hope that during her visit we will be able to find out a long term sustainable solution to protect this heritage,” general secretary of the Friends of Israel Nikitan Contractor told TOI, adding that it has been proved beyond doubt that the Gaekwads who had Benne Israeli families in their court had given the land to the community for burial.

Contractor added that during Sagiv’s visit, the members of the community will push forward a proposal to get the cemetery declared an Archaeological Survey of India protected site.

“If ASI isn’t ready to take over and maintain this site, local authorities or a group should be allowed to maintain the cemetery so this 30,000 square feet land is put to good use,” he said.

This unique heritage had first faced threat when a builder – Suresh Shinde – who has cordoned off 5,000 square feet of the land – wanted to construct a row of shops for ‘development’ reasons. Shinde had argued that he had purchased the land from one member of the community.

Later citizens had embarked on a signature campaign to save the heritage from being sold off to builders in 2004 and two district collectors – Bhagyesh Jha and Vijay Nehra had constituted inquiries on ownership of the land. It was on Nehra’s instructions that former resident deputy collector Kamal Shah had issued order on July 2009 that the land which was gifted to the community during the Gaekwadi state era cannot be considered as a private land and hence be brought under government control.

The Jewish cemetery is a unique feature of Baroda which shows traces of the community’s existence since the era of the Gaekwads dating back to almost 160 years. The graves of earliest German Jews lie here.

What is interesting about each of them are the writings on the tomb stones. The epitaphs are engraved in three different languages – Marathi, Hebrew and English. And it is not incidental as each of these languages speak forth a history of the Bene Israeli community. History has it that a boat landed in Maharashtra centuries ago. They soon adopted the names of Maharashtra villages as their surnames. Slowly, they adopted the customs as well, while retaining some original traits. The epitaphs hence have Hebrew (their local language), Marathi (the language they adopted) and English which they eventually learnt.

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