Jews of Mumbai, a Tiny and Eclectic Group, Suddenly Reconsider Their Serene Existence
MUMBAI, India – The peeling turquoise facade of the colonial-era Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the heart of the city’s financial district has long been a tourist attraction, a reminder of the centuries of Jewish influence that have helped shape Mumbai and of the acceptance Jews have enjoyed here.
But after the terrorist attacks last week, Mumbai’s Jews are dismayed to find another building suddenly vying with the 124-year-old synagogue as a symbol of their presence: the charred remains of Nariman House, where gunmen killed Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife, Rivka, and four other Jews.
Although none of the Jews killed in the terrorists’ assault on Nariman House, the community center run by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, were Indian citizens, the attacks have badly shaken Jews in India. Mumbai has about 4,000 Jewish residents, accounting for a vast majority of India’s Jewish population.
“This is the first time when a Jew has been targeted in India because he is a Jew,” said Jonathon Solomon, a Mumbai lawyer and president of the Indian Jewish Federation. “The tradition of the last thousand years has been breached.”
The origins of India’s Jews remain uncertain, but according to some accounts they may have come as emissaries from the court of King Solomon. They established communities and lived peacefully with Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and, later, Muslims. The absence of anti-Semitism throughout this history has been a source of pride in India.
“This is one of the few countries where Jews never faced discrimination and persecution,” said Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, a leader of the Jewish community in New Delhi.
Jews played a prominent role in several coastal cities, but nowhere more so than in Mumbai. Jewish merchants from Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries arrived in the late 18th century in what was then British Bombay and quickly established themselves as leading businessmen, opening textile mills and international trading companies.
Only about 200 of these so-called Baghdadi Jews remain in Mumbai, with the rest having immigrated to Israel, Britain and the United States. But their legacy endures: synagogues, libraries and schools, many of which serve Jews and non-Jews. They also financed the construction of several city landmarks, including the Flora Fountain and the Sassoon docks.
Today, most of Mumbai’s Jews have roots in a group known as the Bene Israel community, which claims to be descended from seven Jewish families who were shipwrecked on India’s shore while fleeing persecution in the Galilee during the second century B.C. Over the centuries, they adopted Indian language, dress and cuisine. Since India became independent, these Jews have often played influential roles in Indian society, including in government and Bollywood.
“We always felt we were Indians first and Jews second,” said Mr. Malekar, a Bene Israel Jew.
That sensibility has been shattered by the siege of Nariman House. “This attack has really shaken us up,” said a Jewish educator in Mumbai who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “If with such ease they could finish off the whole Chabad House – the property and the people – now we have to have a fresh look at our own security.”
Many Jewish institutions have remained closed this week as a security precaution. Jewish leaders said they might have to begin restricting access to synagogues and community centers. “Jewish institutions in India are soft targets,” Mr. Solomon said. “After being used to living fearless for so long we are going through a phase where we are debating with ourselves about being careful and whether we need to change our mode of existence.”
Heightening anxieties is the location of many of Mumbai’s synagogues, which are now in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Historically, relations between the two religious groups in Mumbai have been good.
“They live with us as brothers and in brotherhood we also live with them,” said Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon and Allied Trusts, which manages several Jewish institutions, including a high school that was founded as a Jewish school but now enrolls mostly Muslims.
After the terrorist assaults, some Mumbai Jews said they were increasingly apprehensive about their Muslim neighbors.
Mr. Solomon said the attack convinced him of the need for India’s Jews to seek official recognition as a minority group. Such status confers privileges, including reserved places for admission to universities and for government jobs. More important, Mr. Solomon said, it would require the Indian government to protect the Jewish community from persecution. In the past, the Indian government has argued that there are too few Jews in the country to grant minority status.
Many Mumbai Jews said they had limited interaction with Rabbi Holtzberg and Chabad House, whose activities were focused on Orthodox Jews visiting from abroad and encouraging greater religious observance among young Israeli backpackers. Few Jews live in the Colaba neighborhood where Nariman House is, having moved to more affluent areas in northern and western parts of the city.
In addition, the Lubavitchers’ ultra-Orthodox practices are much stricter than the observance of most Mumbai Jews.
But Rabbi Holtzberg did preside over Sabbath services every Friday at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. He also conducted religious study classes and helped supply the city’s more religious Jews with kosher meat.
Some Jews said the attacks were likely to foster closer ties within the city’s Jewish population, which in the past had been deeply divided between the Baghdadi community and the Bene Israel group, although those tensions were easing as the city’s Jewish population dwindled. Representatives from both Indian Jewish communities, as well as Chabad, mourned the Holtzbergs and the other Jewish victims from Nariman House at a memorial service on Monday.
Mr. Solomon, who described himself as a secular Jew, said he would be sure to visit the Chabad House when it reopens. A new rabbi, Dov Goldberg, has already been selected.
“Next time it opens, I will make it a point of going to show my solidarity with them,” Mr. Solomon said. “I suppose the same will go for many members of our community.”