Mumbai’s Jewish Culture: Small but Unique
With at least seven synagogues, each with its own unique design and history, Mumbai has no shortage of Jewish sites to visit. But given the city’s tiny Jewish population, trying to get a Shabbat minyan at each poses a bigger challenge.
Sitting in the office of the Magen Hassidim Synagogue (8, Mohomad Shahid Marg, Agripada; 91-22-2309-2493), Abraham Samson and Daniel Soloman Waskar, the synagogue’s president and manager, recalled the community’s golden years in an interview conducted before the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During the British era, the synagogue, with its high ceiling, upper level for women, hanging eternal light and tebah (the Sephardic term for the bimah, the elevated central prayer area) would become so crowded that people would gather at the door.
Beginning in the 1950s, though, most of the city’s Jewish community left for Israel or the West. Mr. Samson and Mr. Waskar rattled off each member of their family and where they now live. “Now from my family,” Mr. Samson said, “nobody’s here.”
Despite the exodus of Indian Jews, the men said they expect the High Holiday services to attract about 400 people, mostly Bene Israel Jews. That community believes their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast some 2,000 years ago. They have preserved their Jewish traditions, including keeping Kosher, while also learning the local Marathi language, eating mangos and playing cricket.
The Bene Israel community can also be found at the Tiphereth Israel Synagogue (92 K.K. Marg, near the Jacob Circle Post Office; 91-22-2305-3713), which will be celebrating its 125th anniversary this March. Inside, wooden benches surround a red velvet tebah. The one-floor synagogue boasts a collection of nine Sefer Torahs kept in wooden cases with silver ornamental scroll-handles.
Another must-see is the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue (55, Dr. V.B. Gandhi Marg, Fort; 91-22-2283-1502). The Sassoon family, known for their religious and charitable contributions to the city, built this elaborate synagogue with high ceilings, stained-glass windows and light blue walls in 1884. The synagogue, like the Magen David Synagogue (340, Sir J.J. Road, Byculla; 91-22-2300-6675), once served a large Baghdadi Jewish community, which immigrated to India beginning in the mid-19th century. It now caters mostly to foreign visitors.