Number of Jews in city dwindling, says Israeli researcher

MUMBAI: She once climbed up a bamboo ladder to enter a renovated synagogue that had been locked for good in Kochi. The doors of the evolving Thane synagogue though, were open to welcome Dr Shalva Weil, a senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, who was happy to climb its wet stairs recently. Weil, who has been researching Jews in India for 30 years, was at the Gateway of Heaven synagogue in Thane to tell the vibrant Jewish community there “a bit more about itself”.

Jews have been living in India for thousands of years without suffering any persecution, she said. At the time of Partition, there were around 28,000 Jews in India, but over the years their numbers have been declining steadily. Mumbai is no exception: the number of Jews in the city, quoted by locals and others according to the synagogue census, is 5,000. But Weil estimates the more accurate number is 4,000. “The number is dwindling. And this is true even of the Bene Israel Jews who are migrating with their families to Israel,” she said.

One common theme that bound all the Jews in India, Weil observed, was their “longing to migrate to Israel someday”. Ezra Moses, secretary of the Thane synagogue, attributed the dwindling number to the lure of foreign countries among the youth. “The fact that the constitution does not recognise the Jewish community as a minority, is adding to the migratory trend,” said Moses.

After expressing dismay over the recent terror attacks, Weil spoke about the prominent presence of Jews in Indian history, and narrated interesting tidbits from her latest book `Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship in India’. During the course of her research, Weil found that Indian Jews in Israel can be distinguished by the contents of their suitcases, which carry pickles, Bollywood Dvds, saris, etc. These seemed to form a major part of their emotional paraphernalia.

Weil, who is the founding chairperson of the Israel-India cultural association, also drew Jewish references from Indian archives. Gandhi’s doctor, David Arulkar, and Samuel Divekar, the man who facilitated the making of the Gateway of India, were both Jewish. An evidence, perhaps, of the dwindling strength of the community is the fact that during a past lecture at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Weil noticed, “Nobody had heard of Jews. None of them even knew that Jews existed in Mumbai, let alone India.” The Nariman House tragedy, she is told, has changed that.

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