Celebrity chef Moshe Shek knows what it’s like to be Jewish in India. He found his calling in the Promised Land, but he couldn’t call it home. After working in an Israeli kibbutz kitchen at 21, he returned to hometown Mumbai and went to catering college. But when he emigrated to Israel years later as a seasoned chef, he felt like an outsider. “I am Jewish by religion, but I am culturally Indian, not Israeli,” he says. “I returned to India because I am completely at home here.”
On the other hand, computer engineer Elkan Palkar says he feels at home in India, but still wants to emigrate to Israel. “I plan to learn the language and begin a new life in my fatherland and, if required, fight for it too,” he says.
For India’s 4,480 Jews-80 per cent of whom live in Mumbai-life is an eternal toss-up between settling down in Israel like Jews the world over, or staying on in India. Even though emigration is significantly down from the post-Independence years-there was a mass exodus after the formation of Israel in 1948-Mumbai’s Jews are still a shrinking community. Both the Bene-Israelis, who were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast 2,000 years ago, and the Baghdadi Jews-merchants who fled oppression in Iraq in the 18th century-are going all out to keep, as Jewish author Esther David puts it, “the young within the fold”.
At the city’s synagogues, Jewish boys are learning to blow the shofar-the ceremonial ram’s horn that brings all Jews together-and to speak Hebrew. At Thane’s Gate of Mercy Synagogue, the 80-year-old mikveh (ritual bath) has been revived so that young Jewish women can purify themselves after a menstrual cycle.
Outside the synagogues, community organisations encourage the young Jewish diaspora to build a strong community in India. For instance, the Indian wing of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Centre (AJDC) encourages the young to perform the Tzedekah, literally meaning righteousness. This righteousness takes many forms: preparing packed meals twice daily for destitute Jewish couples abandoned by their emigre children; visiting them regularly, even celebrating their birthdays with them. It also runs the Birthright Program, where young Jews are sent on their first trip to Israel, fully sponsored.
Conservative practices have a surprisingly strong following among young Indian Jews. Teenage brothers Nathaniel and Avniel Jhirad have no qualms about switching off the electricity on Sabbath, even if it means studying in the sweltering heat without air-conditioning. Palkar turned down a plum job with Reliance because it required him to work on Saturdays. “I want a young bride of pure Jewish blood,” he says.
But there are other studies in contrast, like Israel Phansapurkar, 20, who went to Israel for 10 days on the Birthright Program. “They took us around, told us we could always come there,” says Israel. “But India is home.” Film writer Bunny Reubens echoes the sentiment more strongly: “As a youngster I have starved myself and prayed non-stop for over 24 hours on the Day of Atonement…but I consider myself more Indian and I adore Mumbai. I remain connected to my Jewish background and traditions, but if asked to choose, I’ll take India any day.”
In a quiet village in Alibaug, up the coast from Mumbai, David Reuben Vaskar, the last of the Jewish oil-pressers, feels the same way. Two of his sons moved to Israel 13 years ago, but Vaskar has no intention of even visiting. “What have they got going there?” he scoffs. “They can’t even send Rs 200 a month to their papa.”
Truth is, Vaskar is doing better business than his Israel-based sons-he owns five coconut wadis and a carpentry workshop on the side. The 73-year-old wrings the oil out of oilseeds, as his Bene-Israeli ancestors have always done, generation after generation, over the last 2,000 years.Not much has changed, he says in fluent Marathi, except that the bullocks are gone and it’s all mechanised now. Vaskar’s grey eyes and lighter skin still set him apart from the other villagers of this Maharashtrian coastal hamlet. There’s also the Star of David that marks the outer facade of his home; and the weekly visits to the 200-year-old local synagogue, family in tow.
Vaskar’s ancestors fled Jerusalem two millennia ago after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple to the Romans. Shipwrecked off Alibaug, the early arrivals took to the local occupation of oil-pressing, soon coming to be known as ‘Shanwar Telis’ (Saturday oilmen) because of their observance of the Sabbath. In time, they adopted village surnames with the suffix ‘kar’ and discovered that coconut milk could be used for cooking -without breaking kosher laws about mixing meat and milk. Besides coconut, kokum, tamarind and saffron too found a safe place in the Bene-Israeli kitchen.
Instances of how the Bene-Israeli Jews imbibed Indian influences abound-from mehndi ceremonies at Jewish weddings to the publication of Marathi-language prayer books and the presence of a picture of Prophet Elijah in almost every Jewish home, even though the Jewish religion forbids display and worship of images. One thing that has survived intact is a collective memory of the ‘Shema Israel’ prayer-“Hear o Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
It’s the same prayer that Vaskar teaches his grandchildren. For 2,000 years since that legendary shipwreck, the Shema has been passed on orally, from father to son, from mother to daughter. What enabled the Bene-Israeli Jews, India’s largest and oldest Jewish community, to maintain their faith in isolation from Jews worldwide? Esther David calls it “nothing short of a miracle”. India is the only country in the world, she adds, where the Jews escaped persecution of any sort. (Incidentally, they are still to be recognised as a minority.)
In fact, the Bene-Israelis were so divorced from mainstream Judaism, they were spared from experiencing-or even comprehending entirely-the single shared experience that binds Jews worldwide: the Holocaust. Does that make them less Jewish? Far from it. Instead, it turns on its head the notion of Jews as a homogeneous, and persecuted, lot.
“I feel more Jewish in Bombay than in Israel,” says celeb chef Moshe Shek ” Mumbai’s Jews are far from homogeneous. The Baghdadis had been trading in India for centuries, but they settled in Mumbai long after the Bene-Israelis adapted to Konkan ways. Commercial interests drew their leader David Sassoon to India in 1832. Sassoon, and more so his sons after him, built the Magen David Synagogue, the Kennyseth Eliahu Synagogue, the David Sassoon Library, the Sassoon Docks, the Jacob Sassoon School, the Sassoon Mills etc. There are no Sassoons in India now, but the very face of Mumbai is a memorial to them.
While the Baghdadi Jews flourished under the British Raj, the Bene-Israelis came to a rapidly growing Mumbai in search of work. Suddenly thrown together, their relations were uneasy at best. “The Baghdadis were an orthodox sect,” ventures Solomon Sofer, Sassoon Trust chairman, “they weren’t sure of the antecedents of the Bene-Israelis, who had lived here for centuries.”
Benjamin Isaac, a Bene-Israeli from the community organisation ORT, puts it less diplomatically: “The Baghdadis were pro-British and looked down upon the sari-wearing, cricket-playing Bene-Israelis who sided with the rebels during the Indian nationalist movement.”
For film journalist Bunny Reubens’ grandfather, the rift between the two communities meant changing his surname from Nagavkar to Reubens in the early 1920s to appear more western to his potential employers, the Sassoons. Former model Rachel Reubens, raised by a Bene-Israeli father and a Baghdadi-Jewish mother, only became conscious of the divide after her mother’s death. “It hit me like a brick,” she recalls. “My sister and I were walking through the cemetery…even that was divided.”
The gulf has narrowed in recent years. With no more than 80 Baghdadi Jews in the city, the community depends upon the Bene-Israelis to get religious quorum-10 Jewish males-for services. At the city’s Baghdadi synagogues, where Bene-Israelis were once denied the honour of conducting services, all the hazzan (priests) are now Konkan Jews.
The fallout of emigration, though, is felt deeply. AJDC migration records say 52 Indian Jews emigrated to Israel in 2005; another 21 by May this year. It’s hard going for young Indian Jews to find marriage partners within their community. Inter-faith marriages are on the rise, and although conversions were traditionally looked upon sternly, it is not unusual for synagogues to conduct them these days. Sabbath services in Mumbai are often poorly attended, synagogues have closed down after standing empty for years.
Not everything is rosy in the Promised Land either, as Moshe Shek found out. The economy is reeling under inflation, and there is the constant security threat posed by the Palestinian uprising. Add to that the ‘discrimination’ against the darker Sephardic Jews, and one can see why it isn’t easy going for the 60,000 Indian Jews living there. “I feel more Jewish in Mumbai than I did in Israel,” says Shek, whose restaurant, Moshe’s, observes Jewish dietary laws.
Like Moshe, other emigres like Vaskar’s sons are now considering returning to India. Others have realised that although life in Israel isn’t easy, it’s a stepping stone to their final target of settling down in the West. But even for them, the India connection is alive. Every year, thousands of Indian Jews from all over Israel flock to Illat for the Hoduya festival (hodu means Indian) with its Indian cultural events. In the late ’90s, a Marathi Sahitya Sammelan was organised in Israel. On May 1 this year, Indian Jews in Israel sang Marathi songs in a celebration of Maharashtra Day. Mai Boli, a Marathi language quarterly printed in Israel, is quite popular among the diaspora.
Maharashtra-and Mumbai-have a special significance for India’s Jews, both here and abroad. The late poet Nissim Ezekiel-Indian Judaism’s most well-known face-knew it only too well. “He came and stayed with me,” remembers scholar Shalva Weil, of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “But he loved Mumbai and he couldn’t live without it.”