The facts & myths about India’s Jewish connection

Tevye: As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.
Mendel: Where does the book say that?
Tevye: Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken.

The conversation, which has centuries-old variants in every continent and culture, is from Fiddler on the Roof. The memorable 1971 musical told the story of a Jewish peasant family that uses their native songs, humour and sense of irony to cope with the anti-Semitic upsurge in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Everyone cooks up a chicken story. It helps people embellish their collective or individual identities with beliefs, even mythologies. India is in ferment with different flavours of the chicken broth, its dominant delicacy garnished with saffron. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was vending one such recipe in Israel recently.

Jews have found peace and love in India as nowhere else, he told an audience of Israelis who once belonged to South Asia. Mr Modi was only partly right, and there is a truer way to say what he said. Jews attained their “golden age” in Spain under Muslim rule from where they were expelled in 1492 with the return of Christianity. The Moorish rulers had accorded high respect to the community, as people of the book.

Mr Modi mentioned Lt. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob as an example of a patriotic Indian who was Jewish. Gen. Jacob, who later joined the BJP, was a hero in the fall of Dhaka. The Prime Minister would have been more objective in his recall of the Jewish diaspora had he remembered the scores of Iranian Jews who fought like Gen. Jacob for Iran in the long war with Iraq. If India was the only oasis of calm for the community, as Mr Modi would have us believe, what are 15,000 Jews doing in Islamic Iran today, a country, which is possibly the only democracy with a mandated seat for a Jewish deputy in the national Parliament? How does it compare with saffron India?

Also, India’s close call with anti-Semitism was missing from the chicken soup narrative in Israel. It is all there in the book authored by M.S. Golwalkar, the early Hindutva stalwart.

“To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of Semitic races — the Jews,” Golwalkar gloated in his book regarded by many as Hindutva’s bible. “National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”

The telling lesson prescribed for Muslims (and Christians) by Golwalkar was adopted in subtle practice, if not in theory, by mainstream politicians, not excluding the Congress.

It would be less of a chicken story had Mr Modi cushioned his remarks by recalling how his peers were swayed by Hitler’s fatal charisma. The proof still exists. Mein Kampf sells like hot cakes at railway stations across India.

Indian Jews prospered under Hindu and Muslim rulers alike though one of them was laid low by the puritan Aurangzeb. Strictly speaking, however, the emperor’s beheading of Shah Sarmad did not result from his being an Armenian Jew. Rather it was the rebel fakir’s conversion to Sufism and his “heretic” interpretation of the kalima that earned him his harsh retribution. The busy shrine of Sarmad near the Mughal-era Jama Masjid today is proof that Aurangzeb’s successors atoned for his foolishness as they encouraged everyone, including Muslims, to throng there in an unspoken rebuke to a ruler’s narrow mindedness.

There was Gauharjan, on the other hand. She was India’s first singer to cut a vinyl record. Gauhar’s mother was an Armenian Jew. After her English father deserted the mother, a Muslim admirer of the mother’s musical skills raised Gauhar. The legendary singer shared her scorn for the British with nationalist leaders. But, Gandhi, being a judgemental Hindu himself, not unlike Mr Modi’s reactionary peers, refused her membership of the party as she was Calcutta’s most loved singer.

The Jewish community did thrive in the subcontinent for centuries even as they faced racial bias in Europe. Baghdadi Jews mostly ran major businesses all over India, under Hindu patronage and under Muslim rule. They did well for themselves during British rule too. Since Indian independence though, which coincided with the creation of Israel, their number has dwindled dramatically in cities where they once built beautiful synagogues and led socially integrated lives.

A Jewish scholar says that some Jews in Mumbai became so “Hinduised” that they gave up eating meat though they continued to practise circumcision. An alternative view could be that these Jews, being traders, were probably influenced by a culture of vegetarianism common among Jains and Hindu traders.

A quick look across the border would reveal to Mr Modi another gem about South Asia’s Jewish connection. The magnificent Parliament House in Bangladesh was built by Louis I. Kahn, a Jewish architect from America. But that was not before he was contracted by Pakistan in 1962 to build a second chamber of deputies in Dhaka. If some Bangladeshis mistake the builder of the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban for Louis Farrakhan, the African-American Muslim rebel, it can be taken as an ingredient of the chicken history Hindutva mobs have turned into a successful street art.

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