Their Tiny Slice of India is Jewish
Though his last name might be a hint, Opher Moses still gets puzzled looks when he asks for time off during the Jewish high holidays. Because of his skin colour and accent most people assume he is Hindu or Muslim. “I never get Jewish. Even in Israel they think I’m Palestinian,” he says.
A 1999 immigrant from India, Moses is part of a tight-knit community of about 400 Indian Jews in the GTA – a fascinating minority that is misunderstood, at least initially, as often by their Jewish cousins as by the wider world, yet devoted to preserving their faith and heritage. They will gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, today.
Their Hebrew service includes elements familiar to all Jews such as the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), but instead of honey cakes, halva (an Indian sweet made of semolina) will be served as part of the exuberant festivities. “We wear Indian dress, distribute sweets and sing Indian melodies. Everything is the same way we had it back in India. Sometimes we even incorporate a Bollywood tune to make it more proactive with the audience,” says Moses, 24, a mortgage consultant.
Adds Victor Abraham, 72, a lay cantor who officiates during the service: “It’s our way of melding our Indian culture with our Jewish faith. Jewish people have always taken on the shades and culture from the part of the world they live in.”
Though the broader Jewish community has come to embrace Indian Jews warmly, scepticism is a common reaction from others, says Moses. “In India, being Jewish was no big deal because we have such a long history there. But when I came here, I found a big gap in understanding. People would look at me strange when I told them I was an Indian Jew. I had to go into great detail to explain who I was.”
Lacking their own synagogue in Toronto, Indian Jews come together as a group only for the High Holidays, gathering at the Jewish Women’s Council Hall on Bathurst St. After Rosh Hashanah services this morning, Shirley Kehimkar has invited family and friends home to enjoy an Indian feast she planned to get up at 3 a.m. to start preparing, including rice pilaf, chicken curry and grouper fish. “A Jew is a Jew. We’re the same everywhere, but I do like spicing up my food,” Kehimkar, 65, a retired civil servant who came to Canada in 1969, says with a chuckle. “We’re such a small community we’re like one big family.”
She organized “A Night in Bombay” complete with bhangra dancing earlier this year to celebrate the community’s deep roots in India, where they are known as the Bene Israel Diaspora.
The Indian Jewish community began with just seven couples, oil pressers by trade from Yemen who survived a shipwreck off the coast of India in the 2nd century B.C. – or so legend has it. At their height, there were about 20,000 Jews in India, though only 4,000 remain today, mostly in the cities of Mumbai and Pune. Many Jews rose to prominence there, including Albert Sassoon, after whom the Mumbai dock is named.
Despite a relatively idyllic existence in India, many did the same as Jews all over the world and emigrated to Israel after the nation’s birth in 1948. “In India there was no such thing as anti-Semitism. I only heard that word after I left,” says Abraham, a retired Hamilton city planner who came here in 1968 for a better economic opportunity.
With larger numbers in India, it was easier for Jews to preserve their faith and culture. In Canada, doing so is more challenging because “we are a minority within a minority,” Moses says. Parents in the small community typically send their children to Jewish schools or Hebrew night classes. They attend established synagogues. Bar and bat mitzvahs are celebrated. Small groups of families take turns hosting the Sabbath dinner at home on Fridays. Marrying within the faith is strongly encouraged.
Their strong identification with Indian culture means they also observe festivals such as Diwali and Holi. “It’s an interesting balance,” says Moses.
“I also have allegiance to three countries because they’ve shaped who I am. If someone talks negatively about Israel I’m right in there defending the country. Same with India and now also Canada.”