Urban Sephardic Culture in the Ottoman Empire
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his recent visit to Israel, emphasized before an audience of Israelis that Jews have found peace and love in India as nowhere else. Most of those in the audience, at some point of time in history, had belonged to South Asia.
Jews attained their true ‘golden age’ in Spain under Muslim rule since the Moorish rulers regarded the Jewish community as people of the book and accorded high respect to them. However they were expelled from there in 1492 with the return of Christianity that caused the exodus.
Modi spoke highly of Jewish Gen J.F.R. Jacob with pride projecting him as an example of a patriotic Indian. Gen Jacob was the pilot who played a spirited and pivotal role in the fall of Dhaka that made him a hero. While mentioning Jacob, Modi was also effusive in his praise of the Jewish diaspora in India. In fact, when Europe and Asia were in fervent and there was turmoil around, India was the only oasis of calm for the Jewish community.
Some anti-Semitism sentiments of Hindu ideologue M.S. Golwakar notwithstanding, India has been very supportive of Jews. “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 mentioned in his book. “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.” His comments did not attract much audience.
Jews in India prospered under rulers of all hues, be it Hindu or Muslims. However, the ever intolerant, puritan Aurangzeb had other ideas. The Sunni intolerant emperor ordered beheading of Shah Sarmad, an Armenian Jew. Some argue that the punishment had less to do Aurangzeb’s anti-Semitism background. Aurangzeb was rather peeved with the rebel fakir’s conversion to Sufism and his ‘heretic’ interpretation of the kalmia, hence such harsh retribution. Aurangzeb’s successors built the shrine of Sarmad near the Mughal-era Jama Masjid where people today throng in huge numbers. This shrine serves as the monument of sectarian hatred and denotes the intolerance driven by religious hatred.
There was a legendary singer called Gauharjan who was the most loved singer of Calcutta city. Born of wedlock between her Armenian Jew mother and English father, her tribulations compounded when her father deserted the mother. Gauhar rose to be a legendary singer who became India’s first singer to cut a vinyl record.
In the middle of twentieth century the Jewish community faced racial bias in Europe but continued to thrive and prosper in Indian subcontinent for centuries. One of the famous strands of Jews- the Baghdadi Jews – prospered in India running their major businesses all over India, under Hindu , Muslim and British patronage.
Immediately after India got independence in 1947, Israel was created the year next in 1948. Resultantly, as Jews headed to their newly created home country, their number dwindled dramatically in Indian cities where they once built beautiful synagogues and led socially integrated lives. There have been instances of acculturation in specified pockets.
A Jewish scholar observed that some Jews in Mumbai became so ‘Hinduised’ that they gave up eating meat in spite of continuing to practise circumcision. It is also possible that these Jews, being traders, were probably influenced by a culture of vegetarianism common among Jains and Hindu traders. Israelis have taken to vegetarianism, which helps them abide with the tenets of kosher.
There is another aspect of South Asia’s Jewish connection. One Louis I. Kahn, the Jewish architect from America, built the magnificent parliament house in Bangladesh. He was contracted by Pakistan in 1962 to build a second chamber of deputies in Dhaka. Some Bangladeshis believe that Louis Farrakhan, the African-American Muslim rebel, is the builder of the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban.
Talking of South Asia’s borders reportedly there are 15,000 Jews in Iran today. Based on their contribution this democratic country has a mandated seat for a Jewish deputy in the national parliament. So Modi’s statement in Israel on the contribution of Jews had no iota of exaggeration.