India’s ancient and dwindling Jewish community looks set to receive official minority status

India’s ancient and dwindling Jewish community looks set to receive official minority status

Only one in every 2,47,269 Indians is of Jewish origin. The community, which makes up only about 0.0004 per cent of the entire population, is minuscule but it doesn’t get the benefits that come with the government-issued tag issued to many other minorities. It’s something Ezra Moses, honorary secretary of the Indian Jewish Federation and Solomon Sopher, president of the Indian Jewish Congress, are determined to change.

In April 2016, Najma Heptulla, Union minister for minority affairs, finally announced that the government was considering granting official minority status to the 5,000-member community. The ray of hope comes almost two years after Sopher first wrote to the ministry following a recommendation made by Maharashtra governor C.V. Rao, a prominent BJP leader, in November 2014. The final decision lies with the Union Cabinet and Moses has his hopes pegged on the NDA government.

‘India as our motherland and Israel as our fatherland’

“Jews have lived in India for thousands of years and we have never faced persecution by the locals,” says Moses. “That’s why we will always call ourselves Indians first. We might not shout slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jai, but we think of India as our motherland and Israel as our fatherland, promised to us by our lord almighty. The problem is that during the time of India’s independence, our community leaders believed that since we weren’t a backward class, we didn’t need special status.”

Leading the 300-family-strong community in Thane as honorary secretary of the Shaar Hashamain (Gates of Heaven) synagogue for the past 35 years, Moses believes minority status is now essential to the community. Their decision to renovate the Thane synagogue, a grade II-B heritage structure, was followed by a seven-year-long battle with the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC), which has repeatedly taken over portions of land from the synagogue and centuries-old cemeteries for road widening. “We really have to fight it out,” he exclaims.

Moses and Sopher, prominent leaders of the Bene Israeli and Baghdadi Jewish communities respectively, believe getting minority status is essential to not only help in the maintenance of religious structures and cemeteries, but also to simplify the process of Jewish marriage registrations and to get state aid for the schools they run-Sir Elly Kadoorie, Jacob Sassoon and EEE Sassoon School. But aid itself is just the half of it. For some of Mumbai’s more orthodox Jewish families, the schools are no longer Jewish enough. All three schools are in Muslim-dominated areas (Byculla and Mazgaon), which means almost 90 per cent of the students are Muslim. Also, none of the teachers is Jewish and apart from a prayer read from the Torah in the mornings, there are no other religious teachings.

The faithful at the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue in Thane, Mumbai. Photo: Danesh Jassawala

The faithful at the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue in Thane, Mumbai. Photo: Danesh Jassawala

Which is why people like Sharon Galsurkar and his wife Sharona Massil are hoping to transfer their eldest daughter to the Chabad School, run by American rabbis in Mumbai, where religious studies are given as much importance as secular education.

Matzo, post-mortems and other challenges

Minority status will mean little to the Galsurkars, not just because they hope to eventually emigrate to Israel, but because they aren’t sure how much it will affect everyday challenges for Indian Jews. A day before Passover, there is mayhem at their third-floor home in Byculla, once a hostel for Jewish children making their way to Israel. They are expecting 53 guests, both friends and family, for Passover seder, and the meal must be homemade. The menu includes chicken gravy, potatoes and peas curry, and similar Indian kosher delicacies. A goat too has been slaughtered (according to kosher law) so that a shank bone can be plated as a ritual offering. The Israeli consulate has decided against importing the matzo, special unleavened bread, for the community this year. But they have managed to stock up on the Baghdadi-style matzo made at the makeshift tent behind the Magen David synagogue nearby. Meanwhile, the house has been undergoing a spring cleaning of sorts all day long.

It’s a phone call about a funeral that brings some relief to the household. A Jewish gentleman living alone in a nearby neighbourhood had passed away about eight days ago. His body was discovered at his home by the police, who wanted to conduct a post-mortem (strictly forbidden under Jewish law). “We had a hard time explaining this to the police. They finally agreed to do without a post-mortem, but his body has been kept at the morgue for a week now. According to Jewish practice, a body must be buried as soon as possible, and usually we don’t wait even one night,” Sharon complains. That the funeral will be conducted before Passover provides some comfort to the community.

‘I feel more connected to Islam than Christianity’

Jews are said to have first arrived on Indian shores 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Fleeing the northern kingdom of Israel, they were left shipwrecked at Nagaon, a coastal village of Maharashtra, where a memorial still stands today. This community came to be known as the Bene Israeli. The Baghdadi Jews settled in India in the 19th century while the oldest surviving documents of the Cochin Jewish community date to 1000 CE (a merchant’s charter) and it’s safe to presume the community was present well before then. These were the three recognised Jewish communities in India, until 2005 when the chief rabbi of Israel acknowledged the Bnei Menashe in Mizoram and Manipur as a lost tribe of Jews and allowed their immigration according to Israel’s Law of Return. Meanwhile, in Andhra Pradesh, a small community of Telugu-speaking Jews is claiming to be the lost tribe of Bene Ephraim and is hoping for similar recognition.

Since Jews consider themselves God’s ‘chosen people’, conversion in India is rare and only encouraged in the case of an inter-faith marriage. Perhaps this exclusion, as in the case of the Parsis, has helped them achieve peace and respect among other local communities. It has also meant that most Indians are unaware of the fundamentals of Judaism. “Many think we worship Jesus. They wish me on Christmas and Easter. The two religions are starkly different and the truth is I feel more connected to Islam than Christianity, and if it came to it I would rather pray in a mosque than a church. I sometimes wish I didn’t have to explain my identity and my religion, but I’ve got used to the question now,” says Mumbai-based Nathaniel Jhirad.

A Jewish devotee at the Holy Ark. Photo: Danesh Jassawala

A Jewish devotee at the Holy Ark. Photo: Danesh Jassawala

The lack of knowledge extends to his community too, believes the 24-year-old chartered accountant, who took a year off from work to study the religious texts. Until recently, Jhirad taught Hebrew and gave talks on Judaism to children. “But I don’t see it as a big priority among parents for their kids. They’re stuck in the same rat race as other Indians are,” reflects Jhirad. He feels the community lacks a leadership that would encourage a critical study of religion in a wider context. “Critical study of the texts has allowed Jews to stay unique abroad. That’s lacking in India. There’s no infrastructure for that here,” he says.

‘I’d value my faith less in Israel’

Until recently, till Abraham Benjamin became (the first and only) rabbi to the Bene Israelis in Thane, the community did not have a qualified priest to lead the prayers. Even now, it is the elders of the community who perform rituals-marriages, circumcisions, as well as the Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. At these ceremonies, you’ll find silver-haired elders with white shawls wrapped around their shoulders and the strap of the black leather Tefillin wound tightly around their arm, reading from the manuscripts. At the Shaar Hashamain synagogue, the language of prayer is Hebrew, the conversation is in Marathi. The synagogue is filled with men in suits and others in their best sherwanis. The women watch from the first floor, dressed in their traditional best-bright saris and sequined salwar kameezes-their heads covered by folded hankies pinned to their hair.

It isn’t easy to practise Judaism in the country. Most jobs involve working on Sabbath or Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and Jewish festivals like Yom Kippur, Hanukkah or Passover are not official holidays. “But being an Indian Jew has enriched me. If you stay in a country where everyone is Jewish, and everything works according to the Jewish calendar, then how do you make yourself different? Life would be easier, yes, but you would also value it less,” believes Jhirad.

‘Will there be Jews here in 25 years?’

In Maharashtra, the influential Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family’s contributions have been far too valuable to go unnoticed. They built the David Sassoon library, the Sassoon docks, Mesina hospital, Sassoon hospital, a leprosy home in Pune and even set up the Bank of India. Several of the Sassoons, including Sir Jacob and Lady Rachael, are buried at the Eliyahoo synagogue cemetery in Chinchpokli, one of the better maintained. Those buried in the 19th century cemetery in Nagpada weren’t as lucky. It’s now a public garden with no trace of its former avatar except for a single gravestone from 1824. “Legend has it the person buried under it haunted the municipal workers and wouldn’t let them lay cement over his grave,” reveals Sharon. The Jewish community’s population may be dwindling in India, but Moses insists it is very much “alive”. Ben Frank, in his Scattered Tribe: Travelling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond, writes, “I never once asked the question in India that I usually ask in all small, exotic Jewish communities: will there be Jews here in 25 years?”

‘Of course I will marry a Jewish girl’

Aaliyah or permanent immigration to Israel has not come to a standstill, but for those like Andheri-based sisters Shaina, 20, and Angela Penkar, 17, India is home and will always be. It is with a sense of pride that they find newer ways to reclaim their Jewish identity. Youth groups, such as the one supported by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), ensure youngsters meet regularly and share ideas. An elected youth committee plans year-long activities, such as summer and winter camps, bike rides or cricket tournaments. But the highlight is the Khai Fest, held annually in Mumbai to celebrate Hanukkah.

These get-togethers help create a sense of belonging and allow the youth to mingle with people of the same faith within their home country. Although there are a few matchmakers who help set up arranged marriages, many young Jews hook up through these youth programmes.

Marrying within the community may no longer be top priority, but it remains an important principle for many Indian Jews. “Of course, I would like to marry a Jewish girl,”says Jhirad. “I see it as a responsibility. How else will we continue the tradition in its purest form? Marrying someone from your religion and faith is not about racism or exclusion, it’s about continuing a legacy.”

‘Why should they deny us?’

The application for minority status was fuelled by a recommendation made by Maharashtra governor and BJP leader C.V. Rao in November 2014. Six months later, the ministry of minority affairs informed the community that the census showed no sign of a Jewish population in the country. “But that was easy to explain. After all, when people from the census department come to our houses they have no idea who Jews are. Rather than try and explain, we agree to being put down in the list as Christians,” says Sopher.

The synagogues and community organisations across the country drew up a list of 5,000 Jews, largely across Maharashtra, parts of Gujarat, Kolkata, Kochi, Mizoram, Manipur and Andhra Pradesh. They are now looking forward to a positive response. “Why should they deny us something that we should have got years ago?” asks Sopher. Moses is convinced that the announcement of minority status will be made during Modi’s trip to Israel or during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India.



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