A visit to the Jewish communities in India
Steven Finkleman in front of the restored Chennamangalam Synagogue.
(photo by Steven Finkleman)
I had bought my airline ticket to Mumbai in the fall, aiming to track down the remains of the Jewish community in India. I set out with my backpack on Jan. 9 and, after several days, arrived. I had pre-booked a stay at Sassoon House, which is a residence for Jewish travelers at Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai.
Lufthansa pulled in at 2:30 a.m. Perfect time for arrival into a strange city of 18,000,000 people. Somehow, I found a taxi and a Western traveler who wanted to share the ride with me. And, somehow, I managed to give some direction to the synagogue, which is currently situated in the predominantly Muslim district of Byculla. It does take a bit of guts.
We pulled into the synagogue compound around 3:30 a.m. under the watchful eyes of Mumbai’s finest, accompanied by huge spotlights, army tanks and AK47s (all in response to the terrorist attack at a Mumbai synagogue five years ago). I was as cool as a cucumber. My taxi partner at this point was in apoplectic shock.
Fortunately, Mr. David, the caretaker of Sassoon House did answer the phone and let me in for four hours of rest, prior to attending the Shacharit service for Shabbat at 8:45 a.m. Interesting service. I was #11 in attendance, so was superfluous to the congregation. (I often have been #10 in these circumstances, serving as the final man needed to allow the service to proceed.) The service was rapid, Sephardi Orthodox, and the accent of the Baghdadi congregation made following along somewhat challenging. The familiar tunes of the Barchu, the Shma, the Amidah, the Aleinu, were absent and keeping up with the service required heavy concentration on my part after a 36-hour flight and four hours of sleep.
I received an aliyah to the Torah and, when I gave my name as Zalman ben Yaacov, Zalman being a Yiddish name and, therefore, totally unheard of in Mumbai, they interpreted my name as Solomon, and called me up as Shlomo ben Yaacov. Lunch at the rabbi’s home followed. Considerable gin was flowing (considering it was a former British colony) accompanied by lots of traditional Judeo-Marathi songs. I was forced to sing a representative Canadian song and led them all in a rousing version of “Allouette.” The luncheon ended with everyone sharing some snuff! As they all snorted away, I was sure to ask, “Are you certain that this is only tobacco?” before trying some myself.
The Indian community goes back about 2,000 years. Some date it to the expulsion after the destruction of the First Temple, others to after the destruction of the Second Temple. The community has four components.
The Bene Israel and Cochin communities came both around the same time. The Cochin community was likely from seafarers and merchants, possibly dating back to King Solomon’s time. The Bene Israel community around Mumbai dates from a shipwreck 2,000 years ago where seven men and seven women survived. Their holy books were lost, but they remembered to keep the Shabbat, kashrut and brit milah. Generations later, they were tutored by the Cochini community to improve their knowledge of Judaism.
The third community to arrive was the Paradesi community. Paradesi means foreigner, and this group was basically Sephardim who arrived from Spain or via Amsterdam in the 16th century, and headed to Cochin. The fourth group, led by David Sassoon, emigrated from Baghdad, and came in the 18th century, setting up congregations in Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad. The Sassoon dynasty was very dynamic both for the Jewish community and the Mumbai community at large.
There are several residual synagogues in Mumbai, with some still in use, such as the Baghdadi community’s Magen David (where I stayed) and Keneseth Eliyahoo, along with the original Bene Israel community’s Tiferet Israel synagogue. Five thousand Jews remain in Mumbai, and three or four synagogues hold services on Shabbat. Tiferet Israel has a strong component of younger men.
I was lucky to travel to Cochin (now called Kochi) in Kerala state and, besides spending a wonderful day in Jewtown, Cochin, and visiting the Paradesi synagogue, I also rented a taxi and went to search out the remnants of the Jewish community in more remote areas. I visited two restored synagogues at Parur (or Paravoor) and Chennamangalam (or Chendamangalam), and I visited the Kadavumbagan synagogue in Ernakulum, which was closed 40-50 years ago and remains unrestored.
There are about 12 Jews left in Kerala. I spent two days visiting Sarah Cohen. Sarah, 91, is the matriarch of the Cochin Jewish community. She reminded me totally of my Baba Sarah. On my first visit, I asked her if I could bring her anything that she needed. She asked for chocolate and beer, and I returned the next day with some Cadbury. Sarah has an embroidery shop on Jew Street in Jewtown, in the city’s Mattanchery neighborhood, two blocks from the Paradesi synagogue, which is spectacular – it is a national historic landmark, expertly renovated and with excellent historical information.
I was also able to meet Elias Josephi at the Kadavumbagan synagogue. About 50 years ago, the synagogue disbanded because of lack of membership and Josephi purchased it. He currently runs a plant nursery and an aquarium/fish shop in the antechamber of the synagogue. Behind his desk, the closed door leads to the treasure of the sanctuary, exactly as it was left 40-50 years ago.
At the peak, there may have been about 100,000 Jews in India. Eighty percent of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950s/60s. It is interesting that they remained separate. The Cochinis went to Nevatim and the Bene Israel went to Dimona, Ashdod, etc. Fifteen percent of the Indian Jews went to English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and five percent remain in India today.
What a fascinating Diaspora story. How intriguing that at all ends of the earth, one can find Jewish communities. I believe it was one of our sages who once said, “If there is oxygen, there are Jews.” Or, perhaps, it was me who made up that line!
Steven Finkleman, originally from Winnipeg, is a retired pediatrician living in Kelowna. He travels extensively and often researches and visits remote Diaspora communities on his adventures.