Narendra Modi's Israel visit and its meaning for the Jews in India

  • Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 07, 2015 13:18 IST

From a small velvet pouch, Ezekiel Isaac Malekar takes out his white religious shawl and a skull cap edged with gold. He wears them with a sense of ceremony and then steps up to the small podium or Bimah from where he leads the prayer every Shabbath (Friday to Saturday evening) and on other religious occasions. "The religious shawl is called the Tallit or Tsisith. We wear it each time we pray, except during the Friday Shabbath prayer," explains Malekar.

Ever since he moved to New Delhi from his hometown in Pune in 1980, Malekar has been officiating as the Rabbi at Delhi's only synagogue - the Judah Hyam Synagogue - built in 1956. A retired central government official, Malekar is not a paid Rabbi - Delhi doesn't have one. He does it voluntarily.

As top business owners, government officials, physicians, lawyers and academicians, the Jews were once prominent members of the Indian society. Today, they form a miniscule part of the population here. The Jewish community in Delhi is small; only around 10 families. The congregation includes a floating crowd of diplomats, students and professionals from other states currently living here. Though strongly patriotic when it comes to India, most have a soft spot in their hearts for Israel, the 'promised land' of the Jews, created in 1948. As Malekar puts it: "Israel is in my heart, but India is in my blood." And Prime Minister Narendra Modi's upcoming visit to Israel later this year - the first by an Indian Prime Minister - has touched a chord with most.

The Jewish cemetery adjacent to the synagogue on Humayun Road, Delhi. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

There are various accounts of how and when the Jews came to India. The community at present is divided into three main groups - the Bene Israel group settled mainly in Mumbai and Pune; the Baghdadis, or Jews from West Asia who came as traders and refugees and settled in Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata and the Cochin Jews. "According to the 1951 census, there were 35,000 Jews in India. Today, there are around 5,000 of Bene Israel, Baghdadi and Cochin Jews left in India; 4,000 of them are in Mumbai. There are around 120 in Pune, 140 in Ahmedabad, 100 in the Konkan areas, 25 to 27 in Cochin and Ernakulam and 24 in Kolkata," says Ralphy Jhirad, secretary general of the Federation of Indo-Israel Chamber of Commerce, a resident of Mumbai. Then there are the Jews of Manipur and Mizoram or those who identify themselves as Bnei Menashe numbering "around 5,000," according to Simeon, a Manipuri Jew presently preparing for his civil services entrance examination in Delhi. There is also a small group of a few thousand in Andhra Pradesh who call themselves Bene Ephraim Jews.

"In 1948, according to official data, 33,000 Jews migrated to Israel. Smaller numbers have been leaving every year since," says Jhirad. While faith and better economic prospects continue to draw Jews to the "promised land", few forget their Indian roots. "At home, the Indian Jews continue to speak Indian languages. My sister in Israel still makes the chicken curry-rice that we ate here as her Friday Shabbath meal. Her son, born in Israel, is a huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan," says Jhirad's wife Yael who works in the tourism industry and is the president of the India chapter of Women's International Zionist Organisation.

But while the emigrants haven't lost touch with their Indian roots, with dwindling numbers, many here are finding it difficult to hold on to their traditions or having to change to keep up with the times. "In Kolkata, where the community now numbers around 25 people, it has become difficult to observe religious rites and customs. As there is no quorum (a group of at least ten men), services are no longer held in the synagogues," says Jo Cohen, a Kolkata resident. In Delhi, Malekar has included women in the quorum to read the holy scriptures Torah. Women are not traditionally included in the group. And while boys and girls continue to be taught the basics of Hebrew - the language of the holy text for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (the traditional ceremony held for 12-year-old girls and 13 year-old boys to mark their inclusion among adults), many adults admit they are not fluent in the language. Some have adapted the prayers in the vernacular, so that language is not an obstacle in the path of faith. "In Andhra, we have the prayer in Hebrew, but some psalms are sung in Telugu," says Prashant Kumar from Andhra, presently working in New Delhi.

Love and union probably pose the biggest challenge for the community with many young Jews having migrated to Israel. "When my sister-in-law and niece migrated to Israel, one of the things on my sister-in-law's mind was that she would find a better match for her daughter there," says Hannah Judah, a teacher. To find a solution to this problem, some people from the community have compiled a database of Indian Jews across the world so that the young can be introduced to each other and find a partner. Matchmaking is not something the Indian government can help the Indian Jews with. But there is much that the community is hoping for from the Modi government. "The Jews in India are a miniscule community, but we do not have minority status," says Malekar. Others want recognition more than priviledge.

"When you fill a government form, Judaism is not even listed as a religion," says Simeon. While giving the demographic divide based on religion in the 2001 census on its website, the department did not include the Jews as a separate category. "I hope Modi's Israel visit, by turning the focus on Jews will give people a little more idea about the community here," says 26-year-old Abraham Jacob, a Cochin Jew, working as a doctor in Delhi. And Jhirad would like the government to create galleries at existing museums to showcase the Indian-Jewish heritage.

Meanwhile, tucked into Delhi's Humayun Road, the synagogue and adjacent cemetery, are easy to miss except for the police personnel, posted outside. Auto-drivers shake their heads when questioned about its whereabouts and a florist close by gives a confused stare when asked for directions to the "Jewish temple", though he is able to point out the Christian cemetery nearby. Integration doesn not necessarily bring with it awareness.

Indians first, Jews second

Mumbai: "We are Indians first and Jews second," says Solomon Sopher, chairman of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Philanthropic Trust, which also administers two of Mumbai's nine synagogues. "But we are glad if a closer relationship develops between India and Israel as a result of the prime minister's visit. The Jewish community has lived for long periods with no diplomatic relations between Israel and India."

Mumbai has a small but integrated Jewish population of around 5,000. According to records kept by the city's Chabad House community centre, more than 60 per cent are above the age of 40. They preserve their culture with weekend activities organised at the synagogues. Religious functions such as Hanukkah and Passover are well attended.

Rabbis record proceedings at Nariman (Chabad) House in Mumbai in August, 2014, after it was re-opened nearly six years after the 26/11 attack. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP Photo)

"The young generation remains an active part of the community, as are their parents. They engage with their elders," says Ronin, a quality management executive with the Indian Registry of Shipping. "It would be helpful if the prime minister nurtured a good relationship with Israel, because it would benefit both countries culturally and economically. For example, they could make it easier for Jewish people and tourists in general to visit both countries."

As for the 26/11 terror attacks of 2008, which claimed six lives at the Chabad House amid the larger carnage in Mumbai, this has had little impact on the community's sense of security. "Those events did not impact the community in any adverse manner," says Judah Samuel, trustee of the city's Shaare Raason synagogue. "The community is well assimilated, and in fact, feels a lot of gratitude towards the state government and police force for the good job they did there."

For youngsters such as 21-year-old Roshin J, an architecture student, this rare instance of direct attack on Indian soil is already a distant memory. "It seemed so random, given that I've never faced any discrimination," he says.

If the community stands out at all, it is for its positive contributions, visible especially in south Mumbai. "From the David Sassoon Library to Elphinstone College to philanthropic projects for all communities, Mumbai's Jews have helped shape the city," Sopher says.

(Report by Apoorva Dutt)

After a while we will all be gone

Calcutta: The two countries have been friends for years. But now with Prime minister Narendra Modi's visit to Israel, it will become official. I am very happy. This was long overdue," says eighty-five year old Flower Silliman. Flower is one of 25 members of the Jewish community who are still living in Kolkata.

Looking back, she recalls the long years of bonhomie between the two countries. "Years ago, it was the diamond trade which brought the two countries closer. Later, it was defence, arms and ammunition. Both countries share a great relationship and now it will be formalised. I want Narendra Modi to greet the many Indian Jews who are now in Israel," says Flower.

Muslim caretaker Sheik Masud, who works at the Beth El synagogue, cleans October 26, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Indian culture is about including people and it's about humanity. First there is humanity, then comes religion.(Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Flower used to run an Indian restaurant in Israel called the Maharaja. "I was one of the few people who knew how to read and write in Hindi, in addition to Hebrew. I helped translate Indian maps to Hebrew. Both languages are similar and based on phonetics," she says.

The Jews, mostly Baghdadi Jews came to Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was then called, during the British rule. Between the late 18th to the mid-20th century, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kolkata. Though their number never crossed 4,000, members of the community settled well in Kolkata's cosmopolitan environment and excelled in business. Three magnificent synagogues, two schools and a cemetery in Narkeldanga stand testimony to the presence of the once-thriving community here. Ezra Mansions, Ezra Hospital and the famous Nahoum & Sons confectionary in New Market are still part of the city's heritage. One of Kolkata's reknowned Jews, David Nahoum, passed away at the age of 85 in March 2013.

Muslim caretaker Sheik Gufran, who works at the Beth El synagogue, cleans October 26, 2014 in Kolkata, India. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

The dwindling population has, however, made it impossible to hold prayers in the Synagogues. One Shabbath service requires around 10 men in the city which is difficult to find. However, an initiative by Jael Silliman to form a digital archive of the nearly 200 years of the history of Kolkata's Jews has also been launched. The Jewish Girls School on Park Street continues to run - without Jewish students.

The Jews of Kolkata started moving to England, Canada and Australia after the country's independece when they became unsure of their economic prospects in the newly independent country. By the 1960s, there were only 300 to 400 Jews left. "A sizeable population left for London. Jewish girls also married American and British soldiers and left. Their families followed. Those who had businesses here stayed back. Many others went from Kolkata to Israel in the 1960s," explains Flower. "After some years, we will be all gone from Kolkata and only our heritage will remain. A trust will take care of the buildings here," she adds.

(Report by Ravik Bhattacharya)

'Hope on PM Modi'

Confined to a small room adjacent to the 'Paradeshi' synagogue in sea-licked Kochi, 82-year-old Reema Salem is in no mood to entertain any visitor. "I am too old. Once my relatives return from abroad, they will be able to talk to you," she says. The oldest Jewish settlement in the Commonwealth is a shadow of its former self today with only the aged left to recall their glorious heritage.

Though the area is still called 'Jew Street,' only nine Jews live here (the total number of Jews left in Kochi is 29). Cochin Jews, also called Malabari Jews, trace their roots to the era of the biblical king, Solomon. After the formation of Israel, all but 100 of Kerala's 2,800-odd Malabari Jews migrated. With the passage of time, their numbers shrunk further. Despite the dwindling population, the synagogue, believed to be built in 1568, gets a steady stream of visitors. "During peak season, we get 5,000 visitors a day," says K J Joy, caretaker of the synagogue for the past 26 years.

A street vendor sets up shop outside a building in the Jewish quarter of Fort Cochin, Kerala.. (Photo by Rio Helmi/LightRocket via Getty Images)

About 15 km from the synagogue, is the residence of Elias Josephai, better known as Babu (59). He, too, was keen to migrate to Israel, but his ailing grandmother holds him back. One of his two daughters is settled in Israel and is about to marry a US-based Jew, her former classmate. "We never faced any discrimination here. Some of my best friends are Muslims," he says. Babu firmly believes Modi's upcoming visit to Israel will be a game-changer for the country. "India has kept its relationship with Israel under wraps. But in the given scenario, Israel is the best country for India to rely on," he says, adding that they have "pinned much hope on our new prime minister."

(Report by Ramesh Babu)
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