Here is an interesting nugget from modern Jewish history in India: till as late as the 1950s, Jews in Mumbai were issued a special pass by BEST, which operated public buses, to travel to the synagogue on Saturdays. This meant they didn’t have to buy tickets and so deal in money — something the rules of Sabbath expressly forbade.
Not just money dealings, work too is forbidden on Sabbath, the Jewish day of prayer, meditation and rest that starts on Friday evening and ends on Saturday evening. Which means Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of Sir Jacob Sassoon Trust, has to stay away from his passion — horse races — on Saturdays. Sharon Ghasulkar, one of around 2,000 Jews who live in the Mumbai-Thane belt, had to do something even more difficult — find “an employer who was going to let me get off work early on Friday and take leave on Saturday”.
Says Ghasulkar, “Initially, I found it impossible to get a job.” He finally did find work with a Jewish organisation, but his three school-going daughters, like other Jew children here, cannot take leave on Saturday if there is an examination that day. Leading a life in accordance to their belief system can be difficult for some.
Atul Sukhtankar, a vegan who does not eat egg, meat or dairy products, ensures that he informs his hosts of his dietary restrictions well in advance to avert embarrassment at the dinner table. “Friends and family try and accommodate me by putting more salads and vegetables on the table but eating at restaurants becomes an issue. All Mughlai dishes are ruled out because they contain curd,” says Sukhtankar.
Even meat-eating Jews like Ghasulkar opt for a Jain restaurant if they have to eat outside. “Here one can be sure that the vegetables and grains used are free of worms. That is kosher,” says Ghasulkar. Then again, given a choice, Ghasulkar would rather eat a dosa than a pav-bhaji because cauliflowers and peas in the bhaji tend to have insects and worms.
For a devout Jew ordering food at a restaurant can be an elaborate process of checking with the chef what ingredients went into a dish. Something that Uzma Naheed, executive director of Iqra International Women’s Alliance, is familiar with. At the 2006 World Conference on Religion and Peace in Japan, Naheed found that, “In Japan, people did not even know what halal was.” Even vegetables were not safe because she was not sure what animal fat they had been cooked in. “Pork, haram (forbidden) for Muslims, and lard are commonly used in Japan,” she says. Naheed opted for eggs and pizzas initially and later coaxed the organisers into getting halal meals for herself and other Muslim participants.
The fear of ‘dubious’ animal fat has spilled over to other spheres too. Rukhasana Nadiadwala, 58, who runs a beauty parlour in Malad, stopped using lipsticks when she learnt that some lipsticks contained lard. “I do not use lipsticks any more. But if my two daughters-in-law want to I tell them to use herbal lipsticks instead,” she says.
Likewise, perfume is a no-no, because it contains alcohol forbidden in Islam. “The option is ittar, jannat-e-firdaus or, if you can afford it, ood made from plant extracts,” says Nadiadwala. “What is haram is haram. I cannot let go of my belief for my taste or looks.”