As a Christian, I occasionally remind my Jewish friends that I owe my faith to them. Indian tradition maintains that a few years after Christ's death, one of his apostles, Thomas (‘the Doubter’), sailed to Kerala to share the Good News with his co-religionists. Jews have lived in India for thousands of years, perhaps arriving on a mission from the court of King Solomon to trade in ‘elephant's tooth, peacocks and apes’. The Jews of Cochin are said to have been less than receptive to Thomas’s message, though he did make many other converts.
India’s ancient Jewish history, evidence of the country’s tolerance for people of all faiths, has long been a source of pride for us. But an even greater cause for satisfaction has been the fact that Indian Jews have never faced persecution. Indian Jews have flourished, and nowhere is that more evident than in Mumbai. Some of the city’s best-known landmarks, including Flora Fountain, have been built with donations from Jewish philanthropists who grew prosperous on trade and manufacturing. Most notable among them were the Sassoons, a family from Iraq. Their name is etched in plaques in at least four schools, a magnificent library, a dockyard and at least two of the city’s nine synagogues.
A more chilling reminder of the city’s role as a sanctuary for Jews is to be found on another set of marble tablets in a cemetery in Chinchpokli in Central Mumbai. One wall bears memorials to people who died in faraway concentration camps such as Auschwitz. It was donated by friends and relatives who found refuge here. Many of these exiles had arrived in India because of the intervention of Jawaharlal Nehru. “Few people can withhold their deep sympathy from the Jews for the long centuries of most terrible oppression to which they have been subjected all over Europe,” Nehru wrote, as he lobbied the British government to allow Eastern European Jews into India. “Fewer still can repress their indignation at the barbarities and racial suppression of Jews which the Nazis have indulged in during the last few years.”
Many of the exiles soon became an important part of Mumbai society, serving as catalysts for the modern Indian art scene. Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer, and Emanuel Schlesinger had brought with them full-colour reproductions of European masters and a world of ideas and discussion. They proved vital in helping the Mumbai artists discover a new way of seeing. These ideas found expression on canvas when painters such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and K.H. Ara founded the Progressive Artists Movement in 1947, bound together by the desire to find a new way to depict the stories of their newly independent nation.
Despite the significance of the contributions of the Baghdadis or the European exiles, the Jewish community that has left the deepest impression on the city are the Bene Israelis, who believe their ancestors were shipwrecked just south of Mumbai in 175 B.C.E. Centuries later, many of them migrated to Mumbai, where they built a synagogue in 1796.
Perhaps the best-known member of the community was Nissim Ezekiel, one of the pioneers of Indian poetry in English. My favorite of his poems is ‘Island,’ a tribute to my home city. The first stanza says, “Unsuitable for song as well as sense/ the island flowers into slums/ and skyscrapers, reflecting/ precisely the growth of my mind./ I am here to find my way in it.”
Though thousands of Indian Jews have emigrated to Israel over the years, many of those who stayed behind have an ambiguous relationship with the country that offers them the Right of Return. Among them is my friend Robin David, the author of City of Fear, a gem of a memoir that describes the horrors he witnessed as a reporter during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. He also explains his frustration with Israel, a country to which he has attempted to emigrate three times, only to return. “I realised that the Promised Land was not my country,” he writes. “Even the strong fragrance of spices, wafting in from the Arab market through the yellowing Jerusalem sandstone, did not help. Just like Teen Darwaza [in Ahmedabad], but not quite home."
There’s another aspect to the relationship that goes unnoticed by most Indians. Each year, an estimated 20,000 Israelis take their vacations in India after finishing their three-year compulsory military service stints. Their 15,000-shekel bonuses go much further in India and, as one Israeli told me recently, “It’s nice to be in a place where you don't always have to watch your back.” The beaches of Goa and the slopes of Kulu and Manali rank high on the visitors’ itineraries. The massive numbers of Israelis in the subcontinent prompted the Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher sect to open its first Indian mission centre — known around the world as Chabad Houses — in Pune in 2000.
Two years ago, I travelled to Pune to interview Rabbi Betzalel Kupchick, who ran the centre. By offering his hundreds of Jewish visitors a year free meals and the chance to chat in Hebrew, Rabbi Kupchick believed he was opening an opportunity for dialogue. “There are many ways that God brings people to Him,” he told me patiently. “Here, without the pressure of family and society, Israelis are more open-minded. Often, this is their first exposure to spiritual things. When they're come to India, they’re searching.”
Mumbai’s Jewish community doesn’t have much to do with the Israeli visitors. The ultra-orthodox leanings of the Lubavitchers have been regarded with some suspicion by liberal Indian Jews. That divide disappeared on Wednesday night. When I spoke to Robin David on the phone on Friday, he was still trying to make sense of it all. “The Indian Jewish identity is the only one that hasn’t been created by persecution,” he said. “We’ve never felt scared. This is the first time we’ve been made to feel like Jews.”
That, to me, has been among the most tragic casualties of this terrorist attack. In a barrage of grenades and bullets, a part of the Indian dream that’s 2,500 years old has now been buried in a pile of bloody concrete shards.
Naresh Fernandes is the editor of Time Out Mumbai