January 20, 2019

Rosh Hashana in India: Torah, sequined saris, chapati and perhaps a secret recipe for peace

I have prayed in synagogues in many foreign countries around the world including Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Belgium, Kenya, Egypt, Australia, and Russia, but this was my first time chanting the “Shema” with a group of Jewish women all wearing saris. 

Just a few days ago I had an opportunity to usher in the New Year together with some 85 Jews in Ahmedabad in western India, at the Magen Abraham Synagogue, an imposing building squeezed into a crowded side street in the Jamalpur area near Khamsa Gate.  Just outside the synagogue, Muslim merchants hawked their wares and motorized rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians and wandering sacred cows all jostled for their rightful place in the street. Even as a seasoned traveler, I could tell this was going to be a “first” for me!

Praying with the Jews of the Bene Israel congregation was as fascinating as learning about their history. They are one of three Jewish communities in India.  The other two are the Jews of Cochin in southern India, and the Bagdadi Jews of Calcutta located in eastern India near Bangladesh.

The first Jews who arrived in India were fleeing from Israel some two thousand years ago. They reached India after a ship wreck on the Konkan coast near Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). The Jews kept their Biblical names and they also adopted the name of the village they lived in.  Their principal occupation was pressing oil and, because they observed the Sabbath, they were dubbed Shanvar-Telis, meaning the “Saturday Oil People.”

The Bene Israel Jews I met Ahmedabad on the eve of Rosh Hashana trace their earliest history to 1840.  More Jews arrived in 1857 as employees of the British services, happy to find jobs in railways, post offices, textile mills, factories and the army.  Their first official synagogue was built in Ahmedabad in 1933 when at that time there were 800 Jews and 300 families. Two years ago, on September 11-12, they celebrated their synagogue’s 75th anniversary (their “Platinum Jubilee”) with great fanfare, even though their numbers have dwindled considerably, and intermarriage is not uncommon—although it usually means that the non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism, not the other way around.

I found myself sitting next to a beautiful young Jewish woman wearing an elegant embroidered sequined sari and fancy jewelry. For all I knew, Eliza with her tawny skin, long straight hair and ebony eyes, could have been a local Hindu if I had seen her on the street.  That was true for all of the women in the congregation, giving new meaning to the phrase “You don’t look Jewish!”

Ezer Divekar, 11, blows the shofar which is almost as big as he is.

Eliza related that exactly a year ago she had been married in the same synagogue to a local Jewish boy, Mac (short for Macabee) Jacob, who had served as a tank driver in the Israeli army and worked in a dairy on a kibbutz.  Although many Israeli girls were interested in Mac, he yearned for a Bene Israel wife.  He came back home to find one (through an arranged marriage initiated by his mother) and the young couple is now planning to make Aliyah to Israel in the next few months and will either live in Dimona or Eilat.

Eliza introduced me to her lively and petite mother-in-law, Serena Jacob, Vice President of the Magen Abraham community.  Sarena, I learned, was formerly a principal of what they call a “medium” school, which would be the equivalent of a junior high.

Coming from a family of educators myself—my father was a high school math teacher and my mother taught Hebrew school in Chicago for 40 years—I was delighted to discover the most popular and most respected junior high schools of Ahmedabad were founded and administered by Bene Israel Jews.  Until this day their schools are prized not only for high academic standards, but for being open to students of all religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jains.  A recent article in an Indian daily newspaper, penned by Anil Mulchandi, described in great detail the educational contribution made by the Bene Israel community in Ahmedabad.

As an interfaith activist, I found this last fact particularly meaningful and quizzed Serena at length about Bene Israel’s educational legacy. I learned that one of their most celebrated scholars was Esther Solomon (who died in 2005).  Dr. Solomon was one of three Bene Israel women awarded the prestigious “Padmashree” status (one of the highest civilian awards) by the Government of India, nine years after she had received the Presidential Certificate of Honor for Outstanding Contribution to Sanskrit in 1983.  She is fondly remembered as a great scholar and teacher of Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy, noted for having made major contributions to the study of ancient texts of Hindu philosophy and for her writing on Comparative Philosophy, which explored the concept of Avidya (translated as both ignorance and delusion) in three philosophical traditions of India: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.  When she joined the Department of Sanskrit of LD College in 1948, she was the only woman on the Arts Faculty.  Many of her colleagues expressed astonishment, the Bene Israel jubilee booklet noted, because not only was she a woman, but her name was “Solomon.”  A worthy name for a worthy scholar, they must have deduced.

Edward Daniel Reubens discusses interfaith engagement among the Abrahamic communities of Ahmedabad with Los Angeles filmmaker Ruth Broyde Sharone.

The intermittent chats I held with the Bene Israel women took place during Rosh Hashanah prayers, which began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted until 1:30 p.m.  Magen Abraham members consider themselves a “traditional” rather than an orthodox community, and the synagogue follows the Sephardic tradition, in melody and in physical configuration.  The pulpit is in the middle and the congregation is seated on three sides around it.  Although women are not allowed on the pulpit or given an opportunity for an “Aliyah” to the Torah, curiously enough they were not opposed to individuals taking photographs or videotaping.  In fact a local Hindu photographer, Bindi Parekh, had received official permission to extensively document religious practice at the Magen Abraham Synagogue for an exhibition she is planning to mount for the wider Ahmedabad community in the next few months.

I noted that their prayer book was from Israel while I was comparing their Sephardic melodies with my own from the liberal Ashkenazic Jewish tradition in the States.  Except for the final “Adon Olam” song, very few melodies were familiar to me.  They have no rabbi. Their main chazzan and Hebrew teacher for the last 15 years has been Johny (short for Jonathan) Pingle.  Johny led the entire service single-handedly.  Aliyahs to the Torah were auctioned off at 11 a.m., and all monetary contributions for the High Holidays were duly inscribed in a notebook and announced to the entire congregation by Manessah Solomon, the synagogue’s secretary (and also the nephew of Esther Solomon). 

Their custom of greeting one another fascinated me.  They would clasp their hands around the hand of the person they were facing and then raise their thumb and index finger to kiss their own lips.  Each person made the rounds of the entire congregation to enact this ritual, which served as both greeting and blessing.

Very few children were present. Two of the post-Bar Mitzvah boys chatted amiably with me during the morning break, and Serena later told me they were very accomplished and could recite all the prayers for the service. Obviously, Hebrew learning and synagogue liturgy were considered essential for the younger generation. I did witness the young boys’ expert shofar blowing at the conclusion of the service.  The youngest member present that day, Ezer Diveker, age 11, also had a chance to blow the shofar. His father was nearby to videotape his son’s masterful turn on the curly four-foot ram’s horn, almost as big as the boy!

Young girl in the Magen Abraham synagogue of the Bene Israel community in Ahmedabad

Lunch was served afterwards on the covered patio next to the synagogue, and I was invited to join.  Rows of chairs had been set out in anticipation of the full congregation.  Each of us took our turn waiting in line for a vegetarian buffet of chapati (Indian bread), rice, the ubiquitous dahl (soup), spicy vegetables, fried spinach balls, and honeyed deep-fried dessert in the form of pinwheels—all served on stainless-steel plates with a spoon.  Chai with milk, heavy on the sugar, was also available.

I had been given an opportunity to speak to the community at the end of the morning service, and I was invited to come as far as the lowest step of the pulpit (women were not allowed to actually be on the pulpit).  I offered sincere thanks for being able to spend Rosh Hashanah with them, and I congratulated them on their stellar contributions to education in India and for being a “light onto the nations.”  In an emotional tone that surprised even me, I said although the melodies and dress were distinct, I felt at home with them, because “the Shema, the Torah, and Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, were all one.” I also mentioned that I was in India because I had been invited by the Brahma Kumari community to be a guest at a meditation retreat for interfaith leaders on Mt. Abu, about a four-hour drive from Ahmedabad.  I arrived a few days early to be able to celebrate the Jewish New Year with them, I explained.

My comments proved to be an important bridge to the congregants during lunchtime.

Edward Reubens, one of the congregants, a tall, elegant mustached man in his sixties, sought me out for a private conversation. He had been faithfully organizing interfaith activities among the local Abrahamic communities for the last three years, he said. But he confessed that not all of the members of the Bene Israel congregation were as eager to engage in interfaith engagement as he.  “What should I do?” he asked me earnestly.

I shared one of the most significant facts I learned about the Jews in India, and he nodded his head in enthusiastic confirmation. For more than two thousand years, their host country had never discriminated against them nor persecuted them, as has been the ongoing experience of Jews in most other countries around the world. That fact alone should serve as great encouragement for Jews in India to become interfaith activists and not to be fearful, I said.

Muslim merchants sell their goods outside the Magen Abraham synagogue

“Don’t lose heart,” I implored.  “You are a dedicated interfaith pioneer, and you need to know there are many Jews all over the world like yourself who know the importance and urgency of this work.” Edward nodded gratefully and confirmed another startling fact I had learned just that day during the Rosh Hashanah service. The Jews of India and the Muslims of India are on excellent terms, I was told, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue had not soured their relationships in business or socially.  “That is also a reason to rejoice,” I said, “because in the rest of the world the Middle East conflict continues to be the thorniest issue between Jews and Muslims and greatly hinders interfaith progress and chances for peace.”

As I took my leave, I urged Edward to stay in touch with me and wished him and the other congregants Shanah Tovah. Just outside the synagogue, the Muslim merchants were still busy with their customers. Two young Muslim men dressed in white walked by, deep in conversation, wheeling their bikes. A middle-aged Muslim woman wearing a hijab covering most of her face passed near me, her young son in tow.  Two Hindu women in colorful saris, their gold dangle earrings and multiple bracelets glinting in the sun, stared at me and then offered shy smiles.  A Sikh man on a motorcycle with a woman sitting side-saddle behind him suddenly darted out between two cars. Across the way I spied an ancient Persian fire-burning temple erected by the local Zoroastrian community.  Just another typical day in Ahmedabad.

There has to be a secret lesson somewhere in here, I muse.  In a country where Jews are welcome and have never known discrimination; in a country where Jewish educators are praised for offering top-quality education to Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jain children as well as their own Jewish children; in a country where a Jewish woman scholar is awarded the highest academic and governmental accolades for her contribution to Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and for her research on the philosophical traditions of Indian Hinduism, Buddhism and Janism; in a country where Israel’s existence does not inflame local Muslim citizens—as it does in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh,  and Afghanistan; in just such a country there must be some crucial lesson for us to learn in order to be able to duplicate it in the world at large.

I contemplate that thought as I climb into a motorized rickshaw on my way back to my hostel.  My heart pounds, my breath quickens, and I find my hands gripping the side of the rickshaw as my driver navigates through a tortuous maze of bumper-to-bumper rickshaws, taxis, trucks, buses, vegetable carts, pedestrians, cows, goats, and dogs, with nary a traffic light in sight.

This is India, I tell myself, and it will never reveal all of its secrets. I find myself looking forward to my return to the Jewish community of Ahmedabad the following weekend for Yom Kippur, when praying next to a group of women wearing colorful sequined saris will no longer be a novelty.

Ruth Broyde Sharone, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker and producer/director of the award-winning film God and Allah Need to Talk, is a passionate advocate for interfaith engagement.  Her book, Minefields and Miracles: A Global Adventure in Interfaith will be published this November.