From kosher chapatis to saris under the chuppah…

From kosher chapatis to saris under the chuppah…

…a reporter journeys though colorful Jewish India


Bulletin Staff

"Take me to Jew Town, please."

How strange it felt to say that, but that's what I told my auto rickshaw driver in Cochin, India.

Even though only 14 Jews remain in Cochin, all living on Synagogue Lane, the neighborhood is still called Jew Town. In its heyday, Synagogue Lane was the address of Jewish families who dealt in the spice trade. Now, all the storefronts are souvenir shops owned by Muslims who fled the violence in their native Kashmir.

I asked one such vendor, Abid, about the irony of Jew Town being mostly Muslim. His shrug of a response — or more accurately, his lack of one — showed he hadn't given it much thought.

With constant discord between India's two dominant religious groups, Hindu and Muslim, relations between the Muslims and Jews are fine — to the extent that two of Bombay's synagogues exist peacefully in exclusively Muslim neighborhoods. In Cochin, though, the most beautiful synagogue in all of India is mostly a tourist attraction.

In a country that was once home to some 50,000 Jews, only 5,000 remain among a total population that is expected to exceed one billion in several years. And the Jewish population continues to dwindle.

Two months of traveling in India afforded me the opportunity to visit several of its Jewish communities, giving me insight into this tiny minority. Here are a few impressions, in vignette form, that I gleaned from the trip.

* * *

After being in India for a month and a half, I was used to being the only Jewish tourist in a Hindu temple. In the Cochin synagogue, I experienced the reverse, as I felt at home and watched Hindus visiting from throughout India, most of them no doubt stepping into a synagogue for the first time.

I was accustomed to removing my shoes at every place of Hindu or Buddhist worship, so it didn't seem at all strange to be asked to remove my shoes before going inside. Then all of a sudden, it hit me — wait! We Jews don't do that. At first I thought the Jews had adopted the local custom, but upon asking, I learned it was to protect the tile floor, as each of the tiles was hand-painted in China.

Sarah Cohen, now 80, is one of the 14 Jews left in Jew Town. You can't miss her as you walk to the synagogue. She sits facing the street, embroidering kippot and making lace, and talking to the Jewish tourists about what once was. Cohen's husband, who worked as an income tax officer, led the Cochin Jewish community until his death. "We were educated about Torah and we knew everything we needed to, so we didn't need a rabbi," she said.

* * *

Although I was not in India on official business as a journalist, I had called the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York before I left, which maintains an office in Bombay. I was put in touch with Rabbi Joshua Kolet, who invited me for my first Shabbat in Bombay, before I even arrived. Also, on my third day there, I was taken on a tour of Jewish Bombay by my colleague, Rizpah Corley, editor of Kol India, India's Jewish magazine.

She took me to several Bombay synagogues as well as to the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center, which charges 500 rupees in yearly dues per family (the equivalent of $10). Two women were cooking kosher Indian food for the JCC's "meals on wheels" program for the elderly, one of them making chapatis, the ubiquitous Indian flat bread, on an open fire.

Bombay — home to the majority of India's 5,000 Jews — still has nine functioning synagogues and one resident rabbi. Another rabbi lives on the outskirts of Bombay, but he rarely comes to the city proper.

All the synagogues still hold Shabbat services on Saturday mornings, where a minyan is usually present.

On my first day in Bombay, while sightseeing, I dropped by the baby blue Keneset Eliyahoo, a Baghdadi synagogue. There, I met Bensiyon Issack Ghosalker, its caretaker.

"Fifty years ago, it was so crowded here there was no place to stand," he said as he showed me around. Now on most Saturday mornings, the synagogue is lucky to have the 10 men required for a minyan. That is the case in most of India's synagogues.

When I told Ghosalker I was a journalist, he invited me to "Yeshiva class," followed by a minyan, at another Bombay synagogue that night.

About 15 people arrived at the Magen David synagogue, most of them teenage boys. The class — on the rules of kashrut — was taught by a Brooklyn-based diamond merchant who visits India several times a year. He has taken an interest in the Jewish community, and offers classes whenever he is in town.

Evening minyan is not a regular part of my life. In fact, I cannot recall if I have ever attended one. So it was with great amusement that on my first night in India, that's where I found myself — the only woman sitting off to the side, as evening prayers took place.

* * *

Joshua Kolet, a rabbi who was ordained in Israel, is a Bombay native. He grew up attending programs run by the JDC, and as he got older, he found himself volunteering more and more in the Jewish community. Finally, he decided to study in a yeshiva in Israel.

He hadn't thought of becoming a rabbi until he was in Israel.

"How could I want to be something I never saw?" he asked.

With no congregation to administer to, the 32-year-old rabbi doesn't quite know how to explain his position, either. All he knows is that he is the rabbi of Bombay, in a community with plenty of synagogues, but little use for rabbis.

Kolet became Sabbath-observant in Israel, which makes him more observant than those he administers to. For the most part, Indian Jews are traditional if not fully observant. For example, they only count men for a minyan, but most drive on Shabbat. Kolet made a deal with the JDC, which helped pay for his tuition, that he would serve Bombay's Jews for three years. His parents have made aliyah to Israel, and he and his 26-year-old wife, Ahuviya, plan to follow them in a few years.

* * *

On my first Shabbat in Bombay, as dusk fell over the city's slums, I walked with the Kolets to synagogue. The walk to Tiphereth Israel took about 20 minutes, and we passed by people cooking and sleeping outside their corrugated tin shanties. I had to step carefully to avoid the gaping holes and the piles of unidentifiable crud that accumulates in the streets.

And then, on a crowded corner lined with sari shops, in one of the most foreign cities I had ever visited, the rabbi and his wife bumped into someone they knew. They wished each other Shabbat shalom. Of course. He was also walking to shul. I could have been anywhere.

I joined Kolet and his wife for two Shabbat dinners, including one that coincided with the first night of Chanukah. When we left their apartment to walk to synagogue that night, they were checking to see if the ornate oil chanukiah was visible from the street below.

* * *

A building in Bombay houses the office of the JDC, the apartment where Kolet and his wife live and the remnants of the Reform synagogue.

India's Reform community is about 150 strong — a tiny minority within a tiny minority — and meets in people's homes or at the JCC.

"A progressive rabbi came here for the first time in the '50s," Norman Elijah, president of the Reform community, said. "He electrified the community."

I was continually told by Jews I met that India is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have never been persecuted in any way. And though the Reform synagogue was indeed the victim of arson, it was an unintended one.

In 1992, a rash of rioting broke out in several locations in India, including Bombay. In this case, Hindu nationalists attacked Muslims — around 1,000 Muslims were killed in the violence. The Reform synagogue happened to be above the apartment of a Muslim family that was targeted.

Congregants are talking about getting a new facility. The community grows by about five new members annually, but in a country with a shrinking Jewish population, that's notable, Elijah said. "Even this growth is significant," he added.

The Reform community uses English prayer books. Rather than the traditional Hebrew, which they don't understand, "people prefer to know what they're reading."

* * *

I returned to Keneseth Eliyahoo my first Shabbat morning in Bombay. I had been told that an elderly gentleman in the community opens his home nearby for Shabbat lunch, and anyone who wants to come is invited. But first, I was persuaded to stay and eat lunch at the synagogue, where Benjamin Dandekar, the chazzan, kept yelling down the table at me, "Eat, Alix, you're not eating enough; you're being shy!" Then, I went to Freddie Sopher's house.

It was there that I met one of the most fascinating members of Bombay's Jewish community, Dr. Aaron Abraham. He led us beautifully in the Kiddush and HaMotzi, as well as songs after the meal. He had converted to Judaism.

Abraham was introduced to the Hebrew Bible by his wife, a Christian. And that was his introduction to Judaism, since he didn't know any Jews himself.

A medical doctor who had lectured widely abroad, he felt all his professional success had happened because of his faith — his Jewish faith.

"I had no peace in my mind as a Hindu," he said.

* * *

"We're keeping the light of Judaism burning in this part of the world" is a favorite expression of Ezekiel Malekar's, the chazzan of the community in India's capital, New Delhi. Only 10 Jewish families live in the city, and he is the spiritual leader, though his day job is as a lawyer.

On a Friday night in Delhi, I attended services at the Judah Hyam Prayer Hall. Since it is in India's capital, it gets the most visitors. I had called Malekar in advance. He warmly welcomed me on the phone and asked if I needed anything while in Delhi. I admitted I would love a place to go for Shabbat dinner. He said he'd find me a place, or invite me to his home.

Malekar was adorable in person, a short man, very friendly. And much to my surprise, the Delhi synagogue is the only one where men and women sit together. Often the Torah is counted as the 10th person to make a minyan.

"We're too small to separate," said Malekar, by way of explanation.

That night at services, there were a couple visiting from Paris; a U.C. Berkeley student doing her doctoral dissertation on Indian temple architecture, who was at the end of a 10-month stay in Rajasthan; and a black Jewish man finishing his three-year term as ambassador to India from Angola. Malekar ended up inviting me to his home, where I feasted on a traditional Indian Jewish Shabbat meal, complete with cricket match on TV in the background.

* * *

On my last Shabbat in India, I returned to Keneseth Eliyahoo in Bombay for morning services. Benjamin Dandekar, the chazzan, remembered me from two months before.

"I'm performing a wedding tomorrow, do you want to come?" he asked. Did I? After two months in India, during November and December, which are known to be wedding season, I had crashed at least five weddings — all of them Hindu. My first was in the 16th-century ruins of the Virupaksha temple in a magical place called Hampi. There I was invited to partake in the post-wedding feast, and I sat in a courtyard on the cement, eating rice and curried vegetables with my fingers.

At my second celebration, I watched the groom ride in on a horse, while his relatives danced in front of him as a band played and six men carried enormous lanterns on their heads to make the procession visible in the Delhi streets. Later that night, I danced to Indian pop music and was adopted by a family related to the groom, who had me join them for their family portrait.

At another one, I was surrounded by a group of Indian medical students, who asked me whether I knew Bill Gates.

At Aaron and Hazel's wedding, though, none of that happened. The bride and groom exchanged rings under a velvet chuppah — just like any other Jewish wedding. The only reminder that I was in India was that the bride wore a white and gold sari, and the slums of Bombay were visible as we left the synagogue.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."