An informative email to the family from Mumbai and an insight into a Jewish get together

I’ll see how much I can write here, since we’re in between a tour of Mumbai this morning with the Seeds of Peace country coordinator, Faruzan, and going to her place later this afternoon to meet some of the Seeds — and then off to the synagogue for part 2 of the celebrations.

Last night was quite an experience — we arrived at the Tiffereth Israel synagogue at 7pm, the time things were supposed to start. People filed in for another 30 minutes or so, women on the side — Maia went there and a woman named Yael immediately came up to her, Yael is Ralphy’s wife, he’s the President of the synagogue and the one I’d been writing to, who’d invited us to the celebration.

First there was Aravit — itself quite something. Maia’s written a bit about the Jews of Cochin — the Bene Israel Jews of the Bombay area are a different group, some similar customs, some quite different. We’ve been reading about both groups in Nathan Katz’s book on Indian Jews. The origins of the community aren’t completely clear, they trace themselves back to the lost tribes. What seems clear is that they’d had a very loose connection with Judaism, they did not work on Shabbat, they did not eat fish without fins and scales. The Cochin Jews apparently reactivated the Bene Israel community when they “discovered” them, I forget when, 1500s or 1600s or so, taught them more about the religion. Then, paradoxically, apparently the next injection of knowledge to the community came during the time of the British, from Christian missionaries, who tried to teach the community about Christianity by translating the bible to the local language. Then the “Bagdadhi Jews” came as part of the British administration, though they apparently viewed/treated the Bene Israel as lower caste/less worthy of respect. Then many of them moved to Israel in the post Independence period (for both countries) – there are apparently 50-60K in Israel, about 5,000 here around Bombay.

The congregation prays more on Sephardi lines (like the Cochin Jews, when we were there we used prayer books that some Israelis gave them, they’re Shas books with a note from Ovadia Yosef). They mumble the prayers and rush through them — I suppose certain Ashkenazi services seem similar. I noticed that many of the congregation didn’t have prayer books, when we got to the prayer the shmoneh esreh, the hazzan (man leading the prayers) called out the “Baruch”s and “Modim” parts loudly and people bowed at the right time, but with a bunch of exceptions, most didn’t really seem to be following/praying. Maia noticed some of the women had a prayer book translitterated into Hindi, and they were following.

The Bene Israel also have some distinct customs — as Maia wrote, Nathan Katz likens the changes to baseball – the rules are the same in the US and in Japan, but the US emphasizes the individual stats and accomplishments, in Japan they focus on the team — same game, same rules, different emphasis. The Bene Israel have a big emphasis on Eliyahu Hanavi, they believe that he rose to the heavens from a rock nearby Bombay — the place in question has a rock with two parallel white marks that are believed to be from the chariot, and hoofprints too. Reminiscent of Mohammad. Here, Eliyahu is almost like a patron saint of the community, and they sing a prayer to him (I’ll have to check in the siddur, it’s there at the end of the ma’ariv service, though I wasn’t familiar with it). Here, in contrast to most of the other prayers, everyone joins in quite energetically — singing the refrain of Eliyahu Hanavi bimhera yavo in mashiach ben David (Eliyahu the prophet, may he come soon with the messiah, the son of David).

I was talking with Isaac, an electrical engineer seated next to me, he was very friendly. After the prayer, he explained as someone stood up and there was a commotion — they were auctioning off a malinda — a ceremonial offering of thanks to Eliyahu (more on that in a moment), as a fundraiser.

Then we were done, and we went upstairs for the honored guests, the event, and a dinner. The head of the Indian Association in Israel had flown in with his wife from Jerusalem. The head of the Ahmebad community had come with his wife. The guest speaker was Mr. Moses Nissim (Mr Nissim Moses? I’m embarrased that I can’t remember, but I have it on the program upstairs) — a prominent member of the community. We went upstairs, Ralphy was welcoming everyone, and when he saw us he steered us to the front table facing the assembled congregation — I guess he’d meant it when he had said we’d be honored guests! We sat next to the couple from Israel, and felt somewhat embarrased to be up there – but it seems that Ralphy was happy to have someone from the American Jewish Community who could give greetings and add to the breadth of participation in the event. It was a big room, open windows to the street but cooling in the evening air, chairs spread in theatre rows back into the room, our table facing it, with two screens behind us. All the others spoke at some length, luckily I had my bit about the 119th anniversary prepared (thanks Mom and David) — I got up in front of the 200 or so folks and gave my greeting. I was amused to think that in 50 years or so, someone doing their PhD dissertation on the Bene Israel might see the pictures/video of the evening, and wonder who on earth the “American” at the event was. . .

We also had a malinda — very cool to experience. Basically, it’s a bunch of fruit on top of a plate of rice mixed with coconut, raisons, etc. The hazzan said some blessings, and we ate each fruit in turn, first the date, then the banana (with boreh pri ha’adama — for fruit of the earth. The woman to my left, the Israeli-Indian woman said it was because bananas are like roots, the man from the shul on Maia’s right said it was because banana trees are weak?), then the others, and the rice. I need to reread Katz about this, but from what I remember, Malindas are thankful offerings to Eliyahu, offered on special occasions, or for thanks for something specific.

The big presentation was from Moses Nissim, who spoke about the history of the Bene Israel community. It was an amazing talk, in so many respects. On the one hand it was very thorough, talking about the history of the people. And high tech, with powerpoint slides along with an audio track. At the same time, it was not very developed, he skipped through many of the slides, talked over his own audio track. But interesting parts, a slide where he showed the evolution of Hebrew names into Hindi/Indian names, others where he talked about the similiarities between Jewish and Hindi customs — like the canopies at marriage, the timing of Jewish Purim, a fun holiday, and Holi, a hindu holiday at the same time where the Indians run around on the street spraying each other with colored water (it was 3 days ago). He had other examples. It’s funny, we’d talked with my friends Vib and Ashok about the similarities between the two religions, but this presentation took the conversation to a whole new level (we’re trying to get a copy of it, let me know if you’re interested in seeing a copy). The speaker seemed to have a lot of pride in the community and it’s accomplishments, but at the same time was almost trying to convince everyone there that the community was strong, solidly Jewish and solidly Indian — both Maia and I wondered a bit who he was trying to convince (esp since he was literally “preaching” to the converted. . . ). We also noticed that he emphasized aspects of purity and lineage — as Katz points out, central tenants of the Indian Jews who drew on the purity aspects of their Hindu neighbors, and emphasizing lineage to establish themselves (the Jews, that is) well in the caste hierarchy.

It was hard to hear him, hot in the room, and kind of like Vib’s wedding — in a Jewish wedding the ceremony is about 30 minutes, people are totally quiet. Indian wedding ceremonies can be much longer, Vib’s went 3+ hours, and going that long, people are in and out of the room, talking with their neighbors (from what I understand kind of like the difference between a long Jewish Saturday morning service and a much shorter mass where people arrive on time and don’t talk throughout. . . ). The speaker talked for 45 minutes — and this was after aravit services (which started late), havdallah, moving everyone upstairs, 3 or 4 intros/welcomes (mine was 2 minutes, others were 5-10 or so), and the malinda.

So people were restless, talking moving about. You could barely hear the guy, who wasn’t talking into his microphone, and whirring fans overhead throughout the room. Though as I looked around the room, a good number of the people were listening to him through it all. It was like organized chaos. Felt like a scene in Israel, perhaps because of the heat, the energetic disorganized organization — I also couldn’t imagine it would be able to hold people’s attention, but it did.

Part way through, he also showed pictures of Indian-Jewish food (no, Mr. Rabkin, no gefilte fish vindaloo, but similar) — he was showing the history and mixing of the cultures — obviously reminded me of what Ruth’s dissertation is about. Then Ralphy interrupted and said that since it was late and given the pictures of food, they were going to start serving dinner — and then in the back 5 or 6 waiters started making out trays with a slew of Indian dishes (as far as I can tell, traditional Indian things that we’ve eaten all over, curried chickpeas, papads, chutney, rice, etc) — and handing them out — we passed them down row by row to the end of each row to distribute them all. The speaker kept on going throughout all this. He showed “typical” pictures of the Bene Israel community, to represent all it’s aspects – which ended up essentially being a bunch of pictures of him and his family — his ancestors, his family at different holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashana, his daughter and son in Indian dress and his wife’s cooking.

The pictures were part of a process where he was launching a geneaology center, he’d donated a computer and a printer/scanner, and was encouraging families to bring their photo albums, scan them, and build out their family trees, so the community could further establish its lineage. They had software to create family trees and include photos and other information into them. He was very clear that he wanted to include women — he complained that it had been hard for him to find female names as he went back in his own family, and encouraged the women in the room to make sure they were included in their own family trees. He also tried to encourage the whole room to record information about their line as soon as possible, since so much is lost when elderly relatives pass on. He’d gotten quite far back on his own family — very impressive. It definitely felt like he was extremely concerned with establishing the place and history of the community, with a degree of interest/urgency that I’ve not seen in North American or Israeli communities.

That was kind of it — things wound down after he finished. Many thank yous to the folks who put the night together. We went back to our hotel.

Ok, I was supposed to nap, but we’re headed out in a few minutes, must run upstairs to shower, it’s thirty something degrees and this Internet cafe isn’t air-conditioned. . .