Synagogue in Delhi

The bimah in Old Delhi’s prayer hall
The torah

After the devastation at the Chabad House in Mumbai in November 08. I wasn’t surprised to be met at Judah Hyam Prayer house in Old Delhi by a vicious sounding barking dog, luckily behind a locked wrought iron fence.

Only after my guide, Meena called out did the Rabbi’s wife, whom she knows well, came to unlock the padlock. The diminutive woman has probably met hundreds of visitors a year who come to see the only Jewish community centre in this capital city with a population of over 14 million people.

That certainly was my assumption since she seemed totally indifferent and really didn’t want to meet or talk to any visitors. However, with Meena at my side, she let us meander into the synagogue on own. This seemed so out of sync with all the security in the rest of the entire country or for that matter, anywhere in the world. Here there was a gate and a dog, not a guard in sight.

Once a city with over 1500 Jews, Delhi now has about 50 families with only about 20 who are somewhat active but not very observant. The blue stucco building with the cut outs of the Star of David above the entrance leaves no doubt that this was a Jewish house

Her husband, Rabbi, Rabbi Ezekiel Malekar, was in Israel, I was told when asked to meet with him. And then she (no name was mentioned nor did she seem willing to tell me) walked away.

So now on my own I could really see the building at my pace.

I recall visiting this community/prayer hall on my first trip to India over 12 years ago. Nothing seems to have changed .The outside walls have tribute plagues giving credit to those who over the years have donated large sums to the synagogue. None seem to be added since the 90s. As a synagogue in the fifties, it has now been reduced to a prayer hall since getting a daily minion and enough prayer goers is now impossible. Friday evenings seem to be the only time that the few Jews come to gather and pray.

Old but still elgant chairs in the prayer hall
The interior of the synagogue

There are many more seats than needed. About 50 chairs face the bimah, some turned diagonally facing east. Arm chairs against the walls are old but the elegance of times past still stand out. These chairs feature beautiful wooden backs with cut outs of Stars of David, probably very appropriate at the time and an indication of the affluence. There is an unexpected stylishness to them.

The torahs hidden behind somewhat worn coverings which have seen many better days but according to the Rabbi’s wife contain four old Torahs. There was no answer when asked where they had originally come from. The drab coverings are an indication and the reality of what has happened to the diminished Jewish population. And the over used, tired looking multi coloured yalmakes that sit in a basket near the door are a reinforcement of my theory.

The small building that houses the prayer hall

The strangely out of place, aged chintz drapery covering the windows, I’m sure haven’t been touched since I first saw them those many long years ago. Nevertheless, although this visit left me with the triumphful feeling there are still a few Jews in this far off city.

And although this may have been a wealthy synagogue at one time, time seems to have taken its toll. The visit, short as it was, left an indelible memory about our survival and even if there isn’t a daily minyan and on the high holidays tourists make up most of those praying and even if there aren’t any kosher foods or restaurants that cater to dietary needs, Judah Hyam Synagogue/Prayer Hall still exists and is visited.

The rabbi’s wife, now holding the leash of the heavy breathing dog, lets us out of the gates. I don’t know which of us was more terrified. The dog of me or me of him. But I know that this sanctuary still attracts enough visitors since it was still standing opened albeit not as welcoming as I would have liked, but there is a pride in knowing that no matter the circumstances, we Jews continue to have a presence in this multi religious city.