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"We've Never Felt Scared"

Tracking the rich tradition of Jews in India.

As an Indian 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 the southern Indian state of 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. To the contrary, Indian Jews have flourished, and nowhere is that more evident than in Mumbai. Some of the city’s best-known landmarks, including Flora Fountain, the hub of the city’s Fort business district, have been built with donations from Jewish philanthropists who grew prosperous on trade and manufacturing. Most notable among them were the Sasoons, 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 the man who would go on to become India’s first prime minister. “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,” Jawaharlal 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-color 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 such Indian painters 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. For most Westerners, the Bene Israelis defy conventional images of being Jewish: They speak the western Indian language of Marathi, the women dress in saris and they eat rice and spicy fish curry. In those early days, many Bene Israelis worked as oil pressers and they’ve even been incorporated into the local caste structure as “shanivar telis”--the Saturday oil pressers, in acknowledgement of the day they kept the Sabbath. Centuries later, many of them migrated to Mumbai city, where they built a synagogue in 1796.

The Bene Israeli community has produced a mayor, a musician who led an early rock band, a clutch of Bollywood actors, and a member of the central bank board of governors. 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 there were approximately 25,000 Indian Jews at Independence in 1947, the community numbered only 5,271 people in 1991, the last year for which figures are available, as members sought better prospects in Israel. Many Indian Jews, however, 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 bloody pogrom against Muslims that was unleashed in his home state of 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, in Gujarat], but not quite home.”

Like Robin David, many older Indians, mindful of our own anti-imperialist struggle, are wary of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, even though it wouldn’t even occur to us to suggest that Indian Jews were somehow responsible for Israeli policy. India established diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1992, but since then, the two countries have got along like a house on fire, and have a roaring trade in defense supplies. Many Indians of a certain bent of mind admire Jersualem for the tough action it takes against terrorists, and letters to the editor in Indian newspaper frequently exhort New Delhi to learn its lessons from Israel.

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 Himalayan slopes of Kulu and Manali, notable for their drug-fuelled trace parties, 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 center--known around the world as Chabad Houses--in the western city of Pune in 2000.

Two years ago, I travelled to Pune to interview Rabbi Betzalel Kupchick, who ran the center. 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.”

In addition to the Pune center, Chabad Houses have also been opened during the tourist season in Manali, Dharamsala, Rishikesh, and Delhi. The Mumbai Chabad House has been so low key, few Mumbai Jews even knew of its existence until the attacks on Wednesday. Mumbai’s Jewish community doesn’t have much to do with the Israeli visitors and often complain that despite the large number of visitors from the Promised Land in town each week, the city’s nine synagogues are often hard-pressed on the Sabbath to find a minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men necessary for the service. Besides, 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.

By Naresh Fernandes