Mumbai: Moshe Shek grew up in India hearing tales of another homeland. In 1999, at the age of 29, he moved to Israel with dreams of finding the perfect Jewish wife, job and lifestyle.
Instead, he entered religious confusion: the language, culture and food were different. The women did not accept him. Even the synagogues and prayers felt like they belonged to someone else.
President of the Magen Hassidim Synagogue Abraham Medekar (sitting) and retired ACP of the Mumbai crime branch I. Samson say that one doesn’t have to be a Jew to enter the Synagogue.
Two years later, he came home—to India.
“I felt less Jewish in Israel than I had ever felt in India,” Moshe said, as he walked up to the attic-turned-office above his bakery in Mumbai.
Even as India’s political and social ties with Israel strengthen—the Israeli Film Festival returned to New Delhi this month, the two countries cooperate on issues from terrorism to water management, and Israeli tourists flock to India after army service—many Indian Jews are ferrying back tales of discrimination and unfriendly reception by Israelis.
And as a global debate rages over whether Indian Jews even qualify as Jews and prosperity grows on their own shores, Indians who once left for the Promised Land are returning home and asserting their own place within Judaism.
Their return is significant because it reflects growth in a tiny community spread across this nation of 1 billion, where Indian Jews once numbered about 30,000. Today, most have moved to Israel or other countries and an estimated 5,000 remain.
Upon arrival, Indian migrants—who largely left in the late 1970s—were asked for proof of their faith, said Abraham Medekar, president of the Magen Hassidim Synagogue in Mumbai. His son lives in Israel and he travels there for long stretches. Rabbis, he added, “told us we need to be taught how to practice Judaism correctly”.
That has angered many Indian Jews, even those who travel to Israel as tourists, such as I. Samson, the retired assistant commissioner of police in the crime branch of Mumbai.
“We have our own traditions. We have kept alive Judaism in a country of polytheism for 2,000 years,” he said. “Don’t tell us we don’t know our own religion.”
Some of this debate centres around the fact that Indian Jews have not faced the same persecution as others who seek haven in Israel. And like the Indians, other Jewish sub-cultures have faced recognition issues.
Ethiopian Jews have battled discrimination because of their colour since the 1990s. When the Russian Jews arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had lived in a communist regime for so long that many no longer knew how to pray. Israelis didn’t know what to make of them.
“I wish I could say that racial discrimination does not happen in Israel. But like every other society, Israel has its own social issues,” said Daniel Zonshine, the Israeli consul general in Mumbai.
Sitting in his Mumbai bakery that sells bagels and pita breads, Shek recalls the racism. “My girlfriends had to explain my skin colour to their mothers,” said Shek, who now owns a successful restaurant as well. His Hebrew accentwas laughed at and it was near-impossible to find accommodation.
“If I told the housing agent I am an immigrant and asked for help to find a good deal, he would definitely try to fleece me,” Shek said, arching his eyebrows. “Whatever it was that I expected, this was certainly not it.”
Now, the Indian Jews are trying to create more awareness of their own community—a history often lost in a nation where religious discussions tend to centre around Hindus and Muslims.
Asked to render his history, Ezra Moses, vice-president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, recounts a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off the Konkan coast that brought the Bene Israeli tribe to India.
“Since then, we Bene Israelis have lived here, adopted local customs, names, occupations, held onto our own religion,” Moses said. “We have our own special history.”
The idea of India—where religions have co-existed both peacefully and violently all at once—defines the Indian Jewish experience.
“Our children grew up among temples and learned how to be Jewish without disrespecting other deities,” said Samson, who has a masters degree in Indian philosophy. “This is the only country where Jews have never been persecuted. We don’t know what discrimination means.”
On the other hand, in Israel, being Jewish is a national preoccupation, a tie that binds a national identity, said an elderly Jewish man who did not want to be quoted by name.
The Indian Jews who had migrated to Israel found the concept foreign, viewing home as a place not necessarily linked to religion, observers say. This marks an important shift as both the Indian and Israeli economies grow, and Jews worldwide might face tougher questions on the need for migration.
“Until about 15 years ago, Israel was not an attractive country to anyone. After it began doing well economically, groups of people all over the world began to discover their Jewish identities,” said Eli Salzberger, dean of HaifaLaw School in Israel, explaining why common people in Israel can be distrustful of newcomers.
“Many Russians had forged documents, for instance. Now people don’t know—are they coming for religion or for something else?”
Experts say that the Law of Return, which says Israel must be a land for all Jews, is the real problem as it does not answer a simple question: Just who is a Jew?
“This question is going to become a major issue in the Jewish world in the next few years,” Moses said.
Indians say they encounter an Israel forming its own caste system, with Europeans who suffered most during the Holocaust seen as the “purer Jews”.
Shaking his head sadly, Moses said, “Jews have been targets of anti-Semitism all over the world for thousands of years. They have faced it. And now they are doing it? To their fellow Jews? It is really not proper.”
About 60,000 Indian Jews have migrated to Israel since 1950—with most of them leaving between late-1970s and mid-1990s, said the Jewish Agency for Israel that helps Jews migrate to Israel.
They don’t have records of those who have come back, but just 5,000 remain in India, mainly in and around Mumbai. Those here say they are now committed to growing the community in India, armed with lessons from Israel.
Pointing to markings at the entrance of the sanctum at Magen Hassidim Synagogue, Samson said, “It says—‘May the righteous enter’—it does not say Jews. It means you don’t have to be a Jew to come.”
Inside on a recent night, 12-year-old Shaina Painkar, dressed in a white and pink ghagra-choli, leaned over to light 12 candles and recite verses from the Tohra for her bat mitzvah. Bat and bar mitzvahs are ceremonies to initiate girls and boys, respectively, into adulthood.
In a small community like theirs, “everyone knows everyone else”, Medekar said. At weddings, in addition to Jewish rituals, a traditional mehndi ceremony is performed for a bride. The couples dress in saris and sherwanis and serve paneer and daal at their celebration.
“While their religion was the same, their cultures were very different,” observed consul-general Zonshine.
“With limited resources in a relatively poor country, is a clash that unusual?”