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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

A Jewish New Year’s feast in Mumbai

The Jewish link to India is both ancient and modern, and the intersection of Hinduism and Judaism reveals fascinating insights

If you are a tiny majority in a land that welcomed and nurtured you; and if you have an option to go back to your “homeland", would you cash in on that option? Or not? Why would you leave and why would you stay? The writer talks to the Jews in Mumbai and discovers that identity—both personal and national—is linked not just to genes, race and creation myths, but also to the agility with which an exiled group can adapt their myths to their new land.

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I am in Bombay to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at the home of Yael and Ralphy Jhirad. They are friends of a friend and have kindly invited me—a stranger—to dinner at their home. En route, I stop at an aunt’s house in Chembur, about half an hour from the Jhirad home in Napean Sea Road, yet a world away in terms of mindset.

When I say that I am dining with Jewish people, my aunt, Viji, blinks and nods in the fashion of people who are faking knowledge—who act as if they know what you are talking about when they really don’t.

“Jewish people? Umm... hmmm. Umm... hmmm," she says.

So, I come right out and ask her if she knows what Judaism is. Does she know any Jewish people?

“Aren’t they like Jains?" she asks hopefully.

No, I reply. Hasn’t she heard of Jews in Kerala where she grew up? Cochin had a large population at one time in Jewtown.

Yes, Jewtown. Where good cardamom was available, she nods.

I explain to my aunt about how Jews searched far and wide for a homeland. My aunt tut-tuts in sympathy before bursting into a cackle. “And to think that they ended up in India. From the frying pan to the fire."

India isn’t their homeland; Israel is, I say.

My aunt has lost interest. She is listening raptly to Carnatic music on the radio.

“Leela Samson is a Jew," I say quietly.

That makes her sit up. My aunt is an old-school bharatanatyam dancer who trained in Kalakshetra, the institution that Samson headed before being ousted. She admires Leela Samson.

“But Leela looks like the Hindu," she says.

“She is a Yehudi," says my uncle who has just walked in. He is using the local name for Jews.

“Yes, a Yehudi—like Jana, my real estate agent who you met when you visited me in New York," I say to my aunt. “Remember her? Jana?"

This time, my aunt nods more convincingly. She remembers my friend Jana Kolpen, who made terrific eggless brownies. Jana, among other things, happens to be a Jew.

It may shock my Jewish friends in New York to hear this, but many Indians haven’t heard of Jews or Judaism; not even Indians who live in Mumbai, where some 4,000 Bene Israeli Jews live.

The quiet anonymity of Jews in India is in stark contrast to, say, America, where Jews are a visible, prominent and influential minority. In Long Island, where my cousins grew up, the top public schools that attracted Jewish families moving to the suburbs in the early part of the century also attracted Indian immigrants a few generations later.

The two communities got along. They shared values: a commitment to education, the ability to delay gratification, hard work, a certain pessimism (or fatalism) that comes from being old cultures; and a love of specific types of food—gefilte fish and unleavened bread for the Yehudis and buttermilk-based kadhis and spicy rasam for the Hindus.

When we lived in the US, some of our closest friends were Jews. We seemed to have a natural connection, to the point where I thought that if my daughter had to marry a non-Indian, I would be okay if she married a Jew.

Here is the thing, though: all the Jews I know live in the States. I didn’t know a single Jew while growing up in Chennai. Celebrating Rosh Hashanah with the Jhirad family is a tentative first step towards correcting this gap. The Jewish diaspora celebrates it over two days so that it overlaps with the single day that it is celebrated in Israel.

I fly to Mumbai for the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Through introductions from friends, I connect with several Jewish families in Bombay who give me tips about which synagogues to visit and at what time. Ralphy and Yael Jhirad are prominent members of the Bene Israel community. They conduct Jewish tours and document Jewish life in India. By living in India as Jews, they experience the intersection of two of the world’s most ancient faiths.

The Jewish link to India is both ancient and modern. Its modern avatar began in the late 1980s when prosperous American Jews became fascinated with Eastern spirituality, much like The Beatles.

In October 1990, eight Jewish leaders came to India to visit the Dalai Lama in exile in Dharamsala. As described in the influential book, The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz, the delegation expected to listen and learn from his holiness. Instead, the Dalai Lama flipped things around by asking a question relevant to his people. “Tell me the Jewish secret to spiritual survival in exile," he asked.

Tibetan Buddhists, said his holiness, could learn something from the Jews, who had preserved their religion and identity in exile for more than 2,000 years. Ever since the siege of Jerusalem.

The siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD had all the elements of war, colonization and subsequent destruction, played out in many cultures time and time again (you’d think the world would have learned by now): high taxes in ancient Rome leading to discord among its citizens; growing religious divisions between the Jews and the Pagans; one sect mocking the other; Judas of Galilee forming an extremist political sect called the Zealots—named so because they would be zealous in their faith; infighting among the Zealots (somewhat like the infighting between the Indian maharajahs when the British showed up in India), leading to the breaching of Jerusalem.

The Roman general—and would-be emperor—Titus stormed the walls and entered the city. He razed Jerusalem to the ground and exiled the Jews. They have wandered the earth for 2,000 years, searching for a homeland till the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

All religions have certain core values—inchoate, and not necessarily reflected in ritual practice.

Hinduism is known for its tolerance; its acceptance of the many faiths that sought its shores without feeling threatened. Buddhism for its Zen-like equanimity. Judaism is about survival and preservation in spite of obstacles, in exile, and through suffering.

The Jews, as the Dalai Lama said, could teach us a thing or two about religious identity and preservation: both in exile and in a secular democratic world where religion seems to have lost its place.

As the rabbis told the Dalai Lama, religions today need to make their peace with an increasingly uncaring flock, to stay relevant in a world that is embroiled in religious discord and seemingly has no use for religious discourse.

Take you, for instance, the reader of this text. What is the role of religion in your life today? Do you pray? Is it just rituals—chanting verses in archaic languages, be it Hebrew, Latin or Sanskrit? Or is it a comforting routine—going to church or temple once a week or month?

Is religion part of your identity? Or is it something that you seek to distance yourself from? Is it an occasional activity with dubious benefits—like going on a pilgrimage or doing a puja in times of stress? Or is it simply a connection with your heritage, homeland and ancestors?

Are these questions making you uncomfortable? Do you think religion is a private act to be done in the confines of home, with family, not something to declare publicly? Every faith has both types of practitioners.

The spiritual leaders in Kamenetz’s book call these practices—rituals, pilgrimages, chanting—the exoteric aspects of religion. Underneath the exoteric are the esoteric practices, “the deep attunement, the deep way", known only to a small band of practitioners.

Hinduism has tantra; Judaism has the Kabbalah; Buddhism has the vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. These esoteric practices include literature and incorporate lifestyle, chanting, specific breathing and meditation techniques. Sadly, only the sexual element of these esoteric practices has been highlighted, and made the object of scorn or vulgarity.

How to combine the exoteric with the esoteric is a problem that most world religions face. Kamenetz’s book is an attempt to answer this question through conversations with Jewish Buddhists or JU-BUs (poet Allen Ginsberg is one); and Hinjews who were attracted to Hinduism. New-age teacher Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert of Harvard University, could be considered a Hinjew. He wrote the book Be Here Now about his association with Neem Karoli Baba and meditation.

As for me, I find myself drawn to the esoteric aspects of religion for reasons that I find hard to articulate. If pressed, I will say that I like the mixture of beauty, art, the sensual and the spiritual.

Embracing these deeper, secretive practices seems more holistic—rather than dividing faith into the sacred and the profane. Judaism and Hinduism, ancient religions both, are well-equipped to bring mysticism, meditation, music and, yes, sacred food into spirituality—fusing the exoteric with the esoteric.

Consider the halva: a favourite food in both religions, served during Rosh Hashanah by the Bene Israeli Jews, and during most Hindu festivals. The halva is soft, gooey, rich and full of heart. It could be a person’s first food and his last. Indeed, I think babies would eat better if they got halva as their first food instead of that Gerber goo. The recipe itself is fairly simple but painstaking.

The Indian-Jewish version involves grating coconuts—a six-hour-long, labour-intensive process. The grated coconut is then juiced and squeezed to get the “first coconut milk" that sweetens the halva.

Traditional Jewish halva is made with rice flour, all-purpose flour or maida, and sugar in the ratio 1:1:2.5. To this, add coconut milk and a pinch of salt. All the ingredients are mixed with a little water. The entire quantity is poured into a large pan and heated over a sigri or coal fire. After that, the art is in the stirring. Most Bene Israeli families used to hire a man a few days before Rosh Hashanah just to sit and stir a cauldron full of halva for hours at a stretch.

Once the halva reaches the consistency of, well, halva, or thick batter, it is poured into a large plate. Dried fruits and nuts are sprinkled on top: skinned sliced almonds, skinned sliced pistachios, pine nuts, sliced hazelnuts and others. The whole mixture is allowed to cool for 24 hours.

I have eaten many halvas in my life, but none as good as the one I ate for Rosh Hashanah at the Jhirad home. The coconut milk gave it depth and density without increasing the sweetness.

Yael Jhirad is soft of voice and considerate of disposition. When I land in Bombay, she tells me to go to the Gateway of India at 5pm. Jewish people gather at the seashore for a ceremony called tashlich—casting away your sins into running water before starting the New Year afresh.

Men symbolically empty their pockets and write out sins, mistakes and misdemeanours on small pieces of paper before throwing them into the waters of the Arabian Sea. In some parts of India, Jewish boys fly kites as a way of starting the New Year on a high—quite literally. Such gatherings served a softer purpose: matchmaking. They allowed parents to show off their sons and daughters,resplendent in New Year finery.

New Year in most ancient societies was timed to the harvest. It was a bountiful period—a time to look forward, tempered with a long-term perspective. In Bengaluru, where I now live, families eat bitter neem leaves along with jaggery for Sankranti, the New Year.

It’s like saying, “Hey, the New Year is here and it’s gonna be good—well, sort of. Hard knocks are part of life and just so you internalize it, we are going to make you eat some neem—the bitterest leaf on earth. Swallow that. With equanimity."

The Jewish New Year is forward-looking too, but not with the giddy exuberance of a young nation like the US. The tashlich is a way of remembering the past; shaking off the cobwebs; discarding accumulated sins and mistakes; gaining perspective.

This then is what living through a few millennia does to a people: it prevents them from enjoying the moment with the unadulterated glee of an innocent child. It makes them aware that tragedy is around the corner. Ups and downs. It is all just a matter of time.

Most Hindus, and I am guessing, Jews, are acutely aware of this. They touch wood while giving a compliment; cross their fingers when someone notices their spate of good luck; and would never answer the question, “How are you?" with a “Fabulous, just fabulous."

As seen in the hilarious film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Greeks spit on a child’s head if somebody gives the child a compliment. The best you can get from anyone who belongs to an ancient civilization, whether they are Chinese, Indian or Jewish is, “Okay—could be better." After all, why invite the envious eye?

After the tashlich, the whole congregation goes back prepare for Seder or dinner.

“The Jewish equivalent of sacred food is keeping kosher; adhering to certain dietary laws in the context of tradition," says Nathan Katz, distinguished professor emeritus at Florida International University and editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies. “It is a way of turning ordinary food into sacred food through ritual transformation, which is essentially what happens in Hindu prasad also."

I speak to Katz by phone. He and his wife are visiting India “for love", he says. “Not for conferences; or research; or with any purpose but just because we love it here." Over a few months, they are travelling along the Himalayas—from Uttarakhand to Himachal Pradesh to Darjeeling to Sikkim and Meghalaya—pretty much all the places I have not visited, having grown up in India.

Katz knows the Jhirads, “of course", he says, as do most Jews who traipse through Bombay.

The Jhirad home is in an inconspicuous apartment complex, no different from the thousands dotting the city. When I walk in for Sedar at around 8pm, there are several people gathered around a table brimming with food.

Sitting beside me is Michael Oskin from Connecticut. Across the table is Ayelet McDonald, a native Israeli science teacher on a two-year contract with a school in Mumbai. Beside her is Matt Daniels, a 30-something graphic designer and teacher who grew up in Detroit but has lived in India for more than 10 years. He and his girlfriend, Meghana Srivastava, run a restaurant, The Verandah, in Goa.

Yael’s brother, Aaron, is on my other side at one head of the table. Yael and her son, Avniel, sit beside Ralphy at another end. A few minutes later, Yulia Egorova, a professor at Durham University in England, walks in. Egorova has authored a number of books on Indian Jews, two of them with Tudor Parfitt, whose celebrated study on the DNA of the Lemba in Africa and the Bene Israel in India made front-pages worldwide.

After some small talk, Ralphy, a tall genial man with an easy smile and a warm manner, begins the proceedings. He is nursing a bad cold but that doesn’t stop him from walking around the table, filling our wine glasses and making sure everyone has enough to eat. Avniel reads the blessings from the holy book.

What makes some children participate in religious activities while others don’t? Is it the simplicity of the religion; the fact that it has a single holy book? Or is it the fact that religious rites are conducted in a language that children understand?

Hinduism is at a disadvantage on both these counts. Many of the religious rituals, be it Ganesh puja or Durga puja, involve prayers in Sanskrit. Nobody except the priests is really sure about what to do. When you perform these pujas or prayer-rituals at home, even the parents/adults don’t quite know what to do.

How do you get the children involved? Each state celebrates different festivals in a distinct fashion, so if you live in a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru, with neighbours who are from different states, there is no unifying date, purpose or ritual that you can follow.

Even Deepavali, Hinduism’s biggest holiday, was celebrated in a fractured way in the apartment complex that I live in. The north Indians celebrated it on 11 November, Tamils celebrated it on 10 November, and the government declared a holiday on 12 November. We weren’t even sure which day to call and wish our neighbours.

Historians believe that the reason why Hindus don’t have a strong religious identity—if you exclude the Hindutva movement—is because they didn’t call themselves Hindus until the 19th century; or at least until the Muslim invasions of the 12th century. I think of all this as I watch Ralphy and his son conduct the prayers and read out the blessing in a confident manner. Avniel is so confident in his recitation of Hebrew, I think. Maybe I should teach my kids Sanskrit. But first, I need to learn the language myself.

Food is passed around. Each dish has a meaning. A bowl of ruby red pomegranate seeds for bounty; apples dipped in honey for sweetness; dates which are food from the tree; bananas which are food from the earth; string beans, or rov in Hebrew, which means to multiply; young garlic with stalks—leafy vegetables are called karsi, which sounds like the word karet, meaning cut off or destroy. Similarly, the beets are called silka, which sounds like siluk, meaning removal.

“A lot of the dishes are chosen because of their symbolic meaning," says Ayelet. “Because of how they sound."

“The festival is all about leadership. About being the head," says Yael. “So, we choose the head of the goat; the head of the fish."

Preparations for Rosh Hashanah begin a week earlier in the Jhirad household. They keep track of when Mumbai’s Jewish community does the kosher slaughtering of the meat. Ralphy travels two hours one way to buy meat from a kosher butcher a day before Rosh Hashanah. Yael scouts the market for greens with stalks—young garlic stalks are not always available, she says.

She starts stocking nuts—expensive in India—for the halva; makes sure that kosher wine is available—brought from Israel by obliging friends and family; and invites Jewish visitors who are passing through Mumbai for dinner at her house. “I have helped my mother and grandmother with Rosh Hashanah since I was a child, so I am pretty organized," Yael says with a smile.

More food is brought out in large platters—lamb meat, a goat’s head, goat’s brain, kidneys, rice pulao, potato chops, chicken curry, fish head (generally pomfret) grilled with minimum spices.

Being a vegetarian, I stick to the rice and eat gargantuan quantities of the halva. I stare at the fish’s head that is passed around and reassess my rash statement about it being okay if my daughter marries a Jew. Can I stare at a fish’s head every New Year? Or do I politely refuse to join the festivities?

Everyone murmurs about similarities and differences. Matt Daniels, for example, is an Ashkenazi Jew with ancestors from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The Jews of Mumbai are Sephardic. “At home in Detroit, the Rosh Hashanah food is very Eastern European—very Russian and Slavic," he says. “Beef brisket, chicken soup—which is called Jewish penicillin." Their family makes “that bizarre Jewish ‘delicacy’ called Gefilte fish" during other holidays, not Rosh Hashanah, he says.

A lot of Jewish holidays centre around the triumph of the Jewish people against their enemies; a reaffirmation of the belief that god is on their side. Hanukkah celebrates their triumph over the Greeks; Passover, the Pharoah; Purim, the Persians.

“Every time someone tries to kill us, we eat," my Israeli friend, Shai, used to joke. “They tried to kill us. We won. Now, let’s eat."

What makes a religion feel beleaguered and how does it change people who belong to that faith? Could the Jewish drive for achievement be linked to the fact that they have always had to prove themselves—to the insecurity that comes from not having a homeland? And could India’s placidity and acceptance be linked to the fact that the Hindu majority never felt beleaguered, even though they had reason to—being ruled by foreign masters after the 12th century?

If you remove Hindu fundamentalists from the equation, the Hindus are not bitter or even fussed about the past. They move on. The ruthless desire for revenge, for redemption, doesn’t seem to be part of the Hindu psyche. Is this because Hinduism developed organically in India, and until very recently, orthodox Hindus didn’t cross the oceans?

When you live in the comfort and embrace of your native land, you become complacent, you develop an inner strength and security (which is part of the reason why Indians who live in foreign lands return to India—to give this comfort to their children).

The only time I felt like I had to prove myself was when I became an immigrant and carried the burden of “being Indian" on my shoulders. Hindus didn’t have to go out and proselytize like the Christians, as if to prove our worth to our faith. Hinduism doesn’t demand that its faithful go to war for it—like Islam does. We were not thrown out of a country because of religion, like the Jews were, time and time again. Is this what makes the Hindu tolerant? Is this what gives him or her this unshakeable sense of security?

“Ancient religions like Hinduism and Judaism don’t have the inherent internationalism and missionary zeal like the younger religions do," says Katz, who also happens to be a Jainism scholar.

I guess that when a religion lasts a few millennia, the faithful realize that converting a few hundred people, or even a few thousand, is a drop in the ocean. Is this why the Bene Israel didn’t convert others to their faith; or get converted, during their 2,300-year sojourn in India?

Or did they—convert, I mean? The question isn’t innocuous. Indeed, it is the source of much angst and controversy for the Bene Israelis, not the least because rabbis in Israel demanded proof of identity when Indian Jews emigrated there.

It is close to midnight when we finish. Ayelet, Yulia and I get on a Uber cab together. Chattering like parakeets, we whiz through the quiet, dark streets of Mumbai.

I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I have a long day tomorrow that begins at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue.

This is the first in a three-part series.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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