The next morning, at 10am, I make my way to the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in south Mumbai. The city has about 10 synagogues serving a population of about 4,000 Jews. The Gate of Mercy synagogue, built in 1796, is the oldest. The Keneseth Eliyahoo was built in 1884.
This powder-blue synagogue has two floors, carved wooden doors, stained-glass windows and a community centre. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Madonna have been visitors. But I, apparently, cannot enter. A guard named Samson stands guard at the entrance and says that prayers have commenced. He is polite but firm. Unless I am a known member of the community, or a friend, they cannot let me in.
On 26 November 2008, a series of terrorist attacks shook Mumbai. Among those killed were a Jewish rabbi and his wife at Chabad House in Nariman Point. Ever since then, security has been tightened at Mumbai’s synagogues, particularly during Jewish holidays.
I sit on the plastic chair outside the door, trying to indicate that I am not going anywhere. One of the security guards seems sympathetic to my request. His name is Ruben and he calls his friends at Mumbai’s other synagogues, trying to see if he can get me into another service.
“We have lived in India for 2,000 years and not one of our synagogues has been the target of any attack or vandalism even,” he says in between calls. “This Chabad House comes to India and boom, they get attacked. That is the difference between Indian Jews and outsiders.”
I nod and try to reach Yael Jhirad for help. Her line is busy. I call one of my other Jewish contacts, who asks for the name of the guard.
“Samson,” I reply.
“They are all called Samson. Which Samson?”
Thankfully, Yael calls back at that moment. She tells me to hold tight. Her brother Aaron is inside the synagogue.
Aaron comes out. With him as escort, I go up the stairs into the prayer room.
“We need at least 10 men to start the service, so sometimes, we have to wait for a quorum,” says Aaron.
There are about 12 men on one side and two women on the other. The men are wearing what seems like a shawl across their shoulders and chanting in a singsong fashion.
I had never paid attention to religious clothes, but watching the Jewish men in what seems like shepherd’s clothing makes me think about how Hindu and Christian priests are dressed. It is as if their clothes, which probably made sense when these religions were invented, have been frozen in time. No change since the early years of their evolution.
The Jewish shawl over the shoulders reminds me of cold nights under the stars. The inside of Keneseth Eliyahoo is extremely warm. Sweating men in beards nodding their heads to the singsong chant. Still, the synagogue has that preternatural peace that somehow descends on all places of worship—as if thousands of souls who have crossed its threshold have been chanted into submission.
Earlier, says Yael, the three groups of Indian Jews—the Cochinis, the Bene Israels and the Baghdadi Jews—all had their own synagogues, each with slight differences. But now, the Jewish community in India is so small that they all worship together.
The Cochini Jews were based in Fort Cochin and there are hardly any left. The Baghdadis spoke Arabic and came from Yemen. They too are a minority, relative to the 4,000-odd Bene Israels who live in India, mostly in the Mumbai area.
The Bene Israel arrival to India reads like a Hollywood or Bollywood thriller. It began with a shipwreck 2,300 years ago, but like all tales, the seed for this one was sown centuries before that.
The year was 175 BC in the hotbed that was the Hellenistic empire—Egypt, Rome, Greece and Jerusalem—a mad king named Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to stamp his will on the Jewish people. He outlawed the Torah, the Jewish religious book, and said that they could not circumcise their boy children or keep kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws that are eerily similar to what my orthodox Tamilian grandmothers practised at home.
To escape this persecution, a group of Jews jumped into ships and fled from the Sea of Galilee. They headed east to Cheul, a biblical trading port, to forge a new life. En route, their ship encountered horrific monsoon winds and crashed into the dangerous “twin rocks” off the Konkan coast of India.
Everyone on board perished, except seven men and—conveniently—seven women. The seven couples were washed ashore to a village called Nowgaon near Alibaug. They called themselves Bene Israel, or Children of Israel. All Bene Israel Jews are descendants of these seven couples.
This is where the tale gets murky, if Bene Israel historian Nissim Moses is to be believed. Moses is the author of Bene Israel of India: Heritage and Customs. He has emigrated to Tel Aviv from Mumbai, “not because of Zionism”, he says, but to contribute knowledge about the Bene Israel Jews to the Israeli homeland.
Moses links the Bene Israel shipwreck to the Chitpavan Brahmins who live in the same Konkan region. The Chitpavan Brahmins, interestingly enough, believe that they are descendants of people thrown ashore dead—also on the Konkan coast—as the result of a storm.
Local inhabitants collected their dead bodies for cremation on a common funeral pyre. Just as the fire was lit, a Hindu sage named Parasurama passed by. He was on a campaign to destroy the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste of the Hindus.
Seeing so many “fair-skinned healthy corpses”, as Moses says, the sage saw an opportunity to strengthen the number of Brahmins in the world. He sprinkled some water on the corpses, chanted some mantras and brought them back to life. The people anointed and resurrected by Parasurama called themselves Chitpavan Brahmins.
As a community, they consider themselves superior to the other Brahmins. They have lighter skin; and generally do not encourage intermarriage with other castes. Their names are quite similar to Bene Israel names, something that Moses points out in his book. Aptekar is a Bene Israel name; Apte is a Chitpavan Brahmin name.
“For all we know, the Chitpavan Brahmins and the Jews came from the same stock of people who were thrown ashore in that shipwreck,” says Moses.
I mention Moses’s theory to a friend in Bengaluru who happens to be a Chitpavan Brahmin. You may have Jewish genes, I tell her, expanding on the story.
“You can tell your Jewish friend to go take a hike,” she replies. “We Chitpavan Brahmins believe that we descended straight from the gods.”
Moses is unfazed by her reply. His grand theory is that Hindus and Jews come from a common land and common ancestors. He lists 43 reasons in his book to prove this.
Both the Jewish and the Hindu calendars are lunar. Yom Kippur in the Jewish calendar coincides with Durga puja in the Hindu calendar. Purim and Holi occur on the same day.
Both Jews and Hindus perform marriage rites under a canopy. They remove their sandals while entering a temple or synagogue. They have ritual baths before special occasions. Both religions require the isolation of women during the days of the menstrual period and after childbirth. Their death rites are similar.
The Jewish first commandment says, “I am the Lord.” One of the basic tenets of Hinduism is “Aham Brahma Asmi,” or “I am the Creator.”
Hindu and Jewish ritual objects are very similar. The six-pointed star, Magen David, is also a sacred Hindu symbol. The original name of Abraham was Av ram (father of Ram in Hebrew). The pancha diyas or five lamps used in Hinduism are similar to the menorah lit during Hanukkah. The design of the second temple and the Thanjavur temple in Tamil Nadu are very similar.
“I could go on,” says Moses. “In the Bible, it says that the Garden of Eden lay in a valley of four rivers. Where do you have four rivers in one valley? In Kashmir. If you look at the descriptions of what Moses saw when he saw the land of Israel, all the descriptions match that of Kashmir.”
Kashmir, in other words, could be the Promised Land—claimed by Hindus, Muslims, and now, the Bene Israel Jews, or at least one of their historians.
Moses acknowledges that his theory is farfetched and that he has trouble selling his ideas to his fellow Jews, both in India and in Israel. An obvious criticism of his grand unification theory is that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, while Judaism is a monotheistic religion; although, as Moses argues, Hinduism’s most esoteric philosophy, Advaita, propounds monotheism.
Most scholars refute this theory. “The similarities between Judaism and Hinduism are purely coincidental,” says Nathan Katz, professor emeritus at Florida International University and editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies. “If you divide the world into Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, Judaism and Hinduism would be the two great world religions that are older than most. Naturally, there would be some similarities.”
“I don’t think that there is a link,” says Ayelet McDonald, my dinner companion. “A link indicates a common ancestry of some sort. Judaism has developed independent of Hinduism. Both religions are ancient. They share commonalities. If you want to create a calendar in the ancient times, the things you observe are day and night; and waxing and waning of the moon. Naturally, you would create a lunar calendar.”
Moses will have none of it. After the destruction of the second temple, he says, Judaism went from being a sacrificial religion to one that involved prayer and meditation.
“I have lived first-temple Judaism, which is the form that was followed by my Bene Israel ancestors,” he says. “And I have lived second-temple Judaism in Tel Aviv. I know where the crossover points are. The problem is that you have a number of half-baked Western social anthropologists who come to India to prove their constricted, restricted viewpoints, which are primarily from second-temple Judaism. They don’t want to admit that Hinduism was the primordial religion from which other religions borrowed from.”
I am not sure how I feel about the conviction with which Moses speaks. I suppose I should be happy that he considers my religion, Hinduism, the primordial religion, the original faith from which all others spring from. But what interests me is his motivation.
He has lived in Tel Aviv for decades—his children were born there. He tells me that his daughter had to audition four times to get into ballet school when no other student had to. Clearly, he feels that the Bene Israels have faced discrimination in the holy land. Yet, he has not left. What keeps him in Israel now that his son and daughter have settled in the US?
He says that the rabbis are like the “Jewish Taliban” and that “Jews, sorry to say, are a very intolerant people.” Then why doesn’t he return to Mumbai? Why does the Bene Israel narrative consume him? Part of it is setting the record “straight” from a Bene Israel point of view. That, I get. He wants the Bene Israels to be the authors of their past and future instead of having it written for them.
Bene Israels, and indeed, Indian Jews, occupy that liminal space where they belong to two cultures and neither, depending on time and circumstance. To be exiled from two cultures is, to say the least, difficult.
Exile, says Palestinian professor Edward Said, is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and his native place, between the self and its true home. It’s an essential sadness that can never be surmounted.
Where do you come from—as a person, as a people? Does this question matter to you? I imagine that any transplanted or transmuted group would have more than a passing interest in this question: Goans or Syrian Christians who track down their Hindu past, or Indian Jews who trace back their origins.
What made them leave their native land? How did they choose their new home? Was it a chance shipwreck or an intent to sail east? What were their lives like in their new home? These questions seem to have consumed the Bene Israels, at least since the 19th century when Haim Samuel Kehimkar wrote The History Of The Bene Israel Of India.
In the book, Kehimkar (who happens to be Moses’s great-grandfather) meticulously documented the customs and practices of his community, including the arrival of a mysterious stranger who taught them who they really were.