The Abstract to my compilation, ‘Last spin of the Dreidel’.

•May 11, 2010 • 2 Comments

‘Nes Godol Haya Sham’ : A Hebrew phrase which means ‘A great miracle happened there’

India, a country known for its rich heritage, thanks to the multitude of religions and traditions co-existing simultaneously, has been a home to many cultures, which budded and blossomed in its bosom. History stands proof to the fact that India has provided shelter, on more than one occasion, to people, who were then exotic but are now as native as one can get. Of these very many cultures, one with its roots planted in the Indian subcontinent for a relatively longer period of time and yet almost a mystery for the Indian masses, is that of Judaism.

The Jews of India, unlike the Jews elsewhere, have had a peaceful history and though, economically they have never been able to match up with their foreign counterparts, they have led a happy life here. The creation of the state of Israel saw this community moving to their ‘homeland’ in large numbers. Today this community lives in the constant threat of extinction as the 10 Jews at Kerala have nothing more than memories of a time when prayers were held at the local synagogue and the 140 at Ahmedabad try to salvage things by learning Hebrew. A time is near when the traditions of this rich culture would be lost into the realms of time and the Indian Jewish diaspora would cease to exist outside the numbered books written on them.

Through my research project I hope to understand this exotic yet very Indian heritage, held precious by its followers for over 2500 years, and preserve a sliver of it. I also aim to generate curiosity in the culture enthusiasts about this forgotten-community so that people with better resources and capabilities than me can take over this task.


Expert Talk: Dr.Nathan Katz

•May 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

An online interview with Dr. Nathan Katz, Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University, who has been studying the Indian-Jewish community for the past 20 years and has written a host of books on the subject. He was a member of the eight-person delegation of scholars and rabbis who met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet about Jewish survival in exile. He has received statewide and national acclaim and awards for classroom excellence and has lectured at major universities and institutes around the world.

Q1. What are the differences in the visual cultures and lifestyles of the three diverse Jewish communities in India, namely, the Bene-Israel, the Baghdadi and the Malabari Jews?

Ans: I do not know what you mean by ‘visual cultures’. Generally speaking and as I discussed at length in my book, Who are the Jews of India?, in India, the Jewish communities adapted to certain ‘reference groups’ in which they lived. In Calcutta, at first it was the Armenian Christians, later British and Bengali mercantile castes. In Mumbai, it was the Parsis for the Baghdadi community, and in Cochin, mostly, the nears and later Anglo-Indians.

Q2. The Jewish community in Cochin is on the verge of extinction. Why aren’t therer steps being taken to preserve the culture of the oldest Jewish community in India?

Ans: It is being preserved in Israel, albeit in a new form.

Q3. While Judaism has grown and prospered in the US and even in the post war Europe…why is it disappearing from India?

Ans: Economics, mostly. America offers better opportunities, and so does Israel. Nowadays a number of Indian Jews in Israel are doing joint ventures in India in gems, IT, and agriculture.

Q4. Is their reason behind the fact that though the Jewish people in India have a relatively peaceful history, mostly sheltered from the immediate effects of II nd WW, they still don’t choose to fight for recognition like other minorities in India?

Ans: At first they felt they ought not because they were a privileged minority. Later, there were just too few of them to be granted such recognition.

Q5. Why aren’t Indians more exposed to Jewish traditions, like their marriage ceremonies or the concept of Bar-Mitzvah, the way they are to Christian or Parsi traditions?  Why aren’t Jews subjected to that curiosity?

Ans: I thought they were. Jews are portrayed in Indian films (most recently in “Mr. and Mrs.  Iyer”). There are many, many more Christians in India than Jews. What most Indian knows of Judaism, unfortunately, is what they learned from anti-Semitic sources – such as Marxism and Shakespeare! Even in the Hindu renaissance, the perception of Jews was at best mixed. Nowadays though, I find a great deal of interest in and respect for Israel.

Q6. In the course of my travel to various Jewish settlements in India, i experienced a host of reactions; while I was welcomed warmly in Ahmadabad, the response at Bombay bordered on the lines of open hostility. Is there a specific reason behind the extreme difference in the mindset of these two groups?

Ans: I cannot interpret this. It might just be the people whom you happened to meet.

Q7. To what extent has acculturation happened in the Indian Jewish diaspora?

Ans: This is discusses at length in my book mentioned above. Be sure to distinguish between acculturation and assimilation.

Q8. What is the current status-quo of the Bnei Menashe Jews, the tribal of Mizoram claiming to be one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, from the perspective of the Israeli government? What are the Judaic practices followed by this community?

Ans: They follow mainstream Sephardic practices. As you know, the chief Sephardi rabbi recognized them as “seed of Jacob” or of jewfish ancestry. But in Israel the question is much politicized. For the most part, their supporters are on the right wing politically, so the liberals do not want them to come to Israel.

Ghost of the glory past

•May 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Through my documentation and photographing of things, two photographs that I saw have stayed with me. Taken at unknown dates, these pictures talk of a time long gone, when the Indian Jews weren’t struggling to exist. The beauty of these photographs isn’t in the aesthetics, but in the feeling of abundance they carry.

Magen-Abraham Synagogue, Cochin

Hanging on the wall inside the office of the synagogue, this set of pictures from the pre-independence era captures the inauguration of the building. Taken at a time when the Jewish population in Gujarat numbered around 3000, it is now just a memory left for the 140 Jews remaining  now in the state.

Sarah Cohen's wedding picture

The photograph pinned to a soft board in Sarah Cohen’s workshop shows the 87-year old at the time of her wedding. Flanked by her husband and friends, she looks every bit the glowing bride. Today she lives all alone with her aging maid, talking to anyone who happens to enter her shop, with a friendliness that seems alien in all the suspicion reflected in the eyes of the other members of her community.

Ahmedabad & Cochin: Six feet under

•May 5, 2010 • 1 Comment

Looking to compare the visual cultures of these two distinct Jewish communities, I stumbled upon something that could broadly be a reflection of the same. The difference in the cemetery at Ahmadabad and that at Cochin is more than just striking.

The graves at Ahmedabad were beautiful to look at. Abundant symbols and text engravings demarcated almost all the tombstones and some even had lengthy inscriptions about the deceased. Some of the graves had interesting forms and the over all experience of walking through the cemetery at Ahmedabad had a distinct feeling of walking through the timeline of the Jewish community there.

Tombstone at Ahmedabad-1

Tombstone at Ahmedabad-2

Tombstone at Ahmedabad-3

A grave at Ahmedabad- 1

A grave at Ahmedabad- 2

A graphic inscribed in a tombstone

The cemetery at Cochin, on the other hand, has a distinctly unsettling air about it. With clusters of unmarked graves, one gets goosebumps just looking through the bars of the locked wrought iron gate. The gate though is beautifully uses the motif of a menorah in its design and is flanked on both sides with inscribed stones, giving details of when the cemetery was built. One cannot enter the cemetery without due permission from the synagogue, which is granted only to Jewish people.

Gate of the Cochin cemetery

The inscription outside (Hebrew)

The inscription outside (English + Malayalam)

The unmarked graves at Cochin

The compound wall made keeping the cemetery off limits

It is interesting to note that though Cochin boasts of a much longer relationship with Judaism as compared to Ahmedabad, the cemeteries at both these places do not portray this fact.

Sights of Jew Street: A visual treat

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment


Houses with Jewish motifs (1)

Houses with Jewish motifs (2)

Jewish objects displayed for sale

Jewish objects on display for sale

A door that opens into the past

•April 25, 2010 • 5 Comments

A house once occupied by a Jewish family, now lies empty, with the faint markings of a Mezuzah as the only evidence left of it's occupants.

Walking along the Jew Street, Synagogue Lane at Fort Cochin, I could feel the palpable tension in the air. On a high-alert, it had recently been in news that Cochin could be the center of the next terror attack. The only people willing to smile at me were the shop keepers of the very many handicraft shops lines alongside the little pathway that ended at the gate of the synagogue. Asking the locals about the houses inhabited by Jews just didn’t seem to be a very good idea at that time. It was after all my first visit to the area and camera seemed to be weighed down by the weight of the stares. Suddenly, stopping to look at a deserted house, a metal plate on the door frame made me ask the shop keeper next door if the house belonged to a Jewish family. The answer was positive and the look accompanying it was that of open curiosity. I was told that the inhabitants of that house had all died and that it now lay empty. And then, very easily, I could point out the houses belonging to Jews without having to ask anyone. The metal plate was the sign that a Mezuzah had once been hung on the door frame; been kissed as the family entered their home everyday; protecting them from evil eyes and indicating the faith of its occupants, long after they are gone.

The metal plate

An empty walk uphill

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

As we went up the windy steep roads towards old Manali, we really did not know what to expect. To begin with, I knew that this leg of my research and documentation trip would be very different as it is shifting away from traditional Jewish settlements. I was on my way to research a Chabad House that essentially trained rabbis. The idea was to take my research to its chronological conclusion from the old Jew town of Cochin to the new training center for rabbis.

I found the Chabad House of Manali tucked away on the outskirts of old Manali. Surrounded by small coffee shops and lovely eateries, the rabbis there were still celebrating Shabbat, as we came, knocked, entered and introduced ourselves. It was made clear that we were not welcome. It was then that we learnt of it not being a training center at all, but more like an institution that looks after the cultural needs of the Israeli/American Jew tourists who visit Manali.

There was not a single Indian inside, and talking to them I realized that they had very little respect for Indian Jews and the peculiarities of their customs. They could not understand our fascination with their traditions and dismissed the distinct quality of their culture, vaguely mumbling something about things being the same everywhere.

This experience answered a lot of questions. The American Jewish people visiting India do not connect with the Indian Jewish culture out of a feeling of racial supremacy. They are so unfriendly that even over an hour we were not offered a glass of water.

It was a blind lead that I had followed and it was a dead end; but then it only goes on to show that Judaism is like any other normal religion. It gives you both the good and the bad within itself and the experience of coming to terms with the suspicion and despise aimed at us made us realize that the Jews world over would.

A sticker in Hebrew with a picture of the founder of Chabad movement.

The door of the Chabad House with postcards and posters.