David’s Shooting Star: Jews of Mumbai
India has ebbed and flowed with a Babel-like torrent of races since time began. Within this kaleidoscope, the little-known Jewish community have a long and captivating story to tell. The exact date of their arrival on the subcontinent is shrouded in mystery with claims of Jews settling around 8th century BCE as one of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes. Intriguingly, there is not a single record of anti-Semitism in India’s long history, surely a unique testament in the often-troubled tale of the Jewish diaspora.
Mumbai, that centre, according to Kipling, of “idleness, intrigue and luxury”, became a haven for Jews under British colonial rule. They stamped the metropolis with a charming legacy, distinctly Levantine but infused with local colours. The oldest group, The Bene Israel ('Sons of Israel') claim descent going back 1,000 years from wandering Semites who arrived in India possibly by mistake and never left. One tale has them originating from oil-pressers who sailed from Galilee around 150 BC. The hapless group were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast, near Mumbai, and the survivors, seven men and seven women, buried the dead in a graveyard that exists to this day. The Semites adopted Hindu monikers similar to their Biblical first names and, over time, lost their Holy books and the Hebrew language except the totemic prayer S'hma Israel (Hear, O Israel...). However, the Sabbath and kosher culinary traditions were meticulously maintained, the latter resulting in a delectable cuisine still to be found today.
The Bene Israel’s heritage in Mumbai is perhaps most poignantly seen at a wedding as the bride, dressed in a white sari, walks towards the groom while he sings the “groom song” looking down from the synagogue podium. During the Passover festival, the people can be seen making matzoth (an unleavened flatbread) and solemnly whitewashing their houses. There is a romantic tale that the Bene Israel were discovered by an outsider Jew, David Rahibi, in the 18th century as a people living entwined with their Hindu neighbours. Rahibi, recognising their identity, devoted his life to re-introducing them to Judaism. He chose three young men to be spiritual guardians of the community who, in turn, passed the honour down their families establishing a quasi-priestly caste. Subsequently, the Bene Israel were immensely trusted by the British in the thorny colonial climate as being above ‘the politics and prejudices of the mass populace’. This privileged position proved a difficult one at the time of 1947 Independence with many emigrating, a people once again on the move, and settling in the newly-founded Israel.
Eighteenth-century ‘Bombay’ also gave shelter to another strand of the Jewish diaspora with the arrival of the Iraqi and Syrian Jews fleeing Islamic persecution. Known as ‘Baghdadi Jews’, they dealt in pearls, textiles and opium, with leading families such as the Sassoons becoming bywords for near-mythical wealth. They gained titles from the British and established landmarks including the elegant David Sassoon Library in Mumbai and richly decorated synagogues such as the Jerusalem-facing Knesset Eliyahoo, a turquoise edifice on the edge of the historic Colaba district. As the 19th century unfurled, the family’s tentacles arched from Bombay via Hong Kong to London with both the wartime poet Siegfried Sassoon and the grand dame Marchioness of Cholmondeley descended from the exotic tribe.
The years have dwindled Mumbai’s Jewish population to an almost imperceptibly beating pulse in the babble of India’s largest hub but fascinating remnants await discovery. The Taj Mahal Palace hotel has a local Jewish taxi driver, perhaps the only one left in the city, the wonderfully-named Mordecai Kumar, who drove me to the appealingly faded David Magen synagogue on the edge of the Byculla district. We spoke of his family, now all living in provincial towns in Israel and, while he lives under a Hindu alias, beamed with pride and emotion at his heritage both as a ‘Mumbaiker’ and a Bene Israel, reeling off hidden sites such as the grand Chinchpokli Cemetery, a haunting collection of mausoleums housing magnates, holocaust memorials and the nation’s first Miss India.
The story of the Jews is only a sliver of a chapter in the grand epic of Mumbai’s story but one that has helped to shape the city’s identity. A laissez-faire relationship that is perhaps best summed up with a line from the iconic novel Shantaram: '"I am French," he replied, admiring the dew on his half-raised glass, "I am gay, I am Jewish, and I am a criminal, more or less in that order. Bombay is the only city I have ever found that allows me to be all four of those things, at the same time"'
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Tour: A Jewish Heritage Tour of India – Journey through India’s Jewish past and present on a special tour of her Jewish heritage hubs.
Stay: Taj Mahal Palace is a justly revered and palatial hotel in the heart of Mumbai’s Colaba district. The property overlooks The Gateway of India, (partly funded by Sir David Sassoon) and is within walking distance of Nariman House, a Jewish landmark and other sights.
Eat: Moshes Restaurant, Cuffe Parade – opened by a Jewish Indian, Moshe Shek, this renowned institution is the place to enjoy Mediterranean fusion food with a Levantine influence and the best cheesecake around.
Read: The Girl from Foreign by Sadia Shepard – a poetic memoir of family loss and discovery by a Pakistani American author who travels to India in search of her newly-discovered Bene Israel roots.
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