Chennai Journal
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Rosh Hashanah in Mumbai

Marty and I spent Rosh Hashanah in Mumbai, attending services at Knesset Eliyahu synagogue in the heart of the city. Above you can see Marty standing in front of the shul, which is one of several--not all of them operating-- in Mumbai. It is located in the Colaba district, which is in the south part of the city near the Taj Mahal hotel (too rich for our blood--we stayed at another nearby that overlooked the promenade).

There were only about 15 people at the evening services (and only a few more the following two days), but numbers had not deterred elaborate preparation for the High Holidays---the entire synagogue had the overwhelming odor of freshly applied paint. Nor did the small turnout diminish the hospitality shown us and other visitors. On the spot, one of the elders of the synagogue community, Freddie Sopher, invited us, another couple from Israel, and three travelling Danish college girls to his apartment for the first night's dinner. A total of 14 people joined the meal, including others from the Mumbai Jewish community. We climbed three long flights of stairs to Freddie's apartment, located on the top floor of a building mixed with neighborhood shops a few minutes walk from the synagogue. Typical of a Jewish meal anywhere in the world, the food--mostly vegetarian but with a fish course-- just kept coming and coming. Between courses, Freddie's "man" as he calls his servant, plied us with Johnnie Walker Black and Hennessey's.

The Jewish community in India, which once numbered nearly 40,000, is down to fewer than 5,000 today, primarily due to mass emigration to the State of Israel, the U.K., and the U.S. since Indian Independence. Most of the remaining Jews are concentrated in Mumbai, but are of two distinctly different communities---the Bene Israel, who trace their history in India to the first century, and the Baghdadi Jews, who are much fewer in number but have a stronger physical presence---schools, libraries, and the larger synagogues were built by them after the arrival of David Sassoon in the 1800s. (A third group, the Cochin Jews, live further south of Mumbai in the state of Kerala, and are also very few in number). Knesset Eliyahu was built by a descendant of David Sassoon, and most of its regular members are from the Baghdadi community.

Each member of the community that I talked to had fascinating stories of his or her family and life in India. Our host Freddie had been born and raised in Mumbai in the apartment where he still lived, but his remaining brothers and sisters had all emigrated to the UK. His grandfather had come from Baghdad around the turn of the century. A bookbinder, the grandfather struggled to make a living in Mumbai because he did not know the local language, Marathi. Freddie recounted an unforgettable tale from his childhood---one of his school textbooks had come unbound, and his grandfather offered to repair it for him. Knowing his grandfather's inability to read Marathi, Freddie hesitated to let the older man at the book. With apprehension, he finally relented. Sure enough, when he got to school and opened the textbook, the pages were every which way and it was impossible to follow. Worst of all, the teacher called on him and asked him to read! Failing even in his own family in the bookbinding business, Freddie's grandfather turned to hat making, catering to Hindus and Muslims as well as Jews. He did well in this business until the Partition of India and Pakistan, when religious tensions caused many to forsake wearing head coverings as a matter of survival. From hatmaking the family finally moved to the textiles business, primarily velvet and artificial furs used for children's toys, a trade which occupied most of Freddie's own adult life.

The following two days, we went back to Knesset Eliyahu for New Year's services. On the second afternoon--after another meal at Freddie's---the cantor, Bennie Dandekar, took us around Mumbai to visit the other synagogues. Although Bennie is the cantor at Knesset Eliyahu, he is from the Bene Israel and not the Baghdadi community, and he also serves as an educator, bar mitzvah tutor and purveyor of kosher meats and baked goods. Most of the Bene Israel attend synagogues in the northern part of Mumbai. These are not nearly as ornate as Knesset Eliyahu, but have larger congregations. Some, in varying states of disrepair, are tucked away in congested neighborhoods, accessible only by traversing narrow streets filled with laborers manhandling overloaded pushcarts, taxis, trucks, bicyclers, and pedestrians.

It is clear that the city's once thriving Jewish community has a rich history and, despite its shrinking numbers, still provides both warm hospitality and an unforgettable experience for visitors.

Our guide, Bennie (on the left) , leads us up a congested street to a neighborhood shul

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Very nice. I sent a tip to desipundit to link your article on Rosh Hashanah.
A great post I've been Kensset Eliyahu on many ocassions, but never during Rosh Hashanah. I had a friend who was a jew, well she immigrate to israel she took me one saturday. Thanks for bringing back the memory. There are about 2 other synagogues in Bombay both not operational. The biggest synagogue in India, the Ohel David Synagogue is in the nearby city Pune, which too has a significant Bene Jew population. It happens to be the largest synagogue in Asia outside Israel ofcourse.
It's interesting to see that at one point India was home every major relegion on this planet.
That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example http://samsonblinded.org/blog/petty-paganism.htm

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