An extract from Esther David’s manuscript of her proposed book I am a seed of the tree – a result of a three year documentary effort facilitated by a research grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Research Awards, U. S. A and the cooperation of the Jewish community and the Magen Abhraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad, the only synagogue in Gujarat.
The Jewish community of Ahmedabad is very small, we are about four thousand in India; with fifty families in Ahmedabad and so our lives revolve around the Synagogue.
The Magen Abhraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad has an Indo-Judaica architectural form with old religious artefacts. It has Grecian pillars, a triangular roof, a high ceiling; artistic grills, stained glass windows and chandeliers which lend an ethereal glow. It is similar to Art Nouveau style of architecture with a women’s gallery built without pillars, the Ark, where the Torahs are placed; facing Jerusalem, while the Ten Commandments are inscribed in Hebrew and Marathi.
The Bene Israel community has never had a rabbi, but an elder conducts prayers and is known as Hazzan and since the community has become smaller we celebrate most festivals together. Bene Israel Jews refer to India as their Motherland and Israel as Fatherland or Homeland.
Most Bene Israel Jews follow the dietary law and do not mix meat dishes with dairy products. So, we use coconut milk and traditional dishes are made during festivals or weddings, but, poha or beaten rice is used for the Malida, made as an offering to Prophet Elijah, for wish fulfilment.
The Bene Israel Jews have been living in India for two thousand years. They came to India from Israel after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple in 70 B.C. to escape oppression from a Greek warlord.
Out of the ten lost tribes, it is believed that the Bene Israel Jews belong to the tribe of Zebulum. Bene Israel Jews reached India after a ship wreck near Alibaug, so Maharashtrian, Konkani and Gujarati influences can be seen in their lifestyle, food, dress, jewellery and a mehendi ceremony during weddings.
On the Konkan coast, our ancestors worked as oil pressers, observing Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday and were known as “Saturday-oil-people or Shanvar-Telis.” They had Biblical names and also adopted names of their villages as family names, like Navgaon. In this way Jews assimilated into Indian society with Marathi as their mother tongue, but continued to pray in Hebrew. Two mound like graves in Alibaug, bear testimony of their arrival in India.
During the shipwreck the Bene Israel Jews had lost their religious books, so they followed an oral tradition of observing Sabbath, prayed to Prophet Elijah, circumcised their male-child, observed certain dietary laws and only had fish with scales. The British and Dutch identified them as Jews and gave them religious books, which were translated into Marathi and David Rahabi, a learned Jew from Cochin gave them religious education.
There are five Jewish communities in India, the Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Jews of Cochin, Bagdadi Jews of Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and Bene Menashe or Jews of Manipur-Mizoram. There are synagogues in Cochin, Kolkatta, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad. Lately, the number of Jews has reduced in India, as they have immigrated to Israel, America and Canada
Jews have a matriarchal law, so the birth of a girl-child is welcome, because it is believed that a woman preserves the Jewish heritage in a family and helps her children understand Judaism.
Bindi Sheth’s photographs show how the Jewish community preserves its cultural identity and assimilates into Indian life, while retaining its Jewish essence.
View Bindi Sheth’s accompanying photographic documentation and exploration, on the journal here.
Esther David writes novels about the Jewish experience in India and has been translated in French, Gujarati and Marathi. She has received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 for English Literature.
Bindi Sheth has received many awards for photography and participated on the theme of RECOVERY for PIX a Photographic Quarterly, Delhi.
– Courtesy : Tasveer Journal