Pani Purim: Celebrating the Holiday With the Jewish Community of Mumbai

A local celebration mixes hamantaschen with traditional Indian dishes, and reveals a vibrant, if modest, community with a rich history and abundant pride.

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Indian teenagers place oil lamps onto the Yamuna River behind the Taj Mahal.
Indian teenagers place oil lamps onto the Yamuna River behind the Taj Mahal. Eighty percent of India's 1.2 billion population is Hindu, with fewer than 5,000 Jews.Credit: Reuters
Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

MUMBAI – The make-your-own-hamantaschen stand had them stumped. “Do you have to bake it?” “Jam?” “What is the point?” – these were just a few of the polite queries from the curious crowd, comprising women in yellow, orange and green flowing saris, men in their best festival suits, and children turned Queen Esthers and Mordechais.

The adjacent pani puri stand was doing a far brisker business – with the hundred or so members of the Mumbai Jewish community who arrived for the Purim celebrations lining up for the fried crispy snacks filled with flavored water, tamarind, chili, potato, chickpeas and Masala spice.

The event was called for 5 P.M., but the small Jewish Community Center, located on the grounds of a local Mumbai college, was packed more than an hour earlier. Colored balloons and streamers festooned the room, with the requisite Israel posters of the Western Wall pasted up on the walls.

In the main hall, Nissim Joshua Pingle, senior manager of this JCC – run under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – got the official program started with a Purim quiz. And these were no softball questions: What famous Jew did Mordechai descend from? What other Jewish scroll does not mention God’s name even once? How many days did Queen Esther spend on beauty treatments before presenting herself to the King?

Translations into Marathi were called for, hands were raised, Cadbury’s chocolates were handed out as prizes, and a designated tea man scurried between the plastic chairs handing out small cups of sweet Masala chai.

A Purim “spiel” – imagine squeals of shock at the cross-dressing of the JCC actors on stage; a standing ovation for Queen Esther; and a sea of mobile phones being waved in the air to record it all – was still ahead. So too was a costume compeition and a raffle. First prize: a choice between a laptop bag and a cooking pot.

Diversity, and a long history

In this Hindu country of close to 1.3 billion people, the Jews in India number fewer than 5,000. “We are quite microscopic,” chuckles Elijah Jacob, the Mumbai born-and-bred JDC executive director in India. “But I believe we are proud of our contributions here, and of being Indian – and I do believe we are here to stay.”

At its height, in the mid-1940s, there were some 55,000 Jews in India. Then India and Israel both gained independence, within nine months of each other, spurring a mass exodus from the former to the latter. Today, a majority of these former Indian Jews and their descendants are in Israel. Other Indian-Jewish communities can be found in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

Today, India’s capital, New Delhi, has a community of about 12 Jews. A handful remain in the once thriving communities of Cochin and Calcutta. Some 300 live in Pune, 180 in Ahmedabad, 200 more are scattered around the Konkan villages, and single families can be found here and there.

But the vast majority live in Mumbai and the nearby suburb of Thane, which itself has a big enough community to warrant a Hebrew library, Torah and Hebrew classes, and even its own “Gan Katan” program for schoolchildren.

The Indian-Jewish community here has always been ethnically mixed. The largest group within it is the Bnei Israel – descendants, as legend has it, of seven women and seven men who survived a shipwreck and came ashore here, possibly as they were escaping the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 B.C.E.

At one point, there were over 30,000 Bnei Israel in India, some of them poor, others reaching great heights in the army and civil service, says Jacob, whose own grandfather was India’s first native postmaster general.

The so-called Baghdadi Jews came to India much later, arriving in Calcutta during British rule as refugees and traders from Iraq, as well as Syria, Yemen and Iran. In many cases, they prospered. Statues and monuments commemorating favorite son David Sassoon – probably the most famous Jewish philanthropist and merchant from the community – are dotted around Mumbai.

The oldest group of Jews in India – and the smallest, numbering fewer than 30 today – are the Cochinis from the southern state of Kerela. These 30 are subdivided into two separate groups: The original community, who are said to have come over as traders from Judea during the reign of King Solomon; and European immigrants who joined them much later, around the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century.

Another community that has come to light in recent years, the Bnei Menashe, is another story altogether. Some 3,000 members of this group, who practice a form of biblical Judaism and say they are descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes, have been quietly brought to and settled in Israel with the help of the current government. An additional 6,000 or more still live in northeastern India.

Celebrating Purim at the Mumbai Jewish Community Center.Credit: Danna Harman

This group has almost nothing to do with the more established Jewish groups in India. “There is no connection between us. We don’t have family among them and don’t really know them at all,” says the JCC’s Pingle. “No one knows if they are halakhically really Jewish – but then again, they are not hurting anyone either.”

Local synagogue politics

Nine synagogues can still be found in Mumbai and its suburbs, all of them fraying around the seams. They all host holiday services; six manage weekly Shabbat services; and two aim for daily minyans as well. There is also a fortressed Chabad house, rebuilt since terrorist attacks there in 2008 left the rabbi, his wife and four others dead. It still attracts traveling Israelis and other Jewish expats.

For the most part, and with the exception of a small Reform community, the congregations are not divided by streams of orthodoxy. Nor are they split, as they once were, along Bnei Israel-Baghdadi lines. If, in days past, the Baghdadis refused to recognize the Bnei Israel as equal Jews – or, in some cases, as Jews at all – today the Baghdadis, whose numbers have dwindled tremendously to an estimated 200, are more likely to ask their Bnei Israel brethren, who make up the bulk of the community, to help fill out their minyans.

“We just go to whatever is near to us,” says Ralphy Jhirad, a well-known personality within the community who has held various leadership positions over the years. Jhirad is working on creating a large Bnei Israel heritage center. He also established a module for the government’s official tour-guide course on “Understanding the Jewish Tourist,” addressing questions such as “What is shabbat?” and “What is kosher?”

Jhirad used to be a member of Tipheret, a Bnei Israel synagogue soon to celebrate its 130th birthday. But when members of the traditionally Baghdadi Eliyahoo synagogue – built by Jacob Elias Sassoon and his brothers in 1884 – told him they needed more men for their minyan, he rose to the task, he says.

These days, the Friday night prayers at Knesset Eliyahoo – a baby-blue structure tucked away in a backstreet in southern Mumbai – consist of original Baghdadi community members singing alongside the newer Bnei Israel members. Later, they all sit down together for an Iraqi-style, home-cooked dinner.

Aside from the Chabad rabbi, there are no other working rabbis living on a permanent basis in India today – although there are several cantors who know the prayers fluently, at least three mohels and over a dozen kosher butchers in Mumbai alone. There are also mikvehs and a handful of well-known and nominally Jewish schools – among them the Sir Elly Kadoorie and Sir Jacob Sassoon high schools and ORT India, which opened in 1956 to promote vocational training among Jewish boys and girls. Today, none of these institutions have either a Jewish curriculum or a large number of Jewish students.

The JDC sponsors a small nursing home, located within a larger non-Jewish home, which caters to eight elderly members of the community, as well as a Meals on Wheels program providing food to another half dozen elderly Jews with limited mobility. Of the 40-odd Jewish cemeteries in the country, only a handful of them are still in use, and several have fallen into disrepair.

About the dating scene

Possibly the biggest concern for the community these days has to do with dating, says Ralphy’s wife, Yael Jhirad, who is also president of the India chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and one of the country’s few official government tour guides specializing in Jewish India.

It’s a problem many Jewish mothers around the world – and in particular those who live in small Jewish communities – can relate to. Yael has two sons in their twenties. There is just a very small pool of potential partners to choose from, she says, should they want to marry a fellow Jew.

The JCC, which was established in 1999, seeks to address this problem among other aspects of its mission, says Jacob. Most importantly, it offers a unique space for the whole community to gather outside of their respective congregations and participate in Jewish classes and cultural events. Within this, there is a concerted effort to emphasize activities that might appeal to, and bring together, the younger members of the community.

This means that in between the Hebrew, Talmud and kabbala classes, one can find Power Yoga and the ever-popular Bollywood dance class on Sunday evenings. There are “selfie treasure hunt” nights, hypnosis and meditation seminars, summer camps and opportunities to find out more about all-Indian Jewish groups heading to international programs like Limmud or Birthright.

A new community-wide WhatsApp group, open to members of all congregations, called “Chosen People,” allows members to share photos of their kids and keeps everyone informed on communal special events, death notices, upcoming bar mitzvahs and who has successfully passed a matriculation exam.

Affiliated Jewish programs, such as the Gabriel Project – which organizes volunteer work in the slums and is coordinated by Leya Elias, one of the last young Cochini Jews in India – attract young adults, Indian and foreigners alike. Over at the OM Creation Trust, Jewish volunteers teach children with Down syndrome how to bake challahs.

There is also talk of creating an online database of young Indian Jews worldwide. Such a thing, culled from family trees and histories of the community, actually already exists, the Jhirads point out. But it’s only accessible at the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv - hardly the place anyone looking for a date would turn to. “An app is forthcoming,” they say, hopefully.

At the end of the day, though, the best opportunities for the young to socialize are the holidays. “We met on Simhat Torah,” “We were introduced on the fourth night of Hanukkah” and “Will you be at the Yom Hashoah event?” are common refrains here.

“There are basically too few Jews here. And they are a bit spread out around town, too,” says Ellana Joseph, 24, a dentist who has come to the Purim party with her younger brother Shakhaf, 17. “Except for at events like this – when almost everyone shows up.”

“Most of our cousins are in Israel,” says Shakhaf, who is in his last year of high school in Mumbai. The siblings have both been on a Birthright program, and fully enjoyed it, they say, but are not planning to immigrate.

The reasons why are the sort of reasons anyone might give for not wanting to leave home. They throw a few out as they dig into their pani puri. “People are good here,” says Ellana. “I am happy being around my parents,” admits Shakhaf. “I like my job,” notes Ellana. “I like the food. Especially the spices,” adds Shakhaf, reaching for answers now, and laughing.

‘They say, “I have never met a Jew before”’

“It used to be that 50-100 young Jews would leave every year,” says JDC’s Jacob. “But the momentum has slowed. In the last five years, many fewer are leaving, and there are even a few cases of those who tried moving – and are now coming back.

Take Moshe Shek, one of India’s best-known chefs who started his own popular Moshe’s restaurant chain. He moved to Israel, enjoyed kibbutz life and then Tel Aviv for three years, worked at the Tel Aviv Hilton, and then returned to India. He felt, he admits over stuffed chicken and rice at the Eliyahoo synagogue’s dinner, more of a sense of connection to his Judaism here in Mumbai than he ever did in Israel.

Concerns about anti-Semitism, often a factor for Diaspora Jews considering a move to Israel, are not an issue here, according to every person interviewed.

“People often think I am Catholic,” says Ellana. “And when I say Jewish, they always say, ‘Oh! I have never met a Jew before.’ Then I say ‘We are the people from Israel.’ That, they usually know – and like.”

“But we don’t face any anti-Semitism because, well, no one even knows what a Jew is,” adds her brother.

Unlike in other parts of the world, where anti-Israel sentiment can fuel anti-Semitism, the association with Israel is typically a big plus in India, says Elkan Michael Bhastekar, a software programmer from Thane whose work email address is “ElktheJew.”

“Being a Jew in India, you get immense respect because of the history of Israel. It’s the only country we know that has managed to face down Muslims and Arabs,” says Bhastekar, who had brought his 6-year-old daughter and her two friends to the Purim festivities. This is the case, he stresses, despite the fact that approximately 130 million Indians are Muslim. They are also impressed by Israel’s prowess, he claims.

“Sure there are some Muslim fanatics in India,” adds Abraham Shapurkar, hanging out near the face-painting stand with his wife Sheba. “But we just don’t associate with them.” Shapurkar, who grew up in Mumbai and has worked for Air India for 20 years, says that as a young man he thought to immigrate to Israel. He never did because his parents wanted to stay in India and he felt he could not leave them. But he has no regrets. “We have a comfortable and good life here,” he says. “And we never hide our religion.”

Shapurkar’s daughters, Maayan, 22, who is the program coordinator for youth and young adults at the JCC, and Adi, 18, are planning to stay in India – at least for now. He is pleased to have them near, he admits, but if one day they want to leave, “we would not stand in their way.”

Back at the hamantaschen table, Ariela Wallace, one of the JDC’s two Jewish Service Corps fellows in India this year, is still busy fielding baking questions. “Yes, they have to be put in the oven,” she smiles gamely. “It’s a Yiddish word,” she explains, getting into semantics of Haman and his pockets.

“Very interesting,” says one old man, shaking his bald head back and forth. “Thank you kindly,” says a 7-year-old dressed, originally, as a Hanukkah menorah.

One woman, her dark black hair pulled back and decorated with tiny white flowers, samples the unfamiliar Purim treats and laughs at everything and nothing in particular. It’s getting late, but it seems no one wants to leave. Outside, the college’s two gatekeepers are sitting cross-legged in the evening heat, peeking through a gift Purim basket and discussing the strange shape of the cookies inside.

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