June 27, 2020
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Shalom Shabbath,Shalom Bharat

After a difficult half-century of integrating with Israeli society, Indian Jewish immigrants still retain their cultural identity

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Shalom Shabbath,Shalom Bharat

Fifty years ago, the founders of Israel called for an "ingathering of Jews" from all over the world. Today, the Indian Jewish immigrants form but one piece of the colourful mosaic of Israeli society. Yet their unique history and heritage sets them apart.

The Jews from Europe arrived in the after -math of the Holocaust. An equal number fled North Africa and the Arab states fearing persecution after the creation of the new state. The Jews from India, however, had never faced discrimination. Some immigrated as pioneers to help build a Jewish state, others to fulfil religious aspirations. But they all came as Indians.

The largest of the Indian Jewish communities, the Bene Israelis, had lived on the western coast of Maharashtra for close to 2,000 years. The Cochin Jews had made Kerala their home for generations. Another group of Jews arrived in India at the end of the 18th century from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Persia and Afghanistan. The Baghdadi Jews mainly inhabited the urban and commercial centres. And as they came to Israel, each group brought its own rituals, food, clothes and customs.

Today, a significant number of them continue to live in self-contained communities, where they retain their Indianness to a remarkable extent. And as the second generation rapidly integrates into mainstream society, their parents strive to record their unique history and heritage—both for posterity and the rest of Israel.

LOD, 50 km west of Jerusalem, is home to about 4,000 Bene Israeli families. Come Saturday morning and they gather at one of the city’s synagogues for prayers. Some read from the Marathi booklet Dharma Deep, written by the community rabbi, Eliyahu Digodkar. Before parting ways, they bid each other farewell in a quaint mixture of Hebrew and Marathi—"Shabbath Shalom! (Happy Sabbath!) Aapan bhetu ya! (Till we meet again!)" Dr Shalva Weil, one of Israel’s leading experts on Indian Jews, estimates there are about 50,000 Bene Israelis in the country. "The trend towards assimilation among Bene Israelis is slow compared to other ethnic communities," she says. "They continue to have mehndi ceremonies before weddings. They persist with Marathi...their ties are very strong."

Noah Massil, president of the Central Organisation of Indian Jews in Israel, immigrated here more than 25 years ago. For a living, he works as a lighting technician at the Israel Broadcasting Corporation in Jerusalem. At heart, he is a poet. He recalls his immigrant years, when he was still struggling to integrate, when there were no diplomatic relations between India and Israel, and all he ever heard on Israeli radio was European music. His homesickness found expression in poetry. "Janam bhoomi chhodkar, dharam bhoomi aaye (we have left our birthland, to come to this promised land)," he wrote. "Teri yaad aaye, Bharat, teri yaad aaye (we long for you, Bharat, we long for you)." He sent a copy to Indira Gandhi.

When they came to Israel, first-generation Bene Israelis were reserved and unassuming—traits that made immigrant life that much more difficult. Their strong Indian roots also worked against them in their new homeland. "They were too self-contained and unaggressive," says Weil. They had difficulty learning Hebrew. Some even thought of returning to India.

Then, in 1961, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel questioned the purity of the Bene Israeli Jews. It ruled that they had been ignoring the Jewish practice of chalitza, which stipulates that if a woman’s husband dies, she is to marry her brother-in-law. If the woman marries someone else, then her children are not to be considered Jews. As a result, the Rabbinate decreed the entire community would have to undergo conversion.

 But for the Bene Israelis, coexistence with Hindu society was a decisive factor. "First, widows didn’t remarry in India," points out Flora Samuel, a highly-respected figure among the Bene Israelis (see box). "Second, the Indian influence taught us to regard the brother-in-law as a brother. We were Jewish in every other way," she says indignantly.

"This is the first time we felt discrimination in our life," says Benjamin Jacob, a microbiologist at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. The sexagenarian came to Israel in 1949 when he was 13 years old, as part of the first youth pioneer group from India. Today, he heads the Association of Indian Jews in Israel and was at the forefront of the struggle with the Rabbinate. There were daily demonstrations outside the Knesset till finally it passed a resolution that Bene Israelis were Jews like any other.

"At first, the Israeli government wanted to speed up integration," explains Massil. "But this didn’t work. So it concluded that communities should be encouraged to maintain their cultural roots." Like Massil, Jacob believes it is only desirable that his community fully integrate with the Israelis. "But before our generation is gone, we have to record our history and folklore," he says. "If we don’t put something before our children’s eyes, they won’t remember." To this end, Jacob established a National Communal Centre for Indian Jews, both a museum and a meeting place for members of his community. He is also helping his daughter edit a book, In the Paths of the Jewish Communities of India. "I don’t want to record our heritage just for our children," he says. "The colourful strands of Indian Jewish culture have to become part of the fabric of Israeli life."

WHEN Shimon Yitzhak’s father and other Cochini Jews came to Moshav Nevatim in 1954, it was barren and untended. A remote outpost in the Negev desert, even weeds were reluctant to put down roots here. Two batches of European settlers had already abandoned it as hostile.

Today, the moshav—an agricultural settlement that is partially run along cooperative lines—remains somewhat isolated, but is far from barren. Every one of the 130 Cochini families has a vepalai (curry leaf) plant outside their house; some have big lawns, others own orchards. Yitzhak grows roses. "We were traders and merchants in small towns in and around Cochin," he explains. "We had no experience of agriculture and were not used to physical labour." Although Yitzhak was just a year old when his family immigrated here, he has heard stories of those difficult first years.

The younger generation, however, was quicker to learn. They went to the country’s best agricultural schools, returned and took over. In the mid-’60s, Nevatim became the first Israeli moshav to grow flowers for export. Most other flowers were grown on desert soil using special irrigation techniques. But for roses, soil was brought in from the north.

But it wasn’t just technique that helped Nevatim become a success story. It was also grit and persistence. "They lived with what they got," says Orna Oron, 28, a second-generation Cochini, who works at Nevatim’s Centre for the Heritage of the Jews of Cochin. "It’s the Indian way. They didn’t have the nature or energy to fight." Cochinis believe that, despite the initial hardships, the structure of a moshav helped them live as a close-knit group, like they did in Kerala. "Our strong community bonds helped us market our produce together," says Yitzhak. He should know. Today, he farms 20 acres and employs several workers from Thailand.

Not all Cochinis identify with the whole of India, but their ties with Kerala run deep. Yitzhak’s elder brother, Nehemia, is a big man with a booming voice. He lives in one of the bigger bungalows of Nevatim. A huge 10 by 8 feet painting of Krishna with the gopis adorns his living room. "When we first came here, I asked my mother why she had brought me to the desert from a lush place like Kerala," he says, laughing.

His daughter, Nili, 27, works at Nevatim’s heritage centre, show-casing her community’s culture. "I was born in Israel but I grew up on beautiful stories about Kerala." About a 100 Christian pilgrims from Kerala visit the heritage museum every week in the summer months.

 The Cochin Jews have married out of their community more easily than the Bene Israelis, but they too are fiercely proud of their heritage. After India and Israel established diplomatic ties in 1992, more Cochinis are going back to India to visit friends. The younger generation, too, wants to discover its roots. "When I was young," says Oron, "my grandmother kept asking me to speak in Malayalam, but I insisted she speak Hebrew. Now I wish I knew Malayalam."

MARC Sopher’s office overlooks the beautiful lawns of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A Baghdadi Jew, he grew up in Mumbai, left for England when he was 19 and immigrated to Israel nine years later. Sopher, who now administers a university scholarship, remembers how he unconsciously gravitated to a group of Indian scientists at a reception for the visiting faculty. "I’m attached to all three identities—Baghdadi, Indian and English," he says. "But the most immediate sense of identification," he adds, "is with India, without doubt."

His daughter, Yael, has just returned from a tour of India. She came back with pictures of her father’s old home in Church-gate in Mumbai, and met his old neighbours. "I grew up on my father’s nostalgia," she said. "When I went to Mumbai, everything seemed so familiar."

Dr Sally Lewis, 82, similarly relived the first half of her life when her son, now a scientist in Jerusalem, brought back videos of friends and family in Calcutta. Lewis left India when she was 45, and spent about 25 years in the US before coming to Israel.

Born into a prominent Baghdadi family in Calcutta, Lewis grew up to be a brilliant student. She obtained PhDs in Plant Taxonomy and Microbiology abroad before returning to Calcutta to teach at Bethune College; she eventually became its principal. She spoke Bengali and Hindustani, besides a smattering of Arabic, the language used at home. "We had a good life in India," she says. "It’s unfortunate that the community decided to leave. In no other place did we make such lasting friends."

Unlike the other two Indian Jewish communities, the Baghdadis also had strong links with Jews from Arab countries. In Israel, communal activities take place within this larger group. Lewis even subscribes to a magazine devoted solely to issues concerning the Babylonian Jewry, yet another name for the Baghdadis.

The Indian Baghdadi community, however, was given its rightful place last year in an impressive exhibition on Indian Jews at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem—the nation’s premier museum. Lewis, who, along with Bene Israeli Massil, was on the organising committee, says that the exhibition, representing all three ethnic groups, received excellent response.

 "Many Israelis didn’t even know there was a Jewish community from India," says Orpa Slapak, curator of the exhibition. "From this point of view the exhibition was very important. Hopefully, it gave them a sense of pride."

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