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May 21, 2003

The Bene Israel Lived in Mumbai!

Surprise found here at Islamic Voice, which notes that "The Indian tolerance for the Jews, whose long history elsewhere in the world has included persecution and prejudice, is indeed unusual, admirable, and deserving of recognition."
The island city of Bombay will always have a very special place in the collective historical memory of the Indian Jewish community. It was here that the bulk of Indian Jews, more specifically the Bene Israel and Baghadadi Jews, resided and flourished for over 250 years.

How did these communities enmesh their lives with the city that was their home for so many years? One way of assessing their progress is to use the monuments they built as milestones of their geographical, economic, political, social and communal growth.

The oldest Bene Israel landmark in Bombay is the Shaar Harahamim synagogue, which stands on Samuel Street, Mandvi. It is a squat, functional structure, built by Commandant Samaji Hasaji Divekar to commemorate his close escape from death after being taken prisoner during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Interestingly, Samaji owed his deliverance to the fact that he was a Bene Israel. He would have been beheaded along with the other prisoners, had it not been for the intercession of Tipu's mother and her maulvi . According to Sheppard (1917), they had read of the Bene Israel (literally, children of Israel) in the Qu'ran, and welcomed the opportunity of seeing one face to face. The building of the synagogue was a matter of pride for the entire community and a turning point as it marked the beginning of organised religious and communal life. Moreover, being at the centre of the Jewish locality, which comprised Samuel Street, Isaji Street and Israel Mohalla, the locality where the Bene Israel lived was easily accessible to the community for daily worship. After the Shaar Harahamim synagogue was built, other Bene Israel synagogues and prayer halls sprang up in Bombay in quick succession, and also in the Konkan region.

Parallel to the religious and communal consciousness in Bombay was the development of the Bene Israel community in Pune. Just as in Bombay, the community was concentrated in specified areas, such as Rasta Peth and the adjoining Nana Peth area. The lane in which the Succoth Shelemo (Tabernacle of Solomon) synagogue, erected in 1921, stands is still called Israel Alley, reminiscent of the days when most of the adjoining old buildings were filled with Bene Israel families till their emigration to Israel in the late 1940s and after.

Indian Jews generally built their synagogues quite some time after settling in India. The Jews in the Indian sub-continent enjoyed religious freedom, which included the chance to be full and productive citizens and the opportunity to construct synagogues of their own volition. This particularly Indian tolerance for the Jews, whose long history elsewhere in the world has included persecution and prejudice, is indeed unusual, admirable, and deserving of recognition. It is significant that the Bene Israel, Baghdadi, and Cochin Jews living in India maintained distinct identities.

Owing to political changes over the last half-century, today's Jewish communities in India have dwindled considerably and the synagogues which once served them vary in their level of preservation. Although several synagogues continue to operate today, the Shaar Hashamaim (Gate of Heaven) synagogue in Thane, just outside Mumbai has always been home to the largest number of Jews in India, but today most have left the central city for the more affordable and less congested suburbs.

Other congregations maintain marginal existences, whilst some, such as the Shaare Shalom (Gates of Peace) synagogue at Borlai Hubshi, Janjira, have ceased to function altogether.

Synagogues of the Cochin Jews are unique. The earliest of these buildings dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries no longer exist, six from the 16th and 17th centuries and one much more contemporary remain. Today only the Paradesi synagogue in Cochin is functioning and nearly all the others stand in poor levels of preservation.

In the 19th century, when the Jewish emissary Jacob Sapir (1822-55) visited Cochin, he described the Paradesi synagogue there as "amazingly wonderful" and "of perfect beauty". To this day, it remains one of the most beautiful Jewish sites in India serving a socio-religious community in which the elders are the leaders of the congregation. It is a public and legal organization with joint assets. The Paradesi synagogue site was given to the Jews by one of the most famous of the Perumpadappu Swarupam maharajas, Bhaskara Ravi Varman (1565-1601) and is located very near his palace and temple in Jew Town, which indicates the importance given by the Raja to the Jewish community.

The Synagogue, known as the Paradesi or foreigners' synagogue, was built in 1568 by four rich and learned Jews who had settled in Cochin - Samuel Castiel, David Beleliah, Ephraim Salla, and Joseph Levi. In 1662 it was partially burnt down by the Portuguese. Two years later, it was rebuilt by Shem-Tov Kastiel, who was the fourth headman with judicial functions of the Jewish community. In 1760, work was begun on the bell tower with its clock (equivalent to a campanile in a church) and in 1762 the floor was covered with willow-patterned blue

To this day, the Paradesi Cochin synagogue remains one of the most beautiful Jewish sites in India. The Cochin Jews even in modern times, remove their footwear, probably in remembrance of the divine command to Moses on Mount Horev