An Ethnographic Study of the Bene Israel Jewish Community of Ahmedabad
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
India has always nurtured diverse faiths and communities with origins in different countries. These communities have made their mark on Indian history as settlers, traders, and cultural comrades, quintessentially changing the Indian socio-political landscape and molding it into what we see today. The Bene Israeli community of India is one such example.
Historically, there have been three Jewish communities in India—the Bene Israelis, the Iraqis or Baghdadis, and the Cochin Jews—of which the Bene Israeli Jews of Western India have had the most prominent presence. The Bene Israeli Jews arrived in India over 2000 years ago, fleeing persecution by the Seleucids in the Middle East. There is some speculation with regards to when they exactly arrived, for some older members of the community peg it at 2,200 years while records show that the community arrived between 2nd century BC and 6th century CE. However, it is certain that after a shipwreck near Alibaug, in Raigadh district, Maharashtra, they settled in the Konkan region. Over time, the members dispersed to different parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat for their livelihood, enmeshing themselves within the local culture. With many of the Hebrew prayer books lost in the shipwreck, oral tradition played a pivotal role in the passing down of religious dictates, customs, and practices. During the Dutch and British occupation, the emphasis was laid on religious education, and prayer books were documented in Marathi. Today, the majority of the community resides in Mumbai and Thane in Maharashtra. There are several families in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and a few in Pune and Raigad, in Maharashtra. The Bene Israeli community is now dwindling in population, with fewer than 5000 at last count. The community in Ahmedabad has shrunk considerably in the previous few decades, with many families emigrating to Israel, the United States, and Europe.
The Bene Israelis of Gujarat were initially spread out across the state, residing in the cities of Baroda, Surat, and Rajkot, Surendranagar, Palanpur in the Saurashtra region. However, today, the community's spread is predominantly restricted to Ahmedabad, with just 140 members currently residing in the city. In the city lies the only synagogue of Gujarat – The Magen Abraham Synagogue, constructed in 1934 with donations from the members of the Bene Israel Jewish community of the state. Situated in the Khamasa area of the city, it is just opposite the Fire Temple or the 'Agiyari' of the Parsis; another significant minority community of India.
The Art deco style Magen Abraham Synagogue is of the Indo-Judaica architectural form, with chequered marble floors, artistic grills, stained glass windows, chandeliers, and a large Ark (an ornamental chamber that houses the Torah scrolls). The synagogue has Grecian pillars with a triangular roof and a high ceiling. The furniture consists of movable pews arranged around a central bimah (the elevated platform from which the reading of the Torah takes place). Besides Hebrew, the synagogue of Ahmedabad also has engravings in Marathi that further attest to the community's Marathi heritage. The unpillared women's balcony is an unusual and unique feature, as compared to other synagogues of India. As per tradition, women are supposed to be on the upper floor when the prayers take place, and men are to be downstairs praying with the priest. However, since the Bene Israeli community of Gujarat is minuscule in numbers, the arrangement is such that men sit towards the left and women towards the right. Since its establishment, the synagogue continues to serve a small but still active Bene Israel community of Gujarat. The communal celebration of Pesah (Passover) continues to take place, with High Holy Days observed annually.
The cuisine of the Bene Israelis is a delightful amalgamation of Jewish traditions and the coastal flavors typical to the Konkan region. The cuisine is extensively curry-oriented, relying heavily on coconut, rice, chicken, and fish; Kadhwe vaal and moong are common as well. One of the dishes prepared by the community that is heavily inspired by the coast features rice fermented with toddy. They only have fish such as paplet (pomfret). The Bene Israelis and other communities of the region such as the Kolis, Agaris, Konkani Muslims might have shared food wisdom over time. However, even while incorporating regional influences, the community is quite strict about following kosher dietary laws, and thus, prawns and crabs are prohibited.
The community celebrates all Jewish festivals, such as the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Passover as per Jewish customs and rituals. However, a slight difference lies in the kind of food prepared for these special events. The New Year is incomplete without the naaral halwa—a tradition that has passed down through generations. Another preparation is the malida, made with poha, grated coconut, sugar, dry fruits, and an odd number of fresh fruits, served on auspicious occasions and celebrations, such as weddings. The Seder platter for the Passover draws from the Old Testament, but the meal also features rice bhakri and curries made with fresh spices. For these eight days, food is prepared only with fresh ingredients.
The Jewish community of Ahmedabad has significantly contributed to Indian society, especially in academia and education. Notable personalities include Padma Shri Reuben David, founder of the Kankaria Zoo, which is one of the major tourist spots in the city, and his daughter Esther David, a sculptor, art critic, recipient of a Sahitya Akademi award, and a bestselling author. The list further includes—Padma Shri Esther Solomon, the former head of the Sanskrit department at the Gujarat University, late Dr. Joseph Benjamin, the Mayor of Ahmedabad Municipality, and late Dr. Benjamin Reuben Kehimkar, the President of the Bene Israelite conference at Bombay in 1921. Little Flower, Nelson School, and the Best School are a few of the leading educational institutions in the city established by the members of the community.
'Home' is not a stationary point on a map, but rather, it exists in the collective memories, stories, traditions, and customs that one carries with them. Home is neither bound by geography nor time. Modifications and additions are made over time, but the foundation essentially remains the same. The Bene Israelis of Western India have made India their home, with regional influences seeping into their lifestyle: cuisine, dress, jewelry, Mehendi ceremony during weddings, using coconut, clove supari, paan, myrtle leaves, bijora, damro, and desi red roses during rituals. They are very much Indian and significant as any other 'indigenous' community of India. Their numbers may be tiny, but in the naaral halwa, the 2000-year-old conjugation lives on.
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