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'Shalom, Namaste': Netanyahu visit highlights diversity of India's Jews

Indian Jewish women pray at the 'Hekhal', an ornamental closet which contains each synagogue's Torah scrolls, after a prayer ceremony to mark Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year at the Magen Hassidin Synagogue in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007.
(AP Photo/Gautam Singh)
Like everything else in India, its Jewish community is also diverse

Judah Samuel is visibly excited. As President of the Sha'are Rosan synagogue in Mumbai, he will be attending the reception planned to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Mumbai on Thursday, where he will meet members of India’s Jewish community on his sixth and final day of his tour of India.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Samuel has served as the General Manager of Israel's national airline carrier El Al in Mumbai as well as Marketing Director of the Ministry of Tourism of Israel. He has witnessed first-hand the trajectory of India-Israel relations and on the day of Netanyahu's visit his joy knows no bounds.

'Twenty five years ago the two countries established diplomatic relations. I really wonder what we were doing all that while, when we have so much in common," says Samuel, who is now Vice President of the Federation of Indo-Israeli Chambers of Commerce.

Samuel's sentiment is shared by Edna Samuel, founder director of a Mumbai public relations firm, and along with Judah Samuel, a member of the Bene Israeli Jewish community that dominates western India and who count themselves among the "first" Jewish communities to settle in the country when they found themselves shipwrecked on its western shores.

(AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

Their origins date back to antiquity, and they have so well integrated into Indian society that many, today using local names, can be hardly distinguished from other Indians. Recent DNA studies reveal the community's mixed Middle Eastern and Indian ancestry.

Both Judah and Edna have relatives in Israel and the closer the two countries draw to each other, the better for them. In fact Judah, who visits Israel often, was also present at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reception and address to the Indian Jewish community in Tel Aviv, when he became the first Indian premier to visit Israel six months ago.

Yet, Judah hastens to add, even though the two countries for long years had remained aloof from the other "we have never ever faced anti-Semitism here."

Edna concurs, adding that is why she remains in Mumbai though some of her relatives have migrated to Israel.

"It's curious," she reflects. "As a small community we struggled to keep up our Jewishness here, whereas in Israel, I found my relatives struggling to keep up their Indian-ness."

(AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

Edna has another event lined up on Thursday to to commemorate Netanyahu’s visit to the city – the inauguration of 'Shalom-Namaste', a magazine dedicated to Indo-Israeli relations at Mumbai's largest Maghen David synagogue.

Most of India’s 5,000-strong Jews are based in and around Mumbai, which is partly why Netanyahu will be visiting the city. The city is also home to the Chabad House where in 2008 the parents if Moshe Holzer, now 11, were brutally killed by Pakistani Islamist terrorists.

That moment is etched in the memory of Mumbai’s residents -- both Jewish and non-Jewish -- and makes this day with the return of "baby Moshe" to the city for the first time since the attack, particularly emotional for them.

Mumbai’s Jews, however, are not the only ones to rejoice.

Miles away in the southern Indian city of Cochin, Mathew Anthony, a scion of an ancient Cochin Jewish family expresses his happiness at Netanyahu’s visit and the growing closeness between the two countries.

Haim Tzach/GPO

More than 2,000 years ago, going back to the times of King Solomon, Jewish traders landed on India's western Malabar coast. Often marrying local women, adopting local customs, and engaging in the spice trade, they established their own community of ‘Cochin Jews’.

Anthony is especially proud of the fact that when Modi visited Israel it was from Cochin's famed Paradesi Synagogue that he took with him as gifts a Torah in a Silver Casket with a Gold Crown.

Like Anthony, Kale Chandra from the town of Vijayawada on the east coast of India, will not be attending Netanyahu’s reception in Mumbai but is thrilled that the two countries are drawing closer to each other, ever increasing cooperation in different fields. Kale belongs to the Bene Ephraim community of Jews.

Like everything else in India, the Jewish community is also diverse.

The Cochini Jews are concentrated in the south of the country, Bene Israeli live mainly in the west, and the Baghdadi Jews, who came to India much later in the 18th and 19th centuries, settled down mainly in the east of the country. The Bnei Manashe from northeast India and the Bene Ephraim are considered relative newcomers.

(AP Photo/Gautam Singh)

The Bene Israeli community is the largest and some have spread beyond the west to the capital Delhi.

Ezekiel Malekar, lawyer by training, currently serves as the Honorary Secretary of the Judah Hyam synagogue -- Delhi's only synagogue. His happiness at the deepening of Indian-Israeli cooperation, which is what Modi’s and Netanyahu’s mutual visits exemplify, is tinged with disappointment that no visit to his synagogue was facilitated though the Israeli premier spent three days in the city.

Malekar fondly recalled the time that former Israeli premier the late Shimon Peres had visited his synagogue and Malekar had pronounced benediction. However, what is significant is that Netanyahu’s India visit puts the spotlight back on the community, whose existence many are oblivious to despite having contributed much to India, through the arts, literature, gastronomy, and even defense.

Malekar, who too has relatives in Israel, feels that the beginning of direct flights between the two countries, agreed upon during Netanyahu’s current visit, will, in particular, go a long way in consolidating ties between the two countries via its people.

(AP Photo/Gautam Singh, FILE)

Author and activist Jael Silliman, a Calcutta Jew who is now curating an arts and culture site dedicated to the city's Jewish community, asserts that it’s the peoples of the two countries who will be the bedrock of bilateral ties.

"More than 40,000 Israelis visit India each year, a considerable number," she says. "They have come to know India first-hand and have played a more significant role in familiarizing Israelis with India."

"The Jewish Community in India is dwindling year by year," reflects Anthony somberly.

Since India's independence many migrated to Western countries and with Israel’s creation many migrated there.

"Still," he continues, "Jews all over remember with gratitude that India has always been a safe haven for them, as for many other communities. I am sure India will continue to be a beacon of tolerance to all peoples. May we all finally find the peace that passes all understanding."

Aditi Bhaduri is an award-winning journalist & researcher based in New Delhi.

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