Bombay fix

Visit India’s commercial capital to discover its vibrant Jewish community and history


It is late Friday afternoon in Mumbai: pale yellow sunlight pierces the hazy grey sky, gently illuminating the grey sea, the smart promenade and the elegant contour of the bay. By contrast, all around us is a riot of vivid colour.

The flaming flamboyance of bougainvillea and the virginal white blooms of the Chandni trees stand out against leaves that are bright green following the recent monsoon; fruit stalls are piled high with jewel-coloured pomegranates, papayas and custard apples, while hawkers display their colourful wares.

Here costume jewellery and hair ornaments, there garlands of orange marigolds and red roses for the nearby Hindu temple, this one selling painted wooden toys, that old woman peddling peacock feather fans, and all the while, drivers honking endlessly from their yellow and blue rickshaws.

As if attempting to compete with these vibrant surroundings, the women’s saris, dupattas and kurtas are dazzling: ultramarine silk with gold borders from South India; from the North, magenta, ochre and pink garments sparkle with sequins or mirrorwork, others from Madras are distinctive in their multicoloured checked designs.

After three months of volunteering for a local charity in Rajasthan, in the north of India, my wife, Sylvie, and I have travelled south to the west coast where we’ve spent the day in this large city, sightseeing on foot despite the intense heat and the fume-laden air, which smells a lot like London at rush hour. We are drenched in sweat.

There is no escape from the clammy, humid heat, even here, right by the sea but with some of India’s most fascinating Jewish history to discover, it’s a city not to miss.

Private tours are available, visiting the Jewish graveyard and some of the synagogues but Ralphy, one of the leaders of Mumbai’s Jewish community, has come to meet us for a tour of the Jewish area, unlocking doors to such places as those of the venerable Sassoon library.

Completed in 1870, the building was the brainchild of Albert Sassoon, son of David Sassoon, one of Mumbai’s most famous Jewish figures, leader of the community here after emigrating from Baghdad.

The Indian Jewish community hails from far and wide, Ralphy tells us, including Pakistan and Spain as well as Iraq, many having fled persecution and some even claiming to be descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

The stories tell that Jews, exiled from Israel following the destruction of the Second Temple, were shipwrecked off the Konkan Coast, south of Mumbai.

Here they lived, isolated from other Jewish communities for centuries, until they were discovered by Jews from Cochin in the south of India whose own community is believed to go back well over 2,000 years.

Dusk is brief and after the sun sets, we take a short stroll in sultry darkness, the night air suddenly sweet against our skin. A group of young men from Gujarat stop to chat, then move on with a cheery “Shabbat Shalom”.

We are on our way to the beautiful Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. Founded in 1844 by a grandson of David Sassoon, the synagogue has recently been restored to its original glory. With a membership of about 400 families — and no fees, thanks to a trust fund left by David Sassoon — it is the second oldest of the city’s synagogues.

A total of nine synagogues serve Mumbai’s remaining 3,500 Jews, the vast majority of India’s Jewish community.

For all its 19th century elegance, the synagogue is fully equipped for 21st century comfort. Large fans whirr on the ceiling and blissfully cool air flows out of air conditioning units.

There is no coolness in the Friday night atmosphere however, for the community sings its heart out. The service is orthodox, mainly in the Sephardi tradition and we recognise many of the tunes, though sung to different prayers from the ones we’re used to.

The Rabbi, who is not Indian but looks Sephardi, is, confusingly, wearing a wide brimmed black Ashkenazi hat, the kind you’d typically see in Stamford Hill. His voice, with its Israeli accent, is warm and melodious. Praying in Hebrew with Indians is a first for us, but it feels as if we are part of one big, widespread, family.

After the service we are led through a series of elegant formal Victorian rooms and down marble staircases to a vast dining hall with a high, wooden celling, to a meal served in the synagogue’s basement.

We had assumed that kosher food would not be available locally and that we would be fed on tinned gefilte fish shipped from Israel.

But Mumbai has its own shochet, and we are greeted with a delicious Baghdadi banquet of about a dozen dishes including meat stuffed croquettes called “potato chops” and spicy chicken, all prepared by the president’s family and provided for the congregants and guests attending the service.

Aided by copious amounts of whisky and inner spirit, everyone sings late into the evening.

Given the beauty of the synagogue and the warmth of its community, it’s no surprise that more than a few famous faces have visited, including Shimon Peres and Madonna.

The basement walls are covered with photographs of different guests, usually standing next to Solomon Sopher, the justifiably proud president of the synagogue, himself originally from Iraq.

Others, less celebrated but no less warmly welcomed, have come from Israel. The country’s so-called “hummus trail” which ranges from Dharamsala in the Himalayas to Hampi in South India, is a favourite with young Israelis looking for tranquillity after their army service.

Along the way, we’ve also met Israeli families who had visited at the end of their army lives, and were now returning with their children. They feel safe in the country, and if they are religious, can wear kippot without any fear of discrimination.

For most visitors, it’s Bollywood — along with the fabulous vegetarian street food — which is Mumbai’s biggest draw. But if the story of the city’s Jewish community is less glitzy than a movie plot, it’s no less fascinating.


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