Let’s just say that India is not high on the bucket list of those who enjoy traveling.
You’ve heard the litany of naysayers: air pollution, litter and foul smells, a crush of people desperate and impoverished….
No doubt, each one of the 16 Jewish-Americans that comprised our group asked why are we going there? To be sure, there was a hook: Our trip was billed as a “Jewish tour of India.” Who knew there were Jews in India?
Reportedly, they came in waves as exiles from Judea after the destruction of the First and Second Temples, then later from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. They landed on the Malabar Coast, near Cochin, thus becoming known as “Cochin Jews.”
It’s a familiar historical pattern – exiled Jews fleeing religious or political persecution from lands they considered home. But in India the pattern did not hold. Jews were welcomed, rarely discriminated against, persecuted or exiled – and the reason is that Jews and Indians recognized in each other a common spiritual bond.
A man in Cochin summed it up. An 87 year old Indian-Jew, Betzalel Eliahu, has lived in Israel since 1955, but in 2009 he built a house on his family’s land next to the synagogue (now a museum) we came to see. He’s famous as a pioneer in Israeli agriculture and built a successful business exporting flowers to Europe.
Here’s what he told us: “From the beginning, the main reason for living peacefully here is we gave them (the Indians) respect and they respected us.”
At age 25, he and most of his community left India for Israel. He’s been coming back to India for 28 years to “share my knowledge with my motherland, and why not, this is my motherland.“
It’s a dilemma faced by Indian Jews in all the cities we visited: a declining and aging population with exquisite synagogues, but unable to form a minyan. Plenty of public and private funds for these historical treasures, but a dwindling number of individuals to operate them. Yet, as Eliahu declares, the emotional attachment to “my motherland” remains strong.
We were fortunate to have had two exceptional guides. Rahel Musleah, whose ancestors fled persecution in Iraq (known as Baghdadi Jews). They began arriving to India in the 1700s. Joshua Shapukar, whose Israelite ancestors escaped Roman tyranny (called Bene Israel Jews), arrived 2,100 years ago.
Their deep roots and connections personalized our Indian sojourn and enabled us to get to places and meet personalities we otherwise would never have encountered.
For example, they got us an audience with Richard Slavin, a 67-year-old Jew from Chicago who is the chief religious teacher or seer (swami) of the Hare Krisha Temple in Mumbai. Dressed in saffron robes, he told us about his parents, growing up (he celebrated a bar mitzvah) and the trials he suffered to find meaning in his life.
To achieve true “Krishna consciousness,” he renounced material desires and never married, yet in the sense that his life is driven by helping others, he feels he’s still a Jew.
We had close contact with Indians across the economic spectrum: at work, in their homes, on the streets, in their temples and as we traveled by plane, bus, rickshaw, elephant, speed boat, commuter ship and on foot.
Walking through the streets and markets of Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi, one was bombarded by a constant din of horns from every kind of vehicle, and sometimes by beggars including very young girls and boys. Pedestrians shared the streets (traffic lights scarce) with cows, stray dogs and carts drawn by oxen.
The tension in the faces and bodies of peddlers desperate to sell you something was so palpable that at times one felt compelled to avert one’s eyes and just keep moving. Yet these people, under great stress, were not threatening, they remained stoical.
This self-imposed discipline, characteristic of the “Indian,” comes in large measure from the Hindu religion and its various cousins – Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. The pivotal theology is summed up in the term “Namaste.” Like Shalom, it has multiple meanings and conveys feeling, intent and emotion.
Namaste is understood by the Indian to mean, “I see myself in you.” It’s this feeling and intention that allowed Maharajahs over the centuries to provide refuge to Jews fleeing persecution and why Indians today treat their Indian-Jews with respect.
Ivan Platt is a resident of Solon and a member of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.