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Torah, Sequined Saris, Chapattis, and Peace

By Ruth Broyde Sharone

I have prayed in synagogues in Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Curacao, Belgium, Kenya, Egypt, Australia, and Russia. But this was my first time chanting the Shema with a group of Jewish women all wearing saris.

This year I had an opportunity to usher in the New Year with 85 Jews in Ahmedabad, in western India, at the Magen Abraham Synagogue, an imposing building squeezed into a crowded side street in the Jamalpur area near Khamsa Gate. Just outside the synagogue, Muslim merchants hawked their wares. Motorized rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians and wandering sacred cows all jostled for their rightful place in the street.

Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad

Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad

Praying at the Magen Abraham Synagogue was as fascinating as learning about their history. The first Jews arrived in India fleeing from Israel, some two thousand years ago. They reached India after a ship wreck on the Konkan coast near Bombay. Their principal occupation was pressing oil and, because they observed the Sabbath, they were dubbed Shanvar-Telis, meaning the “Saturday Oil People.”

The Jews in Ahmedabad trace their history to 1840. More Jews arrived in 1857, employees of the British services happy to find jobs in railways, post offices, textile mills, factories, and the army. Their first official synagogue was built in 1933 when there were 800 Jews in 300 families. Two years ago they celebrated their synagogue’s 75th anniversary with great fanfare, though their numbers have dwindled considerably. Intermarriage is not uncommon—although it usually means the non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism.

I found myself sitting next to a beautiful young Jewish woman wearing an elegant embroidered sequined sari and fancy jewelry. For all I knew, Eliza, with her tawny skin, long straight hair and ebony eyes, could have been a local Hindu if I had seen her on the street. That was true for all of the women in the congregation, giving new meaning to the phrase “You don’t look Jewish!”

Eliza introduced me to her lively, petite mother-in-law, Serena Jacob, vice president of the Magen Abraham community. Sarena, I learned, was formerly a principal of what they call a “medium” school (junior high).

She told me the most popular and respected junior high schools of Ahmedabad were founded and administered by Bene Israel Jews. To this day their schools are prized not only for high academic standards but for being open to students of all religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jains. 

One of the community's celebrated scholars was Dr. Esther Solomon, one of three Bene Israel women awarded the prestigious “Padmashree” status, one of the Government of India’s highest civilian awards. Nine years earlier she had received the Presidential Certificate of Honor for Outstanding Contribution to Sanskrit. She is particularly remembered for her comparative philosophy writing, connecting three of India’s traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Members of the Bene Israel congregation.

Members of the Bene Israel congregation.

Rosh Hashana prayers began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted six hours. The congregation considers itself a “traditional” rather than orthodox community, and they follow the Sephardic tradition. They have no rabbi. Their main chazzan and Hebrew teacher for the last 15 years has been Johny Pingle, who led the entire service single-handedly. Aliyahs to the Torah were auctioned off late in the morning and monetary contributions were inscribed in a notebook and announced to the entire congregation.

Their custom of greeting one another fascinated me. They clasp their hands around the hand of the person they are facing and then raise their thumb and index finger to kiss their own lips. Each person made the rounds of the entire congregation to enact this greeting and blessing.

Very few children were present. The youngest member that day, Ezer Diveker, 11, blew the shofar.

Lunch was served afterwards on the covered patio next to the synagogue. Rows of chairs had been set out in anticipation of the full congregation. Each of us took our turn waiting in line for a vegetarian buffet of chapatti (Indian bread), rice, the ubiquitous dahl (lentil soup), spicy vegetables, fried spinach balls, and honeyed deep-fried desert in the form of pinwheels – all served on stainless steel plates with a spoon. Chai with milk, heavy on the sugar, was also available.

I was invited to greet the community, telling them about attending an interfaith retreat sponsored by the Brahma Kumari community at nearby Mt. Abu.

Edward Daniel Reubens, one of the congregants, a tall, elegant mustached man in his sixties, sought me out. He has been faithfully organizing interfaith activities among the local Abrahamic communities for the last three years, he said. But he confessed that not all of the synagogue members were as eager to engage in interfaith engagement as he. “What should I do?” he asked earnest.

“For over 2,000 years India has never discriminated against Jews nor persecuted them, as in most other countries around the world. That fact alone,” I told Edward, “should serve as great encouragement for Jews in India to become interfaith activists and not be fearful.

Edward Rubens and Ruth Sharone

Edward Rubens and Ruth Sharone

“Don’t lose heart,” I implored. Edward confirmed that Jews and Muslims in India are on excellent terms, and that the Israeli-Palestinian issue had not soured their relationships in business or socially. “That is also reason to rejoice,” I said. “In the rest of the world the Middle East conflict continues to be the thorniest issue between Jews and Muslims and greatly hinders interfaith progress and chances for peace.”

Outside the synagogue, Muslim merchants are still busy with their customers. A middle-age Muslim woman wearing a hijab passes near me, only her eyes visible, her young son in tow. Two Hindu women in colorful saris, their gold dangle earrings and multiple bracelets glinting in the sun, stare at me and offer shy smiles. A Sikh man on a motorcycle with a woman sitting side-saddle behind him suddenly darts out between two cars. Across the way I spy an ancient Persian fire-burning temple erected by the local Zoroastrian community. A typical day in Ahmedabad.

There has to be a secret lesson in all of this. Here is a country where Jews are welcome and free from discrimination, where Jewish educators are praised for educating Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain children alike. Here a Jewish woman is awarded the highest accolades for her contribution to Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. Here, Israel’s existence does not inflame local Muslim citizens – as it does in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. A crucial lesson is hiding here.

I contemplate the thought climbing into a motorized rickshaw back to the hostel. My hands grip the sides as the driver navigates a tortuous maze of bumper-to-bumper rickshaws, taxis, trucks, buses, vegetable carts, pedestrians, cows, goats, and dogs, with nary a traffic light in sight.

This is India, I tell myself, and it will never reveal all of its secrets. I look forward to returning to Ahmedabad the following weekend for Yom Kippur, when praying next to a group of women wearing colorful sequined saris will no longer be a novelty.