Worldview: In India, Passover is a balancing act

MUMBAI, India — As our rickshaw whizzes down a dark alleyway, I can just make out a Star of David painted on a shop’s cement wall. The Kosher butcher in Thane, a northeastern suburb of Mumbai, specializes in mutton and chicken. In a land where most consider cows holy, it rarely sells beef.

We turn left and arrive at the synagogue, ready to celebrate Passover. We have been delayed, but the seder has not begun. (“Indian time” and “Jewish time” mean the same thing — late.)

Built in 1879, Shaar Hashamaim is one the oldest synagogues for India’s Bene Israel Jews. Legend has it the community, considered one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, arrived in India 2,000 years ago when a boat of Jews fleeing persecution in the Galilee got shipwrecked off the Konkan coast. Seven couples survived, and multiplied. Like Jews the world over, the community acclimated to the local culture while maintaining its own traditions and rituals.

“We in India love to eat sweets,” said Benjamin Isaac, the director of the Jewish organization ORT India. Most Indian sweets are milk-based, which is problematic because Kosher families cannot have milk immediately after meat. Bene Israel women therefore began cooking sweets made with coconut milk. “This is how they kept Kosher and yet kept their husbands happy.”

The Bene Israels, which once numbered close to 50,000, has seen most of its community emigrate to Israel and now consists of about 4,000 members.

After two millennia in India, the balance between accepting some customs while maintaining a Jewish identity has not changed, said Herzel Simon, a young Jewish man who brought me to the synagogue.

Herzel had a Jewish wedding, complete with chuppah and glass breaking, but the day before his wife also had her hands painted in henna per the Hindu custom. In their home, where shoes are removed before entering like in houses across Asia, posters of Israel’s Wailing Wall share space with a small flag of India. Herzel hands me the synagogue’s calendar of Jewish holidays, written in the local language Marathi, which is the young man’s mother tongue.

Outside the synagogue, two police vans and about a dozen officers guard the entrance. India’s Jews have always been proud that they live in one of the only countries where the community has not faced persecution. They have lived and prospered, side by side with their Hindu and Muslim neighbors, without fear of discrimination or violence.

A brutal ambush by Pakistani militants on the Chabad House during the 2008 terrorist attacks altered that reality. The attack, which killed a Brooklyn rabbi, his wife and four others, brought anti-Semitism at its worst to Indian soil.

Sentiments among the community are now a bit more nuanced — some say they still feel safe among their neighbors; others quietly worry about tensions with the Muslim community. Most see the increased security at the handful of synagogues as a necessary precaution.

Despite the security, Jewish life moves forward.

We pass the officers and make our way into the synagogue, decorated with blue Stars of David and a poster of a woman’s hands clasped together, her arms adorned with bangles.

About 50 people have gathered on this second night of Passover for a community seder. A man leads the group in the reading of the Haggadah, the book that tells of Moses freeing the Jews from persecution in Egypt thousands of years ago. We read not only the same story I have recited with my family in New York year after year, but also from the very same edition. Like iPhones and Taco Bell, Maxwell House Haggadahs have made their way to India.

As we make our way through the story of slavery and redemption, we say a prayer over and then take a bite of each item on the seder plate. Here, our traditions differ. Rather than dipping parsley (symbol of rebirth) into salt water (reminder of tears of oppression), we dunk it into limejuice. The mortar the Jewish slaves used to build bricks is represented not by chopped apples and wine but by mashed dates.

When we get to the 10 plagues, everyone puts one hand over their wine glass while the leader recites the plagues and pours wine into a basin. I notice an American Jew at the seder simultaneously performs our Ashkenazi ritual of dipping his pinky into his glass and taking out a drop of wine for each plague to diminish his own joy. So American, I think, he has to do it his way.

We eventually arrive at the meal. Rather than brisket and potato kugel, the group enjoys a delicious green chicken curry over rice. A vegetarian, I eat rice with Indian dal.

As the meal ends, the American pulls out his guitar. He is going to teach the crowd some new songs. I roll my eyes a little.

But then I hear the music — “When Israel was in Egypt’s land …” — and I am immediately transported to Eisner summer camp in the Berkshires. I think of my friends back home. I think of my family gathered at their seder in New York and imagine my sister and Aunt Ruth leading the group in song. I relax in my seat and sing along.

The song catches on, and soon the roomful of Bene Israel Jews is singing along with the American and his guitar. One of the old Indian men with spectacles and puffs of white hair peeping out of his blue cap has a joyous smile on his face as he belts out, “Pharaoh, Pharoah, whoah, baby, let my people go.”

The crowd erupts in applause.

Hanna Ingber Win covers Mumbai for GlobalPost. She was formerly the World Editor of the Huffington Post.

Editor's note: The subheadline of the story has been updated.