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East meets West at the seder table, somewhere between the lime juice and the mashed dates.
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.