A Drop in the Indian Ocean

By Dr. David Feinstein

I’m just sinking back into my Business Class seat on American Airlines from London to Dallas…my thanks to American Express Travel Mileage Award.  This is the third limb of a day-and-a-half long journey, which took me from Varanasi India, to Delhi, to London and now to Dallas. Although my wife, Reesa, and I almost always travel on our own, this time we joined a travel group that did all the planning for us (Burkat Global).  

India was about the last place on earth that I wanted to visit.  It was positioned just under Antarctica on my bucket list of destinations.  My wife piqued my interest in India though because the trip was advertised as a two week, small, luxury tour focusing on 3,000 years of Jewish India with a four-day extension offered to focus on Hindu India, in other words, the 99.9999% of the rest of the country.  

The Jewish community in India is, relatively speaking, very, very, very small.  There are probably no more than 4,500 Jews in all of India and 4,000 of them live in Mumbai (a drop in the Indian Ocean).   At its peak, there were once about 40,000 Jews living in India. They lived primarily in Mumbai and in Cochin, which is in the most southern state called Karila.

The first Jews who arrived in Cochin were Jewish traders who came from Israel at the time of King Solomon about 992 BCE.  They must have done well there because they chose to stay. They traded primarily in spices, especially pepper (and that’s nothing to sneeze at).  

The second wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in 70 AD after the destruction of The Second Temple.  They were probably heading toward Cochin; however, about 20 miles south of Bombay (now: Mumbai), there was a shipwreck along the Kokan Coast and only about 14 survivors made it ashore.  This group is called B’nai Israel and our guide for India (Joshua Shapurkar) was one of the descendants of the original group of 14. Joshua even took us to the exact place on the beach where the survivors came ashore.

A third wave of immigrants arrived in Cochin after the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal 10 years later.  The Portuguese settled primarily in Goa. Jews were never persecuted for the 3,000 years that they were in India, except for those Jews who wound up in Goa.  The Portuguese persecuted them during the Inquisition.

In Cochin, Jews left their mark on the city.  There is an area that is still called Jew Town.  Mrs. Cohen, who owns a Judaica shop and is now age 90, still lives there but when we visited her shop she was sleeping on a cot during the afternoon, enjoying susegad, as a siesta is called in India.  

In 1492, the Maharaja of Cochin welcomed the Jews to his city after their expulsion from Spain. In 1568, he facilitated the building of their synagogue in an honored location right beside his palace.   This synagogue called the Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest in India, and still serves a handful of remaining Jews.

The Paradesi Synagogue, like others we visited in the state of Karila, has a unique feature that is not present in synagogues anywhere else.  There is a second floor balcony just in front of the women’s’ section, (separated by a curtain). The Torah is read from on high while the bima is where one would expect it to be, on the ground floor in the center of the synagogue.  

Outside, on the synagogue grounds, is a double-faced clock tower.  On the front of the tower looking outward toward the street, the numbers are Roman numerals, but on the side facing the inner courtyard the other clock face has Hebrew letters.

Most of the Jews of Karila left after the creation of The State of Israel.  They left not because of persecution but because of Zionism, and because a communist leaning government was elected in the state in the early 1950’s.

In a small town outside Cochin, we met with a Jewish man in his house, which was across the road from another very old synagogue.  This synagogue has now become a museum. In compliance with a government workers’ one-day strike, the museum was closed the day we arrived.  We therefore didn’t get a chance to see his synagogue. We did, however, get to see several others that were still open, and all of them have been turned into museums.  

This man, who is probably in his late 80’s, invited us into his house.  He told us that he spends the winter in Karila, India but the rest of the time he lives in Israel, where he owns a flower exporting company.

In his house, we spotted a prized picture of himself as a young man shaking hands with a smiling David Ben Gurion.  Ben Gurion had come to visit him just as we had and had encouraged him to make aliyah and bring his skills to Israel.  

With all of us sitting around his dining room table, he explained that on occasion a Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim holiday would all coincide on the same day.  From his house, he could hear the sound of the Shofar, the Hindu Conch, and the Christian bells simultaneously. He said that was a magnificent sound because it proved that the four religions could peacefully coexist.  This was possible, he said, because of two words: mutual respect. I say from his mouth to G-d’s ears.

We also visited the Kadavumbagan Synagogue found in downtown Cochin, on what else, Jew Street.  This was the home of the Malabari Jews and was founded more than 800 years ago. We met with its proud Jewish proprietor who had taken it upon himself to restore the synagogue to its former glory.  It had painted tiles on the floor, the characteristic second floor balcony for Torah chanting, and what seemed an over abundance of chandeliers.

One of my colleagues on the trip, Manouch Darvish, was inspired to sing a Sephardic prayer that seemed to bring, once again, the synagogue to life. 

The Jews of Mumbai are made up of the descendants of those 14 B’nai Israel, who were shipwrecked off the coast 2,000 years ago, and the Bagdadi Jews, who came from Iraq and Iran and other near eastern countries beginning in the eighteenth century.  

The B’nai Israel inhabited some small villages 20 miles from Mumbai, where they were involved in the vocation of pressing olives to make olive oil.  This is a trade that their forefathers had learned 2,000 years ago, back in Israel. In fact, we even went to one of the homes of a Jewish man who continues to press olives and makes oil until today.  

We visited a number of synagogues in this area, which are still used from time to time such as on the High Holidays when Jews, primarily from Mumbai, return to the villages.

These synagogues certainly stand out from the surrounding neighborhood, which is Hindu.   One could imagine that they might be the source of some anti-Semitism given the large number of swastikas found on the front of homes.  We learned however that the swastikas were not German symbols but rather Hindu symbols of prosperity. The synagogues require absolutely no security.

The priest St. Thomas ( The Patron Saint of India) had come to this area in the first century, to try to convert the B’nai Israel Jews.  He was responsible for teaching them a great deal but he was completely unsuccessful in bringing about any conversion. The Jews, however, used their newfound knowledge to allow them to eventually migrate to Mumbai.

One of the most famous Bagdadi Jews of Bombay was David Sassoon, (1792-1864).   He became the leader of the Jewish Community of Bombay. When he first arrived in India, he made a livelihood by selling horses primarily to the Indian army.  

Ohel David (Tabernacle of David) Synagogue, also called Lal Deval or Lal Deul is a synagogue in Pune, India. Being an important part of the cultural heritage of India, it used to be a well-known tourist attraction. Its construction started in 1863 by philanthropist David Sassoon and was completed by his successors in 1867.[
With the American Civil War, England could no longer import cotton from the South, so he seized the opportunity by changing the focus of his business to selling Indian cotton to England.  He then met with his greatest success in the triangular trade of exporting opium (which was legal) from India to China, and then Chinese tea to England, and then English fabric and manufactured products back to India.  

Sassoon left his mark on Bombay by building The Sassoon Docks, a public library, and hospitals. It was Sassoon who primarily underwrote the expenses of building the landmark monument The Gateway of India, an arch built to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary on their first visit to India, in 1911.  From my balcony at the Taj Hotel, from sunrise until well beyond sunset, I could see throngs of people visiting this landmark.

I was disappointed to learn that Vidal Sassoon, the famous hairstylist and hair product tycoon, was not related to David Sassoon, and that the Sassoon family is no longer a major player in the Mumbai Jewish community.  

There is a Jewish Community Center in Mumbai, which we visited.  The Joint Distribution Committee underwrites most of its activities. Although it does support the needs of the Jewish elderly, its major mission seems to be helping to feed poor, non-Jewish children. This makes it possible for them to attend school. Without this food, they would have to work all day to make enough money in order to eat.

There are several private Jewish schools, found on the grounds of synagogues, but these are now populated mostly by non-Jewish students; in fact, by Muslims.  I found this surprising, but apparently this is well-accepted by both the students and the Jewish Board of the school.

The Jews of India have left or are leaving.  It is India’s loss and Israel’s gain; however, unlike most Jews who immigrate to Israel, they have not done so because of persecution.  The Jews of India, for 3,000 years have been accepted and welcomed. With the creation of the State of Israel came the fulfillment of the dream to return to Zion.  Most Jews of India now live around Lod, Ashdod and Ashkalon and have played a major role in helping make the Negev bloom, especially with flowers.

Some of their synagogues are still functional but most have become museums.   The Jewish population has dropped below a critical mass. Their days in India are numbered.  All they need to decide is, after most of the rest leave, who will shut off the lights.

Dr. David and Reesa Feinstein emigrated from Toronto, Canada to Dallas in 1978.   He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Southwestern Medical School and is in the private practice of endocrinology.  They have five married children and thirteen grandchildren who attend Akiba and Yavneh Academies. Dr. Feinstein is author of two books, Speechless Never Again, and The Source of Wit and Wisdom.  David and Reesa have travelled the world extensively, including annual trips to Israel, and have just returned from India.