Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mumbai Notes -- Jews, Muslims, and others

Abbas links to Forward, a New York Jewish weekly with journalistic roots more than a century deep.
These snips are from
"Targeting Tolerance in Mumbai" by Sadia Shepard.

When my Indian Jewish grandmother married my Indian Muslim grandfather in the 1930s, their marriage was unusual in some ways. But in others it was commonplace. Theirs was a romance of pre-Partition India, and their courtship and early marriage, like so many in Mumbai, unfolded in the grand and intimate spaces of the Taj Hotel — its restaurants, ballrooms and long, grand hallways.


My mother’s own migration to the United States and marriage to my American father meant that my identity was further hyphenated — I was raised in Boston by a Muslim mother, Christian father and Jewish grandmother. What better place to make sense of this confluence than Mumbai, one of the world’s great crucibles? In the city I adopted as my second home there were no bag searches and no guards to bar entry. Mumbai, and its Jewish community, welcomed me, like they have done for so many others, with open doors and open arms.

While the Chabad house targeted by the terrorists served mostly Israelis and other visitors passing through Mumbai, there are also two distinct Jewish communities with deep roots in the city. Members of my grandmother’s community, the Bene Israel, maintain that their forebears arrived in India as early as 175 B.C.E. after being shipwrecked on the Konkan Coast. Then there are the Jews known locally as Baghdadis, who immigrated to India from Iraq as merchant traders during the period of the British Raj.

As a result of changing demographics, most of Mumbai’s eight synagogues are today located in Muslim neighborhoods, on the same sites where they have conducted religious services and Jewish education for hundreds of years. One of these synagogues, Magen David, has had a Muslim custodian for decades. In 2002 I photographed Muhammed as he packed and organized the city’s supply of matzo in anticipation of the Passover holiday, as he does every year.

I asked the synagogue’s caretaker, an elderly woman named Flora, if she had ever encountered problems with the local Muslim community. She rebuffed my question with a swat of her hand. “The problems in Israel are not our problems here,” she explained. “We Jews in India have had good relations with the Muslims, and they with us.” She told me of how, during the Six Day War, Muslim shopkeepers held hands across the synagogue gate to protect it from the possibility of looters, saying that this was a house of God and it should be protected. Nothing happened. She shook her head at the memory, considering it from a distance. “I will never forget the kindness of the Muslims that day,” she said.

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