By Julie Z. Russo 

 

  The sweet and spicey fragrances of India from lotus and rose blossoms to cardamom and nutmeg breezed through a virtual tour of India hosted by scholar Rahel Musleah prior to the Jewish New Year. From the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad, Musleah shares the history of India’s Jewish community with worldwide audiences that included more than 70 women of Beth Meyer synagogue in Raleigh this September. 

  If you could travel anywhere, India with its Taj Mahal, lush gardens, and rickshaws carrying women dressed in vibrant silk saris is often on the wish list. Elephants with good luck symbols that resemble Magen Davids (the Jewish star) painted on their foreheads and 17th century synagogues are lesser known discoveries on this vast continent. 

  India is one of the few countries in the world with a benevolent history towards its Jewish community, said Musleah, a journalist, an author of Jewish books and founder of Explore Jewish India Tours. For centuries, Jews have lived in the communities of Bombay, Cochin, and Calcutta. 

  “Indians have a motto, “Guest is God,” Musleah said, “meaning they welcome guests as a sacred duty. Jews have been welcomed in the country for centuries.” 

  This Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year 5781 on the Hebrew calendar, represents a time in human history with few historic precedents. With the world experiencing a pandemic and climate-driven fires causing suffering on par and worse to a century ago, pausing to remember places of peace and tolerance in the world give us cause for gratitude and hope that the hardship will resolve. 

  The tiny Jewish communities that have survived the test of time are such places.  After Gandhi’s peace movement led to India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947 and Israel was established a year later, India’s Baghdadi Jewish community (loyal to the British and Jewish solidarity) left India for Israel, Canada, England, and the U.S. In 1940, there were 50,000 Jews in India, while today there are only about 4,000 Jews remaining out of 1.3 billion residents, Musleah said. 

  With traditional songs recited like the Lekha Dodi welcoming the Friday night sabbath as a bride, Musleah, who is also an accomplished singer leads on-site and virtual tours of the remaining synagogues and Jewish sites in India as a way to celebrate Jewish history. Treated to traditional Kooleecha cookies (sweets made of coconut flakes and black nigella seeds called kalongji) along with recipes for chai (tea) and lassi, a traditional yogurt, honey, and cardamom drink, Beth Meyer guests tuned into Musleah’s presentation via Zoom.  

  The virtual tour comprised historic sites like the city of Cochen in southwest India with the oldest Jewish community in the country. Cochen Jews are said to originate from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition during the 1600s, as well as a belief that Jewish traders sailed there as early as the time of King Solomon or to escape the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem. The unusual sites of Cochen include a Jew Street (not an insult but a symbol of Jewish autonomy), swastiks, an ancient good luck sign that was unfortunately adapted by the Nazis, along with a synagogue clock with Hebrew letters, Musleah said. The city also has the Thekkumbhagom synagogue with glass Belgian lamps patterned after the original temple in Jerusalem and a beema (a prayer platform) on the second floor for its women worshippers along with the belief that congregants “should go up” to read from the sacred torah, she said. 

  Musleah’s Jewish roots are in the city Calcutta along the eastern border of India. In Calcutta, there are three synagogues that exist to this day including the Neveh Shalome synagogue built in 1826, the Beth El synagogue of 1856 where Musleah’s parents were married 65 years ago, and the Maghen David synagogue where Musleah’s father once served as rabbi, and where Musleah’s daughter read Torah on a heritage trip back with her mother in recent years. 

  As we wish each other a sweet new Jewish year, we remember stories like those of the Musleah family and all of our ancestors scattered in the Jewish diaspora who not only escaped persecution and hardship, but also found places where they were able to practice their faith and live in peace along with health, happiness, and prosperity. May this year be a blessing to all who go in peace and good will.  

 

Photo courtesy of Rahel Musleah @2020