he Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Mumbai

IT has always been a matter of pride for me that one of the very few countries in which the Jewish people never suffered any persecution was India. The first Jews came to what is today Kerala following the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of their first Temple there by the Babylonians under Nebuchednezzar in 597 B.C.. A second wave followed a few centuries later, after the Romans destroyed the second Temple. This was not all that suprising; trade routes between the Roman world and the south-western coast of India were well-established, so the refugees were not sailing on uncharted waters. (The Romans even established a port in Kerala, Muziris, one of the great port cities of the ancient world.)

The Jews of Kerala settled down largely around Cranganore and practised their faith and their customs unhindered. It was only a millennium and a half later that they suffered for being Jews — when the Portuguese, fresh from the Catholic Inquisition, arrived on India’s western shores and started persecuting the Jews they found. The Jews then fled Cranganore and established themselves in Cochin, where they built an exquisite synagogue that still stands, though attrition and migration (to Australia, I am told, rather than Israel) has taken its toll, and the community living in the indelicately named “Jewtown” of Cochin has now dwindled to 42.

The story of the Kerala Jews came back to me when I read Jael Silliman’s fascinating new book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames. Not that they are even mentioned in the book, for there are two other distinct Jewish communities in India — the Bene Israel of Maharashtra (the largest numerically, who lived undisturbed there for centuries till a wandering rabbi recognised them for what they were) and the “Baghdadi Jews” who migrated from various parts of the Arab world to urban centres in India during the British Raj — and it is with the last of these that Dr. Silliman is concerned. Jael, whom I knew as a teenager in Calcutta and will therefore call by her first name, is the fourth generation in her family to have lived in the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta, and her story traces the lives of the preceding three — her great-grandmother Farha, her grandmother Miriam and her mother Flower. The book is subtitled “women’s narratives from a diaspora of hope”. It tells an eye-opening story.

The four women’s lives trace, in intimate fashion, the transformation of the community over a little over a century. Farha, who arrived in Calcutta around 1890, “dwelled almost exclusively in the Baghdadi Jewish community no matter whether she was in Calcutta, Rangoon or Singapore”, Jael writes. Miriam, living in British colonial Calcutta, was more Anglicised, called herself Mary, but still saw herself as part of a close-knit community of Calcutta Jews. Flower came of age with the Indian nationalist movement, lived in an independent India with an eclectic circle of Calcuttan friends and taught in a Roman Catholic convent. Jael saw herself as Indian first and foremost, went to study in the U.S. like so many of her contemporaries, married a Bengali Hindu physicist there and is again part of a disapora — but this time of the Indian disapora rather than the Jewish one.

Their stories are told with an effective blend of historical research and personal anecdote, much of it in the form of family reminiscence by Flower, who lives with Jael and her family today in Iowa City. Though there is enough social and cultural detail to have given Jael material for a novel, she approaches her subject as a scholar, and her analysis is informed by a serious academic’s understanding of both colonialism and feminism. But the scholarship, though backed by an impressive collection of endnotes (which the general reader may cheerfully skip), never undermines the readability of her narrative, which unfolds in clear, precise, and sometimes sparkling, prose. The text is also brightened by a striking collection of black-and-white photographs, ranging from colonial Calcutta to a Jewish bar-mitzvah gathering to Jael’s daughters Shikha and Maya in bharata-natyam costume, perfectly tracing the history of these four generations.

The story of Jael and her “foremothers” is an Indian story, because the stories of India cannot be narrowed to the sanskritic specifications of the Hindutva bigots. The Calcutta Jews, alas, left only a few traces of their presence for a century and a half in that metropolis — three impressive large synagogues, two small prayer-halls, two schools and a cemetery. Two sizeable buildings, Ezra Mansions and the Ezra Hospital, still bear the name of the Jewish merchant who built them. Ezra Street and Synagaogue street have been renamed. “Very soon,” Jael Silliman observes, “matz

Source: The Hindu