Where the Crescent meets the Star

A green kippah, traditional Jewish cap on his head, Isaac Talkar cuts a striking figure as he winds his way through the crowded by-lanes of Dongri in the heart of Mumbai city. 80-year-old Talkar, a Bene Israeli Jew is headed to the local synagogue, a daily ritual. Dongri, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in south Mumbai, has been his home from birth.

‘’I have lived here all my life’’, says the retired bank manager. ‘’My entire family, including my parents and siblings, migrated to Israel thirty-five ago. I have no relatives left here. They kept calling me but some attachment keeps me here. I want to die and be buried here.’’

Once a sizeable presence, today there are barely 4000 Jews left in India. Most have migrated abroad. Those who have stayed on are largely concentrated in Mumbai, in the old Muslim neighbourhoods. They wear their Jewish identity openly; their homes display the mezuzah, a decorative doorpost containing passages from the Torah openly.

There are two distinct Jewish communities with deep roots in the city. The Bene Israelis, who claim to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, arrived in India about 2500 years ago, shipwrecked off the Konkan coast, near Mumbai. Then there are the Baghdadi Jews who emigrated from Iraq as merchant traders during the British Raj.

‘’Traditionally Jews and Muslims have occupied the same neighbourhoods in Mumbai’’, says Judah Samuel, a Bene Isareli and trustee of the Shaare Raason synagogue in Dongri. Samuel’s great grandfather Abraham Reuben Kamarlekar was president of the Jewish association in Karachi before Partition. His mother’s family migrated to India after 1947. ‘’It was natural the Jews and Muslims would cluster in the same areas’’, says Samuel. ‘’Both are religions of the book. They have halal, we have kosher. Both do not eat pork. They pray five times a day while we pray three times’’.

Not much has changed since those early days. Most of Mumbai’s eight Jewish synagogues are located in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Byculla, Mazgaon and Dongri. The Gates of Mercy, the city’s oldest, is popularly called juni (old) masjid. The Magen David synagogue in Byculla, had a Muslim custodian for decades. ‘’Even today the caretaker of the Bene Israeli cemetery in Mazgaon is a Muslim’’, says well-known film critic and Mumbai historian Rafique Baghdadi. ‘’and 98% of the students attending the Jewish schools in the central Mumbai area are Muslims’’.

It’s not that the association has remained totally unaffected by the larger conflict playing out between Israel and the Arab world. ‘’During the 6-day Arab-Israeli war, Moshe Dayan’s effigy was burnt in my neighbourhood’’, remembers Judah Samuel. Dayan was a prominent Israeli military leader. ’’ I was 10 years old and my family was scared because we were the only Jewish family in that area. But no one said or did anything to us’’.

What has helped keep the harmony intact is the manner in which the Jewish community has assimilated. ‘’They speak Marathi and have a very distinctive Indian identity’’, says Mumbai-based writer Sameera Khan. Khan has spent the last decade researching old Muslim neighbourhoods in the city. ‘’ If they had been vocal about their affiliation with Israel, had taken out morchas (protests) supporting Israel then perhaps there would have been an issue. As a result Indian Muslims have never felt uncomfortable or antagonistic towards them’’.Is the reticence perhaps born out of a desire for self-preservation? I put the question to Albert Talegawkar, a solicitor whose family migrated to Israel many years ago. ‘’ Our community is very microscopic’’, he says. ‘’ We are not affected by what is happening in Israel. We do feel bad that there is a lot of publicity being given to the Israeli attacks while no one talks about the rocket attacks from Gaza. But it’s not like we support Israel blindly’’.

Isaac Talkar’s friend, Menahim Asher, once captain of Dongri’s Mohameddan XI cricket team says, ‘Our relatives are in Israel but our hearts are in India. Israel is imposed on the Arabs. Just because our forefathers were there at some point does not mean we have the right to take over.’’ ‘’It is sad that Arabs and Jews are fighting because we come from the same father, Abraham’’, adds Solomon Sopher, a Baghdadi Jew and a prominent figure in the community. ‘’I raise horses and most of my trainers are Muslims. They are also bosom friends. Many of my business partners are Muslims’’.

The close ties of cooperation and commerce help explain why ties between the two communities remained intact even after the 2008 Mumbai attacks when terrorists stormed into the Chabad House, a Jewish outreach centre in Colaba. Six of its occupants, including the rabbi and his pregnant wife, were killed. Their two-year-old son Moshe survived the attack, rescued by his Indian nanny. The attacks brought the world spotlight onto Mumbai’s Jewish community. There were fears of a possible backlash.

‘’I was concerned how the local Jewish community would react’’, says Sameera Khan. ’’The expat Jews did. But the local population did not get involved. Perhaps they felt that being a small minority they should not draw attention to themselves. I am glad they did not identify Indian Muslims as being the same as Pakistani ISI-supported terrorists. Similarly Indian Muslims don’t see Indian Jews as being the same as Israelis. They see them as another local community around whom they live and work’’.

‘’The Chabad people were not Indian Jews’’, says Talegawkar. ’’They were here to advance religious matters. The terrorists were targeting foreigners’’.

Even today, four years later, the reminders of those attacks are all too visible. Synagogues in Mumbai now have CCTVs and there is a heavy police presence. Equally visible and eloquent are the expressions are brotherhood.  ‘’We love the Indian Muslims very much’’, says Sopher.’’During Ramzan and Eid we give our grounds without charging a fee. We let our compounds out to the Bohri community for their festivals and marriages’’.  ‘’Post 26/11 nothing has changed. Even today I get biryani’’, adds Talkar laughingly.

This article appeared in the Express Tribune

2 thoughts on “Where the Crescent meets the Star

  1. Great article! There is a lot of courage and wisdom in the ‘melting into’ identity while maintaining one’s own unique-ness. Something that has worked so well in Mumbai. It’s a lesson in ‘cultural sensitivity’.

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