There are Jews in India, and they date back centuries. We worshipped on this Yom Kippur with the Bene Israel Jews
at the only Jewish temple in Gujarat, Magan Abraham synagogue
in Ahmedabad. It was an unforgettable experience.
We left Visnagar at 7 AM to try to catch the morning service. Ahmedabad is a two-hour drive away. We didn't know what time they would start or end, nor how long it would take to find it. We arrived at 9, sometime after the Torah reading (it's one of the early parts in their morning service).
It was a little difficult to find the synagogue. The synagogue's website hasn't been updated in several years and the phone numbers on the webpage didn't work for us. What helped us most was another American who had visited two years ago, and his blog entry
had enough clues to help us find our way. You go just beyond the bridges in Ahmedabad to the Khamasa Gate area, and start asking people for the way to the "Yehudi Church." (Most English-speaking Indians know what a church is, but they've never heard of a synagogue.) Our driver first was given directions to the bright magenta Christian church nearby. when we explained that it wasn't the right one, he found someone else who directed us another four or five blocks down the main road going away from the bridges, to the Magen Abraham temple. The temple is on a little side street on the left. We tried to ask passersby the names of the cross streets there, but we couldn't quite communicate well enough.
2009 is the 75th anniversary year of this particular synagogue, as recently reported in the Times of India
. This is the only Jewish community in Gujarat. The people here trace their religious ancestry back for centuries, and prefer to call themselves "Bene Israel
" (Children of Israel) rather than "Jews". For today's service, visitors came from all over india and around the world. A couple weeks ago they had a special commemoration service. They commissioned a special siddur (prayer book) with three columns per page: Hebrew, Marathi (the local language spoken in Mumbai/Bombay), and Hebrew transliterated into Marathi. A majority of the members here in Ahmedabad speak Marathi as their first language, with Hindi a close second. The congregation includes a host of other languages too, like Gujarati and English and modern Israeli Hebrew. Services are conducted in traditional Hebrew, of course.
We were nervous about showing up unannounced and late, but they welcomed us warmly. This is a small outpost of Judiasm, the only one for literally hundreds of kilometers. They're used to visitors. After the morning service, Michael talked with a couple members, and they were especially pleased to hear that he was a computer science professor teaching in Gujarat. I tried to talk with the women members, but I didn't find many good English speakers among them except the handful of westerners. One member I did talk with a little later proudly told me her nephew is a computer engineer in Mumbai (Bombay). The Ahmedabad Jews are very active in their city, and have businesses and consulting firms. The members here look and dress and sound and work just like their Hindu neighbors. They're totally Indian and completely Jewish at the same time. It's really neat.
The color of the day was white. The temple was draped in white, with white sheets completely covering the floors and furniture. It's a stately Art Deco building, with Indian-style marble accents. The white walls and blue trim inside reminded me a little of an Art Deco version of a Masonic lodge hall. I wore my navy-and-teal salwar kameez, but every other person wore white. The white may be a traditional Orthodox practice; even our Reform rabbi and cantor back home always wear white on Yom Kippur. The men wore white shirts and trousers or white kurtas and pajama pants. The women were mostly in white salwar kameezes, with the rest in saris. The women sat in the balcony; the men stayed down below. The men wore white tallits (prayer shawls) with blue stripes. Someone even loaned Michael a tallit and a kippah (yarmulkule/skullcap) when he first came in, to cover his head. Michael (in his off-white kurta) had procured a Muslim cap, and he used that for the afternoon service after several other men used identical head coverings. Just like entering most Indian houses of worship, we took off our shoes on entering the worship area. (We later learned the people normally keep their shoes on for the weekly Friday night shabbat services, but remove shoes for holidays.)
It wasn't crowded. There were about 40 or 50 women and children throughout the day in the upstairs balcony, and 20 or 30 men in the hall below. I counted only eight obviously foreign women over the course of the day, and five non-Indian men. Later, I chatted with the three female American students who were studying in Ahmedabad. One was from Baltimore; she was doing a fashion internship making corsets at a ladies' garment factory. Another was an architecture student from RPI. Another was from New York City, and I didn't catch her name or info. It made me feel a little old when they were talking throughout the service about how they were going to go out of Gujarat to get drunk and celebrate on one of the student's 21st birthday next month. I guess my problem is I didn't come to an Indian synagogue to talk with foreigners.
I did come to worship with Michael. Michael is Jewish. I happen to be Christian (Evangelical Lutheran). But nobody asked me, and I did not mention it; not out of deception, but I didn't want to distract anyone. On a personal level, I feel completely comfortable worshiping God in Jewish synagogues with my husband--especially Reform temples with moving spiritual music. We are both members of a Reform Judiasm congregation. Also, Michael and I plan to raise our future children in the Jewish faith, so I'd better be comfortable wtith it.
It was hard to tell what was going on. The service did have the standard Jewish components, but it was still utterly foreign to me. The entire service was in Hebrew with an Indian accent. I had never been to an Orthodox Jewish service before, so it was difficult to follow; I did recognize and participate in several of the responses. Also, most US services are Ashkenazic (based on the eastern-European liturgical tradition). This service was Sephardic. The bima (raised altar area) was in the middle of the synagogue, with twinkling miniature Christmas lights and seven fluorescent-bulb candles. Michael was lucky for the afternoon service; he had a guide (from Australia) who had experience in Reform and Orthodox services and explained him what was going on. Turns out they follow the siddur exactly, with all the standard components but with some additional emphasis. For instance, the cantor was standing at the bima reading and swaying and muttering silently to himself except for a spoken word here and there. Turns out they say the Avuot twice; the first silently as individuals, then responsively as a congregation. The responsive prayers are neat, with the cantor's baritone belting out below, and the women and girls in the balcony echoing in Indian-accented chants.
They use handkerchiefs in interesting ways. The most unusual and different part of the service was during the morning, for the Shema, when Indian Jews literally prostrate themselves before God. They take out a white hankerchief, bowing down on their knees with their heads on the floor on the handkerchief. This happens multiple times during the morning service. I'd read about this and given Michael a white pillowcase. He didn't end up needing it, since the floors were covered in white sheets anyway. For myself I had a pure white... dishtowel. Not the most elegant way to worship, but I saw at least one other woman with a dishtowel too (and hers even had flowers on it). It's the spirit of the gesture. Later, during the break, we did buy several handkerchiefs at a mall. We each had our own for the borech-hu; though they didn't do it again in the afternoon service. Because I'm female, I took an extra handkerchief, folded it into quarters and put it over my hair in my barette like most of the women there do. It's completely accepted there and much cooler than a full veil; I'd been using my dupatta, and that had been way too hot.
I struggled with the heat all day. The synagogue is not air conditioned, and I was overheated up in the women's balcony. It supposedly started at three; only us foreigners showed up on time. At three-thirty the service was moving along, and by four-thirty the members had started arriving in substantial numbers. My blood sugar also dropped. It's traditional to fast on Yom Kippur from sundown the night before to the end of the service the next evening. Michael fasted, but my body just wasn't up to it. I gulped down a liter of mango juice and a handful of snack food that morning, and that was my food for the day. I also drank plenty of water. The synagogue has a modern, safe drinking water system in the back, with chilled water. I visited it hourly, drinking water and also wetting down my dupatta (cotton scarf) to help keep me cool as it evaporated in the heat.
The service was led by three men: an older rabbi, another assistant who speed-read Hebrew (he may have been another rabbi). There was also a young teenage boy who read out clear Hebrew. At the very end of the service, he also blew the shofar - a magnificent ram's horn a yard long. Like in Hindu temples, everyone removes their sandals on entering the sanctuary and sits on the floor or the benches. The bimah was decorated with multicolor christmas lights and flower garlands. Two ten commandments were on the wall, one in Hebrew and one in Hindi, and the siddur was in Hebrew with Marathi translations. The services, Michael learned, were standard orthodox, with a hazzan speed-chanting in Hebrew, and the members alternatively taking part in the services and chatting with their friends.
At around eight o'clock we all broke the fast with an unfamiliar but tasty, probably hand-pressed grape juice that tasted like raisins. They also passed out raisins that were sweet, but not seedless. It's traditional there to break the fast with two glasses of grape juice, given the heat. Many people there refrain from food, but still drink water to avoid dehydration. As one of the members told Michael, "Life and Health come first."
Michael chatted a bit with several of the Indian Jews present about the experience of being Jewish in India. Although the worship was strictly Orthodox, the congregants he spoke with are not as strictly observant outside of the synagogue as American Orthodox jews. Most Hindu Indians know of Judaism as a type of Christianity, and Ahmedabadis refer to the synagogue as a "Yhoodi Church". In a country with over one million different deities, Judaism is just one more local religion. One of the congregants told Michael that he likes to explain his religion to the Gentiles, but the only ones that are really interested in listening are Christians. On the other hand, Indians tend to be strongly pro-Israel because they see Israel as anti-Pakistan.
We may go back there for other festivals or Shabbat services in the future.