This is a cliche but it is quite true that India is a country of rich diversity despite mainstream media and culture’s fervor to paint India as a monotonous abode of one particular religion, caste, class and gender. While we as Indians may live among a variety of people from different cultural backgrounds, how many of us really know each other well-their backgrounds, their religions, beliefs etc.? Lets leave you to ponder at that while we take a peek into one book that brilliantly etches out details of a community in India that has often been relegated to obscurity yet has made an unparalleled contribution to India’s growth and progress. Well, if you think that you have guessed correctly that I am going to ramble a para or two about the Parsis (who have undoubtedly contributed a lot for India’s progress), then you are absolutely wrong. Its not the Parsis I refer to but the Jewish community of India. And no, Jews don’t just exist in Israel and America, but India as well although their numbers have severely dwindled.
The book, ‘India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life Cycle‘ edited by Shalva Weil and published by Marg Publications provides any curious reader a wonderful insight into Jewish community and their lifestyle as a whole. It is an informative book replete with illustrations and written in simple, lucid language. The book helps to enlighten us about the community we always thought never existed in this country.
‘India’s Jewish Heritage…’ begins by informing us about the long contact between the Indians and the Jews and how they came on Indian shores. Throughout the 10 chapters the book traces their history citing valid sources, talks of how they assimilated with the Indian culture and adopted some existent customs while still retaining their own this forming a unique Jewish Indian cultural group. The book informs us right at the beginning that there are 3 Jewish communities in India-Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews. Each chapter pours out details about the history, tradition and customs of each of the 3 communities. The last chapter dwells on the important contribution of the Jews in India and names certain eminent personalities describing their contributions. Mumbaikars may be familiar with the name Sassoon as in David Sassoon Library, Sassoon Docks etc.. The Sassoon family was a Baghdadi Jew dynasty that played a major role in the then Bombay’s development. Nissim Ezekiel is another well known Jewish personality (if not for everyone but at least known to literature students) who was a famous poet and professor. There are several others such as Leela Samson, Isaac Kehimkar, Flora Samuel etc who left a indelible mark on this diverse country.
‘India’s Jewish Heritage…‘ is undoubtedly a hallmark in Indo-Jewish studies. You may not like non-fiction works but stepping into the world that this book portrays is like stepping into an encyclopedia and reliving that feeling of childhood when you would be boggled by your own thirst for knowledge and the facts before you. The book is concise and clear. It acquaints us with a much less talked about community and helps us to know one minuscule patch on a large and varied Indian quilt.