A Small World Weds Saris and Yarmulkes At New Delhi’s Sole Synagogue

One Activist-Lawyer Serves as Rabbi, Cantor

By Alex Halperin

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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As soon as David Danieli, Israel’s new ambassador to India, arrived behind schedule at Judah Hyam Hall synagogue in New Delhi one recent Friday night, the congregants raised their arms toward the ark to welcome the Sabbath.

“It’s good of him to come,” one woman said in a scratchy voice that would later dominate the singing. A woman wearing a hot-pink sari and white yarmulke nodded while waiting for his arrival.

In fact, if the Israeli ambassador or anyone else wants to attend Sabbath services in New Delhi, Judah Hyam is the place. After all, it’s the only synagogue in the capital of Israel’s newest ally.

Most of India’s several thousand Jews live in or near Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Yet this modest synagogue serves as the voice of Indian Jewry in the nation’s capital — and embodies the complexities of Jewish life in India.

Though only 12 to 15 families regularly attend services, Judah Hyam is a living synagogue where congregants celebrate the milestones of life and at times feud among themselves. The services had a familial feel: Song requests were taken; “bravo”s followed a young girl’s reading of Psalm 23. Just about everyone in this sprawling metropolis must drive to services, yet there is lively squabbling over what should be permitted on the Sabbath.

Judah Hyam secretary Ezekiel Malekar is a prominent lawyer and activist who for 23 years has been solely responsible for the synagogue’s survival. “I’m the rabbi. I’m the cantor. I’m the caretaker. I’m the chazan,” he said. He lives with his extended family on the synagogue grounds.

Malekar represents Judaism at national ceremonies such as the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth and death. But he said he had no official role during Prime Minister Sharon’s recent state visit, the first by a standing Israeli premier, which helped solidify ties between the two countries.

Since Israeli independence in 1948, the vast majority of India’s Jews have emigrated to the Jewish state. That year also saw the first flares of tension between India and Pakistan, following their 1947 partition.

Those Jews who remain in India straddle two cultures. Malekar is not shy about his priorities. “We are Indian first, Jewish second,” he said. “This is a land of duty; Israel is a land of faith.”

He and other congregants proudly say that India is the only country where there has never been antisemitism. Malekar declined to speak about India’s growing strategic alliance with Israel, despite admitting to being a liaison between India’s Jewish community and its government.

“I keep Judaism aloof from politics,” he said. “I only talk about religion.”

Judah Hyam congregant Nissim Moses, who splits his time between Petah Tikva, Israel, and New Delhi, is more political. Echoing India’s mainstream newspapers, he said India’s ongoing crisis with Pakistan inspires “sympathy in India for the Jewish people.” But he pointed to the “pragmatics and realities of business and commerce” that mute such support, referring to India’s role as a major supplier of goods and labor to Arab countries.

Moses’s opinions soon veered away from Indian conventional wisdom. “What’s happening there could happen here,” he said, suggesting that just as Palestinians have launched an uprising, Muslims in India could rise up and demand autonomy. Still, he praised India’s tolerance and pointed out several Hindu and Muslim names on the synagogue’s donor wall.

Jews have lived in India for more than 2,000 years, beginning with the Bene Israel, a tribe of Jews who claim to be direct descendents of Moses. In addition, the southern city of Cochin was home to a flourishing Jewish merchant community dating back at least to the Middle Ages. The third group of Indian Jews began to arrive two centuries ago, fleeing Iraq and Syria; this last group of immigrants continued to trickle into India during the early 20th century.

But Judah Hyam Hall is more a product of New Delhi’s growing importance during the 1930s and 1940s. The newly founded Jewish Welfare Association built the synagogue in 1956 on the vacant grounds of a Jewish cemetery that had been functioning for 16 years. The group included Indian Jews, as well as Ashkenazic and Sephardic immigrants and rotating members from the foreign diplomatic corps. The synagogue has tried to incorporate this wealth of traditions into its services, which is evident in the variety of melodies used for singing prayers.

Indian customs also have been woven into synagogue life. Before her wedding, for example, a bride is anointed with turmeric paste on her feet, knees, shoulders and forehead and her hands are painted with henna, for good luck; grooms break a glass with their hands. For Sukkot this year, mangoes, coconuts and cantaloupes hung from the sukkah.

These ceremonial practices take place in a Jewish community that does not expect to train a child for bar or bat mitzvah for several years. Robin Solomon, who recently moved to New Delhi from Mumbai, said that being Jewish in New Delhi makes “you feel a little isolated.”

“For such a small community to assemble here once a week, that means a lot,” said Danieli, the ambassador, who said he attends services regularly.

Malekar’s plucky 18-year-old daughter, Shulamith, who studies political science at the University of Delhi, believes, as does her father, that Judaism comes second being Indian. She called the combination “such a big feeling I can’t even describe it.” Weekly services, she said, are “another occasion to remember who we are. It can be easy to forget.”

At a time when middle-class Indian women are making unprecedented gains in controlling their personal and professional lives, Shulamith has lobbied for change at Judah Hyam Hall. Lately she has been asking her father to include women in the minyan.

In a city with a population of 12 million and no Jewish infrastructure, congregants say they find it difficult to follow Jewish law to the letter. For Shulamith, it seems, a major part of being Jewish is maintaining that identity against the odds, not by moving someplace where Judaism is the norm. “Israel is a good place,” she said, “but I could never leave India.”

Because of efforts made by her father and the synagogue, she added, “Indian people are aware of the existence of such a community.”

Similarly, Malekar is aware of the difficulties of keeping Judaism alive here. In a country where most marriages are still arranged, he called himself a “liberal,” saying that if his daughter wanted to marry a non-Jew, he would encourage the man to learn about Judaism, not seek another partner for his daughter.

But his liberalism has limits. Will he grant his daughter’s request to include women in the minyan? “I’ll have to consult my congregation about that,” he said.

Alex Halperin is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.

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