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Searching for My Indian Jewish Family, From Kabbalah to Bollywood

MUMBAI — On my first morning in India, I found myself staring at an egg. That and a cup of coffee was all my hotel’s “free continental breakfast” amounted to, but I didn’t feel cheated. I felt vindicated.

After all, I’d come to India because of an egg.

I cracked the hard-boiled shell and peeled it off carefully, almost neurotically, like I’d seen my grandmother do a dozen times. As each little bit came away from the egg, I captured it in a napkin. When one shard flew out a few inches from my fingertips, I dove to catch it and put it back in its place. A few minutes later, the egg was finally ready to eat. I scrunched the napkin into a ball, holding it tight in my fist as I chewed.

Then I rushed into the blazing sun to see if I could trace this family ritual to its source.

My grandmother, Rachel Meyers, the dauntless matriarch who holds near-mythical status in my mind, grew up in Mumbai. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been asking her to tell me the story of her childhood. It always begins with her father, who bootstrapped himself up from poverty to a prominent business position, enabling her privileged yet quirky existence as a ballet-dancing, motorcycle-riding, synagogue-going-but-only-on-High-Holidays girl. She lived in what she has described as a “glimmering white” house bustling with Hindu servants, important British associates of her father’s, and a menagerie of pets including canaries, a Persian cat, a miniature monkey, a squirrel, a green parrot, a baby leopard, and a very spoiled goat named Peter, who drank milk from a baby bottle and went for walks tied to her pram.

The story ends with India gaining independence in 1947, and her father saying, “Now that the British are gone, the country is sure to go down.” A couple of years later, at age 16, she left Mumbai with her family, and according to her, theirs was the first Baghdadi Jewish family to go. Most of the other Baghdadis quickly followed. As a result of that great exodus — mainly to the newly formed State of Israel, but also to England, Australia and North America — there are now only a few dozen of them left in the city.

Faded Memory: The author's grandmother (front right) with her siblings and servants in 1930s Bombay. Image by Courtesy of Rachel Meyers

And the number of Baghdadis anywhere in the world who can recall Jewish Mumbai at its height is not much greater. For descendants like me, the situation feels urgent: How much longer before this culture dies out and is forgotten entirely? My grandmother’s is the last generation to remember it — but recently, as we flipped through black-and-white photos from her childhood, I discovered that even she couldn’t tell me everything I wanted to know about it. Her own family’s rituals were a mystery to her. Why was her grandmother wearing that mystical-looking amulet? Why had she blown a handful of flour into her daughter’s face when she returned from a trip? Why had she instructed the servants to pour jugs full of water down the front steps on the day they left India for good? The answer, invariably, was “I don’t know.”

That answer made me nervous. I could feel my own history slipping away from me. Worse, something here just didn’t add up. If my family was a wealthy, business-minded, not-really-religious brood, why all these weird rituals? The secular-ish image I’d had of them didn’t square with their mystical customs; the story I’d been told all my life now seemed full of holes. And so I decided to travel back to the source — to capture what our culture was like before it vanished entirely, or to find out if it wasn’t vanishing so much as transforming.

“In Bombay today, there is no Baghdadi Jewish community,” Shaul Sapir said when I met him on the balcony of the David Sassoon Library. “I don’t call this a community. A community has educational institutions, cultural institutions — not just a synagogue.” He waved his hand in a vague easterly direction, referring to nearby Knesset Eliyahoo, the synagogue my family once attended.

“It’s a vanishing culture,” Sapir said, adding that it’s just a matter of time before Jewish life in India is a thing of the past. “There’s one or two generations left of Baghdadi Jews. The Bene Israel have maybe a few more generations. But it won’t last very long.”

People of the Book: Solomon Penkar, the caretaker of Tiferet Israel synagogue, pages through a Psalms book in Marathi, one of India's official languages. Image by Sigal Samuel

According to Sapir, the Baghdadis, a community mostly descended from Iraqi merchants who had come to ply their trade in the 1800s, were the last of three major Jewish communities to settle in India. About 2,000 years before they arrived, seven Jewish families were shipwrecked off the coast — where, according to local tradition, the Prophet Elijah saved them from drowning. Today their descendants form the Bene Israel community, which numbers about 3,500 in Mumbai. Then there are the Cochin Jews, of whom less than 30 remain in the state of Kerala.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Sapir had moved to Israel and become a professor at Hebrew University. I’d taken a class with him 10 years ago, but only when I read his recent book, “Bombay: Exploring the Jewish Urban Heritage,” did I discover he was related to the Shellims, my grandmother’s family on her mother’s side.

Some of the people Sapir interviewed for his book don’t exist anymore — they were killed in the November 2008 attacks, when Pakistani terrorists tore through Mumbai on a shooting and bombing rampage that left 179 people dead. One of the attacks centered on the Chabad house run by Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who were killed along with four others during a three-day siege. The couple’s 2-year-old son Moshe escaped in the arms of his Indian nanny. Several other hostages were saved when commandos took back the building.

Since then, the Jewish community has become much more alert. Two millennia of peaceful coexistence and virtually zero anti-Semitism have given way to round-the-clock security. In his writing, Sapir has attempted to chronicle a time when Jews were a beloved, unguarded and inextricable part of Mumbai society.

New Security Measures: Following the 2008 terrorist attacks, a guard is now posted at the entrance of the Tiferet Israel synagogue. Image by Sigal Samuel

The grand library we were standing in was built with money from leading 19th-century Baghdadi trader David Sassoon (the “Rothschild of the East”), but it now caters mostly to students who are completely unaware of the building’s Jewish connection. The library has exactly one book about the Sassoon family, which you have to ask the librarian to find; on the other hand, you will have no problem at all finding “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

This library also contains the inspiration behind Sapir’s book. Downstairs, in the entryway, the professor showed me a larger-than-life marble statue of Sassoon. Contemplating this man who had “created a community, and saw to it that a second generation would continue” was what pushed Sapir to record Mumbai’s Jewish history for posterity.

Sapir left me at the foot of the statue, with a promise to see me at Knesset Eliyahoo for Friday night services in a few hours.

As I turned to leave, something on the wall caught my eye: a collection of shiny silver plaques, each engraved with the name of one of the library’s former presidents. One name leaped out at me: Shellim Ezekiel Shellim. Maybe finding traces of my family wouldn’t be so hard after all.

At Knesset Eliyahoo, two portraits are given pride of place. One shows a major kabbalist: the Ben Ish Hai. The other shows a major kabbalist-wannabe: Madonna.

The mysticism-obsessed material girl visited this synagogue in 2008, and the photo of her is a cherished memento that contrasts wildly with the image of a bearded 18th-century Iraqi Jewish mystic. It’s a perfect juxtaposition for a synagogue with one foot in the grand respectability of the past and the other in the glitzy disappointment of the present.

When I climbed the stairs to the women’s section, prayers had just begun. Joyful melodies floated all around me. But I was penned into a tiny area, behind a mehitza made up of several wooden screens propped up against one another. The holes in the latticework were so small I could barely see the men leading prayers up on the central bimah. Frustrating — especially since the 25 women in attendance far outnumbered the men.

Worse, with the exception of four locals, all of these women were tourists. It was hard to imagine my grandmother as a little girl sitting beside me when my actual seatmate was busy extracting information about my marriage prospects in a loud French whisper.

And then there was the fact that the voice leading prayers up on the bimah was Israeli-accented. Where was the deliciously guttural Baghdadi accent I’d come for — the accent that was actually indigenous to this place?

The prayers were over quickly (speed being one of the chief virtues of Baghdadi services) and we all went downstairs to the dining room for dinner. Solomon Sopher, the leader of the Baghdadi community, recited the blessings over the wine and bread. Then servers spooned glorious dish after glorious dish onto my plate: mahasha (bell peppers, tomatoes and onions stuffed with rice), bamya (gooey okra cooked with chicken) and koobah (doughy balls with a meaty center). I tasted them and realized that, for the first time in my life, I’d managed to find these dishes cooked properly without actually having to go to my Nana’s kitchen.

Bombay Blue: The interior of the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue. Image by Sigal Samuel

The man next to me was a baby-faced 50-year-old from London who introduced himself as Silas. When I asked what had brought him to Mumbai, he told me that he was born here and came, along with his dad, to revisit his roots. He felt it was important to do this now, as he considers himself “the Last of the Mohicans.” We bonded over that for a while — until he started saying how great it is that so many Indian Jews have moved to Israel, because clearly we are on the verge of Armageddon, just look at the recent burst of anti-Semitism in France.

I politely suggested that it might be time to sing a Shabbat song.

Bad move. The result was an extremely Ashkenazi-sounding tune I’d never heard of. It was pretty and all, but it felt like a missed opportunity given that we were a bunch of non-Ashkenazis sitting in a very special, very non-Ashkenazi place. When the melody petered out, I initiated a round of the Iraqi song “Dror Yikra,” featuring guttural hets and ayins galore.

Afterward, I told Silas in all seriousness that I found it sad to see the Jewish community here dwindling. Jews had always lived peacefully in India; as did my family — the Meyers and Shellims.

Across the table, Silas’s white-haired, 80-year-old dad perked up. Shellim! Did I say Shellim? Was I by any chance related to his relatives, Reuben Shellim, Isaac Shellim?

“Well,” I said, “there’s one way to find out” — and like the giant nerd that I am, I pulled out an immense folded-up photocopy of my family tree.

The man’s eyes sparkled. In no time flat, we located Joseph Shellim — his grandfather, and, hovering an inch above that name, Reuben Shellim — my great-great-grandfather. This lovely man and I were related!

I asked whether he knew if we had any relatives who still lived (not just visited) in Mumbai. “No,” he shook his head. “They’re all in Israel now.”

From the head of the table, Sopher cleared his throat. He also knew of these Shellims, he said. In fact, he was related to them. And he, of course, lives in Mumbai.

I leaned in confidentially and asked the real question, the one I’d been dying to ask somebody, the one that had brought me all the way to India: Had they ever heard of Beit Kabbalah?

When I say that I came to India because of an egg, I’m not being cheeky or speaking metaphorically.

At last year’s family Passover Seder, I had sat across from my grandmother and watched with rapt attention as she peeled an egg — a Seder plate staple symbolizing the cycle of life. She was handling it with insane carefulness, making sure to capture every tiny bit of shell in a napkin. I asked, “What are you doing?” but she refused to even answer my question until after she had hurried from the dining room to the bathroom to flush the napkin down the toilet.

“I don’t know why I’m so careful,” she told me. “It’s something my mother used to do, and I learned to handle food from her, so I do it too.”

Then my dad piped up, saying, “It’s kabbalistic.”

A former professor of Jewish mysticism, my father Michael Samuel explained that my grandmother’s way of handling an egg is rooted in the mystical idea of Shvirat Hakelim, the Shattering of the Vessels. According to Lurianic Kabbalah, when the light of the divine poured down into the 10 vessels that gave rise to all of creation, the force of its holiness shattered them. Bits of the broken vessels — kelippot — went tumbling down into darkness. That was the beginning of evil.

My grandmother may not know it, he said, but she’s careful not to let a single shard of shell escape because of a fear, ingrained deep in her family, about allowing destruction and displacement to creep into the world.

Among the Pilgrims: The author (second from left) at the Haji Ali Dargah, a Mumbai mosque where Muslims and Hindus come to pray. Image by Courtesy of Sigal Samuel

This was news to my Nana, but she didn’t disagree. I sat in silence for a second, savoring the idea of a mystical tradition that is passed down, albeit unwittingly, from grandmother to mother to daughter. Growing up in the Orthodox world, I was taught to see male text study as the ultimate means through which Jewish tradition is created and preserved. I loved the thought of it being transmitted matrilineally — not through men who had their heads bent over books, but through the hands of women working in the kitchen.

But then I remembered that my grandmother’s mother was not an educated woman. “This kabbalistic idea,” I asked, “how could she have known about it?”

My dad looked at me quizzically. “Didn’t you know that your great-great-grandfather on the Shellim side was a famous kabbalist in Bombay? That the Jews of the city would come to study mysticism with him? That his home was known as Beit Kabbalah — the House of Kabbalah?”

According to family legend, my great-grandmother’s father — the revered kabbalist of Bombay — died when someone interrupted him in the middle of a meditation practice. Engaged in the dangerous spiritual work of uniting the letters of God’s name, his soul had been up on a higher plane. When someone yanked it back down to Earth by entering the room without warning, he died.

I stared at my father, then turned back to my grandmother. “You’ve been holding out on me! Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

Her bewildered shrug cut into me as painfully as if it had been a slap to the face. That gesture said it all: You didn’t ask.

On Saturday morning, I returned to Knesset Eliyahoo, feeling depressed.

When I’d asked my three newly-discovered relatives about Beit Kabbalah the night before, I was met with blank stares: None of them had heard of it. The egg thing baffled them, as did our other rituals. That hit me hard, because if Sopher — an older man with unparalleled institutional memory — had no idea what I was talking about, what hope did I have?

The Shabbat morning service comforted me a bit. Even if I couldn’t participate, it was touching to see the pageantry — the Torah scrolls being brought out in their beautiful blue shells; Sopher chanting in his Baghdadi accent; and the group of mostly older men, plus two Chabad emissaries and three Bene Israel youths, scratchily singing along. Both the Chabad rabbi and one of the Bene Israel youths read from the Torah, and their vastly different melodies created a jarring auditory experience, like what you might feel if your iPhone playlist suddenly switched from Tchaikovsky to Iggy Azalea.

When the services ended, Sapir walked over to the women’s section to greet me. He asked if I’d noticed anything interesting about the text on the curtain covering the Torah ark.

We went in for a closer look, and there — in silver embroidery — I saw it: “In Memory of Cynthia Shellim.”

I ran my fingers over the lettering as Sapir smiled on. Right here, smack dab in the middle of the congregational centerpiece, our family lived on!

And then, hanging over the ark, I noticed something else: a marble plaque engraved with Hebrew acronyms that I recognized as a kabbalistic charm.

By this point, it felt like God was teasing me. The secret of Beit Kabbalah seemed tantalizingly close — but what else was there to do?

Over lunch in the dining hall, Sapir introduced me to a kind-faced, gray-haired, sensible-shoe-clad local who reminded me of my grandmother. Her name was Marge Gubbay, and — yes, the family tree confirmed it — she was related to me.

“Have you gone to Chinchpokli yet?” she asked. “The old Baghdadi cemetery. There are Shellims there, I think. But I was there a few days ago, and it’s not like it used to be. I was shocked to see the state it’s in.”

When I flagged a taxi and asked to go to Chinchpokli, my driver — a bespectacled Muslim in a long white robe — took me to Chinchpokli Railway Station. No, I said, I want the Jewish cemetery. He blinked at me, perplexed. So I translated: “Qabreestan Yehudi?”

“Ah! Yehudi?”

Na’am,” I answered in Arabic. Yes. Jewish. I’m Jewish.

He nodded and sped off.

But halfway to the cemetery, he abruptly stopped in the middle of the street, said “One moment!” and got out. Startled, I watched him dash around the corner to converse with a man sitting cross-legged on the pavement. Money changed hands and the man handed him something in a plain white bag. He rushed back to the car.

The driver sat down, opened the bag, and out came — bananas. He offered one to me and, laughing at the reason for his emergency pit stop, I declined; we had just about reached the cemetery. Before getting out, I asked him his name — it was Tahir, which means “pure” and seemed apt — and told him I’d meet him back here in an hour. (When you find a good taxiwallah in Mumbai, you keep him for the rest of the day.)

Doorway to Disrepair: The Baghdadi cemetery contains graves of the author's ancestors. Some Bollywood starlets are also buried here. Image by Sigal Samuel

I entered the cemetery and one of the caretakers directed me towards where he said the Shellim graves were. I inspected grave after grave as butterflies flitted past me. The placement of the graves and the materials they were made of told me which people here had been rich and famous — like Sir Jacob Sassoon and his wife Lady Rachel, buried in huge matching mausoleums — and which people had been consignable to the eternal resting places that were basically crap piles.

The more I looked, the more I was struck by the dirtiness and disrepair of it all. There was garbage, toys, old clothes strewn everywhere. An ancient basketball punctured by a branch, all the air long since gone out of it. A filthy, creepy teddy bear. Pair after pair of plastic flip-flops.

Worse, many of the graves were broken. Tombstones lay in shards, covered in dirt, their inscriptions invisible. Some graves were so close together they were practically touching; it was impossible to make your way between them, and so impossible to see what they said. My relatives could have been hiding in that mass of impenetrable stone, but I would never know it.

I trudged on through the maze as crows cawed all around me. On one tomb, three words had survived the blackening effects of time: HER SILVERY LAUGH. I wondered: Did someone in my family have a laugh like silver? Directly behind the cemetery wall, trains kept running through the Chinchpokli station. Passengers got out onto the platform, calling to me, jeering, clicking away at imaginary cameras and laughing at the one girl picking her way through a cemetery, toting a huge Canon as if she thought she might actually find something worth photographing.

Minutes ticked by. Mosquitoes bit at my arms. I couldn’t see a Shellim anywhere. I wanted to cry. Thorns were scratching at my legs and the sun was beating down on me and there was a pile of dog shit and I decided to go. This was stupid. And besides, Tahir was waiting.

I walked back toward the cemetery entrance. And then, right up against the wall, in the very last row, I saw it. Habiba Shellim. And her son, Joseph Shellim. I gasped — an actual, out-loud gasp. I traced the names of my relatives, nudging the stubborn dirt out of the lettering with a reverent fingertip. I thought about placing a stone on each grave but there were only bits of rubble to choose from. Then, miraculously, I spotted two shells, the kind you usually find on the beach. I gave her the big shell and placed the smaller one on his grave.

Smiling, I hopped in the cab with Tahir and we sped away.

That night, back at the hotel, something nagged at my brain.

Why hadn’t I found any Meyers in the cemetery? Come to think of it, why wasn’t I finding Meyers anywhere? Shellims popped up all over the place — library, synagogue, graveyard — making it clear to me that even though they were kabbalists, they were the sorts of kabbalists who were part of the establishment. And although I’d believed that finding traces of them would help make sense of my family story, each Shellim name, once found, was like a locked door: It refused to lead anywhere beyond itself.

Faced with these doors, I felt my attention swinging around to the other side of the family. Within the Baghdadis’ mainstream institutions, traces of my grandmother’s father — Meyer David Meyers — seemed non-existent. Which, of course, only made me more curious about him.

I summoned up everything I knew about him so far. His father died at a young age, and he and his mother were left penniless. But he soon got a job as a lowly clerk under Sir Victor Sassoon, and worked his way up to the position of estate manager, overseeing multiple cotton mills and properties. In spite of this, he remained a very humble man — “too humble,” according to my grandmother, who describes him as “a poor little creature — like Leonard in ‘The Big Bang Theory.’”

He was also a Freemason. Upon his death, Meyer left his son a ring engraved with a square and compasses: the secret society’s symbol. Freemasons drew heavily on Kabbalah. Maybe our family’s strongest kabbalistic connection, I thought, lay not with the Shellims but with the Meyers.

Opening my laptop, I searched for “Jewish Bombay Freemason Kabbalah” online. Google returned 1.1 million results. I clicked on one article, then another. Minutes passed. Then hours.

Strange Seal: The Theosophical Society logo. Image by Wikipedia

At around 2:30 a.m. I was reading about a secret society that shared many members with the Freemasons, but put a more overt emphasis on Kabbalah. This “Theosophical Society” was the brainchild of spiritualist Madame Helena Blavatsky and her band of occultist hangers-on, who came from America and established their headquarters in Bombay in 1879. They studied Jewish mysticism along with the esoteric texts of other religions, because, as their motto says, “There is no religion higher than Truth.” Their logo is a Star of David with a cross inside it, surrounded by a snake biting its tail, topped off by a swastika and the Sanskrit symbol for “Om.”

I stared at the logo. Could Meyer have been a member of the Theosophical Society?

Maybe it was just the lateness of the hour, but this actually seemed like a viable possibility. There had been several Jewish theosophists in Bombay in the early 20th century. In 1925, they formed their own subgroup called the Association of Hebrew Theosophists. Their leader was Reuben Ani, a Baghdadi distantly related to me by marriage. And when the rabbinic authorities of the day got wind of their distinctly non-Orthodox activities, some of them got in trouble with the Jewish establishment.

I emailed my grandmother, asking for information about her father that might help me track him down in the Theosophical Society’s archival records.

Then, in an email to Boaz Huss, I asked: “Do you have any thoughts on how to go about finding out if the Meyers were members of the Association of Hebrew Theosophists?”

At 4 a.m., I closed my laptop and went to sleep.

While I waited to hear back about a defunct group of Jewish Mumbai mystics, I decided to seek out some contemporary ones.

I arrived at the Chabad House right on time for the Kabbalah lesson. Even so, I ended up late. It wasn’t my fault: For a few minutes, all I could do was stare at the bullet holes in the Torah ark.

When terrorists burst into this room in 2008, they sent a bullet flying through the wooden ark, straight into the heart of the Torah scroll and out into the back wall, where it’s still buried today. The sight of the nicks left in the wood clashes with the other things in the room: the duffel bags belonging to Israeli backpackers, the Hebrew sign on the water cooler instructing them to look for milk in the fridge, and the large gold-framed painting of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Along another wall, an array of bullet holes points the way to the office of the new Chabad rabbi, Israel Kozlovsky.

“It’s only because of the Rebbe that I’m in Bombay,” Kozlovsky told me. “If the Rebbe were to release me from this task, I’d be out of here, not today, but yesterday!” Then he counted off the “endless challenges” he’s encountered so far: “the heat, busyness, pollution, raising kids here, getting sick here, finding a place to live, getting an internet connection, and fighting with locals.”

Under the Rebbe: Chabad Rabbi Israel Kozlowsky with Israeli tourists. Image by Sigal Samuel

But he also has “miracles,” he said, the biggest one being that he’s still here. Running a Chabad House in Mumbai is not cheap. His family began renovating the building in 2013 and moved in August 2014. He has since hired about 16 people to organize Torah classes, kosher meals for businesspeople and backpackers, a women’s mikveh, a kindergarten and more.

The rabbi’s top priority, though, is teaching the locals Halacha, Jewish law.

“There’s a huge lack of proper Jewish knowledge,” he sighed. “Most consider themselves observant, but I’m afraid they don’t really know what that means. On Rosh Hashanah, everyone drives.”

Asked if there was anything he in turn could learn from the Bene Israel, he raised his eyebrows. “From a Jewish perspective? Not much.”

The rabbi said that he and his wife did not make a study of Indian Jewish customs before their big move from Israel. “We didn’t study anything. We just jumped into the water and started swimming.”

More than a year in, it seemed some of those customs were still a mystery to him. “I don’t know what a Malida is,” he confessed when I asked about what is arguably the most recognizable and most delicious Bene Israel thanksgiving ceremony.

Had the rabbi felt nervous about relocating to a place so foreign to him, especially after what happened to his predecessor?

“In the beginning we didn’t sleep. Then we started to sleep a bit. Today we sleep very well,” Kozlovsky said. “Knowing we have the merit to be in the Rebbe’s Army — that’s the best gift I can give myself and my family.”

The “Rebbe’s Army” enjoys backup in the form of several security guards, who not only watch over the heavy metal gate out front, but also occupy the sixth floor of the building. They belong to Indian Jewish Security, a group of young Jews who protect the city’s major synagogues. They sometimes travel — on donor money — to Israel and other countries to study martial arts techniques.

“There’s always concern in the back of your mind,” Kozlovsky said. “It’s because people felt so safe here that so much blood was spilled in these halls.”

He gestured out the door toward the study hall, where preparations were underway for that evening’s Torah class. After I said goodbye, I wandered past the one Israeli and five Bene Israel chatting under the portrait of the Rebbe, and made my way upstairs. The fifth floor, which Kozlovsky plans to turn into a memorial museum as soon as he can raise the money, looked so ghastly that I could only stand to gape at it a few seconds. A dark wound of a room, its walls streaked with dirt or blood and countless bullet holes, gaped back. I rushed all the way to the bottom floor and out the front gate.

My budget hotel in the Colaba neighborhood was a two-minute walk from the house where my grandmother grew up. But I hadn’t gone to visit yet. Which was strange, because I’d visited many nearby places:

• The ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel, where my grandmother at age 13 starred in a glamorous ballet recital. (It was called “The Butterfly.” She was the butterfly.)

• The Gateway of India, which was originally built to welcome King George V and Queen Mary. It now serves as the gathering point for people who want to take the one-hour ferry to Elephanta Island — home to millennia-old sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses carved directly into the cave walls, and one of the Meyers family’s favorite picnic spots.

• My grandmother’s old school, the Convent of Jesus and Mary, where the very proper British-style education once attracted well-off Baghdadi Jews along with Christians, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Hindus. Although the school was run by nuns, each student was free to practice his or her own religion; my grandmother used to skip the Catholic rites for a Hindi language class. Today, students of all the other faiths are still there; only the Jews, it seems, are gone.

School Captain: A girl at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, where the author's grandmother was educated. Image by Sigal Samuel

I elbowed my way along the bustling Colaba Causeway, now renamed “Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg.” (When my grandmother saw the street on Google Maps, she said, “Marg? What’s that?” After gaining independence, India restored non-British names to its roads, with the result that my Nana can no longer pronounce the name of her street.) As tourists around me managed to buy everything from pashminas to stuffed grape leaves while simultaneously trying to repel the beggar children chasing them, I turned onto Henry Road.

The first thing I saw was a barber giving a man his morning shave right there on the sidewalk. The second thing was an Adidas store. The third thing was a dirty brown building, its name spelled out in dark lettering that was barely distinguishable from the muddy facade: York House.

Inside, the shining marble floor in the lobby was all that was left of the building’s former glory. The walls were filthy and cracked. I climbed the stairs to the third floor and found the door to my grandmother’s apartment. It bore a lock shaped like the Buddha’s face, orange marigold flowers typically found in Hindu temples, and a “Merry Christmas” sign.

Before I could even figure out how to knock — the door itself was enclosed behind a metal gate — a shriveled old Hindu woman opened up. She took one look at me and decided that this was a matter for the memsahib. As she turned to find her, I shuffled my feet uneasily. How long had she been watching me through the peephole?

Peering into the living room, I had just enough time to pick out the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle — high-finish wooden surfaces, a giant couch, a tall sculpture (idol?) and lots of light — before the woman of the house swished to the door in a gorgeous green and orange sari.

I stammered in Hindi: “My grandmother lived here when she was a young girl. I’d really like to see her old home. Would you show it to me?”

The memsahib studied me dubiously for a moment. Then she said, “Sorry, no,” and began to close the door.

I opened my mouth to stop her, to say — what, exactly? It was a strange thing, this desire to see the place where your ancestor first skinned her knees and learned her multiplication tables and ate her breakfast cereal— as if that would, what, allow you to gather together the broken shards of your family’s history into one cohesive narrative that would make sense, finally, of them, of you?

“Please,” I begged.

The door closed.

As I descended the stairs, I noticed a window on the landing. It was heavily cobwebbed, dozens of desiccated flies dangling in the nets. A single spider clung valiantly to the web as the wind hurled it this way and that. Was it dead? Or alive? It was impossible to tell.

The E.D. Sassoon Building is a gorgeous edifice in the Fort neighborhood’s Ballard Estate. But today, its name has almost completely faded from the façade — which meant that I had a hell of a time finding the place.

And yet, I was determined. My great-grandfather, Meyer David Meyers, would have had his offices here. Was he a boring conformist of a businessman, I wondered, or someone badass enough to become a theosophist?

Hours ago I had checked my inbox and found the replies I’d been waiting for, only to discover that they were no help at all. The academic, Boaz Huss, was “delighted” that someone else on the planet was as interested in theosophists as he was, but he couldn’t give me any “clues where to search,” since he had never been to Mumbai. My grandmother’s only offering was a memory: Meyer’s father, apparently, was the owner of a vast kabbalistic library. As soon as the man died, his relatives swooped in and stole the books that should have been passed down to his son. Meyer never forgave them for it. Inheriting his bitterness, my own dad referred to these relatives as “the Scavengers.”

As I entered the E.D. Sassoon Building, I passed a little shrine to Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. Up on the second-floor landing, across from a couple of pigeons roosting on exposed wires, a weathered sign listed the various Jewish charities associated with Sassoon’s business.

But when I stepped into the adjoining office and asked if there was someone I could talk to about Sassoon Company records, I got only blank stares. Finally, a woman directed me to an older man sitting behind a desk, across from a poster of Mahalaxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.

Chandrakant Mody told me that the office was no longer occupied by the E.D. Sassoon Company, which had been liquidated decades ago, but by Eve Fabrics. The Sassoon Company is “totally different now,” he said. “It’s almost bankrupt.”

“But what about that list of Jewish charities on the sign outside? Doesn’t the company support them anymore?”

“There is no money now to go to charities,” he said flatly.

Mody had never heard of Meyer David Meyers. But he called up a man named Dhanjay Devadiga, the single solitary soul left working for the bought-out Sassoon Company. “I remember that name,” said the disembodied voice on the phone. “It’s very old. No record you will find. Records in London, not India.”

Mody let me look through a book of meeting minutes from around the time of my great-grandfather’s tenure. Scanning each “list of those present,” I found Jewish names like Mr. E.M. Solomon and Mr. Abraham Daniel, but no Meyer. The book was dated 1936-1971, and the penciled notes were fading. They were also painfully boring.

I said thank you and walked out, carrying in my mind’s eye an image of my great-grandfather as a 9-to-5, office-dwelling, suit-wearing businessman. A square.

Fifteen minutes away by foot, directly across from the garish flashing lights of Sterling Cinema, the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge of Bombay loomed tall and imposing.

Two Hindi-speaking guards blocked the entrance. But on the strength of the assertion that my great-grandfather had been a Mason here, they agreed to let me in.

Walking into the cool, high-ceilinged marble hall, I saw a majestic staircase with a wooden balustrade and a red carpet. It made sense that a businessman like Meyer would have enjoyed membership in a place like this. It was trendy, a spot for the wealthy, for those who had won high status through their alignment with the British colonizers. Freemasonry, after all, had originated in Britain, where founders mined the ideas of Eastern religions (including Kabbalah) and recast them in more universalist terms before exporting them back to the East in the form of Masonic Lodges like this one.

Had participating in the Masons’ rituals brought Meyer relief from his rage at the Scavengers and the kabbalistic heritage they’d stolen from him? Or had that rage pushed him out further, to the Theosophical Society?

I entered a large assembly hall filled with wooden tables and chairs and found the walls lined with giant portraits of the grand masters through the years. One of the grand masters from the 1920s was a Jew named Benjamin Reuben Kehimkar.

None of them, however, was Meyer David Meyers.

In the evening, I roamed around the city, toying with a sentimental question: What if my family had never left Mumbai?

For Sale: Vendors walk through the busy Crawford Market. Image by Sigal Samuel

At Crawford Market, where my great-great-grandmother used to go in a ghari-ghora (horse and buggy) to buy staples like rice, onions and potatoes, I let myself get lost among the stalls. Men thrust objects toward me — nail polish, dried kiwis, denim jeans, pineapple on a stick, iPhone cases, soap bubbles, Ray-Bans, “table bags” (tablecloths?), 3-foot-tall neon teddy bears — along with constant shouts of “Yes, Miss” and “Hello, Madam” and “What you want?”

“I want to find my great-great-grandmother buying onions at one of your stalls!” I felt like shouting at them, but didn’t.

Instead, I let the flow of the crowd carry my body south to Flora Fountain. A statue of a woman holding a wreath of flowers loomed over me. She was obviously meant to symbolize “flora” in the sense of flowers, nature, spring — and yet Mumbai’s Baghdadi Jews persisted in clinging to a patently false myth: To them, she was Flora Sassoon, the great-granddaughter of David Sassoon who had the triple distinction of being a successful businesswoman, learned Torah scholar, and kickass party-thrower.

I loved this about my fellow Baghdadis — that they were so eager to see their handprint in all things Mumbai that they identified it even in landmarks where it did not exist. There was something pompous and funny and sad about it, all at the same time. It filled me with nostalgia for a city that seemed simultaneously mine and not mine at all.

From Flora Fountain, I figured I would go to Eros Cinema to catch a Bollywood flick. Jews played a major role in the development of Bollywood. Among the most beloved actresses were silent film star Sulochana (aka Ruby Myers), quintessential vamp Nadira (aka Florence Ezekiel Nadira), and original Miss India pageant winner Pramila (aka Esther Victoria Abraham). The script for the first Indian talkie was written by a Jew (David Joseph Penkar), as was the country’s first jazz song (Mena Silas).

Click above to hear India’s first jazz song, composed by Mena Silas.

As I headed toward the cinema, an Indian man started walking beside me. A 40-something insurance salesman, he wanted to know where I came from. When I said Canada, he immediately asked about immigration opportunities. Apparently, he wanted to relocate there. With me.

I made the mistake of telling him I was Jewish. He was delighted to learn this; it meant that I “believe in Yahweh” and “have good values.” He asked if I was going to meet someone at the movies, and when I answered honestly, he suggested that I might want “a friend.” I said, “No, actually, I like being alone” and veered away.

When I reached the theater, I found that only two shows were playing — a thriller and an action movie. I don’t like either. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood for eros anymore.

At the bar of the Leopold Cafe, I filled up on curry and Corona, and reflected on the fact that terrorists had stormed this place in 2008. The only visible result of that attack was a security guard (who seemed to double as a hostess) stationed outside on the busy Causeway. Other than that, this was just a regular dive with crap service, overpriced food, friendly Mumbaikars and too-friendly tourists all scraping elbows at the bar.

I mean that phrase literally — “scraping elbows.” When I neglected to enter into conversation with the three men next to me, one physically poked me with his elbow to get me to talk. I admitted to being a journalist at a Jewish newspaper. Looking gleeful, they took that as their cue to start in on (what else?) everyone’s favorite dinner topic: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I asked for a doggy bag and went back to my hotel.

Early the next day, I stopped feeling disappointed that I’d failed to catch a Bollywood film. Because within a few hours I’d be acting in one. Which, as it turns out, is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster:

1:15 p.m. I leave the hotel.

1:16 p.m. Steps from the hotel, I get stopped in the street by a handsome young Mumbaikar.

1:17 p.m What’s that you ask? Do I want to be in a Bollywood film? The famous actress Anushka Sharma is going to be in it?

1:18 p.m YES.

1:19 p.m “Great!” the scout says. “We have been trying to find people who look Western to act as extras.” I want to say but do not say: “And you think I fit the bill?” He signs me up.

3:00 p.m I’m here at the designated meeting place (Starbucks — yes, even Mumbai has one), ready to board the bus to the set with all the other extras. So excited!

3:45 p.m Hmm… why aren’t we leaving yet? Must be what they meant by 3:00 IST — not “Indian Standard Time” but “Indian Stretchable Time.”

4:00 p.m Okay, we’re on the road! The bus company is called Shetty Travels. Ha.

4:15 p.m I swivel around and notice that every single extra except me has blonde or light brown hair, white skin and blue eyes. The German backpacker next to me looks like Heidi Klum from “Project Runway.” I look like… me.

5:35 p.m Still on the road. The Mumbaikar scouts up front pass around an antiperspirant spray, which stinks up the whole bus. The trip is beginning to feel, well, Shetty.

6:00 p.m We’re here! At the fancy Lalit Hotel in airport-adjacent Andheri. And look, here are our costumes!

7:00 p.m This man has been doing my makeup for an hour. Is the situation really that dire?

7:30 p.m Indian women have no idea what to do with my hair. After consulting with each other in rapid-fire Hindi, one of them slathers mousse in my curls and puts them up in a giant clip. Then ignores me.

8:10 p.m The clip comes out! Hair looks exactly the same.

8:30 p.m The shoot is starting. Set manager shouts: “Be natural!” “Not so synchronized!” “Happy mood happy mood!” “Behave expensive!” I’ve got this.

9:00 p.m “Great, now let’s do it again.”

9:37 p.m “Again.”

9:55 p.m “Again!”

10:30 p.m I’m falling asleep. Where the hell is Anushka?

10:50 p.m IT’S ALL A LIE. Anushka isn’t coming.

11:05 p.m Oh my god I am TOUCHING Anushka Sharma! Her blue dress just swished against my hand!

12:10 a.m. Chai break — now? Sure, why not. I take advantage of the pause to ask the scout point-blank why he picked me. He says that we’re filming a commercial, not a movie, and that the director wants a few extras who look like NRIs (or non-resident Indians) — who look half Indian and half something else. The commercial will be showing in India, see, and this way it will be both relatable and aspirational. And problematic, I think, because the underlying premise is that Indians should want to be something they’re not. But I have no time for Deep Thoughts About Race because…

1:00 a.m. It’s time for the dance number.

1:30 a.m. I’d really, really, really like to stop doing this dance now.

2:10 a.m. Seriously. Can this dance be over now? The shiny silver heels they’ve foisted on my feet are killing me.

2:25 a.m. MAKE IT STOP.

2:30 a.m. Dinner break — now?

3:00 a.m. I’m being paid 500 rupees (translation: $8) for 12 hours of work and I don’t even care because I’ve lost the ability to feel all emotions.

4:00 a.m. On the bus ride home, I finally get a second to think about the racial implications of all this. At first I was amused that the scout had taken me for a Westerner, when my family actually comes from India. Ha, I thought, the joke’s on them! It also seemed ironic that this status made me a good candidate for a Bollywood shoot. Back when it was verboten for Hindu and Muslim girls to appear on celluloid, Baghdadi Jewish girls were cast precisely because they resembled Indians enough to serve as believable audience proxies. Now I was being cast because I was deemed a not-quite-believable proxy. I looked just Indian enough to make Indians relate to me, and just not Indian enough to make them want to buy a product that would, in turn, make them look less Indian. Because, as I later learned, the commercial we were shooting was for a Nivea lotion. A Nivea whitening lotion. Clearly, the joke was on me.

Street View: Shaar Harahamim synagogue is the oldest Jewish congregation in Mumbai. Image by Sigal Samuel

The joke was also pretty much on every Indian Jew. If you’re part of this community, you’re bound to get caught in conversations where race is the Ganesh-sized elephant in the room. Most of the Bene Israel I spoke to have been accosted by foreigners who, believing that white is the only Jewish color, spouted some variation on “You don’t look Jewish!”

Just a few decades ago, racism also typified relationships within the Indian Jewish community. Baghdadis looked down on the Bene Israel, taking darker skin color as evidence of intermarriage and so of a less “pure” Jewish lineage.

But the premise of racial “purity” is problematic, even just on the practical level. Nobody here can say for sure that none of their family members married non-Jews. Genealogical records can’t be trusted, since those who did intermarry were often left off the family tree — or, even if their name made it onto the chart, their spouse’s and children’s names did not.

On my own family tree, there is one entry that sometimes raises eyebrows: “Sarah” (no surname) likely refers to a woman who converted to Judaism. Everyone else has an ultra-Baghdadi name. And now that I was here in Mumbai, that was beginning to bother me. The formerly exciting fact that every Baghdadi I sat down with turned out to be a relative suddenly felt vaguely sinister. Hadn’t these people ever thought to marry beyond the Baghdadisphere?

Over the years, factors other than race — like economic disparity — have created divisions not only between the Bene Israel and Baghdadis, but also among Baghdadis themselves. The well-to-do residents of Fort, for example, once looked down on those living in nearby Byculla.

Today, these sorts of internal divisions are a luxury that Indian Jews can’t afford. The community is so small that everyone needs to pool together. Otherwise, they won’t survive.

Ask Indian Jews whether there will always be Jewish life in India and you’ll get three different answers: “yes,” “no,” and a sort of Herzlian “if you will it, it is no dream.”

I found that third camp populated mostly by young Jews. Nathaniel Jhirad, a 23-year-old Bene Israel who said he was “always torn between wanting to become a rabbi and an accountant” (and eventually became the latter), told me: “My formula is very simple: As long as Bene Israel marry Bene Israel, there will be Bene Israel. It’s in our hands — it’s up to us.”

At the pessimistic end of the spectrum, some take it as a given that Indian Jewish culture will die out — partly because of emigration, and partly because of assimilation here at home. (“Forget Israel,” one man told me, “I’m losing my Indian Jewishness already in India!”) But the optimists say that the few Bene Israel who remain have developed a stronger sense of identity because the majority left; they’re taking it upon themselves to maintain a unique Jewish culture.

Unlike in some American or European communities, in India, maintaining Jewish culture does not mean separating yourself from the non-Jewish cultures around you. On the contrary, it has always meant coexisting and even collaborating with Muslims and Hindus.

Etched in Stone: A Muslim man, Muhammad Abdul Yassin, engraves the Jewish tombstones in the Bene Israel cemetery. Image by Sigal Samuel

In the Bene Israel cemetery on Dr. E. Moses Road, I found 75-year-old Muhammad Abdul Yassin walking the narrow paths between graves. This bearded Muslim has been engraving tombstones for Bene Israel Jews — in Hebrew! — ever since he became the apprentice of Aaron Menasse Navgavikar, who taught him the language in 1969. Now, with his health failing, Yassin is passing on the trade to his sons, Islam and Salaam.

Standing inches away from a plot marked with a small, depressing “Reserved” sign, I asked Islam Yassin if there was something strange about a devout Muslim family engraving all of the Jewish tombstones in Mumbai. He shook his head vigorously. “No, no, no, no,” he said. “We have good relations. The Jews here were always good to us.”

Muslim and Jewish life in the city was once so intertwined that, to this day, it’s hard to trace the seams between them. Wandering through the neighborhood of Bhendi Bazaar, faced with its Masjid Railway Station and the crowd of hijab-clad women swirling around it, I assumed that the station takes its name from a nearby mosque. But I was wrong. The station is named after the city’s first synagogue, the 200-year-old Shaar Harahamim, which locals in this formerly thriving Jewish neighborhood commonly called “Juni Masjid.”

These days, Muslims occupy many places that were once predominantly Jewish. When I visited the E.D. Sassoon High School — originally built with Sassoon money for Jewish kids — I found it almost exclusively populated by Muslim students. Jewish administrators see no issue with this.

Local Jews also happily infuse their worship with some of their neighbors’ customs. Take Bene Israel kirtan, a musical tradition picked up from Hindu culture and once popular at Jewish weddings, parties and naming ceremonies. First performed in the Bene Israel community around 1880, these songs — based on the stories of biblical prophets — fell into obscurity two decades ago with the deaths of the leading Jewish kirtan singers.

But over at the JCC, I found 60 locals gathered for a workshop with elderly sari-clad women who, having had the prescience to transcribe their mothers’ songs in notebooks, were now cultural experts. Up on stage, they sang in Marathi about Noah and Moses and King David, accompanied by instruments like the tabla and harmonium. This hybrid custom was so unlike any other Jewish experience I’d ever had that I felt a sudden crazy urge to run up to these ladies and wrap them in Saran Wrap, laminate them, or otherwise preserve them. The absence of young locals who might have sustained this form of worship in a less insane, more authentic way registered physically in my body, like a stomachache.

Vanishing Culture? Tiferet Galsurkar, 11, was the lone youth at the JCC's kirtan workshop. Image by Sigal Samuel

A few days later, though, I got to attend the pre-wedding celebrations known as Malida and Mehndi, which Muslims also share. This youthful Jewish ceremony was the result of concerted matchmaking, a common — though not formalized or forced — Indian activity. In the fancy hotel function hall, women swished around in saris of every conceivable color and style, greeting each other happily. Little boys in vests bounced on their fathers’ shoulders, while teenagers danced to the kind of music — “Om Shanti Om” and that song from “Bend It Like Beckham” — that you might expect to find on a Bollywood set, with dance moves to match.

The ritual component of the evening kicked off with the Malida. One after another, family members seated at a long table recited a prayer invoking the Prophet Elijah’s protection. Everyone lifted and extended their right hand, then kissed their fingertips. Plastic baggies materialized on the tables, containing a different fruit for each blessing. A fragrant white flower, a date, grapes, a tiny Indian banana, and the pièce de résistance: sweet Malida rice.

Then came the Mehndi, a henna ceremony unlike any other I’d seen. The tray at the bride’s feet was laden with a coconut, marigold flowers, colored rice, a Star-of-David-emblazoned cloth and 500-rupee bills featuring Mahatma Gandhi’s smiling face. One by one, each guest came up to the bride to wave the money around her head, wishing her prosperity; shower her with rice, wishing her abundance; and touch their fingers to either side of her forehead, then crack their knuckles against either side of their own forehead, removing any bad luck around her.

Customs of the Countries: As part of a Bene Israel pre-wedding ceremony, guests perform a knuckle-cracking ritual around a Jewish groom. Image by Sigal Samuel

As I took in this confluence of Muslim, Hindu and Jewish elements, it hit me that being an Indian Jew inherently means having your own religious practice inflected by those of others. These communities had coexisted so closely for so many centuries that now, none of the celebrants here thought of themselves as Jews incorporating Muslim or Hindu elements, or found this mish-mash at all surprising, or worried about who had borrowed which custom from whom. It was all just part of one cohesive identity. So much so, that it suddenly seemed wrong to think of being an “Indian Jew” as if it were a combination of “Indian” plus “Jew” — as if those two were separate variables. Indianness and Jewishness could not be isolated; they infused each other and transformed each other and created something new.

The resulting customs, rituals and, yes, superstitions have immense value, and not just the sentimental kind. They remind us of the full breadth of Judaism — that our culture can look many different ways, can thrive on its relationships with other cultures, can include the usual Hebrew Torah readings and Shabbat songs but also saris and marigolds and knuckle-cracking. Even if nowadays you don’t actually believe in your knuckles’ ability to defuse bad luck — or even if, like me, you can’t retrace the reason for some of your family rituals — your actions ensure a diversity that keeps “authentic” Judaism from being associated with only one form of practice. Whether that’s Orthodoxy expressed as an endless parade of black hats or non-Orthodoxy expressed as an endless series of potlucks, this sort of thinking only impoverishes us. With Indian Jewish rituals, that kind of poverty becomes impossible.

Suddenly, I understood why many locals seemed at peace with the idea of the next generation moving away. There may not always be Jewish life in India. But, so long as we preserve these rituals, there will always be Indian Jewish life. And maybe that’s even more important.

It was my last night in Mumbai, and I was still no closer to finding out whether my great-grandfather had been a member of the Theosophical Society.

Tucked away under a bridge, the Blavatsky Lodge isn’t clearly marked — but when I looked up at it and squinted, I saw a small sign that said “Theosophical Society.” Tiny Stars of David were engraved in the building’s facade.

As I climbed the front steps, I came face to face with an old man standing barefoot at the gate. He tried to shoo me away, but I would not be shooed. Grudgingly, he ushered me down a cool, high-ceilinged, marble hall.

The Author's Great Grandparents: Meyer David Meyers and his wife Hilda. Image by Courtesy of Rachel Meyers

My gaze flitted over everything. Upstairs, I knew, was a Masonic temple and Kofri Masonry (women members welcome!), plus the Esoteric School of Theosophy, which only vegetarian senior members of the Theosophical Society were allowed to enter. Craning my neck upward, I tried to steal a glimpse of these mysteries — but the old man was close on my heels.

I paused in the doorway of a large room, where about 18 people — three women in saris, the others in Western clothes — sat in wicker chairs and peered into books. A man was guiding them through the contents in a soft monotone, while portraits of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant watched over them from above. A golden Buddha huddled in a corner beside a tapestry covered in Arabic script. On a round table in the center of the room, a lace tablecloth with a gold-embroidered border fluttered under the ceiling fan, which tossed around the humid night air wafting in through the windows.

I took a step forward into the room. Everyone turned. “Can we help you?” they asked.

I mumbled something about how my great-grandfather, Meyer David Meyers, might have been a member of the Theosophical Society. He was Jewish, see, and he was interested in Kabbalah? Oh and he was also a Freemason.

As one, the entire group put down the books and looked at me with new interest. A Jewish theosophist? Really?

Sure, I assured them. There were plenty of Jewish theosophists! Hadn’t they ever heard of the Association of Hebrew Theosophists? Or Reuben Ani? Or Jewish Theosophist magazine?

They hadn’t.

“Mind if I join you?” I asked.

“You are most welcome,” said the group leader, who introduced himself as Navin Kumar. He added that if my great-grandfather was a Mason, there was a good chance he was also a theosophist. “Theosophical Society and Masonry went hand-in-hand.”

As one of the men in the circle gave up his chair for me, Kumar went back to explaining something called “the three outpourings” to his group of middle-aged and elderly Zoroastrians, Hindus and Muslims. “When your soul is ready to be ensouled in a human body, that’s called individuation,” he said. “It’s when you need a soul of your own that you’ve reached the third outpouring.” The second outpouring, in case you’re wondering, is animals. The first is bubbles.

When Kumar taught that “each human being has a spark of the divine, which is called a monad,” one middle-aged Parsi woman mentioned that the same concept exists in Zoroastrianism.

What the hell? I thought. I piped up, too: “It’s also mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It’s called tzelem elohim.”

The group nodded approvingly. Drawing comparisons to other religions was very in vogue here, it seemed. Later, Kumar compared a phrase about intuition to an idea in Hindu philosophy.

He also said a bunch of other things:

“How long are we to be members of the human incarnation?”

“Today our consciousness is up to the mental plane.”

“You are in the stream. Once you reach it, there is no falling back.”

“Intellect fails when you delve into such stupendous phenomena.”

“Let us come straight down to Earth now. Let us come to our senses.”

Apparently, coming to our senses meant that it was time for someone to wrap things up. To my astonishment, a man in the back pointed straight at me. “Perhaps our new sister would like to offer the concluding prayer?”

“Uh — I — what?”

“I think that is an excellent idea, brother,” Kumar said. “Sister Sigal, do you know any Hebrew prayers by heart?”

I panicked. But then, out of nowhere, the perfect prayer came to me. I nodded and the group stood up.

And then I sang: “Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, shehechiyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman ha-zeh.”

The Shehechiyanu — a Jewish blessing recited upon experiencing something special for the first time — filled the room. It had been years since I’d chanted a Hebrew prayer in public, but oddly, I didn’t feel nervous at all. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment,” I translated. Everyone looked solemn, then impressed. They were taking this seriously.

And I was, too — in a way.

I’d told myself a story in which my great-grandfather became part of the Theosophical Society because he was searching for a connection to a past that had been robbed from him. Now here I was, a part of the Theosophical Society — and was it not for that exact same reason? Was it not because I had, with the backward causation of detective novels, projected that reason onto him?

I was the one who had felt robbed, of course. I was the one who felt anxious about losing my history and, with it, the last chance I had at a coherent self-knowledge. I had wanted to find that history and tamp it down. But as the circle broke up and my new brothers and sisters pressed forward to shake my hand, it occurred to me that preserving something doesn’t always mean keeping it exactly the same. Sometimes, it means staying in a productive tension with it. Sometimes, that tension can be even more interesting.

When it came to my family’s rituals, I hadn’t found the answers I’d come looking for. Instead I’d found Boaz Huss, and a secret brotherhood, and a real Shehechiyanu moment. I still couldn’t figure out whether I’d only been seeing what my obsession-addled mind wanted to see, or whether my ancestor really had been a theosophist. But I wasn’t sure it mattered anymore: I’d just become one.

On my last morning in Mumbai, I sat in the hotel dining room, staring at my last hotel egg.

My bags were packed. I would soon be dragging them down a street that my grandmother had walked countless times as a child and whose name she now could not pronounce. This thought had had me depressed for days. Ultimately, I’d thought, a place belonged to those who stayed there, not to those who left. We had left. And now I was leaving again.

Back to the Future: The author (right) at Elephanta Caves and her great-grandmother in the same spot 75 years earlier. Image by Courtesy of Sigal Samuel

But today I was not depressed. And I was not scared. Not of exile or of broken shards or of fragmented narratives. This Indian Jewish identity, fractured and fraught though it was, was also portable. I suddenly knew that I would always crack an egg in my grandmother’s neurotic way, so that my own granddaughter could one day ask why. I would preserve the rituals that had preserved and would keep on preserving our culture. And I would remember that preserving something inevitably means riffing on it, having the confidence to be creative with it, to take ownership of it and, very occasionally, to subvert it.

So I allowed myself, just this once, to do something else instead. I picked up the egg and cracked open the shell and sent its fragments flying and left them, untouched, on the plate. Then I popped the yolk into my mouth and went home.

Sigal Samuel is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. Her novel “The Mystics of Mile End,” available in Canada and forthcoming in the U.S., tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession.

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