Those of you who know me close enough, know how I love to explore Jewish heritage wherever I visit. Mumbai is no stranger to the Jews. The entire city is dotted with their presence. I was here to find out more about the Blue Synagogue and the Baghdadi Jews. The Jews were scattered from their homeland and spread out to the ends of the earth like the stars in the sky, a prophecy that was said about them thousands of years ago. The fulfillment of this also brought them to the land of unity in diversity in search of a place to rest from persecution.
Jews of India
India has been home to Jews for over three thousand years, from the Cochini Jews of Kochi to the Bene Israeli Jews in the Konkan and Baghdadi Jews in Mumbai to Kolkata and so many places even unto Mizoram where there is a small remnant called the Bnei-Menashe. Yes, you’d be surprised there are Jews in Mizoram if you heard now that for the first time. The Jews have immensely helped in the freedom movement and also in shaping the demographic landscape of India and beyond. Most of them have now returned back to Israel making their Aliyah (emigration of the Jewish diaspora to their homeland) when the State of Israel was formed in 1948 but the legacy they have left behind on Indian soil is so compelling it cannot be forgotten.
Read about me celebrating the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah in Munnar
The Sassoon Family
My exploration took me from Kochi to Mumbai in search of the Jews of Mumbai. Big names such the Sassoon Family who arrived from Iraq are synonymous with the city and its growth in the 18th and 19th Century. From my research, I found out that there is not one but three synagogues (and more) in Mumbai and I was able to visit three so far but allowed to enter only one because of the strict security surrounding them ever since the fateful 26/11 attacks which left a scar on India and it’s financial capital. I wish to see the remaining synagogues if you could get me in the next time I visit Mumbai.
Knesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
My dear friend and blogger, Divyakshi Gupta from The Quirky Wanderer, mentioned a synagogue and sent me a snap of it telling me I could visit this in South Mumbai close to where I was staying. So one morning, I wore my Jewish Kippah (a skullcap worn by Jews), specifically embroidered by Sarah Cohen, the oldest living Jew in India who resides in Kochi and was off roaming in the colonial streets of Mumbai’s Fort area. As I neared the famous Kala Ghoda square with the help of Google Maps, there in the midst of a dusty alley with armed guards in tanks and uniform, I came across the moss-coated faded turquoise colored building that I had seen in the picture. A small inscription in Hebrew and English read at the entrance, Knesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, the most famous synagogue in Mumbai.
There was an evident gleam on my face as the Sun was shining right above the building which joined colors with the blue sky. I was excited to be here. As I walked in with all that joy, a police officer came running towards me halting me from waltzing without permission. There weren’t a lot of Indian visitors here but foreigners kept dropping in good numbers. The policeman asked me in Hindi, “Where are you from?”, “Are you a Jew?” “Are you an Israeli?” I didn’t know how I could prove any of these. I said, “Neither, I’m from a city that is also famous for it’s Jews and their synagogues in India.” A little perplexed, he asked me “Where is that?”
I thought maybe he was smart enough, but it didn’t seem so. “Kochi, I blurted.”
The guy was not convinced and he said he needed a copy of my passport to verify my credentials. Thankfully, I go prepared for instances like these.
I saw that he was fairly convinced after looking at my papers, and then I said, “I’m a writer and I am a practicing Jew who loves to explore and study the lives and times of these people”. He asked me to wait until the group of foreigners had exited the building. I waited patiently around taking snaps of the building.
When my turn came, I ran up the steep stairs to the main prayer hall while I examined the writings and plaques on the wall beside me.
So what’s special about this synagogue, you ask?
The Knesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue although not the first in the city, was built for the Jewish community who were settled in and around Mumbai’s Colaba area of which the Sassoon family was a part of and opened its doors to this worship place in the year 1884. Yes, the Orthodox Jews need a synagogue in walkable distance because they are not allowed to drive or work on Shabbat (Sabbath). This synagogue is much newer compared to the famous Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi and others in India.
Inside the synagogue
Architecture students and lovers will love the British style Neo-Classical and Gothic-Victorian facade of the exterior and interior walls although much of the paint is now worn off. A sad sight to a once glorious building. The synagogue belongs to the Orthodox Sephardic Jewish Community and was built by Jacob Sassoon dedicated to his father whose family had also built other synagogues in Mumbai, Pune, and Kolkata. Also known for funding a part in the construction of the Gateway of India and the Sassoon Docks. Much of the architecture was done with the help of British architects and still stands the test of time.
On the inside, I loved the mix of blue and white paint on its crumbling walls. Green and red colored arched stained glasses in the space above the altar. A blue embroidered curtain covers the area called the Hekhal or the Torah Ark where the Hebrew scrolls and scriptures are placed with an inscription over it which says, YHWH, the unspeakable name of God in Hebrew above it facing towards Jerusalem. A stack of well-bound holy books is decked beside the Bimah, a raised platform from where a Jewish Rabbi would read the Torah. Marble steps lead up to this. A balcony towards the back of the hall is where the women could gather for prayer. A look downwards and you would notice the exquisite ceramic tiles that adorn the floor. Golden chandeliers hang from the tall roof and lampstands brighten up the hall.
By now I had broken in prayer in awe of the sight of this magnificent place of worship and mumbled them in Hebrew…
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha`olam…
“Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe…” which it translates to.
I took a moment to grasp and ponder where I was and sat on the wooden wicker back benches of the synagogue. As a stream of thoughts and imaginations flowed through my head, I closed my eyes to capture it all in my mind. Something I always go through to imagine what went on back in time. A time travel.
The caretaker ushered me to a lonely old corner now stacked with books for sale, souvenirs, printed matter, photos about the Sassoon Trust and eminent visitors, Jews of India and so on. Embroidered challah (Jewish bread) covers and wine bottle covers are kept for sale along with some Kippah like the one I was wearing. The money from which goes to the foundation for upkeep and restoration works of the ailing building. I pick up one more Kippah because of my love for caps and hats of all kind.
While the number of Jews as a community in India is dwindling by the passing day, the Blue Synagogue stands testimony to the lives and times of their existence in this bustling city of dreams of which they were once a very big part of. A city that had given much to the rise of the Jewish traders and merchants who took refuge in the city while co-existing peacefully with the Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and so on. It is with great pride that Indians can say that India was one of the only places in the world where the Jews were not persecuted.
Thankfully Shabbat services are still being held here with the Minyan (a minimum group of 10 able Jewish men over the age of 13 to conduct a Jewish service) still around along with visiting Jews from Israel who flock to see the synagogue.
Before I exit down the stairs, I take a last look at the altar as the afternoon light beamed down through the stained glasses and windows, I thank God. I could feel the history in here much like in Kochi and it still lives on, just like the story of the survival of the Jews themselves. Something that will live on for the ages to come.
Other notable synagogues in the city
Two other synagogues in Mumbai that you can catch a glimpse of are the
- Magen David Synagogue in Byculla.
- Shaar Harahamim Synagogue or the Gate of Mercy Synagogue in Mandvi.
- And quite a few Bene Israeli synagogues and prayer halls around Mumbai.
Things to remember
- Entry is free. Photography is allowed but with a charge of Rs 100. Videography is Rs 500.
- Carry ID proof copies with you which needs to be submitted before you enter.
- Timings: 11am-5pm, Sunday – Thursday.
- Entrance to the other synagogues is not guaranteed at this moment.
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