Community stories

Photos: India’s incredible shrinking Bene Israel community, through an outsider’s lens

Photographing festivals, weddings and feasts, Bindi Sheth spent three years with the Jewish community of Ahmedabad.

The Bene Israel community has lived in India for the past 2,000 years, but unlike the Parsi community, the Jewish population in India is hard to spot. This has to do in part with the fact that Parsi food, customs and endearing characters have made Parsis a part of Mumbai’s charm. In contrast, the Bene Israel community (Hebrew for “children of Israel”) has incorporated cultural influences from India into their lifestyle – through food, dress or jewellery alone, it is difficult to recognise any significant cultural differences.

But delve deeper and the characteristics that make the Bene Israeli community in India distinct, begin to emerge. This is what photographer Bindi Sheth learned in 2010, a year when she was otherwise uninspired, desperately seeking a new project to train her lens on.

Through a series of fortunate events, Sheth met Indian-Jewish writer and art critic Esther David who had grown up in Ahmedabad. David, whom Sheth calls Estherben, led Sheth into the small, anonymous world of the Bene Jewish Community in Ahmedabad. “Estherben and I became good friends while documenting the synagogue,” Sheth said. “We would go through the pictures together after every shoot. We covered every aspect of the community, so we visited the Jewish families in restaurants where they had their birthday parties, at clubs for weddings, at their homes for rituals like baby showers, and also went to the Cemetery to cover burials.”

Image Credit: Bindi Sheth
Image Credit: Bindi Sheth

Through Estherben, Sheth had found the ideal, immersive project she had been looking for. She spent the next three years with David, photographing and learning more about the community, which was on a rapid decline mostly because of emigration to Israel. During this time, David and Sheth were funded by a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, US.

“They came to India from Israel after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple in 70 B.C,” writes David in a curatorial note about Sheth’s work, currently on display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for The Arts in Delhi as part of an exhibition, titled Hodu and the Jews, or the “songs of India”.

Co-curated by author and art collector Kenneth X Robbins, the exhibit lays out the social, cultural or political history of the Jewish population in India.

Jewish matzoh bread. Image credit: Bindi Sheth
Jewish matzoh bread. Image credit: Bindi Sheth

A detailed exhibition, Hodu and the Jews charts out the journey of the Jewish in India and their diverse contributions to India.

“There have been very few instances of anti-Semitism in India,” said Robbins. “They consider India their motherland and Israel their fatherland. They reached India after a shipwreck near Alibaug, near Mumbai, and kept their Biblical names, adding names of their villages to surnames. Bene Israel Jews believe India is the only country in the world where they have never faced persecution. They have many Indian influences in their lifestyle, like food habits, dress, jewellery; mehendi ceremony during weddings, using coconut, clove supari, paan, myrtle leaves, bijora, damro and desi red roses during rituals.”

Image Credit: Bindi Sheth
Image Credit: Bindi Sheth

According to Sheth, it took a while to gain acceptance into the small Bene Israelite community. “Early on they were not very happy with an outsider ‘invading’ and documenting each and every event. Rituals and family milestones tend to be very personal and perhaps that was the reason they weren’t very encouraging. Knowing Marathi helped me immensely as it made them warm up to me. Being a regular at their events too helped them get to know me a little better. Before each one, David would brief me a little about what was going to happen, so I knew what to expect. Many times I would come back with photographs and while looking through them, David would discover little rituals or traditions that even she had missed all those years. When you’re a regular part of a community, you tend to not notice the little details.”

Between 2010 and 2013, accompanied by David, Sheth made multiple trips to the neighbourhood in Ahmedabad that is home to the Bene Israel people. The Jewish synagogue is in the old part of the city which has remained unchanged for years. Tucked away in a corner, many tend to walk past it without noticing it. “Like most parts of the old city, it has a Muslim population and a Hindu population living close by,” said Sheth. “Some Jewish families have moved to the newer areas, but there are those who have stayed on close to their house of prayer, like Johnnybhai and his wife Julieben. They play an important role in the synagogue, from conducting prayers to organising the food.”

Wedding ceremony. Image Credit: Bindi Sheth
Wedding ceremony. Image Credit: Bindi Sheth

As a result, Sheth had front row access to many traditional events. When she didn’t, she still made the most of it: on Yom Kippur, Sheth visited the synagogue to find that she had been relegated to the women’s section of the house of prayer that has always been segregated by gender.

“During Yom Kippur [considered the holiest day of the year], when the synagogues are covered in white sheets as a symbol of purity, I was only allowed to shoot from the women’s gallery which was on the first floor,” said Sheth. Despite the handicap, the top angle photograph captures the quiet reverence of prayers and rituals.

Inside a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Image Credit: Bindi Sheth
Inside a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Image Credit: Bindi Sheth

Apart from Yom Kippur and weddings, Sheth was also present on occasions like Hanukkah celebrated for the triumph of the Jewish over religious persecution, the Passover which marks the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, burials at the cemetery, fancy dress events, circumcisions and birthday parties. “I tried to adjust my travel dates accordingly and would be highly disappointed if I missed a single occasion,” said Sheth. “Eventually they realised I would be coming, so I also started getting wedding invites.”

One of the last pictures taken by Sheth is of the tools of circumcisions, laid out neatly on a clean, white sheet of cotton wool.

Tools of circumcision  (Credit: Bindi Sheth).
Tools of circumcision (Credit: Bindi Sheth).

To explore the distinct characteristics of Jewish heritage and capture them on camera, Sheth turned to food, minutely documenting anything that seemed unusual. Many of her images are of sweets and savouries served on special occasions, like Yom Kippur or the malida platter offered to prophet Elojah as a form of wish fulfilment. “A malida platter is prepared with dates, pomegranate, roses, fruit and poha (flattened rice) mixed with sugar and coconut,” explains David in her note.

Malida platters (Image credit: Bindi Sheth).
Malida platters (Image credit: Bindi Sheth).

Another event celebrated by the Bene Israelis is Sukkot, commemorating the 40-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. A harvest festival, it is celebrated with booths erected and decorated with natural material, like plants and palm leaves, with fruits and corn hanging from the ceilings.

Sukkot tent (Credit: Bindi Sheth).
Sukkot tent (Credit: Bindi Sheth).

Covering the community’s history in detail, the exhibit is text heavy with each image from Robbins’s collection accompanied by explanations and timelines. “We realise it has quite a bit of text, but nobody really reads each and every word,” he said. “The show has been curated and written in a way so that if one person approaches a random exhibit and starts reading, there will be some context incorporated into the text.”

The show covers the presence of the Bene Israel community in cinema, business, art, politics and literature. It also talks about architecture through the models of homes and synagogues. One installation at the entrance to the gallery is inspired by, and modelled after, the Genizah at Kolkata’s Jewish cemetery. Created by artist Anchia Anzi, the genizah is a model of a storage area in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery for religious books.

According to the accompanying note, Kolkata’s cemetry has two genizahs. “One is a repository in which old and damaged books are collected through a small window in its domed and circular structure, while the other – following the Jewish custom – is sealed in the ground”.

Genizah installation.
Genizah installation.

“History is conditioned by the genizah’s duality of paper and earth,” reads the note. “Whereas past’s remoteness enables its reading, it remains opaque and impermeable, resisting the historian’s endeavours to mark its presence. Moreover, in its attempt to examine the past ‘objectively’, modern historiography detaches itself from its object of study and thus buries it once again in the ground.”

Hodu and the Jews is on display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, till February 28.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.