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Jewish faithful in India celebrate Passover, the end of slavery in style

Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Passover holidays (Photo: @IsraelinIndia/Twitter)

It is that time of the year, when the sun enters the constellation of Aries, days lengthen, the harvest season begins, and myriad festivals of different communities coincide and celebrations burst upon us. Polia Boishakh, Vista, Easter, Ramadan – they all cast their spell upon us. But there is also another major festival being celebrated in India, even in different regions of the country, yet few know about it. That is the poignant yet joyous Jewish feast of Passover, or Pesach.

I remember hearing of Passover first sitting in a dingy corner of the iconic Jewish bakery Nahoum's in Kolkata's equally famous New Market. "Passover, also known as the ritual of the unleavened bread, is a most important Jewish festival – it marks the end of Jewish exile in Egypt and their exodus to the promised land," the late David Nahoum, whose grandfather had a century ago built the bakery, had years ago patiently narrated to me the rituals of Pesach.

Ezekiel Malekar in his synagogue in Delhi 

The Passover, one of three most important Jewish festivals, marks the end of Jewish exile in Egypt and their exodus to the promised land. This was perhaps the first step towards building today’s Israel.

 The story goes that in the 14-13 century BC, the Jews who had about 500 years earlier settled in Egypt were being oppressed by the Egyptians whose Pharaoh, historians believe, was Ramses II. So, go Bible records, the children of Israel appealed to their God Yahweh, who promised them deliverance through Moses. When all threats and supplications by Moses and his brother Aaron failed to secure freedom, Yahweh sent his Angel of Death to Egypt to kill every first-born Egyptian son—from Pharaoh’s heir down to that of the slave woman—to make good his promise. But every Jewish family would have to kill a lamb or young goat and with its blood smear the lintel of their houses to alert the Angel of Death to their presence when it passed through on the appointed night. Thus, was won release, thus originated Passover or Pesach. That very night, the story says, the Jews left Egypt.

Passover is also called the “feast of the unleavened bread” as the ban on the use of leaven is its most characteristic feature. During Passover—celebrated for seven days by Jews in Israel and for eight days by those abroad, as a reminder that they are still not in the Holy Land—only unleavened bread or matzos is eaten.

 For Kolkata's Jews, there was an intense hectic period of spring cleaning in the days just before Passover, to make sure that not even the tiniest peace of leaven would be found in! the house, as a pillar of the festival is the eating of unleavened bread for the entire duration of seven days, in memory of their ancestors who left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to bake leaven bread.

Though Kolkata is a bustling metropolis of millions, only Nahoum's small community knew that David, whose ancestors had come from Baghdad, was observing Passover. He regularly went to the magnificent and still functioning Maghen David synagogue for the Shabbat service and for each day of the Passover. Years later, even today there are no presidential felicitations, no official holidays to mark the occasion, as is usual with the major festivals of India's many religions.

Yet, India's almost 5000 strong Jewish community keeps the pledge and celebrates the festival faithfully each year. This tiny community is, however, as varied and diverse as everything in India is. There are three main Jewish groups in India – the Baghdadi Jews in the east – the community that David Nahoum belonged to as do most of Kolkata's other Jews, and who came to India 8n the 17-18 centuries as traders from Allepo in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq; the Cochini Jews who are concentrated in the south of the country; and the Bene Israeli who are living mainly in western India.

More than 2000 years ago, going back to the times of King Solomon, Jewish traders landed on India's western Malabar coast. Often marrying local women, adopting local customs, engaging in the spice trade, they set up homes and houses for their God. That’s what, the Jews of Cochin in southern Indian state of Kerala insist, makes them the oldest of India's Jews. Protected by the Hindu Cochin rulers, their synagogues are replete with Indian ornamentation but each year they faithfully observe Pesach. They maintained a kosher dietary regime, their cuisine a staple of coconut milk and aromatic spices.

Mathew Anthony, a scion of an ancient Cochin Jewish family had once narrated how his Jewish relatives from his mother's side spring cleaned the house, boiled the utensils and prepared the Seder (special Passover) table. "The community was and is scrupulously observant, so all the rules regarding food and everything else were (and are) strictly followed." His favourites on the table? The natural cold-pressed pure grape juice that was used in place of wine – the Mai – and Duo, a thick grape pudding. There are barely 30 members of the community remaining today, and kosher meat has to be flown in from Mumbai, which has a thriving Bene Israeli Jewish community (now augmented by Chabad House).

A Passover celebration in Mumbai with Eddna Samuel sitting first left 

Eddna Samuel, for instance, has flown into her native Mumbai from Tel Aviv, where she currently lives, to celebrate the festival with her natal family. Eddna, is a member of the Bene Israeli Jewish community that dominates western India and who count themselves amongst the ‘first’ Jewish community to settle on Indian soil when they found themselves shipwrecked on the western shores of India. Their origins go back to antiquity and they so merged into Indian society that many today, having local names, can be hardly distinguished from other Indians. Recent DNA studies reveal the community's mixed Middle Eastern and Indian ancestry.

 ‘We have never ever faced anti-Semitism here., Edna says, which is why members of her family continue to live here and she keeps returning here. 'It’s curious,' she reflects. 'As a small community we struggled to keep up our Jewishness here, whereas in Israel I found my relatives struggling to keep up their Indian-ness.'

The Bnei Manashe from northeast India and the Bene Ephraim of Telangana are considered relatively new comers.

The Bene Israeli community is the largest and  some have spread out, like Ezekiel Malekar. A lawyer by training, he currently serves as the Honorary Secretary of the Judah Hyam synagogue – Delhi's only synagogue. He keeps the faith and his flock together – there are barely 10 Jewish Indian families in Delhi. They are often joined by Jewish representatives from the many foreign embassies in Delhi and by others passing through the city.

Malekar is also a reformist. While traditionally Jewish tradition requires 9 male Jews  in Synagogue for a service to be conducted, Malekar counts both women and men, and is usually always guaranteed enough presence for a service. This year has been no difference. Passover began with the service on 15 April – the Erev Pessah, or Passover Eve, with every first-born Jew being required to observe a fast from sunrise to just before sunset which sometimes is shorted to midday.  Since Jews consider the dusk to be the beginning of a new day the "eve" of any festival is significant.

But in communities like the one in Kolkata, for instance, with no minyan, there was no special service, only individual reading of the prayers.

Some traditional Passover food with Mazo (unleavened bread) and honey

On the night of Erev Pesah, which together with the night of the Passover itself forms the Seder nights, a special dinner is eaten. On both nights of Seder, the family gathers round the dinner table or seder, the men wearing their yarmakels or skull-caps and the women with their heads usually covered with a scarf, and the celebrations begins with the wish to be “next year in Jerusalem”. Then the Haggadah, the narration or the compilation of verses which depict the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and which comprise the second book of the Pentateuch—is read. The reading continues for both nights, after which the Seder meal is eaten

The Passover is also of significance to Christians, finding reflection in the Last Supper which Christ had with his 12 disciples.

Malekar's Seder table, as does that of others, has bitter herbs, a thick juice from crushed dates, parsley, boiled egg, and a roast chicken leg, each food item carrying g a certain symbolism. Wine has traditionally been the juice of black currants and grapes.

 Secondary traditions differ from community to community. For instance, for Kolkata Jews, a unique custom is the crushing of the cup, in which drops of wine symbolizing different plague are poured, during the reading of the Haggadah.

The Bene Israelis keep the main entrance to the house open on the first two nights believing that Prophet Elijah would be the unseen guest at the table. A goblet of wine is also kept for him. Families, where the first born is a male child, paste an imprint of his hand soaked in goat blood over the main entrance.

Many visit the synagogue, where if no service is held people just recite individual prayers.

Finally, on the last day of Pesach they serve all their favourite foods that they had been denied for eight days and some singing is again in order.

India's Jewish community is dwindling year by year. Yet, over the centuries they have contributed much to India, through the arts, literature, gastronomy, and even defence. Possibly lyrics the best-known Indian Jew remains the late Lt. Gen JFR Jacob. Yet, many in India are oblivious to the existence of the community. But the sheer variety and richness of the history and presence of Jews in India make them an irreplaceable part of India's socio-cultural tapestry. It is time their presence here is acknowledged. A good way to start would be by an official acknowledgement and recognition of this most important of Jewish festivals.

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(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)