A visit to Keneseth Eliyahoo
February 20, 2005
Midway through the afternoon of our day in Bombay we stopped at a small building set into a busy block, pale blue with white trim. The sign beside the building was bilingual, but the non-Roman characters weren't Hindi, they were Hebrew: we had found our way to Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue.
A woman dressed in a blue sari let us in and showed us around. She explained that KE is a Sefardic synagogue (apparently Baghdadi in origin), featuring traditional Sefardic sanctuary design: a raised bimah in the middle of the room, and a balconied women's gallery overhead. There's elaborate wooden gingerbreading at the edges of the gallery, with stars-of-David carved in, and stained glass adorns the windows of one wall. The ark is concealed by a velvet curtain with a heart stitched on.
As we were looking around, an older fellow hurried in, wearing a yarmulke and smiling broadly. The gentleman, who welcomed us to Keneseth Eliyahoo with a "shalom," introduced himself as Ben Tzion. He showed us photographs of previous American visitors, and let me leaf through a Hebrew/Persian chumash and a Hebrew/Hindi alef-bet primer. I came away with a pamphlet called "The Jews of India," written by Benjamin J. Israel and published by the Jewish Welfare Association in New Delhi, which chronicles the history of the community. The majority of India's Jews are Marathi-speaking Bene Israel; there's been a Jewish community on the west coast of India for centuries, which hit its peak at about 20,000 members in 1951. Today Keneseth Israel has about fifty member families, and the Bene Israel community numbers about 5000.
I didn't notice the pamphlet's authorship until we'd left. I wonder now whether it was written by our friendly host -- whether Benjamin Israel is an Anglicization of Ben Tzion? In any event, it's unfortunately not available online, though The Last Jews in India and Burma, by Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg, offers a good historical overview.
Ben asked if we would join them for Shabbat services, but we had to say no; by Friday night we would be in Jaisalmer (I welcomed that Shabbat with a shehecheyanu as we watched the sun set over the Thar desert, our trusty camels kneeling placidly at the base of the next dune). We said goodbye with a promise to send him a copy of this snapshot:
I like thinking that future visitors to Keneseth Eliyahoo will see our picture in the binder of visitors -- that something will remain to mark our passage through.