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The Shipwrecked Jews of Mumbai

Ari Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

It might have been 2,000 years ago, or maybe even earlier — a handful of Jews stranded on an isolated Indian coast developed into an entire community of Jewish tradition. While over the centuries, the Jews of India have been comprised of several groups, we wanted to uncover the secret of how the Bene Israel around Mumbai managed to cling to a nearly forgotten religion.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Years ago, a rabbi friend from Florida remarked that when a tragedy strikes one of his congregants, they come to him and ask, “Rabbi, what did I do so wrong to deserve this?” But he has yet to have a congregant who, after buying a new Jaguar, comes to him and says, “Rabbi, what did I do so good to deserve this?” The rabbi would have to travel halfway around the world, but in India he would actually find a Jewish community that incorporates a special religious ceremony to thank G-d for all manner of good events. We were on the outskirts of Mumbai (once known as Bombay), India, on a mission to investigate the remnants of the Bene Israel villages in the region, when we fortuitously bumped into a unique Bene Israel rite known as malida, or the “Eliyahu Hanavi ceremony,” a rite in which the community gathers for all sorts of happy occasions in order to give thanks. As often happens on our halachic adventures, we ended up in the right place at the right time. The one we stumbled upon was being hosted at the Beth El Synagogue in the village of Panvel outside Mumbai, on the occasion of resident Aaron Benjamin purchasing a new car. Who says gratitude is dead today? The 40 or so men and women, gathered separately around a table in the back of the shul and in the vestibule respectively — all progeny of this ancient sect which traces its roots back to antiquity — recited verses in honor of Eliyahu Hanavi and then proceeded to a feast of malida (the service is named after this delicacy). Malida is a sweet food made of roasted rice or ground bread crumbs mixed with sugar, served heaped on a large tray and surrounded by fruits, spices, and flowers.

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