The Magen Hassidim Synagogue turns 75 years old this year. (Well, by some accounts the synagogue dates to 1904, but as far as I can tell construction on it was completed in 1931). It sits on Mohammed Shahid Road in the heart of Agripada, and it is the largest Bene Israel synagogue in the city.
On the Sabbath, the peaceful and spacious interior of this largest Bene Israel synagogue attracts ... 60 worshippers.
I sit outside the synagogue, trying to comprehend that number, looking up at various plaques and tablets that remember various donations to the synagogue. Then the thought comes to me, for no particular reason: on any given Sabbath, there are more names on these walls than there are bowing their heads inside. And that thought makes me get up and stroll around the little verandah, peering at the plaques.
There were once something like 50,000 Bene Israeli Jews in and around Bombay. Most of them had done aliyah -- emigrated to Israel -- by the early '90s. There are only about 4000 left in India now, though that number has stayed more or less static instead of declining some more. (Meaning that aliyah has slowed over the last decade or so, perhaps a reflection of the ever-greater uncertainty and violence in the Middle East).
Bene Israelis trace their history in India to a shipwreck off this stretch of coast, two hundred years before Christ was born. Now you may scoff at that, but Bene Israelis believe it. What's more, they believe that story is supported by the DNA evidence unearthed a few years ago by the English professor Tudor Parfitt. Certain features in the DNA of Bene Israelis, Parfitt discovered, are "found only in male descendants of Aaron, Moses' elder brother, who founded [a] line of Jewish priests." (Times of India, July 20 2002).
So if this is to be believed and there's no reason not to, Bene Israelis are descendants of a priestly class going back 2000 years. But today? A dapper man who calls himself the "manager" of Magen Hassidim tells me they don't even have a regular rabbi.
Now I know most Bene Israelis left here voluntarily, to do aliyah. Yet somehow ... there's something profoundly sad about the slow fade of Bombay's synagogues, and this one in particular. A memory of a time, a place, a people, a place in this country – all gone forever.
And I search in those plaques for some explanation.
Offered as a tribute to some of those memories, here's a sample of what those plaques tell me:
- Isaac David Mhedekar gave the synagogue Rs 5001 "in loving memory of late Mrs Jerusha Isaac Mhedekar." (His wife, I presume).
- Mrs Shoshannabai Asher Chewoolkar gave Rs 10,001 "in loving memory of Mr Arthur Isaac Chewoolkar."
- The golden letters above the Hekhal ("ark"; in a synagogue, this refers to where the Torah is kept) were the gift of Mrs Hannah Abraham Simeon Bhinjekar and Miss Ruth Abraham Simeon Bhinjekar.
- Jonathan Daniel Chaulkar and Sharona Jonathan Chaulkar together contributed Rs 15,000 for the small chandelier.
- Daniel Joseph Bhastekar contributed Rs 750 for two fans.
- Ephraim David Solomon, Retired Deputy Superintendent of Jails in Rangoon, Burma, contributed Rs 100. (Oddly, there were plenty of contributors from Rangoon).
- Pestonjee Dadabhai contributed Rs 101 to the synagogue. Yes, a Parsi name.
What would they have said about the gathering of 40 people at Magen Hassidim on the 23rd of August last, which was not a Sabbath?
Like it or not, some names and symbols acquire a significance, a notoriety. Across the southern USA, a burning cross is an immediate sign of hatred for African-Americans, the symbol of white supremacists who call themselves the Ku Klux Klan. Reginald Dyer is forever a reviled name in India, and especially in Amritsar, for directing the firing that killed hundreds in Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919.
So you wonder, why would someone in Navi Mumbai name his restaurant "Hitler's Cross"? Sure, he thinks it will make his restaurant "stand out" from the crowd. Sure, exactly that has actually happened; and the restaurant has got a lot of press. But is that the only reason to choose a name? I mean, "Human Excreta Restaurant" would also stand out. So would "Garbage Dump Cafe" or "Disgusting Mouldy Sandwich Bar".
But would you, or anyone, choose such a name?
In this case, this city's tiny Jewish community is upset, and with reason. Hitler, you hardly need to be reminded, masterminded the extermination of six million Jews.
Yet there are two truly sad things about this. One, that Hitler actually killed millions more people too, not just Jews. Thus his crimes were an assault on not just Jews, but mon humanity itself. You and me.
Two, that even if he had killed just Jews, his crimes would still have been an assault on not just Jews, but on humanity itself.
In much the same way, the Turkish genocide of Armenians in the early 20th Century, the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, Mao's and Stalin's various vast massacres of their own peoples – all of these were assaults on humanity itself. It's a sad commentary on – well, on something – that Hitler's enormous evil is seen as being fundamentally, and solely, of concern to Jews.
So when a man names a public space – a restaurant that you and I might go eat at – after a mass murderer, you'd think more than just this city's few thousand Jews would find something peculiar about it. You'd think people would scoff at an excuse such as this idea of "standing out."
You'd think there would be more of a protest than just 40 people at a lonely synagogue. What would Pestonjee Dadabhai say?