Rosh Hashanah: Celebrating New Beginnings The Jewish Way


Considered a minority but with one of the most interesting cultures, Jews have made their mark quietly in the city. Few know that the coveted and beautifully designed David Sassoon Library and Reading Room has a Jewish legacy and so does Café Moshes. The first Jews arrived in India more than 2,000 years ago and settled in the Southern state of Kerala. Six hundred years later, the Bene Israelis followed, while the Baghdadi Jews arrived in 1730, some of them fleeing religious persecution in the Arab world. There have been 7,000 Jews in India 10 years back and are 3000 - 4000 currently. Mumbai’s Jews are holding on to a culture which dates back to centuries. As the community celebrates its New Year, Rosh Hashanah beginning Sunday September 13 to Tuesday September 15, here’s taking a closer look at their history and culture.
The David Sassoon Library in Fort
The David Sassoon Library in Fort, Image courtesy:
Making a Mark in Mumbai The Hutatma Chowk and the Gateway of India are all contributions made by this community and so is the clock tower in Victoria Gardens. Mumbai has 10 synagogues, all of which are located in the South and South-Central areas. The oldest synagogue in the city located at Masjid Bunder dates to 1796 and is called the Gate of Mercy.  
“It’s a little sad that the beautiful synagogues in Mumbai are turning more into museums, and that most people don’t know that there is so much Jewish history in Mumbai,” complains Bhakti Richard Klein, a US born Jew who moved to Mumbai in January.
The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Kalaghoda
The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Kalaghoda, Image courtesy:
Traditionally Speaking There are three Jewish sects in India -- Bene Israel, which forms the majority, the Baghdadi and Cochin Jews. There are around 100 to 150 Baghdadi and a handful of Cochin Jews in Mumbai, with majority of the Jewish population in the city comprising the Bene Israel. It may be quite surprising to know that despite many religions evolving their traditions over time, the Jewish have been rigorous about keeping theirs alive by following their culture and ensuring that the younger generation also follows it. As 26-year old Steeve Gabriel says, “Jews in Mumbai are more orthodox as against most other Jewish communities across the world. There are hardly any people in Mumbai who understand the language but who still follow the religion without question. This shows the level of belief the youngsters have in the Torah (the Holy Book)." At the same time, there are some others such as Bhakti who keeps kosher and celebrates some holidays in his own way. He affirms, “There are some young orthodox Jewish people in traditional communities around the world, but Jews have always integrated into the lands they live in. The Indian Jews of Kochi or Mumbai are fully Indian as well as Jewish. Judaism has evolved and it will continue to evolve.”
Blowing a shofar at a dockyard in the city
Blowing a shofar at a dockyard in the city, Image courtesy:
Bringing In The New Year The Rosh Hashanah begins with a 10-day period ending with the holiday Yohm Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The entire 10 days period is a time to reflect on the previous year, meditate on habits one wants to break and habits one want to start, seek forgiveness of other people if they have been wronged and give thanks for another year of life. Steeve shares, “It is customary for Jews to listen to the shofar (the holy horn of the ram) on this day. The New Year is also known as the judgment day. We also have a custom of meeting and praying near the sea shore. Mumbai and Thane Jewish community meet at a dock.” The tradition of meeting and praying near the shore signifies a ceremony called “Tashlich", where you symbolically cast away last year’s sins by tossing things into a river. Bhakti reveals, “Some people shake out their pockets and empty the dust, some people write their sins down and burn them, and toss the ashes in the river, some people write down habits they want to break and toss those. There are lots of ways to do it, but they all symbolise getting rid of something from the old year. Not just changing behaviour, but also giving up feeling guilty and worrying about our mistakes. It’s a way to put the past behind us and live in the present moment.” He furthers, “On New Year’s Day, we eat apples dipped in honey, so that the year will be a sweet one.”

Divya Naik

Divya Naik
A journalist and social media manager by profession, Divya has been in the media industry for five years and has contributed to a number of publications. Having worked closely as a media consultant for brands she has been rooted in the arts and culture scene of Mumbai and is a supporter of all things BYOB.