February 25, 2008

Our third week in Bombay is coming to an end, as is our first round of scouting and meeting within the Bene Israel community.

Benjamin Isaac, the director of O.R.T., an international organization founded in Russia, told us the story of Krishna to explain the way his community is stretched between India and Israel. Krishna was adopted when he was very young, and while he felt strongly attached to the woman who brought him up, he always felt an eternal love for his natural mother. This metaphor shed its poetic light on some of the reasons why the majority of the Bene Israel left a country where they had lived peacefully for 2000 years. Later on, Mr. Isaac confessed a very personal paradox: although he married a Christian woman, causing his mother lots of despair, he still felt bothered when his son married a Catholic woman.

Elijah Jacob is the country manager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (A.J.D.C.), a New York based organization helping Jewish communities throughout the world to maintain and develop. Its action is mostly oriented towards the elderly and the poor, but they also create programs dedicated to adults and the youth. We visited the old people’s house Bayiti, where the nine tenants (60-85 years old) were as enchanted by our visit as we were delighted to listen to their stories. In a very humoristic way, M. Elias Gawulkar was expressing his emotions by readjusting permanently his impressive moustache.
20-year-old Natasha Joseph is the only young Bene Israel employed by the A.J.D.C. From a Jewish father and Hindu-born converted mother, she has dropped religious practice and developed instead a faith in social activism, both towards the Jewish community and her country.

Almost 2’000 Bene Israel (out of the 5’000 Jews in India) live in Thane, a suburb located 21 miles North-East of Bombay. Like many other Mumbaikars (inhabitants of Bombay), the Bene Israel left the city and its expensive rents to settle down in developing cities. The Thane community is the only one to have a Rabbi, M. Abraham Benjamin, who is also an employee of Israeli airline El-Al, for which he manages the preparation of kosher meals. All the other Bene Israel synagogues only survive with hazzanim (cantors). In Mr. Benjamin’s views, keeping the group alive relies more on weddings within the community than training younger rabbis.

Let us now go back to Bombay, whose charming extravagance has been described in previous chronicles. Unfortunately, the global picture is much more terrifying. One should rather think of Bombay as a deserted battlefield where enchanting roses grow here and there. Mathias, who was born in Sao Paulo, often heard Westerners saying his native city was an urban nightmare. They would now define it as a peaceful shelter. Torn apart between slums and wild real estate projects, it seems like the concept of urbanism hasn’t reached Bombay yet. Very few sidewalks deserve that name, unless one enjoys walking through opened up trash bags, urine and cheaply built mattresses. Thousands of bamboo scaffoldings are used to make up the structural problem resulting from the city government’s lack of anticipation. Building sites, dust and continuous noises increase the strength of the pale fog-covered sun, which often turn to be aggressive and tiring.
Although this city is exhausting for one’s senses, Bombay survives thanks to its people’s unbreakable good mood. With an average monthly income under $120, the huge majority is doomed to living in horrifying slums, when they can avoid sleeping on the streets among the rats.

Yesterday, we inadvertently saw two men defecating outdoors. Like 6 million other Mumbaikars, these two have no access to toilets. Misery, dirt, pollution: Bombay’s plagues are ever increasing, with 6000 tons of trash produced every day and 28 millions inhabitants by the year 2015.

The train experience probably recounts the best this city and its unbelievably exaggerated contrasts. Serving 6.3 millions people daily, the train network is a crucial pillar of the city. During rush hour, which sometimes seems to last the whole day, the global fight provoked by a coming train leaves speechless. Within a few seconds, some jump out of the still running engine, bumping in those who the next second are using elbows, shoulders and insults to make their way into the huge, rolling sardine can. Thanks to an undisputable miracle, we managed to be part of the elected sardines, convinced that we had experienced a rehearsal of what an entrance in Hell would be. It was then very surprising to observe Indians smiling like one smiles after a boisterous football game. For the latecomers, the brave or the poetic ones, making the journey in between two cars or on the roof is also considered an option.
These trains might be the only way for Mumbaikars to escape reality: with their heads popping out of the open doors, they distantly watch their city as the wind strokes their faces and the engine’s noise becomes a lullaby. For a moment, they manage to forget Bombay’s inhumanity, making another flower growing from the stumble.

Indians’ unaltered serenity and joyous spontaneity are a great lesson. Let us hope that they will learn how to fight unhealthiness, pollution and especially the lack of infrastructure.

Out of this mess, we have managed to make a livable environment, especially in our neighborhood where we are regulars in several shops and restaurants. Actually, if street- crossing was recognized an Olympic sport, we could definitely be in the France team. It takes agility, reactivity and most importantly a great fate and no fear of dying to penetrate the multidirectional bazaar of cabs, buses, cars, bikes and cycles. Still, we are taking a growing pleasure in going through the experience. Would it be a sign of our becoming Mumbaikars?

February 19, 2008

Second week, in Alibag

We are back from Alibag, a coastal town a few kilometers South of Bombay. It is in that region that the Bene Israel community settled down more than two thousand years ago. Until the 1960’s, hundreds of families were still living there, but nowadays one could count on one’s hand the number of families remaining.

It takes an hour for the boat leaving Bombay to reach the seemingly infinite beaches of the Konkan coast. Escaping the tumultuous city, one would hope to enjoy the quietness of the country life. However, illustrating the fast pace of India’s development, Alibag doesn’t totally deliver. The city has the look of an old, peaceful town brutally woke up by furious urbanization. The superb palm trees, the gorgeous houses falling apart and the near-by beaches contrast with the modern businesses, the ballet of motorcycles and scooters, and the uncountable electric wires that draw a spider web in the sky. This disturbing juxtaposition reaches a sad pinnacle with the hundreds of animals (cows, goats, dogs …) eating the open air waste along the streets. Rather than a continuous feeling, Alibag makes the visitor constantly flip between joy and consternation.

That wasn’t enough though to slow down our “indianisation”. Especially for dishes in gravy, Indians like to eat with their hands. That is how we learnt to (a) mix rice and gravy to get a not-too-dry, not-too-liquid result (b) grab a small portion in the curb of the fingers (c) get it close to the mouth and propel it with the thumb. Properly operated, this technique should leave the palm clean. We are also trying to use the few Maharati words (language spoken in Bombay region) Savitri has taught us. But using words as acha (okay), tshelo (let’s go), danyavad (thank you) and aneek ek menu (one more menu) still doesn’t make us look or sound like natives. Wherever we went, it was impossible not to notice all these eyes staring at us, often with surprise, sometimes with kindness, rarely with indifference.

Five Jewish families still live in Alibag, a striking number for a city where one area is still named “Israel Lane” and where several houses and businesses are decorated with Jewish stars. At the Magen Abot synagogue, a minyan (assembly of at least 10 Jewish men) can only be gathered for the high holidays and during weekdays the hazzan prays alone. The first time we saw Jacob Elijah Dandekar, a short, 74-year-old man with a sparkle in the eyes, he was chanting the morning prayers, standing in front of the ark containing the Sefer Torahs, a talith covering his head and shoulders. No one else was there to join him in his prayers; only the horns and Bolywood rhythms were inviting themselves trough the open windows. It was a strong and weird sensation: were we witnessing the sublime permanence of Judaism rooted in a tropical region of India, or were we in the macabre antechamber of a community about to disappear? If we had not decided to attend Saturday morning prayers, the hazzan Dandekar would have stayed alone with his faith.
Levi David – who came for the Friday night prayers with his two sons – is the sho’het of the community, the one who kills animals according to the laws of kashrut: the animal has to be emptied of its blood with as less pain as possible. This is how we woke up at 7.00 a.m. one day to watch a goat and a few chickens being slaughtered. Not the most mouth-watering breakfast.

On Sunday a moto-rickshaw brought us to Khandala, a holy place for both the Bene Israel and the Hindus. There is a black rock with marks that would have been left by the chariot of prophet Elijah. A few minutes after us, a whole group of Bene Israel arrived from Bombay for their yearly Malida. We had the opportunity to shoot their ritual of pouring coconut water and jasmine flowers on the marks.

Later on, we went to the Bene Israel cemetery of Navgaon, the oldest in India, where there is a stone commemorating the ancestors of the community. According to the legend, it is there that the survivors of the shipwreck settled down and were buried. Currently in a bad shape, the cemetery is underused as very few Jews still live in the area. But in a country where people mostly incinerate their dead, these graves, with their Hebrew and Maharati inscriptions, are a vibrant legacy of the Bene Israel presence in India.

Monday morning, as the boat was taking us back to Bombay, the eternal fog of the Arabian Sea seemed to have vanished. This week we will go to Thana, a suburb of Bombay with the highest concentration of Bene Israel today (around 1’500 people).

February 12, 2008

It has been a week that we are in India. A week full of sensations and emotions, long like a month, a bit tiring too. Evolving in Bombay* requires some elasticity of the senses: it is as if the concert of horns, the waves of fragrances, the bouquet of spices in the local dishes and the uninterrupted movement were gifts offered by the 15 millions of inhabitants to some God of Chaos! Nevertheless, this overwhelming environment is vibrant and fascinating. Walking around the city is the best way to get lost in the mesmerizing marg (street market), make a chaï break (tea boiled in milk with sugar and spices) or try to go through the crowd of black-and-yellow cabs.
Undoubtfully, our adaptation has been eased by Savitri, our sound person and production coordinator, who has guided us with enthusiasm and intelligence in her native city.

We are staying in a residence behind the Magen David Synagogue, a light blue building which simple beauty is very relaxing. These two buildings are located in Byculla, a Muslim neighborhood, and every other night followers of Mahomet are getting married in the backyard of the Jewish temple.

During this first week we met with people we contacted from New York and Europe. They were mainly community leaders and members of international Jewish organizations:

  • Sharon and Sharona Garsulkar invited us for Shabbat, for Kiddush on Friday night and Saturday noon. They are concerned about the future of their two daughters (four and two years old) because they don’t think they will get a proper Jewish orthodox education in India.

  • Ralphy Jhirad, an influent businessman, believes the Bene Israel who stayed in India made the right choice, as their country is becoming a motor of the world economy. He invited us to his niece’s wedding, which was a great opportunity to witness a mix of Jewish customs and Indian culture.

  • At the Shaar Harahamim Synagogue (the oldest in Bombay, 1796) we participated to a Malida, a typical Bene Israel tradition celebrating the prophet Elijah, where people share a plate of fruits and sweet rice. The synagogue intendant, Elis Salomon, told us about his Hindu and Muslim friends and about his love for India.

  • The Organisation for Rehabilitation through Training (O.R.T.) and the Joint Distribution Committee (J.D.C.) are two American institutions which goal is to develop educational and cultural programs for Jewish communities. While a few young Bene Israel volunteer, elderly people mostly attend their events.

Moving and enriching, these first steps opened the way for more encounters. This Wednesday we are sailing to Alibag, a village close to the spot where the ancestors of the Bene Israel shipwrecked.

* Mumbai since 1995.

February 03, 2008

The Day Before

Welcome to the Blog of the documentary project "Next Year in Mumbai" !

In less than 24 hours Mathias and I will fly to Mumbai/Bombay, for a 3 months trip at the end of which we'll hopefully have brought an insightful and moving documentary about the Bene Israel of India, a 2000 years old Indian Jewish community who only counts 4000 people still living in and around Mumbai (ex-Bombay).

Every week we'll publish some news about our trip: about the people we'll meet, the places we'll go to, the things we'll feel. We hope this will be an enjoyable "hors d'oeuvre" before the delivery of the documentary itself, planned in the Spring 2009.

Good reading :)

ps: more info on the project at www.NextYearInMumbai.com