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).