March 18, 2008

A week with the Bene Ephraim of Andra Pradesh

Last week we followed one of our main characters, Sharon Galsulkar, on his journey to meet with the Bene Ephraim community, settled for generations in the central state of Andra Pradesh.

Last summer, the American organization Kulanu sent a rabbi and his wife (Bonita and Gerald Sussman) to visit the Bene Ephraim. They met Sharon on their way back as they were stopping in Bombay, and told him about this community, lost in the plains of the Deccan. For Kulanu, finding out about an Indian Jewish educator, fully qualified and living a few hours away from the Bene Ephraim, was a great opportunity. He agreed to go on their behalf, they paid his trip. His mission was to develop the contact with the community and try to understand better their socio-economic needs on one hand, spiritual and religious ones on another hand. On our side, we wanted to follow this Bene Israel educator going to help a community reconnecting with their Judaism, a process through which his own community underwent. The challenge for us was to not be swallowed by the interesting story of the Bene Ephraim but rather focusing on Sharon’s approach to the situation.

Sharon, 33, is married to Sharona, the mother of his two young daughters. He is in charge of the Jewish Education department at O.R.T. India, which agenda is to provide professional training to needy Jews. He had the same kind of job at A.J.D.C., the other American Jewish organization holding office in Bombay. He also gave Torah classes in several synagogues in the city. Sharon enjoys a special authority in the community as he is one of the very few Bene Israel who studied in a yeshiva (Talmudic class) in Jerusalem and came back to India afterwards. He and his wife follow orthodox customs, making it often uneasy to lead an integrated life in Bombay. They want to do Aliyah to Israel, where their daughters will have the chance to receive a proper Jewish education. But Sharon is strongly attached to his city and country, developing a true passion for the fantastic Indian wildlife. On another note, his professional perspectives in Israel are still uncertain.

The Bene Ephraim community counts around 30 families, and most of its members work in the surrounding fields of chili and cotton, or in the buffalo farms, which milk is used in the preparation of curd (plain yogurt) or lassi (sweet yogurt to drink). Sadok Yacobi, the leader of the community, his wife and three children, are the only English-speakers. In Andra Pradesh the main language is Telugu. None of the Bene Ephraim can speak Hindi, the Indian official language; Sharon had to communicate with them through Sadok or his daughter Kezia.

This community lives 30 Kms away from Guntur, a growing city, about which nothing could be said beside that it is located 300 Kms from Hyderabad, itself 700 Kms East of Bombay. Their village, Chebrole, is basically a bunch of cheap businesses along the main road, from which smaller tracks go towards the fields and farmers’ houses. While commercial and residential constructions are common and a bit ugly, the landscape is gorgeous, offering to the spectator a great variety of greens, yellows and oranges. Animals, vegetation and women’s multicolor saris animate this relaxing d├ęcor.

As for Jewishness, the Bene Ephraim would be Jews settled in the Telugu region for generations. Like Bene Israel, they would have lost almost all the Jewish rituals, but not the belief in their belonging to a people whose origin is not in India. It seems that for a while they followed Christian customs, without forgetting their roots. For instance, they would have always circumcised their first-borns and would have always eaten beef, which is a great sacrilege in a Hindu country. For several generations they have been put apart of the majority and have lived side by side with the untouchables. Last but not least, they don’t work on Saturdays, although most of them are very poor farmers. Their Jewish rebirth seems to have started by Sadok’s grandfather onward.

We stayed at Sadok’s house, renovated in 1991 thanks to American funds, and which is also used as the community synagogue. Every evening Sharon met with the kids, aged 5 to 15, and taught them basic elements of Judaism through drawing, singing but also bird watching. At 8 pm adults came to listen to lectures about monotheism, the Jewish mitzvot (prescriptions) or the Jewish calendar.

It would have taken more than six days for Sharon to really understand the community’s needs, and even more to start figuring out solutions. However, during an interview on camera he declared that the ideal solution would be to send the whole community to Israel. It is definitely far from happening as their Jewishness is not recognized by the Hebrew State. But more importantly, one can doubt about the chances of social promotion for Telugu-speaking farmers.

On a personal note, this trip was unforgettable. We were welcomed with great hospitality and generosity. Sadok’s family treated us as if we were part of them, cooking breakfast, lunch and diner for us – and the several chai (tea) it takes to spend a normal day in India. Still, these people are far from being wealthy. Listening to their Shema Israel resonating and reaching heaven was another illustration of their sincere and hopeful faith, leaving us moved and speechless.

March 06, 2008

It has been exactly a month since we first arrived in Mumbai and apart from this symbolic figure we are happy to announce that the website has been visited more than a 1000 times and that Next Year In Mumbai has already raised $6500! Our readers’ community is spreading out and people from Brazil, Australia, Israel and Canada are now reading the blog with interest. Encouraged by your generosity, we are even more convinced the movie has to be made. This gives us the strength to pursue our work and bring you a poignant documentary on being Jewish and Indian in the 21st century. We would like to thank all the donators and readers for their support.
Those facts and figures are a good reason for us to give you a picture of our work among the Bene Israel community and open a new chapter in our story.

During the past weeks we have got the opportunity to compare our Westerners’ ideas to the Bene Israel and Indian reality. Our understanding of the situation has been clarified by the people we’ve met, the places we’ve seen and the events (see the bar-mitsva picture) we were invited to. As we now feel comfortable with the historical and contemporary evolution of the community we are finally ready to direct a documentary showing their future perspectives through our own lenses and sensitivity. Therefore, we will start shooting interviews this week.

Meanwhile, here is what we know about the Bene Israel. They arrived here around 175 BC and have lost most of their spiritual and religious knowledge during what could have been a shipwreck. During 20 centuries and 80 generations, they strived to maintain their Judaism as much as they could while absorbing elements of the Indian social and religious life. Nowadays one can still feel this deep integration through the caste hierarchy and the coconuts offerings that reminds Hindu habits. Therefore, the Bene Israel community proves in a unique way the Jews’ assimilation capacity in Diaspora. Without synagogues until the 18th century and almost no rabbis they still managed to keep bits and parts of Judaism and most of all their faith in belonging to the Promised Land and its people.
Most of those Jews were living in the Konkan region – South of Bombay – before the capital of Maharastra – one of the largest economic poles of India – attracted them with its promises of a better life. Another siren’s allure soon followed this rural exodus and Israel brought them back to its coasts. When the Hebrew state was created in 1948, the total Bene Israel community in India was about 35'000 persons and there are now seven times less. There are only 140 Jews still living in Konkan, about 3500 in Bombay and its suburbs and less than a thousand in the rest of India. According to the official figures they are about 50'000 to 70'000 living in Israel now.

It was first difficult to understand the reasons that pushed the large majority of them to leave a country of such tolerance, a country where they had never been discriminated. After four weeks talking to them we could find some important motivations for this migration: the desire to discover their home land – the one they had been praying for during 2000 years -, better economical perspectives, attraction for a Western society, social welfare and public education.

Promises were late for their rendezvous. Apart from a difficult adjustment to the new lifestyle, Bene Israel suffered from racial discrimination and skepticism to their Judaism but migration was snowballing and those who were remaining in India could hardly imagine how their children would get married inside the community. The migration kept going before gradually diminishing the 90’s. Nowadays, about 50 to 100 people still leave India for Israel every year.

Our documentary film focuses on the families who stayed, on the youngsters growing up in a very different Indian reality. Information technology improvements and more convenient means of transport gave them access to the rest of the Jewish world and opened their eyes to other religious practices. After centuries of basic repetition, people were now given the tools to question their customs. Unfortunately, the number of spiritual options in India seems limited and apart from the Jewish Religious Union, a liberal movement created in the 20’s, most of the congregations don’t focus on the meaning of the prayers and the Torah. The reasons to migrate have changed because the life in India is different from the 50’s when people used to leave Bombay on a boat. Nowadays most of the young Bene Israel have walked on the beaches of Tel-Aviv at least once and they can compare their lifestyle to the Israeli one. They still know that getting married in Israel would be easier but India is changing on a fast pace and is already one of the principle motor-forces governing the world’s economy. For many, starting a career in India could be the best bet.
A deeper knowledge, cheaper flights and a booming country: the cards have been dealt again and the Bene Israel community is redefining its double identity. Reasons to stay or to leave aren’t the same and the dilemma has evolved. Each one is solving the equation in a different way and our documentary aims to voice out those multiple perspectives. We have two month to shoot the movie and share with the world those identity challenges.
Silence. Rolling. Action!