Imagine that it’s Chanukah—but there are no latkes on the table, no jelly donuts, gelt or gifts. There are no dreidels in vivid colors ready to be spun or piles of pennies and peanuts for payment. “I Have a Little Dreidel” would be as foreign as another country’s national anthem. There aren’t even spindly, rainbow-hued candles waiting to be placed in the chanukiah.
Chanukah in India, where I was born, is celebrated far differently than it is in the United States or in Israel today. But the meaning of Chanukah has a deep resonance in the Indian Jewish communities because India is, in fact, also the site of great miracles, a refuge for Jews all over the world.
The history of the Jews of India is a story of faith and refuge, survival and identity. In fact, the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay (Mumbai) say that they arrived in India fleeing the Hellenist persecution that caused the Maccabees to rebel. According to their tradition, they were shipwrecked off the coast of Bombay. Only seven couples survived. But as they integrated into the village communities along the coast, they held onto the faith and customs they remembered: circumcision, kashrut, refraining from working on Shabbat and reciting Shema Yisrael at every auspicious occasion.
Cochin, in south India, may be the most ancient Jewish settlement, with trade routes to and from the land of Israel as far back as the time of King Solomon. During the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews found refuge in Cochin under the protection of its benevolent maharajah. Baghdadi Jews, too, fled persecution in Iraq and, attracted by India’s rich trade route, settled in Bombay and Calcutta.
The larger tolerance that India extended cradled distinct Jewish communities and allowed them to flourish, both on their own and as part of the broader Indian context. There was never any indigenous anti-Semitism in India, so we lived alongside our neighbors in harmony and freedom. Interestingly, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is often celebrated at the same time as Chanukah.
In our Calcutta community, every boy over the age of 13 had his own chanukiah (today we would include girls), made of brass, shaped in a triangle or Star of David, with rings that protruded to hold glasses of oil. We use a candle to light the flames, because the shamash cannot be moved. Each child also had a glossy, colorful Chanukah paper with God’s name printed in gilt letters at the top, and the child’s own name inscribed at the bottom. Underneath, a seven-branched menorah was drawn with the words of Psalm 67 (Mizmor Shir Chanukah Habayit LeDavid). The psalm, which is about the dedication of the temple, is chanted after the Chanukah blessings. The papers were hung up near the chanukiot, which also hung on the wall.
Indian cuisine, famous for crisp fried specialties like samosas, pakoras and piaju, are fine reminders of the miracle of the oil. We also enjoy fancy confections made from milk, sugar, flavorings and nuts.
In Bombay today, Chabad lights a huge menorah at the landmark Gateway to India, a monument built by the Sassoon family, Baghdadi leaders, philanthropists and traders who contributed so much culturally and economically that they are considered the Rothschilds of the East.
And in Calcutta this year, Chanukah will be marked with an extraordinary celebration, as two of the three magnificent synagogues that are still standing will be rededicated after months of renovation. There are only 18 Jews left in the community, but they are intent on preserving our heritage, embodied in the awesome sacred spaces of the Maghen David and Beth El synagogues. Neve Shalome, the third synagogue, was renovated a few years ago. The synagogues, grand edifices soaring with light and beauty, are shining examples of faith that never fail to provoke heart-stopping moments of wonder.
Back in the warmth of my own home, I am also inspired by the light of my own chanukiah, a family heirloom. Often, I think of the flames as the seven generations of my family who lived in India, and my daughters, the eighth generation, born in the US. And the chanukiah turns into a family tree of sorts, each flame radiating the sparks of our tradition.
Top photo: The Maghen David synagogue in Calcutta (All photos courtesy of Rahel Musleah)