Is it really fair to try see Mumbai in an afternoon? Almost definitely not, but that was my plan for the family. As it happened, it didn’t work out. We were all totally knocked out by jetlag and collapsed after lunch on the beds in our room. I set the alarm, but with only a great deal of difficulty did I actually leave the room, after figuring out quite quickly that no one was getting up and that I was going to go it alone.
Colaba is not a frightening place and I decided to just walk up the street without any sightseeing in mind. I did have a final objective though, and that was the Knesset Eliyahu synagogue about two kilometers away. This was in fact the Jewish New Years eve and I had decided that it would be a good idea to visit the synagogue. I made it there easily and found that I was really early, but I did manage to chat to a few of the congregants as well as the Rabbi.
The synagogue was built in the early 1900’s by a member of the Sassoon family, wealthy merchants who originated from Baghdad and who built a great trading empire in the Middle East and South Asia. Their name lives on in Mumbai, since not only did they build a grand municipal library, but they also built the Sassoon dock at Mumbai harbour which helped transform Mumbai into a hub of global trade around one hundred years ago. As far as their Jewish heritage is concerned, the Sassoons built a string of synagogues across the city and I was visiting the beautiful one near Colaba. The building is interesting in that it is situated off the main thoroughfare in a neighborhood that seems to epitomize daily life in Mumbai – narrow, crowded, animals wandering about, and people of multiple faiths carrying on their daily life within the shadow of this quiet sanctuary, perhaps oblivious to its use or perhaps fully aware of its spirituality.
What is symbolised to me was the fact that India is a country where multiple religions and belief systems have co-existed for millennia – sometimes trouble free and sometimes not, but the underlying feeling that I experienced was one of tolerance for others, certainly in this particular neighborhood.
Regarding tolerance, one of the most interesting things that I learned about the synagogue was how the various Jewish communities had lived under self imposed segregation until about fifty years ago. The Sassoon synagogues had been built for the so called Baghdadi Jews – and other Jews had been unwelcome, such as the “black” Jews from Cochin. Only after most of Mumbai’s Jewish community had emigrated to Israel and elsewhere over the past decades, did the synagogue become more accepting of Jews from other backgrounds, in order to maintain acceptable numbers.
I also met Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg who there and then asked me to bring the whole family back to his house after the service to celebrate the New Year.
After the uneventful and short service I went back to the hotel, told the family of the invitation and we all made our way to the Rabbi’s house which was only a few streets away. There we were made to feel extremely welcome, and we met guests including locals and other international visitors. The kids were given books and toys and they also played with the Rabbi’s own two year old child. I had mentioned to the rabbi that this was also our wedding anniversary, and in the middle of the evening he toasted us and wished us a wonderful trip. The evening was very special – we met some great people and were made to feel very much at home. At about 10.30pm we made our way back to the hotel – Colaba was going to bed too.
PS I am now planning great family trips to India myself. If you’d like tro see what I can do for your family, visit here for more info.
(NOTE: This posting is well after the fact – only a few weeks later the Rabbi and his wife were murdered in a horrific terrorist attack on their home. The same terrorists also targeted the Taj Mahal hotel and other well known tourist locations. The rabbi and his wife were targeted specifically because they were leaders of the Jewish community. Their child survived. We felt terrible shock and sadness, and at the same time felt privileged that we had been able to meet them – they epitomised hospitality, warmth and kindness to strangers).