Mumbai, India might be best known today in Jewish circles for the massacre by terrorists (yes, they were terrorists who specifically targeted Jews, despite the reluctance of certain media in stating this fact—-sorry, just ventilating a bit) at the Chabad center in November 2008. However, Mumbai (or Bombay, as it used to be known) has long been home to an ancient Jewish community.
The Bene Israel of Mumbai is the oldest and largest Indian Jewish community. (This does not count the controversial Beni Menashe, members of the Kuki tribe in northeast India and neighboring Myanmar numbering about three million, who claim to be descendents of the Israelite tribe of Menashe, some 7,200 of whom currently practice Judaism as well as some 1,500 who have moved to Israel.) According to local oral tradition, its origins date to a group of Hebrews from northern Israel fleeing Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 BCE, whereupon a storm wrecked their ship in the Indian Ocean off the Konkan coast. Only seven men and seven women managed to make it ashore. A memorial at the village of Navgaon marks the spot where they first landed. This small group gradually spread from Navgaon to more than 100 villages on the western coast, including Ashtam, Dive, Kehim, Pali, Pen, Roha, and, Wakrul, these locations later supplying surnames with the ending “kar” for the families. Members of the Bene Israel, the name taken from a favorable term in the Koran, earned their livelihoods primarily in the preparation and selling of sesame oil. Thus they acquired the name Shanwar Teli (Saturday oilmen) among their Hindu neighbors — Saturday referring to their refusal to work on the Sabbath. The Hindus always treated the Jewish minority benignly, considering them literally to be “outcaste,” forbidden to intermarry. Thus they never faced assimilation or anti-Semitism. Indeed, the first real religious prejudice experienced by the Bene Israel was when they came into contact with Middle Eastern Jews in the nineteenth century.
Around 1795, a Cochini Jew arranged for the release of a Jewish prisoner of war in the service of the British. The prisoner turned out to be a Bene Israel and, as a result, other Indian Jews and the rest of the world learned of this lost group. Having had no contact with world Jewry for nearly 2,000 years, the Bene Israel were unaware of the Talmud, rabbis, synagogues, the festival of Hanukkah, the fast of Tisha b’Av, and other ritual developments that originated after their separation. According to the Bene Israel, sometime between 1000 CE to 1400 CE an enigmatic Jewish merchant named David Rahabi, one version contends he was Moses Maimonides’ brother, David, arrived in western India and sparked a major religious revival.
Despite, or more accurately because of their alien environment, the Bene Israel managed to maintain a Jewish identity and continue to adhere to certain ancient Jewish rituals, including the Sabbath, biblical festivals, dietary laws (i.e. only eating fish with fins and scales, removing the sciatic nerve from animals, salting meat to remove the blood), and circumcision. At marriages, the groom, crowned with flowers, sings a traditional song as he approached his white sari-clad wife at her house. The prophet Elijah was invoked and the Shema recited at the performance of important rituals. Malida (a sweetened rice, coconut, and fruit dish) is served at all festive occasions accompanied by a ceremony.
They kept only one day of Rosh Hashanah (Navyacha San). On the fourth of the month of Tishri, they held the Kheercha San (pudding holiday), by eating a pudding called khir made from new grain, sugar, and coconut milk. On Yom Kippur (Darfalnicha San, literally “Closing of the Doors Holiday”), the entire community dressed in white. Originally, they remained home and fasted, but after the advent of synagogues, the men arrived there before dawn to spend the day in prayer and contemplation. The day following Yom Kippur is Shila San (Stale Holiday), an occasion to visit friends and give charity to the poor. Purim (Holicha San) coincides with the Hindu festival of Holi. On Passover (Anasi Dakacha San, “Holiday of the Jar-Closing), the Bene Israel repainted their houses white and retinned their copper utensils. However, since the neighboring rice-eating Hindus were unfamiliar with chametz, they lost this aspect of the holiday. The fast day of the Ninth of Av was called Birda cha Roja (Fast of Curried Fava Beans), because the fast was broken on a dish of birda, a Marathi word for curried fava beans (surti vaal dal) cooked in a coconut base.
Following the advent of the British in western India, many of the Bene Israel relocated from their native villages to the large cities, especially Bombay (Mumbai). Contact with Yemenites and Cochinis led to the adoption of traditions from those community, but the Bene Israel maintained many of their ancient customs. At its height in the 1950s, the Bene Israel in India numbered around 30,000. Meanwhile, Mohandas Gandhi’s liberalization of the caste system unleashed the threat of a previously imponderable assimilation. More than 12,000 of the Bene Israel immigrated to Israel during the 1950s and 1960s and the drain continued. Today the Bene Israel community in Israel numbers about 60,000, while only about 4,500 remains in India, most in a suburb of Bombay. Every year, thousands of Indian Jews flock from all over Israel to the city of Eilat for the Hoduya (Indian) Festival.
The cuisine of the Bene Israel, relatively simple fare, is drawn from their Hindu neighbors. However, the Jews use more onions and tomatoes and frequently substitute lemon juice for yogurt in cooking. Maharashta lies between the rice-eating region to the south and the wheat-eating area to the north and, therefore, the inhabitants liberally use both grains. The dishes are redolent with spices. Peanut oil and coconut oil are the basic cooking fats. Coconuts and mangoes are cooking staples. The Bene Israel eat only fish, sheep, goats, certain fowl, but no beef. Lunch and dinner generally consist of flat bread, rice and/or lentils, and vegetable or fish curries. Rice cakes called sandans are traditional fare on Simchat Torah, an early medieval holiday they learned of in the nineteenth century. From the Baghdadis, the Bene Israel picked up the custom of making hameem (stew) for Sabbath lunch. Also on the Sabbath, they enjoy a semolina and coconut milk dish called kanavili.
Here are a few more Rosh Hashanah recipes for you. These are traditional dishes from the Bene Israel community of Mumbai:
Gadjar Kari (Indian Carrot Curry)
(4 to 5 servings)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1½ teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 pound carrots, sliced or cut into chunks (about 4 cups)
1 medium banana, peeled and sliced
¼ cup golden raisins
1 cup water
About 1 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper to taste
Fresh chopped parsley or coriander for garnish
1. In a large nonreactive pan (do not use iron, copper, or brass), heat the oil over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric, cardamom, curry powder, cloves, and cayenne and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
2. Add the carrots and sauté until lightly colored, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the bananas and raisins.
3. Add the water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the carrots are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes.
4. Uncover, increase the heat to medium, and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until most of the liquid is evaporated and the vegetables are glazed, 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish with the parsley or coriander.
Kangi (Fish Fillets in Romaine)
8 large romaine lettuce leaves
6 4-ounce firm-fleshed fish fillets such as cod, flounder,
grouper, halibut, bluefish, sea bass, or snapper
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon curry powder
About 1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish.
2. Blanch the romaine in boiling water until pliable. Drain. Arrange 2 leaves in the bottom of the baking dish.
3. In a blender or food processor, puree all of the curry ingredients.
4. Spread a heaping tablespoon of the spice mixture over each fillet. Roll up the fillets in the romaine leaves. Place, seam side, down, in the baking pan. (The fish may be refrigerated for several hours until ready to cook.)
5. Bake until the fish is tender, about 30 minutes.
Appam (Mumbai Semolina and Coconut Cake)
(10 to 12 servings)
5 cups water
4 cups coconut milk
3 1/3 cups (about 17½ ounces) coarse semolina
About 1 cup jaggery or brown sugar
3 to 4 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup grated coconut (optional)
¼ to ½ cup raisins (optional)
¼ to ½ cup slivered blanched almonds or cashews (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-inch-round baking pan or casserole or two 9-inch pie plates.
2. In a large saucepan, bring the water and coconut milk to a boil. Gradually stir in the semolina and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sugar. Remove from the heat and add the cardamom, vanilla, salt, and, if using, coconut, raisins, and/or nuts.
3. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cut into diamond shapes.
Substitute 14 ounces coconut cream for the coconut milk, increase the water to 8 cups, and simmer until the coconut cream dissolves.
For a more intense flavor: In a dry large saucepan, stir the semolina over low heat until lightly golden, but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup ghee or margarine and stir until deep gold, 3 to 4 minutes. Let cool. Add the remaining ingredients and, if desired, 4 lightly beaten eggs.