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Gupta’s portrait of the Bene Israel Family is a thoroughly engaging examination of the past. The Bene Israel were a group of Jewish emigrants, who settled in Cochin, in the southern part of the Indian sub continent, at the turn of the century. Research indicates that the Bene Israeli community soon rose to prominence and thrived in the Indian sub continent, at a time when Jewish communities faced persecution in Europe. In Gupta’s painting, the distorted background draws on the history of the Holocaust whilst the Bene Israel Family emerges from this background in indigenous attire, as native Indians of the subcontinent. This work displays the artist’s ongoing examination of identity and social history.
Gupta’s portrait of the Bene Israel Family is a thoroughly engaging examination of the past. The Bene Israel were a group of Jewish emigrants, who settled in Cochin, in the southern part of the Indian sub continent, at the turn of the century. Research indicates that the Bene Israeli community soon rose to prominence and thrived in the Indian sub continent, at a time when Jewish communities faced persecution in Europe. In Gupta’s painting, the distorted background draws on the history of the Holocaust whilst the Bene Israel Family emerges from this background in indigenous attire, as native Indians of the subcontinent. This work displays the artist’s ongoing examination of identity and social history.

Filed under mizrahim mizrahi bene israel judaism

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Bukharian Jews protect their culture in a N.Y. enclave | Haaretz Daily Newspaper

For two decades, Aron Aronov has transported embroidered garments, oil portraits of rabbis and other examples of traditional Bukharian Jewish culture from his native Uzbekistan to a small museum in New York.

"Here is all my money, all my life, all my time," Aronov, 71, said as he unbolted the door to the crowded, three-room Bukharian Jewish Museum, which he said is the only such museum in the world.

It tells the 2,500-year history of the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia, where they lived as a pious, insular ethnic community until leaving the region in droves in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

They come mostly from Uzbekistan, and were concentrated in the Uzbek city of Bukhara.

"This museum is a desperate attempt to stop time," said Aronov, gesturing to an elaborate display of a Bukharian yard, including a wooden sofa covered with colorful rugs, cooking pots and an outdoor stove. "I don’t want all this to go."

Bukharians had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors, but fled Central Asia as soon as it became possible to leave the Soviet Union, whose secular policies had long frustrated pious Bukharian Jews.

Now, they are struggling to protect an ancient culture they fear could vanish. Unlike some other ethnic communities in Queens, New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough, Bukharians have no real homeland.

Most of the estimated 300,000 Bukharian Jews have settled in Israel but the second-largest concentration of about 50,000 live in the Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park and Forest Hills - earning the area the nickname Queensistan.

Only a few hundred remain in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, local leaders say.

Today, a stretch of Queens Boulevard is dotted with Bukharian synagogues, restaurants and cultural centers. There is also a theater staging plays in Bukhori, a Jewish dialect of Farsi, a newspaper, a cemetery and the museum.

Malika Kalantarova, a Bukharian from Tajikistan, was a celebrated dancer in the Soviet Union and now operates a dance studio in a Queens subway station.

"It’s like a new Bukhara in New York City," said Itzhak Yehoshua, the head rabbi for Bukharians in America, a reference to the Uzbek city that gave Bukharians their name.

Bukharians attribute their success in keeping their heritage to their strong tendency to marry within the community and stick together. Of the 500 Bukharian weddings registered in 2007, Yehoshua said 400 were among Bukharians, 60 were between Bukharians and other Jews and 40 were between Bukharians and non-Jews.

"By the way, we hate the word melting pot," Aronov said.

The mayor of ‘Queensistan’

Aronov, often called the mayor of Queensistan, is leading the effort to collect and preserve cultural artifacts. He travels frequently to Central Asia and has brought back a wooden carriage, traditional jewelry, and dozens of silk robes in brilliant shades of pink, purple and orange.

Billionaire diamond dealer Lev Leviev owns the Queens yeshiva where the museum is housed rent-free. Still, Aronov dreams of opening a more impressive facility.

"Some people come in here and they burst into tears because they recall their lives," said Aronov. "When we came into this country, we lost our social status in one second."

Aronov came to New York in 1989 and used to think about returning to Uzbekistan. Some Bukharians here say they plan to move to Israel.

"I don’t think this is our homeland. Israel is," said Emma Rafailov, 25, as she walked with her husband and two children through the neighborhood. "All of us are getting just a little too comfortable here."

On Saturdays, the Tandoori Bukharian Bakery fills after sunset as Bukharians end the Sabbath. Musicians play traditional Bukharian instruments; the doyira drum and the rubob, a two-string guitar. Patrons feast on lagman, a spicy noodle soup, cumin-scented rice called plov, grilled meat on skewers with raw onions and crusty bread from a tandoor oven.

On the wall, the restaurant’s Bukharian owner has posted the address placard that once marked his home in Uzbekistan.

At the Vostok bookstore, a group of Bukharian men said while Bukharans are happy here they are fighting assimilation.

"Our history does not die because we have good people taking care of it and we are very close," said Sam Yakutilov, 37. "What we used to have there, we brought here."

Filed under bukharian jews mizrahim judaism new york queens nyc

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In Calcutta, the distinctive home ritual carried into the synagogue. Instead of one special Selihot service the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, Sephardic and Oriental Jews conduct Selihot, the special set of penitential prayers—all through the month of Elul. On erev Rosh Hashanah, a pre-dawn Selihot service began at 4 a.m., followed by the morning service and a visit to the cemetery.

Though I was too young to remember the synagogue observance, my parents have described Rosh Hashanah in the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta. At 6 a.m. on Rosh Hashanah morning, the synagogue, draped in white, began to fill with people, men dressed in white sharkskin suits (a shiny, heavy, polyester-like material). Women also wore as much white as possible. The entire service was chanted aloud, and did not end until 1 p.m. The centerpiece of the service is a poem by Judah Samuel Abbas that describes the binding of Isaac. The shofar blasts also differ from the traditional Ashkenzic blasts: “teruah” is one long blast instead of nine short blasts. After the Torah reading, the solemn mood of the service shifted to that of an auction, as the aliyot, ark openings and other honors for the second day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur went up for grabs. Honors for the first day were auctioned off the previous Shabbat. Though the auction prolonged the service by almost an hour, nobody seemed to mind. Only the people interested in the bidding—about half the congregation—remained in the sanctuary, laughing and joking among themselves, but still paying very close attention. Much of the bidding was done in increments of 26—the numerical value of God’s name—until the bidding reached 101, the numerical value of the guardian angel Michael’s name. The opening of the ark on Kol Nidre night and reading the haftarah traditionally drew the highest bids. Parents bid on honors for their children as well. When the Torah was taken out, a special haftarah scroll accompanied it; this light scroll was usually carried by a child. It was also a child’s job to point to the beginning of the Torah portion with a yad, or pointer.

On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, many Calcutta families opened their homes to others for the traditional reading of the Book of Psalms, accompanied by a light meal of sweets and fruit. While the distinctive Calcutta lifestyle has vanished with the dispersion of the community, my family follows many of the Calcutta customs, including the Rosh Hashanah seder. We continue to greet family and friends on Rosh Hashanah with the traditional blessing: “Tizku l’shanim rabot:” May you merit many years. The response is: “Tizke ve’tihyeh:” May you merit, and may you also live.

Rahel Musleah, Rosh Hashanah, Calcutta Style

Filed under judaism calcutta indian jews jewish rosh hashanah mizrahim

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Indian Rosh Hashanah and Other Jewish Traditions

An interview with Rosy Moses Solomon, a long-time member of the Jewish community in Mumbai, India.

Q: India is home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Tell us how Rosh Hashanah is celebrated there.

A: The celebration begins with the lighting of oil lamps and recitation of the b’racha before sundown. We hold New Year seders two nights, attended by close family and Jewish friends; in my case, around 25 people. The elders explain the significance of the seder components—fish, lamb’s head, apple and honey, beet root, pumpkin, cluster beans, fresh garlic with leaves, pomegranate, Kiddush wine, challah (two flat chapattis, roasted crisp), dates (Ha’etz), and bananas (Ha’adama).

Before starting the service on the first night at home, we distribute the special Rosh Hashanah halwa. We have a hearty meal together, consisting of jeera rice, chicken or mutton curry, potatoes, kofta (meatball) curry, potato patties (stuffed with mince), and salads.

We attend synagogue services starting at 7 am, most importantly to hear the Shofar, and then go home to do the Kiddush and Hamotsi, eat and rest a little. At about 5:30 pm we attend tashlich prayers near the sea where we would meet a lot of friends and family who go to other synagogues in Mumbai; this is a popular time for matchmaking and introducing young boys and girls. We then rush home for the second evening seder with our family.

Q: We loved your halwa recipe. Can you tell us about your other favorite dishes for the Jewish New Year?

A: The nankhatais (cookies)! We break the Fast of Gedalia (the day after Rosh Hashanah) with rice kheer—coarse basmati rice cooked with jaggery and coconut milk—after reading the Yizkor service (remembering the departed souls of close family).

Before Yom Kippur we prepare Kalna puris—like a flaky pastry stuffed with lightly fried fine semolina, nuts, and raisins and deep fried in ghee. The afternoon before Yom Kippur we read the Yizkor service and eat the Kalna puris, coconut-stuffed puris, and sandans. Before sunrise the day after Yom Kippur (Simhat Kohanim), we make gharis (like donuts). Between Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabah, we visit our relatives and friends to ask forgiveness for any wrong we may have done to them.

Q: Can you tell us more about your family’s history in India? And any special holiday traditions that you have?

A: We had a house in a village named Galsur, a sea port in Maharashtra. We had rice fields and an oil press—operated manually by a bullock—that extracted oil from peanuts, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, and other herbal oils. We grew vegetables and fruit trees, and had poultry as well. Water had to be brought from wells, and we washed our clothes at a river or stream. There was no electricity then. Our house was a gathering spot for lots of our family during school vacations.

My in-laws lived in this house, with other retired family members. We, the younger generation with children, relocated to Mumbai much earlier, where we worked in offices and factories while our children attended recognized (and often English) schools where they received a superior education to that which was possible in the villages.

Many of us Bene Israelis got our surnames from the villages our families had settled in hundreds and thousands of years ago. Later, family names were modified as people relocated to Mumbai.

Q: In your experience, what is the importance of JDC’s role in India?

A: JDC has helped the Bene Israelis a lot, especially in bringing them closer. JDC supports the community’s Jewish holiday celebrations, which includes sending people (through the JDC-supported Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai) to conduct High Holiday services and seders in villages with synagogues such as Pen, Panvel, Alibag, and Nagaon.

Young and old are involved in JDC’s activities: they created a Jewish old age home, gatherings for seniors, have year-round Torah and other Jewish classes, Gan Katan (kindergarten) for kids, and get-togethers for teenagers and young adults, who are also sponsored by JDCto take part in seminars in Israel and in Europe. This not only gives them a chance to learn a lot and mingle with other youngsters around the world, but now the world has started learning about Jewish life in India, too….

Q: What would you like readers to know about Jewish life in India?

A: The Bene Israelis are peace loving people, characterized by strong family bonds and real caring. We have always been friendly with Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Parsis; we never experienced any anti-Semitism. We observed and did not work on Shabbat. We walk to our synagogues, distance permitting; eat kosher food; and hang mezuzahs on our doorposts. We were known as Shanwar Tellis (oil pressers who did not work on Saturdays).

Though the Bene Israelis have a small prayer hall for the Reform or Liberal Jewish Congregation in Mumbai, the majority of the community still chooses to visit Orthodox synagogues because we love the melodious tunes that convey the essence of more than 2500 years of Jewish life in India. We, the Orthodox community, have several synagogues—I believe 8—in Mumbai. Prayers are conducted every day, morning and evening (including Minchah and Ma’ariv services). On Shabbat, we have a minyan and a bigger crowd, but many have to use the public transport or drive because of the distance.

Filed under indian jews rosh hashanah india jewish judaism shana tova religion traditions holidays new years