Synagogue? What’s that?” “What do you mean by Masjid Bunder was named after a Jewish temple?” “Who’s Samuel Divekar?” These are questions hurled by educated gentlemen walking or conducting business next to Maharashtra’s oldest (and India’s second) synagogue at Samuel Street when asked about its location. Built by Samuel Ezekiel Divekar (1796) on his life being spared by Tipu Sultan despite being taken prisoner of war, the Gate of Mercy synagogue was called Juna Masjid by locals, ensuing in the British giving Masjid Bunder and Masjid Station their respective names. And well, the street was named after Samuel.
“The first Jews who came to India dissolved sugar in a glass of milk in front of the local king, telling him that was how they would blend into India,” laughs acting secretary of the synagogue’s managing committee, Menash Moses. And the Bene Israelis in this part of town have done just that. Israeli muhalla, next to Samuel Street, which had 2000 jewish families once, is now left with two. “It’s sad to see only 60 people here. When I’d left India 40 years ago, there were 400,” remembers Avidan Tered, now an Israeli citizen who visits occasionally. Finally, none of the synagogue’s members actually speak or understand Hebrew—their spoken tongue being Marathi. But still 150 families, now scattered all over Mumbai keep praying at this “foundation of Jewish identity”.
And this identity starts at the door of the blue building with mezuzah, the silver doorpost. Then on to the temple with the 210 -yearold teakwood benches, facing a platform called tebah where the high priest reads out the prayers from. It’s a festival today, and so accompanying these is a thunderous blow of the shofar, a bugle like prayer instrument made of deer horn. And behind this platform is the staunchest keeper of tradition – the hechal, a sumptuously carved teak wood cupboard (also over 200 years old). This holds the sepher torahs—the holiest of holy Judaic books brought out for prayers. Flanking it are two chairs with magnificent flower motifs. “One is the chair for circumcision, and the other for ‘seating’ the prophet Eliyahoo,” informs secretary of the state Judaic trust Samuel Waskar. Two brass lamps—the tamid (lit 24/7) and eliyahoo hannabi, light this place as a giant balcony for women (women aren’t allowed into the prayer hall) overlooks.
“I’m only learning to blow the shofar,” smiles young Samson Jhirad proudly. “I’ve come here
since childhood and this is the first festival I’m blowing it for.” The festival is simaht torah—the day the Ten Commandments were received. Also called the day of rejoicing. “It follows closely the Jewish new year and the day of repentance,” Waskar enlightens, while Moses lets in on a legend: “Supposedly a vast treasure was buried by Samuel under the steps leading to the hechal. He said when the synagogue was ‘in need’, it would burst forth from the ground on the lamp being lit!” Maybe Samuel’s prophecy worked as a metaphor. For while the lamp has been lit for 24 hours every day, the Synagogue has never been in want of donors “to maintain its invaluable treasures,” as put by Waskar. He adds, “Foreigners offered us millions for the hechal, but we wouldn’t lose our ‘identity’.” Moses wraps up with what brings people here from even far-flung Ghatkopar: “I’m an Indian first. But this synagogue is the only link my son and I have to our forefathers.”
This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/2pj8