By Jacqueline Shields
In her book India's Jewish Heritage, Shalva
Weil waeves together a beautiful mix of history, fable, tradition and
art to help understand the culture of Indian
Jews. The book is divided into chapters by different authors that
explore the history of the Jewish sects in India, the Bene Israel, the
Baghdadis, and the Cochin, as well as their rituals, practices, dress,
and everyday life.
The best written parts of the book describe the history
of these Jews, not just their arrival, as many of the theories on how
they came to India are based on myth or incocnlusive evidence such as
being one of the "10 lost tribes," but on their growth and
development within the communities they settled. The first chapter,
"The Jewish Presence in Bombay," provides a very interesting
history of the powerful Sassoon family, who established many Jewish
schools and synagogues
in the area. The Sassoon family, and banker David Sassoon specifically,
were among the most influential people in nineteenth and early twentieth
century India. They brought great wealth to India with their business
and banking practices. The Sassoon family was very dedicated to Judaism
and were strictly observant, and they used much of their money to finance
the construction of synagaogues and Jewish schools in the area. Many
believe that their dedication to Judaism and Judaic institutions helped
to keep the Indian Jewish community alive until today.
Another interesting chapter, “In Search of India's
Synagogues: Their Architectural History,” provides a very detailed
description of different synagogues found throughout the country. Most
interesting about this chapter is its comparison of the synagogues to
the communities surrounding the Jews. This history lesson demonstrates
through photos and description how outside influences affected the construction
and decoration of the synagogues.
Although some differences between Western or other
Sephardi traditions are
discussed, such as removing one's shoes before praying, the explanations
of many Jewish customs are generic. Despite chapter titles such as “The
Marriage Customs of the Jewish Community of Cochin” and “The
Ritual Cycle of Cochin Jewish Holidays: A Malabari Perspective,”
most of the customs and rituals written about in these pages are basic
explanations of Judaism. The volume would have benefitted from more
discussion of the unique or exceptional traditions of Indian Jewry.
The book is at its best where it sticks to its goal
of revealing Indian Jewish culture. The last two chapters return to
the uniqueness of the Jews in India, discussing their dress and the
evolution of the Jewish sari, and also exploring Jewish Indians' contibutions
to women's rights in India, the government and politics, and the arts.
Here, the reader gains a greater understanding about everyday life for
Jews in India and their relation to their country.
Another highlight of the book are the water colors
and photographs of the people and the synagogues. The photographs and
paintings reveal the beautiful decoration and detail of these gorgeous
synagogues. Also, the photos of the people and their dress or customs
shows even more about the Jewish-Indian culture than the text does.