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.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise