Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on December 1, 2008
The Chabad House in Mumbai, where terrorists murdered the young rabbi, his wife and several others during last week’s attacks, is relatively new. Six years ago, the first time I spent a Shabbat in the city, there was no Chabad yet in Mumbai. There was the historic synagogue in the Fort area, down the street from the Sassoon Library, which is where I went to pray. It was an impressive old building, with a baby blue facade and a large but a bit dilapidated interior. (The Jewish community in Mumbai, the Bene Israel, had seen better days, as many people had left for Israel or elsewhere.)
On that Friday night, I was one of eight men - a problem because you need ten men to make a minyan, the quorum necessary to say kaddish and some other prayers. The situation seemed bleak, and then suddenly arrived a group of several dozen people from India’s northeast, home to a group called the Bnei Menashe that claims to be descendants from one of the Ten Lost Tribes.(The claim is not as strange as it sounds. See Hillel Halkin’s excellent book, “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel.”) They were on their way to Israel and were staying the weekend in Mumbai. Having received much of their formal Judaism education from Ashkenazim who help people claiming connections to the Jewish people through the Ten Lost Tribes, the visitors didn’t have much in common with the local Jews: The men wore white shirts, black trousers and wide-brimmed black hats, the standard uniform of haredim in Brooklyn or Jerusalem, not the secular Jews of Mumbai; the visitors also had different styles of singing some of the songs, since the Bnei Menashe had long lived in isolation and never had any connection to Jews in other parts of India. (At one point, one of the local Jews turned to me, a puzzled look on his face, looking for explanation from the American of what these newcomers were doing.) Still, our lonely group of eight men were thrilled to get the reinforcements. Our numbers bolstered, we gladly concluded the evening prayers.
Afterwards, I asked an old-timer about anti-semitism and whether a Jew wearing a kippah (yarmulke) needed to worry while walking the streets of the neighborhood. Of course not, he told me. This was Mumbai.
Last week, while the battles at the Taj and the Oberoi were still raging, reports circulated that the terrorists were singling out Americans and Britons to murder them. That seems not to have been true, according to Oberoi executive Rattan Keswani, quoted in the New York Times. But there’s no doubt the rabbi, the rebbetzin and the others in Chabad House were targeted because they were Jews. In the Times, Mumbai native and NYU professor Suketu Mehta writes, “And in the attack on the Chabad house, for the first time ever, it became dangerous to be Jewish in India.”