As the afternoon sun hit its peak, Haran and I pulled up to his small one-and-a-half-bedroom flat on the outskirts of East Mumbai, India, some 20 minutes from the airport. The building's shiny tin roof showed that money was in short supply. But inside the apartment, with Indian hospitality, Haran's wife Geeta (a surprisingly non-Jewish name) served me perfectly spiced hot tea. She sat down next to her husband, and they began telling their story.
Caste-like divisions persist in India, even among Jews. Geeta's family belongs to the eastern Indian Baghdadi Jewish community, centered in Calcutta, while Haran is a member of the western Indian Bene Israel, located mainly in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. But, said Geeta, "We fell in love and our families thought it was a good fit. It isn't necessarily Indian, but we Jews do get a bit more freedom in that regard." Geeta's English was broken but quite understandable. She wants to become a teacher.
"We love each other," Haran added, "and this is important for us and our families. It was still an Indian marriage that involved both our families, but it wasn't like other arranged marriages in the country in many ways." He reached out his arm out and gave his pregnant wife something between a nudge and a hug. They have three children, with a fourth on the way. "We Jews don't have to worry as much about what our parents think," he said, "but it is still important."
The couple talked about their second child, a son also called Haran, and his circumcision; the practice is not common among Hindu Indians. They talked of holidays, Yom Kippur, and attending synagogue on Saturdays. Despite their exotic surroundings, their life as Jews appears as typical as it would anywhere.
"The great thing about India," Haran said, is that "we are Jewish and Indian at the same time. We go to synagogue and we observe our customs. Nobody has ever told us we are different or strange, which is why India is my home."
Indeed, unlike other countries with significant Jewish populations, India has no history of anti-Semitism; only when the Portuguese controlled Goa did the Jewish community face hardships. After the 1948 establishment of Israel, most of India's 60,000 Bene Israel emigrated to the Jewish state. But, unlike Jews living in the Middle East at the time, the Bene Israel were not forced out; a few thousand, including Haran's family, remained. "When I was 20," Haran said, I had a few friends who chose to go to Israel." In fact, "I went to Israel, but it just wasn't for me." He explained, "I just sat down and thought about where my future children should live and I decided Mumbai, my home city, was better because it was safer."
Haran said he makes a solid living with his rickshaw—around $300 monthly, often more with special fares and airport service. Asked whether he might still relocate to Israel, he said, "Life is good right now and I don't mind where I am with my family and my work." He continues, "I don't know, maybe when I get older, but right now I am Indian and this is where I belong."
Then, Haran spoke more pointedly about why he prefers India: "At least here we are Indians and treated as full citizens."
He was referring to the controversy about the status of Indian Jews in Israel, where certain rabbis have been known to refuse to marry an Indian Jew unless his or her lineage can be established as exclusively Jewish. Haran also said he didn't want to deal with all the "restrictions" in Israel. He wanted to be free, he said, which is another reason why he stayed behind.
Haran's point was echoed by Haran and Geeta's local rabbi, Ilias. With his simple dress and handmade garments, Ilias looks like a Hindu ascetic. Sitting on a wobbly bench outside a makeshift synagogue that he claims has stood on the spot for centuries, he said the Indian Jewish community does not have the fear of intermarriage that exists in Israel: "I have married Jewish women to Hindu and Muslim men."
But, he allowed, Geeta and Haran's marriage was unusual: "Geeta was the first Baghdadi woman I married and they had an interesting story about getting the wedding to take place here in Bombay." (His calling Mumbai "Bombay" bespoke his British education.) "They came to me when she turned 18 and asked if I would marry them. I said I would, but only after having spoken to her father and mother on the subject."
He didn't have to ask her parents, he said, but he felt it was an Indian tradition to ensure that the families would get along: "I would have married them even if their families disagreed, but I was interested in this woman from the East with a Hindu name. I found out they were educated and wanted to have their daughter happy. I was very pleased to see the Jewish community marrying within because we need the strength to continue our traditions in the country."
Haran and Geeta regularly attend Ilias's services and hear his sermons, delivered in the national Hindi language rather than Mumbai's local Marathi language. They see themselves, in many ways, as the future of the Indian Jewish community. "We are not a large community," Geeta said, "but through our marriage we have met and introduced many of our friends from all parts of India. My cousin is now engaged to a local Gujarat Jew and we are excited about seeing our community here in Mumbai grow and become part of life here."
In a country often torn by religious divides, here was an under-reported and often-forgotten part of Indian history and society talking openly about hope and the future of a community unified as Indians. "I am Indian and Jewish," said Haran, "and this is my country. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else, and life is good and getting better."
Joseph Mayton is a seasoned journalist and the editor-in-chief of Bikya Masr, usually based in Cairo, Egypt.
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