Giving Thanks to Elijah the Prophet in Indian Manhattan
Jonathan Schorsch

On the Sunday afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, I walked with my two young daughters through the streets of Greenwich Village. We were on our way to the Village Temple, whose social hall had been rented by a group of Bnei Israel Jews from India for a ceremony of thanksgiving to the prophet Elijah, a ceremony unique to this community. I am not Bnei Israel, but one of my dear friends is an artist born into that community. At the opening of an exhibition of hers, I overheard a woman discussing the upcoming ceremony with the artistís mother, who was visiting the U.S. from Bombay, and I invited myself. Call it ethnographic chutzpah.

As the Encylopaedia Judaica relates, the Bnei Israel claim they descend from a shipload of Jewish refugees from the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame. After their vessel wrecked on the coast of India, the fourteen survivors--seven men and seven women--established a Jewish community in a village 26 miles south of Bombay. There they remained for centuries. Unaware of Indiaís other Jewish communities, they lost their language and most of their customs in favor of the surrounding Hindu culture, though they clung to basic Jewish practices such as dietary laws, circumcision, the Sabbath, certain holidays, and the Shema. They migrated to Bombay in the eighteenth century, and it was only then that a member of the Benei Israel, Samuel Divekar, ended up in Cochin and discovered its Jews. Divekar returned to Bombay, built the Bnei Israelís first synagogue (1796) and initiated their long return to Judaism. They learned as much as they could from the Cochini Jews as well as immigrants from Baghdad and various Arab lands, producing a unique blend of traditional Judaism and Hindu culture. They also prospered under British rule, serving in the colonial military and administration, attending the University of Bombay, and working in various fields. At their peak in the middle of the twentieth century, they numbered some 25,000. Soon after, however, they began to migrate in large numbers to Israel and English-speaking countries. Now only a fragment remains in India.

The antiseptic hall of the Reform temple seemed an odd site for what I imagined would transpire. My daughters eagerly helped Florence Manglani, an Indian woman of modest elegance, set out paper plates and plastic tableware as a multi-hued and cross-generational variety of men, women and children slowly gathered. The majority of participants were Bnei Israel, some living in New York for forty or so years, others as recently as six months. The older women wore saris or salwar kameez, Indian garb of more and less formal traditional fashion, while the younger set came in Western outfits. Though stemming from the same population centered around Bombay, these immigrants form a community here only in a conceptual sense. They live scattered around the metropolitan area, perhaps two hundred of them at the most, and have no synagogue of their own. They gather yearly for High Holiday services and Simhat Torah, again renting space from the Village Temple. Todayís thanksgiving ceremony was arranged, as were all events other than holiday prayers, by the womenís organization. This body consists of Florence and a handful of other senior women, all energetic and actively concerned for the maintenance of Bnei Israel traditions. Their goal is the establishment of a Bnei Israel synagogue in New York. Indeed, to witness this ceremony was to watch a community in formation.

It also felt like a visit to another familyís home -- in this case, foreign cousins. This feeling was exacerbated by the presence of three other Ashkenazi visitors, each of whom alluded -- during the public introductions each participant was obliged to make after the ceremony -- to a fascination with and affection for non-Ashkenazi cultures. Before the ceremony began, Florence and a man named George Abraham, a solid man approaching the age at which one seems automatically sagacious, and one of those knowledgeable enough to lead communal prayers, stood and introduced the proceedings. The thanksgiving ceremony, they explained, is held to celebrate a personís recovery from serious disease or danger -- not unlike the gomel blessing in traditional Jewish communities. In this case, several people wanted to express their gratitude for just such a recovery. They sat at the dais and Mr. Abraham named them for the assembly. In addition, people wanted to bless the whole community for the coming New Year.

The recipient of these wishes was the prophet Elijah. Mr. Abraham speculated that Elijahís significance for the Bnei Israel is heightened by the fact that this prophet is alleged to have led them in ancient times from the Holy Land to India. The prophetís well-known posthumous globe-trotting finds other particular echoes with the Bnei Israel. They claim to descend from the sea-faring tribe of Zebulun, and historically they worked in India as sailors. Perhaps the seafarers' long-waiting wives established this Thanksgiving ceremony out of persistent personal need?

Before the recitation of prayers, several dishes were laid across the dais. On each, slices of fruit ringed a mound of parched rice sweetened with raisins, coconut, and the like, and from each mound soared a single white rose with pink-trim. Those giving thanks lit candles. The texts sung consist mostly of biblical verses of thanksgiving, blessing and protection, many of which would be familiar from the standard havdalah service at the end of Sabbath and from the night recitation of the Shema. Today they were lead by David Galsurkar, a young chazan (cantor) in training, who was present with two other generations of his family. The melodies and Hebrew pronunciation are deep and resonant, as hoary as those of the Yemenites, but less Arabic-sounding, more a mixture of old Sepharad inflected through the Balkans, Baghdad, the Asian steppes, and India itself (and then the colonizing English?): minor keys, and traditionally voices alone. Everyone joined in the chorus of the first song. Mr. Galsurkar performed the remaining texts, with everyone singing together--three times--the beloved blessing Jacob gave his grandsons (Genesis 48:16). Mr. Abraham then had one of the women in whose honor the ceremony was being conducted recite several psalms, which she did in a lilting Hebrew spoken song. A few of the texts were read in English translation. Overall, the ceremony lasted about half an hour.

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Image: Siona Benjamin

March 2005

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Jay Michaelson

Giving Thanks to Elijah the Prophet in Indian Manhattan
Jonathan Schorsch

Three Nights
Jill Hammer

The Pursuit of Justice
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Sha'arei Tzedek
Dan Friedman

God's Unchanging Hand
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