19 June, 2016

Namaste Israel

By Suhasini Haider

Having moved back to the Promised Land — from Calcutta, Cochin, Manipur — over the last few decades, Indian-origin Jews, or Bene Israel, are large in number but not as prosperous.

(This is the third piece in a series that tries to take take an in-depth look at Israel and its dynamics. Have you read the first piece, Israe'l's many flashpoints, and the second, Homes that don't belong?)

Ajeeb dastan hai yeh, kahaan shuru kahaan khatam [A strange story this is..where it begins, where it ends]...’

For 35 years, Yona Shimson Kasukar was chief engineer in the little-known Israeli town of Ashdod before he retired. But the years here, far away from Mumbai where he was born, have not dimmed his memory of the songs of his youth, and he sings the 1960s hit song with great gusto. Mr. Kasukar is not alone in remembering them, and soon, the rest of the restaurant on the Ashdod beach, where a group of Bene-Israelis from the area have gathered, joins in to sing and clap.

Bene-Israelis are one of four groups of Indian Jews that have moved to Israel over the past few decades, now numbering about 80,000 in all, far more than the approximately 5,000 left behind in India. There are also Cochin jews, Baghdadi jews (mainly from Kolkata) and those belonging to the Manashe tribe in Manipur, but in far fewer numbers who have moved here.

^ Legend has it that David Rahabi, an Indian Jew, discovered the presence of people practising Jewish customs in Cochin circa the 18th Century. While many consider Indian Jews as descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Jewish authorities do not recognise this assumption. | Wikipedia

Many like Mr. Kasukar say they moved to Israel because their own community was diminishing in India. Yoel Sogaokar, owner of the Namaste Indian restaurant in Ashdod, where the gathering is held, says he misses home everyday, but was worried that his children would marry into non-Jewish families and decided to move here from Mumbai. His daughter, Shlomit, was just three years old at the time and, though she grew up in Ashdod, speaks Marathi and watches Indian films. Perhaps the only time cultures may have clashed for the Kasukar family was when Shlommit turned 18, and had to sign up for the two-year compulsory military training (three-years for men). “I was quite worried about it when they said it was necessary,” her mother tells me, “We would not send our girls out for this in India”. Interestingly, Shlommit says she met many Israelis in the army who had been to India for holiday post-training.

^ Yoel Sogaokar's restaurant Namaste India is listed as among the best (#11 of 45) Indian restaurants in Ashdod. | Suhasini Haidar

Shlommit now helps her parents run the restaurant. Yoel Yefet says it hasn’t always been easy, and nearly had to shut down when rocket attacks from the neighbouring Gaza strip in retaliation for Israeli bombing made it dangerous to remain here. But there has been relative peace in the last couple of years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, in which 2,100 Palestinians and about 73 Israelis — including 7 civilians — were killed, and business is now better, Yoel says.

Unlike diasporas in the U.S. and U.K., the Indian-origin community in Israel is not prosperous, and has yet to find its feet in the upper echelons of politics. Ricky Shai (Shortened from Shaigaonkar) is one of the few to try her hand at public life, and is a Councillor in the Municipal corporation of the immigrant town of Ashkelon. “Unlike others here, I was married off early because of our traditions, and had to bring up four children,” she tells us, “It is more difficult for those from our culture to go out and have careers.” According to Ms. Shai, Indian-origin Jews here are yet to break into big business. Instead, many more work in the service sector, especially in the hotel business.

Simon Massil and Siyon both migrated from Mumbai in the 1990s, and now hold managerial positions at a Tel Aviv hotel. They both have seen the worst of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the divisions it has created within Israeli society over the past few decades. “Which society doesn’t have divisions?” says Simon Massill, “But I don’t see an end to this conflict in my lifetime. There hasn’t been peace in this land in 6,000 years, I doubt it will see peace within 60,” he adds.

Some have faced the violence and uncertainty longer than the other, and not all of them are Jewish. For nearly a hundred years now, the Ansari family has taken care of a little piece of India tucked away in one corner of Jerusalem’s walled city: the Indian Hospice at Herod’s Gate (made famous by Ambassador Navtej Sarna’s book on it). Fourteen members of the family, headed by the patriarch Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari still look after and live inside the hospice with a grant from the Indian embassy, managing a few rooms that are kept for Indian visitors passing through. The tradition dates back 800 years, when Sufi saint Baba Farid travelled to Jerusalem from India, and then his followers set up the hospice in his name. As he shows us around, Sheikh Ansari’s grandson Nazeer, who, along with the family, still keeps his Indian passport, says it hasn’t always been easy. During the six-day war in 1967, three family members, including Nazeer’s grandmother, were killed in Israeli strikes (it was under Jordanian control then), a bitter reminder of the tense faultlines they all must negotiate.

Most of those we speak to shrug when you mention the tensions with Palestinians, and with Israel’s neighbours, telling us it’s a part of “daily life”. The conflict certainly didn’t deter 27-year-old singer and actor Shmuel Jerad from coming to Tel Aviv. Thousands like him migrate to Israel every year as part of a process known as “Aliyah” — the repatriation of the Jewish diaspora by the Zionist “Jewish Agency of Israel”. Shmuel now works at a media company, and keeps his links with India alive through his work, outsourcing contracts from studios there. “I am just grateful that I was accepted by Israel,” he tells the crowd at the Namaste Indian restaurant, adding, with a tinge of wistfulness, the line that you hear from many Indians who have now made Israel their home.

“India is our motherland,” they say, “And Israel is our fatherland.”

(The correspondent was in Israel as part of a delegation invited by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange)


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