Rahel Musleah, the seventh generation of a Kolkata Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad, will discuss Jews from Kolkata, Kochi and Mumbai when she visits Ohev Shalom of Bucks County Jan. 29 to 30.
While most kids have a dog or cat as a pet growing up, award-winning journalist Rahel Musleah, who lived in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, until she was 6, had a goat. Musleah, the seventh generation of a Kolkata Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad, will discuss Jews from Kolkata, Kochi and Mumbai when she visits Ohev Shalom of Bucks County Jan. 29 to 30.
At its height, Kolkata alone was home to some 5,000 Jews. Today, that number has been dramatically reduced to a recent estimate of only 20 members of the community. In fact, it has been estimated that there are only about 5,000 Jews in all of India.
“Each Jewish community had a great impact, whether it’s Calcutta, Bombay, Kochi or New Delhi,” said Musleah, who has received awards for her writing from the American Jewish Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Sephardi Literary Contest, the Society of National Association Publications and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. “There were a lot of philanthropists, mayors and doctors. They really made an impact on India in general, even though the communities were a small percentage of the entire population.”
In 1964, her family moved to Philadelphia, where her father, Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah, served as the spiritual leader at Mikveh Israel for 15 years.
Rahel Musleah, who lived here until 1979, and who now calls Port Washington, N.Y., home, has visited India several times and created her own tour of the country. The next ones will take place Nov. 3 to 17 of this year and Feb. 9 to 23, 2017.
She will lead Shabbat services at Ohev Shalom, using melodies from India and speak about the history of the Indian Jews and the similarities and differences between them and American Jews.
Among Indian Jewish customs are lifting the Torah twice before it is read and using a thick date syrup with crushed walnuts for Passover instead of charoset. Other Indian Passover customs include using romaine lettuce for maror and eating rice.
As might be deduced by the inclusion of rice in Passover meals, Jews in India have long referred to themselves as Sephardic. “We always called ourselves Sephardim,” she said. “Sephardic and Ashkenazi is not just a geographical distinction.”
Along with the rest of their countrymen, Kolkata’s Jews became independent from the British with the passage of the Indian Independence Act of 1947 in the British Parliament. The law partitioned British India into two new independent dominions, India and Pakistan. At that time, other Jews left the country and made aliyah to Israel or immigrated to America or England.
At one point, there were several Indian Orthodox shuls. Today, those that remain are often unable to hold a minyan. “Since there are so few left, they rarely have services in the synagogue,” Musleah said.
Like the Jews in Kolkata, those from Kochi and Mumbai have also migrated to Israel. At its apex in the mid-20th century, there were 35,000 Jews in Mumbai. Today, only 4,000 remain, mostly members of the B’nai Israel tribe. Mumbai is home to eight synagogues and a Jewish community center.
“It’s been decreasing for a few years, so we’ve had a lot time to get used to it,” she said, referring to the declining numbers of Jews in India. “These Jews were integrated into the community, but didn’t generally assimilate.
“India has always been very hospitable to its Jewish community and in general, anybody who wanted a safe haven there. That sort of warmth comes through in the life that’s left there.”
Musleah will also speak at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell on Feb. 5 and 6, and Temple Sinai in Dresher on March 4 and 5.