28
Feb
12

Israeli Kabristan

“The past is the past but sometimes it leaves a fingerprint on the future” – CSI, Felonious Monk

History fascinates me and old cemeteries are on my list of favourite haunts. But it is strange how one can live in a town for years and still not be familiar or aware of its past. When and how do we become immune to and ignorant of our surroundings? Why are we unable to widen our horizons? Why do we always take people, places and things for granted? When does a species or group of people silently disappear…occasionally remembered but generally forgotten, whilst we carry on without a hiccup!

 *

Recently a local daily ran an intrusion report concerning the Jewish Cemetery in the residential area where I have managed to find a dodgy concrete roof over my head. My ignorance about this cemetery came as a rude surprise to me. When in Baroda (still prefer the old name), I pass-by this place at least twice, daily. Never realised that behind the garbage dumper, sundry hoardings, broken wall, small roadside temple (illegal?), tabela, eatery carts, two-wheeler mechanic workshop, istri shack, Baroda Dairy outlet, rusting shell of a car, housing societies, hoardings and a few trees are the graves of the Bene Israeli community of Baroda.

   

I had such lovely Jewish friends during my university days. We were all part of what was then known as the ‘Shakespeare Society/Fatehgunj gang’. Of course, those days one never looked at the world through saffron eyes and friends were…just great friends! Nobody cared or bothered about one’s caste or religious beliefs. Also, why would anybody want to know about the ‘after-death’ practices and rituals of your associates’ community?

I have often thought of these friends and wondered where they were now? I even had a Tel Aviv address – lost now. Some google searches always remain a disappointment.

Where are you – Gerry and Albert?

 *

History has it that The Bene/Beni Israel (“Sons of Israel”) lived primarily in the cities of Bombay (now Mumbai), Poona (now Pune), Karachi (now in Pakistan), and Ahmedabad (now Amdavad and maybe Karnavati). The native language of the Bene Israel was Judeo-Marathi. They arrived in India nearly 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just south of Mumbai. (Source: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/indians.html)

There are two distinct ancient Jewish communities in India – the Cochin Jews of South India, and the Bene Israel of West India.

The Cochin community may reach back to Biblical times. It is believed that the merchant ships of King Solomon reached ports of the East, returning with spices, precious stones and rare flora and fauna. The ancient contacts between the land of Israel and India are supported by the several Hebrew words, which are common to the Indian Sanskrit and Tamil languages. The Cochin Jews have a belief that tens of thousands of Jews arrived there after the destruction of the Second Temple.

For centuries the Cochin Jews never lost contact with mainstream Judaism. Their location near the ports of South India provided opportunities for outside interaction with travellers and merchants from Europe and the Middle East.

Documents found in the Cairo Geniza – book depository – indicate that between the 10th and 12th centuries commercial ties existed between the Cochin Jews and Mediterranean communities.

In 1948, some 2,500 Cochin Jews moved to Israel. Presently, less than 100 Jews remain, living a twilight existence near the only functioning synagogue.

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The origins of the Bene Israel Jews of West India are somewhat obscure. According to their tradition, their ancestors arrived by sea from the north, becoming shipwrecked and established the community near Bombay. For centuries they lived in isolation, until the middle of the 18th century, when they were discovered by a Cochin Jew, David Rahabi.

The Bene Israel had maintained many vestiges of Jewish practices – Shabbat and Holidays; some laws of Kashrut; and, the prayer Shema Yisrael. Although they are Indian in appearance, speak an Indian language, and have been influenced by the surrounding culture, they have nonetheless maintained a separate existence from the other Indian groups in the area. Today the Bene Israel were a sizable Jewish group in India. Several thousand of them settled in and around Bombay, though most have immigrated to Israel. (Source: The Jews of India – http://cohen-levi.org/)

*

Penker, Kehimker, Vargharkar, Chandgaowker, Karlekar, Songavkar, Mhedeker, Agarwarkar, Erulkar – all Jews, and residents of Baroda.

The earliest Jews in Baroda were David Gershone Agarwarkar who was an ADC to Sayajirao Gaekwad III and Judge Kehimkar during the same period. As the Gaekwads had Bene Israel families in their court, the community was granted burial land. There is even a ‘Khat’ regarding the same. This 162 years old historical site lies at the mouth of what technically used to be the Nizampura village; next to the Mitra Mandal Society. Epitaphs are engraved in Hebrew (their original language/mother-tongue), Marathi (language they adopted) and English (language they eventually learnt). They apparently adopted the names of Maharashtra villages as their surnames and slowly adopted the customs, retaining a few original traits.

      

There is even a mother who was born in Berlin and now rests in Baroda.

All graves at the cemetery belong to the Bene Israelis save one at the rear corner, which is said to belong to the son of a Jewish British officer.

There is no headstone. It is believed that the stone with inscription was carried away by family members who no longer live in India. I wonder if the structure over this grave and another would be considered an Ohel.

At one time there were about 10 Jewish families in Baroda and maybe 500 in Gujarat, with the overall number slowly declining.

There are none in Baroda even though there is a grave marked 2010. This being a bit odd, I tried tracing the Songavkar family but it seems they moved to Ahmedabad many years ago and the phone remains unanswered!

The cemetery first faced a threat fromSuresh Shinde, a local builder, who had cordoned-off nearly 500 square feet of the land and wanted to construct a row of shops here. According to him, he had purchased the land from Issac Erulkar, a former deputy police commissioner and member of the community who apparently has/had the property in his name and wanted to sell it much against the wishes of other Jews of Gujarat. Erulkar had reasoned that he only

wanted to sell the part which had no graves and that he would deposit some money for the upkeep of the area. This reasoning was not supported at all by other members of the community.

According to members of the Bene Israel across Gujarat it is sacrilegious to permit commercial activity on a graveyard but nobody came forward to restore it or pay for its upkeep. A spokesperson of the Israeli Embassy, Michael Guraryeh, had eventually visited Baroda to see the cemetery. The assurances given by her then have yet to be fulfilled.

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By 2003, only four Jewish families were left in Baroda. Most, including the Erulkars, had migrated to Israel. Baroda does not have a synagogue and the only one in Gujarat – the Magen Abraham synagogue is in Ahmedabad. It does not want to be involved in the issue as it considers burial ground disputes to be local problems.

In principle, the land was gifted to the community during the Gaekwadi state era and cannot be considered as private land and hence should be under government control. In 2009, the District Collector’s office had even declared it as government property.

Lately, a local ad-agency somehow got permission from the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) to put up a hoarding on the burial ground. Incidentally, the permission letter granted by the VMC mentions the cemetery to be the “private property” of Shinde.

So, the VMC treats government land as private property and Mr. Shinde & Co. still have their greedy eyes on this historical patch of land!

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Another community concerned about the slow encroachment of the cemetery land, is the family of Bhailalbhai Waghela – caretakers since 150 odd years. They are traditionally cowherds (who have prospered and diversified over time but still continue the business of supplying milk), and were given the task of maintaining the grounds. In return, they were allowed to live there rent-free and continue their profession. I must confess I saw no ‘ground maintenance’ of any kind, even though the surviving family members turned out to be fairly accommodating. However, I doubt if the present generation of caretakers are really concerned about the historical importance of the place. They are worried mainly because they may have to relinquish the land that they have been using for their personal gains. This old cemetery is an ideal place for them to keep their cattle and the compound also gives them ample space for their personal work – be it stacking of hay, collection and piling of cow dung or the drying of flat ‘dung-cakes’ for fuel.

The caretaker family is carefully following the turn of events and may also be interested in the portion of the pie that will be offered!

Like so many other historical places of the ‘Sanskar Nagri’ this too will eventually fall under the hand-in-glove development schemes of the government and ravenous builders; this too, like the Nawab graveyard will slowly and silently disappear. Many historical sites in Baroda have been flattened and let us not forget that, in Gujarat, it took just 48 hours for the tomb of Vali Gujarati/Dakhani to be razed to the ground. And, of course, elsewhere, there was the Babri Masjid too.


13 Responses to “Israeli Kabristan”


  1. 1 Samira
    February 28, 2012 at 9:04 am

    “Avinu malkeinu sh’ma kolenu
    Avinu malkeinu chatanu l’faneycha
    Avinu malkeinu alkenu chamol aleynu
    V’al olaleynu v’tapenu

    Avinu malkeinu
    Kaleh dever v’cherev v’raav mealeynu
    Avinu malkeinu kalehchol tsar
    Umastin mealeynu

    Avinu malkeinu
    Avinu malkeinu
    Kotvenu b’sefer chayim tovim
    Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu
    Chadesh a leynu shanah tovah”

    Translation:
    Hear our prayer
    We have sinned before thee
    Have compassion upon us and upon our children
    Help us bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine
    Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth
    Inscribe us for blessing in the book of life
    Let the new year be a good year for us

  2. 5 Samira
    March 3, 2012 at 8:38 am

    The album was called Higher Ground.

  3. March 5, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Loved this piece…thanks Arun, in Kolkata, many of such sites are disappearing too. Satyajit Ray makes such a graveyard the heart of his crime fiction novel, which has been made into a film by his son recently. Cities without heritage are like people without souls.

  4. 7 Eliaz Reuben-Dandeker C.M
    May 24, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Amazing truley….when i went to India 2 years preor from Israel i tried to trace all the hebrew cemetries,but didn’t have much time to do so….hopefully soon i shall make a trip to do so…thank’s for the facanating article and photos…

  5. 9 Anurag
    October 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Amazing information. Its particularly surprising how we tend to not know something under our noses.
    Commendable job. By the way I did visit there after reading your article.
    Anurag Abhyankar

  6. 11 Ashish K
    July 27, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Is Government taking any legal action to save this Sacred and historical place? What does our chiefminister of Gujarat and our primeminister of India has to say about this issue? Would the Government take any steps to save this historical place or does the Government wants to make Vadodara only a so called hindu city? I have to say only one thing to our respected Prime minister of India and especially to the Chief minister of Gujarat – Please save the old historical places and sacred places of any religion; please start with this sacred place of Jews in Vadodara, Gujarat. Thanks and Jai Hind.

  7. 12 shfaan03
    June 22, 2015 at 8:59 am

    Wonderful again Sir ji. I’m from Kolkata and must also add that this city was once upon a time also a home for Jewish migrants. Most of them had come from present day Iraq in the 18th century and came to be knows as the Baghdadi Jews. Today, Kolkata has lot to thank them for. As everywhere else, 1948 saw them moving to their new home and today only a handful (literally) remain.


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