Let’s Go to India!

(The last newsletter contained a detailed article by Francisco on his encounter with the Telugu Jews in southeastern India.)

I would like to reiterate the Telugu Jewish community’s commitment. I believe they have made an irrevocable choice to be Jewish — a choice that they treat as a destiny. I am convinced they will strive to live as Jews regardless of whether other Jews ignore them, and regardless of resistance from surrounding communities.

A visit to the community by a Kulanu delegation would, I am certain, be joyously received. Such a visit would serve several functions. The community’s knowledge of Jewish observance is still young. All members express eagerness to learn. A Kulanu group’s insights on the Sabbath and holiday observance, for example, and on liturgy, would be extremely meaningful to all. Any gifts of books and religious articles would be received gratefully.

I would like to make some sundry suggestions for a Kulanu trip to India:

Round-trip air fares from New York to Delhi can be found for as low as $700-800.

The dargaz of Hazrat Sarmad in Delhi is worth a visit. Sarmad was a Persian or Armenian Jew who came to Delhi in the early 18th century as a trader, and became a well-known mystic and a close associate of Aurangzeb’s brother and rival, Dara Shikoh. He was executed with several associates of Dara Shikoh when Aurangzeb seized power in 1757. Sarmad was responsible for a translation of the Torah into Persian, and wrote the chapter on Judaism for a book of comparative religion, the Dabistan, commissioned by Dara Shikoh. (A reference on Sarmad: Walter Fishel’s “Jews and Judaism at the Court of the Mugal Emperors in Medieval India,” Islamic Culture, 25:105-31.) Also, there is one synagogue in Delhi, whose shammas is a man by the name of Ezekiel Issac Malecar.

I understand that there is a fairly extensive collection of Jewish materials at the National Library in Calcutta — so a brief stop there might be worthwhile en route to visit the Bnei Menashe in Manipur and Mizoram.

From Calcutta the trip to the community of the Telugu Jews is easy and direct. The Coromandel Express runs from Calcutta down the east coast of India to the city of Vijayawada, which is approximately 45 kilometers from the community. The community lives in the village of Kottareddipalem, which is a kilometer from the town of Chebrolu. Bus service between Chebrolu and Guntur (and between Guntur and Vijayawada) is frequent. I believe it is possible for those interested to stay in the village itself, in the homes of community members. I stayed with Sadok Yakobi’s family each time I visited. Those who do stay in Kottareddipalem should be prepared for rather basic accommodation. There is no running water; there are no outhouses; there is generally no electricity. There is a small brick structure next to the synagogue in which hand baths can be taken. I advise that everyone drink boiled or purified water and carry their own drinking water with them when visiting the village — simply to spare the members of the community the trouble of boiling gallons of water daily. The best months for visiting are November to February.

From Vijayawada the journeys to Cochin and to Bombay are easy. In Bombay I suggest a visit to the Fort Synagogue near the Prince of Wales museum in the Colaba section of the city. The leader of the small congregation is an amiable and knowledgeable man, Freddie Sopher. I spent a memorable evening with him discussing the history of the Iraqi Sephardim in Bombay and western India.

Also, there is a small Jewish community in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujerat.

Please feel free to contact me at 313-872-4048 with any questions.