Interview with Avi Solomon about Jewish relationship to other Religions in India

In the comments section on the post about the limits of Yoga for Jews, Avi Solomon, a reader of this blog, posted that as a Jew from Mumbai India he knew that Indian Jews knew how to keep a distance. (He is the author of a blog avisolo.blogspot that mainly discusses Abulafia and technical writing.) Since he has firsthand knowledge of Jewish practice in India, I decided to ask him a few questions and then a few more questions. I wanted to learn how they keep a distance and where they put the lines.

Please treat him and his answers with respect. We don’t need to point out where the practice among Indian Jewry is different than the Rambam, Rama or Pithei Teshuvah. Nor should we correct him with hindsight. The goal is to ask what can we learn from the natural practices of Indian Jewry.

When I posted on Yoga and Judaism, it was during Diwali. I was receiving many emails wishing me a happy Diwali. So the first thing I asked was concerning the holiday.

How did Jews relate to Diwali? Did they give greeting? Go out to the festivities?

We participated (along with members of every religion) in setting off very loud firecrackers! We greeted the Hindus when socially appropriate but attended any Diwali festivities only if we were invited. We told them we have our Diwali too -Hanukkah, which usually came a week or two after Diwali.

Which holidays did the Jews avoid?

None really. All holidays were an social occasion to meet the Goyim or to do excursions together as a (Jewish) family. This included the [Muslim] Id festivals too.

What were some of the things forbidden as Avodah Zara in India?

Never bow down to an Idol or at any place of worship that was not a synagogue. We somehow knew instinctively when we were about to cross a line.

How much did Jews know about Indian religions, its practice, and its Gods?

A lot – we were neighbors and Mumbai is a very cramped place.

Is there anything noticeable that was allowed?

Stuff to do with protection from ayin hara. For example a lemon with seven chillies would hang from the main door under the mezuzah as “additional protection”; or breaking coconuts on various occasions to ward off ayin ha ra.
Some religious customs were adopted from the Goyim but thoroughly koshered, for example the “Malida” ceremony honoring our “patron saint” Eliyahu HaNavi:

Shirley Berry Isenberg’s classic book “India’s Bene Israel” has more info.

Did you model yourself on the Muslims?

Not really. The Jews were there a lot before the Muslims and there was always some tension with the Muslims. The positive model to aspire to in India were the Zoroastrians (Parsis) who are ironically called the “Jews of India”. In fact my family lived next doors to a Zoroastrian family and our house overlooked a fire temple.

How did Jews relate to Zoroastrianism?

Congenially – Zoroastrianism was closer to the Jews as they worship an invisible God albeit made present in the form of fire and there was a sense of companionship as Zoroastrians were fellow “exiles” in India even after being there for a few thousand years. Also the Zoroastrians/Parsis were the most cosmopolitan Indians and the Indian Jews (Bene Israel) of Bombay naturally gravitated towards the same middle class status as them.

See the movie ‘Such a Long Journey’ for an intimate portrayal of the Zoroastrian life in Bombay.

‘Percy’ is also good but difficult to find.

How did you relate to the fire temple?

It was off limits to any non-Zoroastrian. I was able to sneak in once as a kid with my Parsi neighbor friend. Don’t tell anybody.🙂

What were the boundaries with Zoroastrians?

None apart from not bowing down to their prophet.

Was it different than Hinduism?

No. Will all religions the boundary was not bowing down before their Gods (you could go into their places of worship if you wished and they allowed). The other boundaries were not marrying goyim or eating non-kosher meat. Of course there were some Indian Jews who crossed these lines and paid prices. For young Jews the solution was usually to immigrate to Israel to find a Jewish partner. When the community is down to 5000 it’s hard to find someone suitable.

Do you know of any writings on how actual Jews related to Indian religions? (Besides Nathan Katz)

Mostly fiction (Shirley Berry Isenberg’s non-fiction book India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook [Hardcover] is the best factual accounts):
Shulamith by Meera Mahadevan (hard to find – movingly shows that Indian Jewish life was not all hunky dory)
Esther David

“Baumgartner’s Bombay” is a unique fictional account of a German Jew who ended up in Bombay just before the war and stayed there.

There is an online Jews of India forum.

These documentaries on the Bene Israel might be useful:

See, brandeis.edu/jewishfilm/Catalogue/films/beneisrael.htm


Were there any rabbis- or hakhamim who were stricter? (I wanted to know if anyone followed the way it is discussed in the poskim.)

Not that I know of – most of the strictness was in setting a personal example of high levels of observances.

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