When Shimrit Levy, 41, was a young girl, she would travel from Arad with her family to spend Shabbat with her grandparents in Yeruham. “Yeruham felt like little India to me,” she recalled. Her grandparents were part of the Bene Israel community, many of whom began making aliyah from western India soon after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
“Yeruham felt like little India to me.”Shmirit Levy
Levy’s grandparents lived near Yeruham’s Sha’arei Rahamim synagogue, the first synagogue to be constructed in Israel for the Bene Israel community in 1962. “You could see women wearing saris and hear the Marathi language of western India being spoken in their neighborhood,” she said, describing Yeruham of the 1980s.
Her grandmother made aliyah in 1959 from a village near Pune, while her grandfather immigrated from Mumbai in 1960.
“On Shabbat, my grandfather would wear the large white cloth kippa that would cover his entire head, which was characteristic of the dress of Indian Jewish men. My grandmother dressed in a sari. They would speak Marathi to each other. My grandmother prepared delicious Indian food and desserts. I can remember my grandfather burning frankincense before Shabbat began,” she told the Magazine.
“After Kiddush, we would sing Shabbat hymns with Indian Jewish melodies. And once we finished the meal, we would watch an Indian Bollywood film on videotape,” Levy said.
“While my grandparents were very traditional, they were not religious,” she explained.
But Levy said that her own parents wanted very much to be Israeli. So while she experienced the world of Indian traditions in her grandparents’ home, she received little information of her Indian heritage at home. “There is so much about Indian Jewish culture and history that I didn’t know about because that knowledge wasn’t passed down,” she said.
Levy began to research Bene Israel history and customs, and later established the group HaDor HaChadash (The New Generation), together with author and social activist Ilana Shazor and Golan Cherikar Shrikar in 2018. HaDor HaChadash is a group of young Israelis of the Bene Israel community who are devoted to preserving and raising awareness about Bene Israel customs and history both within the Bene Israel community and Israeli society.
The Malida is a Bene Israel tradition that Levy, Shazor and other activists worked tirelessly to bring back to mainstream consciousness. It was eventually incorporated as an official holiday by the Hebrew Calendar project, led by Heli Tabibi-Bareket.
The Malida ceremony is celebrated during different life-cycle events, as well as on Tu Bishvat. The thanksgiving ceremony features psalms and special prayers to Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu Hanavi) and a special dish of a large mound of poha (flattened rice), grated coconut, an assortment of spices and nuts, flowers and five different fruits.
According to Bene Israel tradition, their ancestors had left the land of ancient Israel over 2,000 years ago and were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast in western India on Tu Bishvat. Seven women and seven men survived and were rescued by Elijah.
What is the history of the Bnei Israel community?
THE BENE Israel community, which mostly comes from the state of Maharashtra in western India, is the largest and oldest of the five groups of Jewish communities in India. The others are the Cochin Jews of Kerala; Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal; the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh; and the Bnei Menashe Jews of northeast India. Today, the Bene Israel number around 80,000 in Israel.
“The malida dish is very symbolic,” explained Igal Dan, an educator and musician of Indian Jewish music from Yeruham. “The mound of rice symbolizes Mount Sinai, the five fruits symbolize the five books of the Torah, and the flowers symbolize the smell of the incense that was offered in the Temple. This is a very ancient custom in our community.”
According to Dan, the Malida ceremony is performed prior to weddings, a mother giving birth, the purchase of a new home, before entering the army, going off to college and other happy occasions.
Dan, 50, plays the tabla, an Indian drum, which he learned from his father. “My dad taught us how to play both Indian Jewish music and songs from Bollywood films. He was a musician from the age of 14 in Mumbai and played in a band with his six brothers. As a master percussionist, he played with top Indian musicians. He could also sing in Marathi and Hindi and became well known for his music in Israel as well.”
Dan’s father, Rahamim, continued to perform with his brothers after making aliyah in 1968. All six of Rahamim’s brothers moved to Yeruham, but their sister remained in Mumbai.
Today, Dan is the only one of his siblings who still lives in Yeruham and continues in his father’s musical footsteps. He manages and plays in the local band called Raga Tunes, which performs at various functions and events across Israel. They band plays traditional Indian Jewish music along with original songs that he has composed, as well as Israeli folk music. The band has put out five CDs of Indian Jewish music including Sabbath melodies and Yom Kippur liturgy, some of which can be heard on YouTube.
Raga Tunes recently performed at a Malida ceremony organized for the public at Yeruham’s Atid Bamidbar, which works to empower the local community and promote cultural, education and tourism initiatives in the Negev. Debbie Golan, president and co-founder of the organization, said that this was the second year that Atid Bamidbar has held a festive Malida ceremony on Tu Bishvat, complete with a beautiful platter of malida for the public.
“At Atid Bamidbar, we put special emphasis highlighting all the different traditions that are celebrated here in Yeruham, including those of the Persian, Moroccan, Russian and Indian communities,” she said.
Golan, a Boston native who has been living in Yeruham for more than 35 years, recalled the years when Yeruham had its own cricket team made up of members of the Bene Israel community. “I remember going to games of the Yeruham cricket team, including one against the royal Indian cricket team. I also remember the Marathi book section in the library,” she said as she ate from the malida prepared by Rozi Panker, who moved to Yeruham with her husband from Mumbai in 2000. “The Sha’arei Rahamim synagogue’s prayer books featured texts in both Hebrew and Marathi,” she added.
Today, Yeruham no longer has a cricket team, and the local library no longer carries books in Marathi, since demand diminished over the years. The new prayer books in the Sha’arei Rahamim synagogue feature only Hebrew texts.
OTHERS OF the Bene Israel community, like Yonatan Varsulker, 60, who was born in Yeruham, noted that Indian Jewish culture for the next generation in Israel has changed. “I speak Marathi, although not perfectly,” he said. But while his children understand the language, they cannot actually speak it. “It wasn’t so important for them to learn to speak it,” Varsulker commented.
His parents came to Israel in 1961 from Pune, which had a large Jewish population with several synagogues, he said. “My parents did not experience any antisemitism in Pune. Jews across India experienced very good relations with their Hindu and Muslim neighbors. They believed we were blessed and hired us to work for them, in their factories for example.”
Varsulker, who was the former head of the Bene Israel community in Yeruham, explained that his parents left India because they dreamed of returning to the Land of Israel. “They dreamed of the Land of Israel for thousands of years.”
He himself refuses to leave Israel and has never traveled overseas. “I believe it’s not right to leave Israel. For 2,000 years we were in exile, and finally we were able to return. This is our land, and there’s no reason to leave it.”
But in Israel, the Bene Israel community did not have an easy integration. “When my parents arrived here, there was no work in the South. They had to sell off all the gold, dishware, everything they brought with them from India. And they were left with almost nothing,” he recounted.
Eventually, Varsulker’s father found work in construction and worked on the road that was being built to Eilat. “From Sunday to Friday, Dad was away from home working on the road. It got too much for my mom, who was unwell. So he switched jobs and worked for the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, planting trees. That was also very difficult. Finally, he found steady work in a local textile factory.”
Varsulker’s voice grew soft when he recalled his own early years in Yeruham. “When I was a child, we didn’t buy Indian spices at the grocery store. We prepared the spices at home,” he said. “My parents would buy peppers, and my job as a kid would be to grind the spices with a special wooden contraption. The spices were much tastier back then.
“Those were hard days, but there was a good atmosphere here in Yeruham. Everyone helped each other out.”
IN ADDITION to the difficult economic situation, the Bene Israel community also had challenges on a social level. “In India we were Jews, but here in Israel, the rabbinic authorities did not consider us to be Jewish, and we didn’t feel that we were respected or valued here,” Varsulker said.
The Bene Israel staged silent protests – Gandhi style – and hunger strikes in face of the discrimination in the 1950s and the early 1960s. “Some of the Bene Israel even demanded to go back to India because they were not recognized as Jewish in Israel,” Varsulker said. “The Jewish Agency returned them to India, and the Indian prime minister welcomed them back.”
But on August 16, 1964, the Knesset finally passed a resolution stressing the equal rights of the Bene Israel to all other Jews, including in matters of matrimony. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel followed suit, revoking an order to investigate family status before marriage.
Varsulker said that his family today includes all members of Israeli society, including Ashkenazim, Moroccans and Yemenites. “On the one hand, it’s nice to see this unity, but on the other hand, we lose our customs along the way.”
For Levy, preserving her Bene Israel heritage is imperative. This year on Tu Bishvat, her daughter shared a PowerPoint presentation that she created about the Malida ceremony and shared it with her classmates at her elementary school.
“For me, just seeing the next generation of our children teaching others about our traditions makes me proud,” she said. ■
The writer made aliyah from Calais, Maine, in 2004. She works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where she lives with her family.