Alibaug’s Little-Known Bene Israeli Community Has A Fascinating Story

Alibaug’s Little-Known Bene Israeli Community Has A Fascinating Story
Rashi Arora

The sea lends reason to believe in infinite possibilities. The feeling that once you set sail, anything might happen. That adventure, be it fuelled by discovery of the new or a tryst with an alien culture on familiar lands, is inevitable. As I looked out into the never-ending expanse of blue Arabian waters, thoughts like these took hold in my mind. “The ships from Israel first arrived here, in Nagaon, 2200 years ago,” stated Hannock Daniel Paskar, interrupting my thoughts. A Bene Israeli native of Alibaug, the 30-something sports a simple white formal shirt, a black pant with a sleeveless black leather jacket on his slender frame, speaks Marathi and Hebrew fluently and holds a dual citizenship for India and Israel. A nutritionist by profession and a priest at Alibaug’s oldest synagogues by choice, Hannock could be considered many things. On this day, however, he has agreed to be my guide to the strange cultural confluence of Maharashtrian culture and Judaism as I explore the fascinating Bene Israeli Community of the Konkan region.

The Bene Israelis fled the northern kingdom of Israel and came to India almost 2200 years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. However, they were left shipwrecked at Nagaon, a small fishing village in Maharashtra’s Konkan coast and sought help from the local Koli community who gave them the job of operating oil pressers to oil their boats. Thereafter, the foreigners settled in villages around Alibaug adopting surnames eponymous to it. Hannock’s family who settled in a village called Pen came to be called the Penkars. The ones who settled in Nagaon came to be called as Nagaonkars and so on. They adapted Maharashtrian mannerisms of food, clothing and lifestyle but kept their faith in Judaism intact. Thus was born a unique culture that thrived until 1948, the year that Israel got independence. Thereafter, many returned to their homeland in search of better opportunities. Today, hardly 15-20 families call Alibaug and surrounding parts of Maharashtra their home. But as long as they exist, the unique confluence continues to yield wonderful cultural revelations.

Hannock with his friend Moses. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

One such family is that of the Waskar’s who live in a quaint, leafy bungalow in Revdanda. Their Jewish heritage is immediately evident via the huge star of David engraved on the top of their pastel-coloured house. Benjamin David Waskar greets me at the gate and directly takes me to a small workshop hidden amidst the banana plantation in his front yard. Inside awaits a piece of history - a humongous oil pressing machine that Soshna, Benjamin’s wife operates. While explaining the inner workings of it to me, Benjamin explains how the Bene Israelis were once called Shanivar Telis (Saturday oil-pressers) as they did not work on Sabbath. “The Bene Israelis are involved in various mainstream professions by now but we still continue to do this as a side business,” he states. Though this particular oil-pressing machine wasn’t as old as its legacy, it definitely was a tangible piece cultural heritage that kept perhaps the first ever identity of the Bene Israelis alive.

Soshna operating the oil pressing machine. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The couple’s house is a treasure trove of Bene Israeli artefacts. Old Hebrew prayer books, religious wall hangings, an ornate bronze star-shaped Hannukah candle stand, mythological paintings — all adorn the cream coloured walls. Amidst that are old portraits of their ancestors, the one that catches my eye is an old sepia-tinted framed photograph of Benjamin and Soshna. They both seem youthful in the grainy picture. Sensing my curiosity, Soshna states rather coyly, “That picture is from the Jewish hostel in Mumbai, where both of us met and fell in love.”

The prospect of having a facility like a Jewish Hostel surprises me. Though no longer functional, I am told that various other institutions exist solely for the Jews of the state — in Mumbai, Thane, Pune and other parts of Maharashtra. Hebrew learning centres, Jewish cemeteries, Chabad houses, Old Age Homes for Jews and opulent synagogues. Though not all Synagogues in Mumbai are open to non-Jews (the laws got stricter after the 26/11 attacks on Chabad House) I get a chance to visit both synagogues in Alibaug. The Magen Aboth Synagogue situated on a street called Israeli Ali (the lane of Israelis), followed by the Beth El Synagogue in Revdanda. Built in 1840 and 1848 respectively, their architecture is modest but stands out amongst the other Konkani houses around. Done in shades of pink, they are ornate, complete with wooden benches, shelves full of religious books. The sanctum sanctorum is in the middle and at the top of it is an oil lamp, the flame of which should always be kept burning. The windows have glass paintings just like churches do. The walls outside the synagogues are engraved with the names of people who have funded their building and maintenance. These synagogues not just serve as places of worship for Bene Israelis but are also a meeting point for the tiny community. Most events and functions such as marriages, bar mitzvahs etc. take place in the sprawling gardens of the campus. Though none of these synagogues have full-time rabbis, both Hannock and Benjamin oversee the prayers and the operations of Magen Aboth and Beth Al respectively.

The Beth Al Synagogue. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

As I admire the baroque and the opulence of the Beth Al Synagogue, a young boy of about 17 walks in to pray. He wears a kippah and prays sincerely with his hands folded. Later. this young boy named Mikhael tells me how he has just started to learn Hebrew. Presently completing his high school, he wishes to go to Israel thereafter, enrol in the military and settle there after his service. “I like India but there is more opportunity there. The Israeli Government too wants to come, so why not?” he questions.

Hannock confirms Mikhael’s statement. Having served in the Israeli military and stayed in Israel himself, he mentions that he only came back to be with his ageing mother. It was primarily the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 resulted in an exodus, either out of religious sentiment or because of the impending uncertainty they anticipated for their community in the wake of the newly-acquired Indian independence. Thus by the latter half of the 20th century, the community had shrunk considerably and migrated to not just Israel but also Canada, Australia etc. This immigration continues till date. “I get a lot of calls from people offering us money in exchange for converting them into Jews so that they too can go to Israel and work. However, we never oblige. We haven’t done any conversions as of yet,” adds Hannock.

Mikhael during his prayers. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

As I step out of Beth Al, I see a few other lovely Jewish houses, decked out in shades of blue and purple. What surprises me is that there is a small temple situated right beside the synagogue. Apparently, in Alibaug, all religions exist in perfect harmony. This is a sentiment I observe amongst most Bene Israelis I meet. Though it may have to do with their seemingly Indian physical features, their foreign names or religious identity hardly seems to incite any discrimination, especially in Alibaug. In fact, just last year the Indian Jews of the state were granted a minority status by the government of Maharashtra.

A Jewish House in Revdanda, Alibaug. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

The Bene Israelis claim to be a tiny, peace-loving community but I am shocked to a piece of paper with two blood stained hand prints stuck outside every Jewish house. The very interesting explanation to this is provided by Newith Alice Waskar, another Benne Israeli resident of Alibaug, whose house I visit after my brief sojourn to the synagogues. “Once upon a time back in Egypt, the Jews were all enslaved by the Pharaoh. It was also a time when Egypt was hit with a bad plague. The Lord instructed Moses that ‘all Israelites must stay safe during the plague. They must kill their sheep and goat and smear their blood on their doors. At night, he will pass like a Ghost and kill every first-born, however, if he sees blood on the doorway, it will be a sign for him to pass over. The day is celebrated as Passover as a celebration of all those the Lord kept safe,” states Newith, narrating the long story briefly adding that the hand-prints in goat’s blood outside the houses symbolize the same. As I ponder upon it, my gaze suddenly drifts to a large painting that hangs in her living room. It shows a horse with a chariot landing — a scene I am told came alive in Alibaug as well. Hannock takes me to a quaint spot on the outskirts of the town. Near a pond, there are grey stones, upon which lies a depression which resembles a horse’s hoof. “This is where the horse, Eliyahu Hanabi landed briefly. I guess we were destined to come here”, he states.

I am quite surprised to see it. A religious event to have happened at a place they claimed much later, connects the community more to this tiny tourist town. But what connects the Bene Israelis of Alibaug to the rest of the world, especially to Israel is something much more tangible — a Marathi magazine called Shayli that I discover at the house of Shapolkars, another Jewish family native to Revdanda.

The Shapolkar family. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Diana Isaac Shapolkar hastily flips through pages of the thin booklet she is holding. Stopping suddenly, she proudly points to a grainy black-and-white photograph of herself. The Marathi text below it elaborates on the 75-year-old’s achievements as a social worker. The magazine is called ‘Aamchi Shayli’ (Our flower), a bi-yearly one dedicated to the Bene Israeli community of the world, showcasing its culture, people, their achievements and challenges. “The language is strictly Marathi as most Bene Israelis here cannot read Hebrew. In fact, the Bene Israelis of Maharashtra and their various publications have taken Marathi to over 72 countries,” says Diana’s son Hannaniel.

Diana Shapolkar with Shayli Magazine. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

While Shayli very much keeps the spirits of the Bene Israelis alive throughout the world, a similar spirit fizzles in Pali near Alibaug. A secret drink with a Jewish connects that has been quenching the thirst of locals and tourists alike since the last 80 years — D’Samsons Soda. It is late in the afternoon when I walk in. There is a picture of Moses that hangs on a blue wall inscribed with a pretty, pink Star of David. Opened by Daniel Samson Digodkar, in 1938, these fizzy drinks were a favourite amongst the British. D’Samson’s started off by offering unique sodas like Ginger Lemon, Kala Khatta, Masala and their most loved, the Ice Cream Soda. As of now, it is run by his grandson, 59-year-old Daniel Sydney who says that D Samson had his Soda machines imported back in the day from Europe. Today they use the ones that are locally made, with absolutely no difference in the taste. I order a glass of Ice Cream Soda for only INR 15. It is a flavour distinctively reminiscent of my own childhood. Gulping down the fruity ice cream soda is a pleasant refresher especially after an interesting yet a tiring day of understanding the lives of the Bene Israelis of Alibaug.

D'Samsons Soda. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

Yet, we have one last stop to make — another place of the Bene Israeli community that symbolizes death yet keeps their withering legacy alive - the centuries-old Jewish cemetery near Kihim. Its entrance is marked by a shining marble facade labelled as ‘The Jerusalem Gate.’ Inside are tombstones of hundreds of Bene Israelis - some who came 2000 years ago and passed away in a land they made theirs and some who had always called India their home.

The Jewish Cemetery. Photographed by Rashi Arora for Homegrown

While most of their descendants chose to move out, there are some who decided to come back. “I feel more at home in India,” states Irene Awaskar, a middle-aged woman who moved to Israel a few years ago and came back to India where she feels more accepted and not so different from its other citizens. I smile at her, realising that through all my interactions, one sentiment has stuck through. Here in this country, the Bene Israelis do not have to seek acceptance. They just want to enjoy what little is left of this unique hybrid community, born out of interesting historical events and the seamless intermingling of cultures.

All photographs by Rashi Arora.

If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you read: