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. Above the image, in a bold font, the title reads ‘Ek Vyaktimatv’ (One Personality). The Marathi text below it elaborates on the 75-year-old’s achievements as a social worker for women’s issues in and around Alibaug. She turns the page to another photograph of a group of people smiling outside a synagogue. “This was during one our festivities here in Revdanda,” Diana says. This strange cultural confluence of Judaism and the Indian language of Marathi surprises me. As Diana closes the booklet, I read the name of the magazine – ‘Aamchi Shayli’ it reads in a big pink Marathi font. The bi-yearly is dedicated to the Benne Israeli community of the world, showcasing its culture, people, their achievements and challenges. It is an effort to keep the dwindling community of Benne Israelis close-knit and further strengthen to their roots in India.
The Benne Israelis came to India from Israel almost 2200 years ago, after war broke out in the country. Their boat arrived at the Konkan region and the local Koli community decided to give them work if they helped them out in oiling their boats. The Benne Israelis thereafter settled in various surrounding villages, adopting surnames eponymous to it. They adapted Marathi mannerisms 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. However, various publications, just like Shayli still keep the spirit of the community alive.
Shayli, meaning flower in Marathi, was established in 1984 in Thane by Late Rachel Gadkar who headed the Eves Association - the community’s women’s group that is involved in various social activities. The association is still very much alive with Shayli being an integral part of their operations. “Our community is spread across the world now. Many Benne Israelis have migrated to other parts of India, some even to Canada, Europe and Israel. Thus, the magazine which is about the community is an effort to keep the community together, even from a distance,” Nancy Samson Killekar, Trustee of Eves Association states. Aamchi Shayli features everything from short stories and poems penned by the Benne Israelis to features on their festivities and events, obituaries, functions, weddings, bar mitzvahs, profiles/interviews. Published and distributed in March and on the Jewish New Year in September, the magazine has numerous subscriptions from around the world and costs only INR 40. “The language is strictly Marathi as most Benne Israelis here cannot read Hebrew. In fact, the Benne Israelis of Maharashtra and their various publications have taken Marathi to over 72 countries,” says Diana’s son Hannaniel.
Over 5,00,000 Indian Jews stay in Israel and the ancestors of over 70 percent of them migrated from the state of Maharashtra. Marathi is still widely spoken in the country and consequently, Aamchi Shayli enjoys popularity in Israel as well. However, what is surprising is that it isn’t the first Marathi magazine to be read widely there. Late Noah Massil established a magazine called Mai Boli in 1985. At the time, the Marathi font was not available as the typeface so many members took the pain of penning the text down. Today, the not-for-profit magazine has over 500 subscriptions and is very popular in Israel and Maharashtra where it is circulated as well.
For Diana, magazines like Shayli and Mai Boli have not just inculcated a reading habit but have also kept her up to date with the community’s happenings across the world. “It is a good feeling to know that a few pieces of words on paper can bind us together. Now my distant relatives in Israel can read about me. I am going to be popular,” she chuckles heartily.
All photographs are taken by Rashi Arora for Homegrown.
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