On a chilly December night, an eclectic group of people gathered at the Judah Hyam Synagogue in central New Delhi to celebrate Hanukkah. In attendance were Indian Jews, a couple of Jewish families visiting from the United States, and other visitors from various other religions. Rachel, a Jewish woman from New York, had visited this synagogue a few years ago during a student trip to India. “Now, I am back here on holiday with my two children. Since it is Hanukkah, I thought it would be interesting to bring them here,” she told DW at the time.

The event was also attended by government officials and Supreme Court lawyers, who lit the candles for the celebration. “India is one of the few countries where Jews have never been persecuted. That’s why I always say, I am Indian first and a Jew second,” Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar told the attendees before beginning the prayer service. (Also Read | Lighting trends 2023: Stylish and smart ways to illuminate your space)

Who are the Jews of India?

India’s Jewish community can be roughly divided into the Bene Israelis of western India, the Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal and the Cochin Jews of Kerala. There are also the Bnei Menashe Jews of northeast India and the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh.

Jewish communities in India have integrated with local culture and picked up regional customs, traditions, dressing styles and language, said Malekar. They often adopted surnames based on the names of their towns and villages.

India’s Jewish population was around 50,000 in the 1940s. Many Jews have since moved to Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and other countries. There are currently only an estimated 6,000 Jews still living in India.

However, despite being a small community, Jews have made significant contributions to India’s society and culture.

David Sassoon was well known as a businessman and a philanthropist in the 1800s. And J. F. R. Jacob, who was born in 1924, served in the Indian army and played a crucial role in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971.

Keeping Jewish traditions alive

New Delhi has a small community of less than 10 Jewish families. They consist mostly of diplomats and expats from other countries, as well as Indian Jews who have moved to the city.

New Delhi’s Judah Hyam Synagogue, inaugurated in the 1950s and run by Malekar, is their major place of worship. Malekar himself is an internal migrant from the western city of Pune.

A government job brought him to the Indian capital, and soon he undertook the care and maintenance of the synagogue in the 1980s, without receiving remuneration.

A Jewish cemetery and a library, which holds Hebrew classes, are located close to the synagogue.

Malekar has tried to keep up with modern society, while maintaining traditions. He has officiated 15 interfaith marriages so far, and said he does not ask any partner to change their religion for their spouse.

“For the reading of the Torah, you require 10 men. I have completely avoided this, and allow anyone who would like to attend,” he said. “According to the times, we must change our attitude. Not only in Judaism, but in all religions.”

Renowned Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen is also part of New Delhi’s Jewish community. An American citizen, Lowen has been living in the capital for several years.

“I am the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants to the United States who had to leave their homes in Eastern Europe more than a century ago because of life-threatening antisemitism,” she said.

“It has been a great pleasure to live in India close to 50 years knowing that this country has been home to Jews since before the Christian era with full religious freedom, even offering a safe haven to those fleeing Europe in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Also it is natural that most Indians assume Westerners to be Christian,” she added. “I have made it clear when it comes up that I am Jewish and not Christian.”

Several of Malekar’s family members have moved abroad, to Israel, Australia and Canada. But he does not wish to move away from his homeland.

“Israel is in my heart, but India is in my blood,” he said.

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