Thanks to the power of Facebook, I went from having no idea about what to do, to concrete plans with members of Mumbai’s Jewish community. A local man named Nathaniel found me on Facebook after he read an article I wrote for New Voices magazine. He sent me a message inviting me to attend prayers and eat dinner at the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in the Fort neighborhood in South Mumbai for the first night of Rosh Hashanah.
After sweating through muggy train and taxi rides, I arrived at the synagogue disheveled and eager to meet Nathaniel. But before I could go in and mingle, I had to go through TSA-style security. I was herded through a metal detector, required to show my driver’s license and asked how I learned about the event.
After the security procedures, I finally entered the powder blue sanctuary and scanned the diverse crowd. The congregation was made up of Israelis and Americans working and traveling in Mumbai, and members of the local Jewish community. Congregants ranged from synagogue regulars like Nathaniel and his family, to an American music industry executive on his way to Germany. (I later learned the music executive is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and discovered The Ramones, Madonna and The Talking Heads).
After prayers, the congregation shuttled down to the synagogue’s basement for a Rosh Hashanah seder. Most people have probably heard of a Passover seder. Members of Jewish communities tracing their roots to Spain, the Middle East and India also mark Rosh Hashanah with a seder. During the ceremony blessings are said over almonds, pomegranates, a ram’s head, pumpkin and grapes. The different items are meant to bring good fortune for the upcoming year.
After the seder, we enjoyed a hearty holiday feast. The offerings were quite different from the turkey, brisket and sweet potatoes I usually have during my family Rosh Hashanah dinners at home. We were treated with hearty helpings of biryani, a rice dish, different curries and finished off the meal with fruit salad.
I went back to Knesset Eliyahoo the next day for prayers and joined the congregation for tashlich, a ceremony where participants take scraps of bread and symbolically throw sins from the past year into a body of water. We did tashlich at the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s most famous landmark.
My favorite part of the two days I spent at Knesset Eliayhoo was spending time with Nathaniel and his family. Though Nathaniel and I are from opposite sides of the world, we come from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds. He and I have both been actively involved in Jewish culture throughout our lives and come from families that nurture and encourage discussion, debate and celebration of Jewish customs. We also discovered that Nathaniel spent a summer in California with a friend of mine from OU, and that he spent many Saturday mornings at a synagogue across the street from my aunt and uncle’s house in suburban Atlanta while he was there on business. It’s a small world.
The next day I went to another synagogue in a different neighborhood of Mumbai. Again, I had to go through the routine of showing my driver’s license and answering a battery of questions before I was left alone. The synagogue was exclusively made up of Jews from the Bene Israel community, India’s indigenous Jewish community. Some prayer books had Marathi transliterations, a language spoken in the state of Maharashtra, and there were signs in Marathi throughout the synagogue. After the services, I joined a group of young men from the synagogues as they blew the shofar, a ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah to trigger introspection at the beginning of the New Year. We visited a machine shop and the apartments of people who were not able to attend services.
I definitely missed not celebrating the holiday with my family. The Mumbai Jewish Community’s welcoming spirit, made me feel very at home in a very foreign environment.