Learning through other people’s stories

Learning through other people’s stories

The Maghen David synagogue in Calcutta, where Rahel’s father was the rabbi.

There’s no one way of being Jewish; there is no “monolithic way” to view the Jewish people.

That, says writer/lecturer Rahel Musleah, is part of the message she hopes to convey when she speaks at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel on Dec. 20.

In a presentation called “Jewish Calcutta through Music and Memory,” Musleah – born in Calcutta to a family that traces its roots there back seven generations – will introduce attendees to the life of Indian Jews through music, personal anecdotes, artifacts, and photographs.

“I think that people are interested in finding out that there are Jews who are like them and those who are different,” Musleah said. “I truly believe that people learn through other people’s stories.”

“There’s a universal sense of loss when a Jewish community is almost no longer,” she added, noting that the once-flourishing Jewish community in Calcutta, home to about 5,000 people, has dwindled to about 30. Even Mumbai, which once boasted some 30,000 Jews, now has only about 4,000.

Rahel Musleah

While discussing the distinctive customs of the Indian Jewish community, Musleah – who has lived in the United States since 1964 and now lives in New York – will recount her personal journeys as well. That includes a 1997 trip to Calcutta with her parents.

“When I went to India with my parents, the stories and pictures I was raised with came to life,” she said. “It was life-changing in the way that it reconnected me with my parents and with what India means to me.”

After that trip ““ and a second one she and her sister took in 2006 – she started to speak about Indian Jewish heritage to others. (Her sister, Flora Yavelberg, chairs the upper school’s Judaism studies department at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.)

“I now had some tangible experience,” Musleah said, noting that while she does have memories of her early years in India, “it’s hard to know what is real. I do know that I had a pet goat in Madhupur, the hill station where we spent our winter vacations. I have a picture of it. And I have memories of other things, like watching a Muslim procession where [people] beat their chests until they bled. It was a very searing, scary memory.”

Musleah said that her father came to the United States to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1947, returning to India after he was ordained to become the rabbi of Calcutta’s Maghen David Synagogue. “By the 1960s, a lot of the community had already left,” Musleah said, explaining that most of the Jews moved to Israel, England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. To some extent, she said, they were driven by the establishment of the State of Israel, economic uncertainty after Indian independence, unrest around the partition of India and Pakistan – and also because after World War II, “the world started opening up.” Her father was offered a job in the United States, and her parents decided to go.

In 1964 the family – Rabbi Ezekiel and Margaret Musleah and their daughters – moved to Philadelphia, where Musleah’s father became religious leader of Mikveh Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue.

“It was a very big adjustment, and more for my mother than for anyone else,” she said. In India we had people to help us – a cook, an ayah [nanny], someone to take care of the laundry. My mother didn’t know how to drive, cook, or take care of kids full time.”

Musleah said that although she hasn’t met many American Jews of Indian heritage, she follows up comments left on her website (www.rahelsjewishindia.com) by visitors who order her CDs of Jewish Indian music and prayers.

In addition, she visited Israel in August and met members of the Indian Jewish community, who had come back from all over the world. During that trip, she learned that efforts are underway to establish an Indian Jewish heritage center in Haifa.

“I also met a second cousin,” she said. “We really hit it off. I felt a real kinship and was tapping her memory for family stories.”

Musleah said her knowledge of Indian customs, songs, and prayers was passed down through “everything we did in the house.” If her Solomon Schechter education was Ashkenazic, her home was “an island of Indian tradition in Philadelphia.”

She recalls celebrations of Shabbat, Pesach, Rosh Hashanah – each with specific traditions and melodies. There was also a lot of singing of the traditional songs called pizmonim.

She, in turn, is doing her best to pass these traditions down to her two daughters.

“It’s not possible to pass it down in the same measure, as each generation becomes one more [generation] removed,” she said, but she tries. “We do the Pesach seder the same way. My father leads it. We do the Rosh Hashanah seder and kiddush on Shabbat. Their interest deepens with maturity.”

“Someone once asked my daughter Shira, ‘What kind of customs do you still do?’ She said, ‘What do you mean? Everything we do is Indian.’ It was a revelation – even to me.”

In addition to her presentation on Calcutta, Musleah offers talks on the Jews of Mumbai and Cochin and on the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India. To prepare for these lectures, she does substantial research.

“I have visited these communities and interviewed people,” she said. She has connected with Iraqi Jews in Queens and Great Neck [where there are two “Babylonian” synagogues], and offers a talk on their history as well.

Speaking about her Indian heritage is “a really important thing for me,” Musleah said. “It’s who I am. The trips to India, the research, songs, and stories have helped me to find another piece of the puzzle of who I am, what the community was, and what it still means to me.”

Musleah ““ who contributes regularly to Hadassah magazine, Jewish Woman, and many other publications – has received Simon Rockower awards for excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association frequently since 1996. She is the author of several books, including “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah,” and “Why On This Night? A Haggadah for Family Celebration.” She has also recorded a CD: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India.

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