Often we fail to look around the city where we live. We can’t see the hidden treasures of history. For me, it’s really important to feel the real life of a city through its old market places, walking the narrow gullies, the hustle bustle of old markets and the streets where local sellers bring in their produce and sit all day long to earn a livelihood.
Thane is where i have grownup and completely love this place, never mind that my friends keep saying it is a small town. Actually they aren’t really aware of the history of this amazing place.
As you walk towards the old traders’ market place, you can find this very old but well kept synagogue dating back to the late 1800s. ‘The Shaar Hashamaim’ – Gate Of Heaven Synagogue – foundation stone laid on 26th March 1868 and building completed on 29th December 1879 and dedicated and consecrated on 30th December 1879 during the Chanukka festival. ‘Shaar Hashamaim’ – Gate Of Heaven Synagogue was again beautified after 120 years and stands strong with a sprinkling of local jewish families . The jewish community in india are called “The Bene Israelis” (Sons of Israel) , who form a major chunk of the Jewish population in India. The stories around the community is interesting; of few families survived a ship wreck and landed in Navgaon in the Kolaba District of Maharashtra. The wreck resulted in many deaths, all of whom were buried at a burial site that exists even today in Navgaon near Alibag. The seven families that survived later were knowns as Shaniwar Telis since they were the oil pressers who refused to work on saturday also known as sabbath. The peace loving community adopted many of the local customs and traditions while changing their surnames and easily mingled with the locals. For example, Ashtamkars were from Ashtami, Rohekars from Roha, Penkars from Pen and so on, all adapting the names of the tiny villages that line the Raigad district.
While more thane 40% of the jewish community that resides in Thane, it becomes the important centre of jewish community in india. Shaar Hashamaim has a Youth Club so also an Eve’s Association, Indian Zionist Association and also a Jewish Welfare Association affiliated to the Synagogue.
My new jewish friend Yuval Ezra Moses Elias Mapgaokar, was happy to introduce me to the jewish community in thane . He did give me a great insight of closely gaurded traditons of jews in india. His grandparents played an important role passing on true jewish culture , traditions, rituals including the hebrew prayers which made him learn the hebrew lanaguage aswell. According to him, the Jewish community in India has never faced any kind of persecution throughout the hundreds of years of their presence. Jews of India consist of three major groups, the Cochin Jews or Cochinis, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bene Israelis and two recently discovered groups the Bene Menashe & Bene Ephraim. Jew Town or Jew Street is a popular area of Cochin and is called by this name due to the massive presence of Jews in this part of the city.
To begin my journey of understanding the jewsih culture and traditions , Yuval taught me how to make Challah , a important traditonal braided bread . Insterestingly , this traditonal bread is made during sabbath and it is hand broken as a ritual . The amazing fact that the observance of Sabbath and important days/festivals like Yom Kippur(Day Of Atonement), Rosh Hashanah(Jewish New Year), Simhat Torah(Receiving the Ten Commandments), Hanukkah(Festival Of Lights), Sukkoth, amongst others, have been instrumental in helping Jews retain their individuality and distinctiveness.
During Rosh Hashanah ( Jewish New Year) , Challah loaves are made in various shapes like circular shape represents continuity, the wheel of the seasons, or a spiral of progress. Typically laden with raisins to symbolize a year of plenty.