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For India’s Largest Jewish Community, One Muslim Makes All the Tombstones

By Rachel Delia Benaim

Even though the Jewish population in Mumbai has declined dramatically over the past several decades—from a peak of 30,000 in the late 1940s to some 3,500 today, due in large part to mass aliyah—it is still the largest Jewish community in India. But for decades there was only one person in Mumbai, and the entire state of Maharashtra of which Mumbai is a part, who engraved Jewish tombstones: a devout Muslim named Muhammad Abdul Yassin.

On a recent visit, I found Yassin sitting in his cement hut on the southern end of Mumbai’s Jewish cemetery, surrounded by smooth marble and granite slabs—soon to be used for headstones—and the tools of his trade, hammers and chisels of various sizes. He stared out into the crammed cemetery, whose sidewalks have been narrowed to create more grave space over the last decade. The discernible dates on the headstones date back to the 1800s, though some of the graves, Yassin told me, date back earlier than that.

He has come here every day except Friday, the Muslim special day of prayer, for more than 40 years, rain or shine. But Yassin, now 75, is now passing the baton—or chisel—to his sons.

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Rachael Benaim

Muhammad Abdul Yassin has worked in Mumbai’s Jewish cemetery for more than 40 years. Now he’s passing the chisel to his sons.

Raised in a poverty-stricken area of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, Yassin decided he would move away and change his fate as soon as he was old enough. “Everyone was poor in my neighborhood,” he told me. “I did not want to live that way.” In 1968, when he was 27, Yassin left Uttar Pradesh in search of work, any work, that would enable him to live comfortably. He began traveling south, and a few months after he left home, he received word from a friend of his uncle’s that the Jewish tombstone engraver in Mumbai was looking for an apprentice. Yassin never imagined working for Jews, let alone being a tombstone engraver. But it was a job.

Within a week, he arrived at the cemetery and was met by a man named Aaron MenasseNavgavikar, a Bnei Israeli Jew who made tombstones for the community. (The Benei Israel, India’s oldest Jewish sect, claim to be part of the biblical tribe of Zebulon who were shipwrecked in India at some point between the First and Second Temple periods.) Navgavikar took him on as an apprentice and taught him much more than the tools of the trade. When Yassin began his apprenticeship, he spoke Gujarati fluently but was completely illiterate. After three years under Navgavikar’s apprenticeship, he could read and write fluently in six languages: English, Hebrew, Marati, Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu.

In 1971, Navgavikar and his family moved to Israel and left the art of Jewish tombstone engraving for the Bnei Israel to Yassin. Soon, Mumbai’s other Jewish community, the Baghdadis, asked Yassin for his services as well. Over the course of the next decade, the other Jewish engravers in the area, Yassin recalls, also moved to Israel, leaving him the sole expert in the trade across the entire state of Maharashtra, which is currently home to the majority of India’s estimated 5,000 Jews.

“They made me like their own,” Yassin said of the Jewish community. “They loved me and always treated me well and always paid me on time. India went through hard times in the ’80s and ’90s—the recession, the riots—but they always took good care of me.”

Aaron Benjamin, who for the last 18 years has been the honorary secretary of Mumbai’s Tipheret Israel synagogue—and its spiritual leader, since like most Indian synagogues Tipheret Israel does not have a rabbi—said Yassin “is a member of our community.”

Daniel Pezarker beside his grandfather’s grave, which Yassin carved in 1988.

As Daniel Pezarker, the son of the Bnei Israeli community president and a licensed Mumbai tour guide, told me, close business and personal relationships between Jews and Muslims aren’t unusual in Mumbai. Followers of each faith have long lived side by side in peace. ShaareRahamim, Mumbai’s oldest of its four surviving synagogues, is in Bhendi Bazaar, one of Mumbai’s prominent Muslim neighborhoods. Pezarker, whose family has lived in India as members of the Bnei Israel tribe for centuries, explained how everyone in the community is fond of Yassin: “We call him Yassin chacha,” meaning Uncle Yassin, a term of endearment and respect.

Eliyahoo Benjamin, caretaker of Ohel David—one of two synagogues in Pune, the second largest city in Maharashtra—remembers Yassin from growing up in Mumbai and is familiar with his work in Pune as well. The members of this Baghdadi synagogue also commission their tombstones from Yassin, who must transport the completed stones three hours by car. “He is the only one,” Benjamin said.

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In recent years, Yassin’s health has taken a toll on his ability to work so strenuously out in the beating sunlight, so his two adult sons—Islam, 52, and Salaam, 45—help him around the graveyard.

As he intently chiseled a biblical Hebrew verse into a fresh tombstone, Islam told me how engraving had become a family business, starting with “uncle Aaron Menasse” who “guided my father through the harder times when he arrived in Mumbai.” For the last 34 years, Islam assisted his father in some of his work. When his father’s health deteriorated after a heart attack in 2001, Islam started taking on more work at the cemeteries.

Yassin considers himself retired now, but he still goes to the cemetery daily. “My sons are in charge now,” he said, “but I love my work and the people. Everything I do here is from my heart.”

As Daniel Bamnolkar, the cemetery’s Bnei Israeli caretaker, told me, it doesn’t matter that Yassin and his sons are Muslim; what matters is that they do a good job.

It is unclear, however, how much longer the community will be in need of a dedicated tombstone engraver. “Each tombstone takes 15 days,” Yassin said, estimating the amount of time and care he puts into each project, which involves a great deal of physical labor. Nowadays, because of Jewish Maharashtra’s dwindling numbers after years of aliyah, there are around three tombstone orders a month, compared to the more 10 a month that he was carving in the mid ’90s. So, the family business that supported Yassin for more than 40 years may not have a lucrative enough future for his two sons and their families.

Many of those Indian Jews now living in Israel have invited Yassin to join them, he said, where they assure him his profession is in demand. Yassin, however, prefers to stay in his homeland with his family and community. “My children and grandchildren are here,” he said. “Family is the most important.”

Author:
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.

The article originally appeared the Tablet Magazine.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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