Jews and I in this beautiful world…
By Moinuddin Ahmad
Yahūdi, every time I hear this word, my imagination gets propelled with a tremendous amount of energy, driving me to know everything about anything that is associated with it. The epistemological vim in me consistently keeps alive my ethnographic interest in the Yahūdi community. As a student of religions, I studied Judaism at University; being a researcher I wrote my thesis on Harédīm (ultra-orthodox Jews) and their politics in Israel; and living as a journalist for almost a decade, I keep a keen eye on social aspects of the community.
Where and when did it all begin? How did my ‘Yahūdi’ acquaintances and I become ‘mutually chosen’? How do I engage with the members of the community? I have my story to tell: a story of friendship; a story of respect; a story of learning together and a story of disagreements, yet with a sense of comfort that our common aim is peace and prosperity.
The person who introduced me to the word Yahūdi was Hajara Khatoon, my Nāni (maternal grandmother). I remember her telling me the stories of the prophets of Islam, most of whom were Biblical prophets as well, and hence, the stories from Canaan and Egypt were repeated almost every day during summers, when we used to visit her. Beginning with Adam, the stories of Noah, Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Joseph, Jonah, Moses, David, Solomon and others, told by Nāni, still resonate in my memory. I was always told that Yahūdi also revere these prophets and that the community is the Ummāh of Moses, who could communicate with the Almighty. His ability to do so made Moses my childhood superhero; he still is.
My primary education was an immaculate blend of lessons thoroughly absorbed at a Catholic school and a Madrasa. I used to go to Madrasā Misbahul Uloom for learning Qur’an and Hadeeth. At St. Anthony’s School, once a week, I would get lessons on Biblical stories. In between, I would hear that a ‘blue-eyed’ and ‘bearded’ Yahūdi discovered something, has been awarded some prestigious prize or making news for one reason or the other. I remember, I used to wonder where I would find a Yahūdi. My school was at Pahār Ganj, central Delhi, where most of the international tourists come and stay at various budget hotels. Many of the tourists, I saw there, would fit into the sketch that I had in my mind about Yahūdi – blue-eyed, bearded, and male. Only male, for me there were only male Yahūdi.
Some years later, European history, World Wars and the interwar period were taught at school. At that time, I came to know about one of the most heinous crimes humanity could ever see, tolerate, and allowed to happen – the Holocaust. I had heard about wars, massacres and genocides before. I had very fresh memories of the communal riots after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. However, none had made a bigger impact on my mind than the persecution of Jews (yes, by that time the ‘Yahūdi’, had become ‘Jew’ for me) by the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler.
This was roughly the time when the Second Intifādā broke out in the holy city of Jerusalem. Born and brought up in a Muslim family, it was pretty obvious that I would often hear discussions about the tussle between ‘Muslims’ and ‘Jews’. The two communities were at loggerheads on the land that is believed to have been inhibited by the prophets of Abrahamic lineage. Words like ‘chosen people’, ‘promised land’, ‘Beit al-Muqaddas’, Al Aqsa Mosque would often be heard during those days. Hence, my interest in the community went deeper.
After finishing my graduation from Delhi University, I moved to Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in South Delhi, to study masters in comparative religion, during which I got a chance to study Judaism through theological, historical, anthropological, as well as phenomenological approaches. This opened a whole new perspective for me to look at Judaism as faith and various aspects of the Jewish community. However, I was yet to meet a Jew. The occasion came in 2008, when Professor Kamal Mitr Chenoy came at the Centre for West Asian Studies for a lecture. I had always admired him for his activism and commitment for human rights, but never knew that he was a Jew. During his lecture he mentioned that he was a Jew of Baghdadi descent and was taught Jewish tradition and liturgy at home. I have forgotten everything else that had happened on that day except for the moment when I interacted with a Jew for the first time in my life. Sigh! A sense of relief, years of wait, was finally over. What next? Did it bring any change in the way I perceived the Jews? Well, they say, the fruits that are ripened after a patient wait are sweeter and more enjoyable. My destiny would not just leave me with the trailer of the life that was gradually coming my way.
Later that year, six Jews were killed at Beit Chabad in south Mumbai during the ghastly 2008 terror attacks. This was arguably the first time in the recorded history that Jews were attacked on Indian soil that had always been a safe haven for them. Knowing my interest in the community, my editor asked me to do a reaction story of the Jews living in Delhi. As I was looking for some contacts, I visited Judah Hyam Synagogue in central Delhi. It took me some time to decide whether I should try and get inside the building. Despite being a journalist from a reputed newspaper, I was conscious about my religious identity and the reaction of the security personnel at such a situation. My previous experience was quite discouraging. They would simply not listen. However, I was lucky. I could enter the gates of a decent blue and white building thinking I would finally meet the ‘Jew’ of my imagination. Instead, I met three youths, unperturbed by the presence of an outsider. I introduced myself and asked if I could meet the rabbi or any other representative of the community. They told me that no one was there and gave me the contact number of Mr. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.
As I dialed the mobile phone number of Mr Malekar, I heard a soothing caller tune while his phone was ringing: Kisi ki muskurāhaton pé ho nisār, kisi ka dard mil saké to le udhār, kisi ké vāsté ho téré dil méin pyār, Jīnā isi ka nām hai (To offer yourself to someone for smiles, to share someone’s grief, to have love in your heart for someone, this is what life is all about). He made me so comfortable right from the beginning of our conversation and gave me an appointment to see him at Judah Hyam Synagogue. We spoke about life, Jews in India, interfaith dialogue, my understanding of Judaism (at which he appeared quite pleased) and his engagements with the National Human Rights Commission. Without an iota of doubt, Mr. Maekar is one of the best human beings I have ever met. He is peace personified.
When I think of my other Jewish friends, out of many, Joel Siegelman and Abba Solomon are always there in my thoughts. While Joel is a singer and Abba is an author, both of them are from the United States of America. We became friends on Facebook and since then we are in constant touch. With Joel, I talk about Music, we sometimes speak a little in Arabic; he tells me about his travels and his desire to see peace in Palestine and Israel, his universal humanism and prayers for Canaan. Abba is like a mentor. Whenever I have some query about Judaism, particularly the orthodox school, I ask Abba (Abbā in my mother tongue, Hindustani, means father). We share our books, reading and other stuff on current affairs. Abba and I speak the same language when it comes to geopolitics and the role of religion in society.
The kind of training that I got from my parents, growing up as a Muslim in India, made me extremely open to the idea of coexistence. I always want to meet new people from around the world and talk to them about their cultures and customs. During my travels abroad, I have realized that identity is a very fluid phenomenon. One cannot have crystallised identities. I never came across the ‘Yahūdi’ or later the ‘Jew’ I was looking for. Perhaps, that image only resides within me and manifests itself in my own actions and might fade away with time. Far away from the images of a particular community created under the shadow of political tussles and painted with the brush of suspicion, the real images of the people are truly magnificent.
With an earnest hope and effort to continue meeting people from different faiths and communities, I would like to submit that my journey of coexistence and mutual understanding so far has been terrific. I firmly believe that being born in this part of the world, I have been bestowed with a chance to meet a variety of people and praise the Almighty for creating them as they are. My keenness to stay in touch with my Jewish friends and their families will always stay intact. I am sure whatever I may become in future, my valuable interactions with the Jewish friends will play a key role in that.
Moinuddin Ahmad (Moin) is a New Delhi based journalist and multidisciplinary researcher. He has recently submitted his Ph.D. thesis at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He writes on various issues including sports, culture, literature and anthropology. Moin has reported on a variety of issues ranging from Cricket in Germany to Secular Democracy in Nepal. As a researcher he is quite keen on Israeli and Jewish studies, though he deals with two subjects quite separately. He has a dream of spending some part of his life with the Haredim in Israel and with the Tuareg Tribe in the Sahara Desert. He is quite happy with the fact that when called twice (Moin, Moin) his name becomes a greeting in northern Germany. Despite having several Jewish friends, he is yet to have a Sabbath dinner.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.