In the scorching heat of the sun, a stout old man wobbled towards my mother and me as we waited outside the synagogue. Like many I didn’t have any idea till a past few days what a synagogue is. Figuring it to be a Jewish worship place, it made me question the very existence of Jews in Mumbai and Pune; were the numbers so few that I had no idea that they had temples and committees of their own?
“Where are you from?” asked the skeptical caretaker with a policeman standing not far away. “Mumbai.” was our feeble reply to the questioning eyes of the man. In the dreadful moment of realization, it came to me that we wouldn’t be allowed into the old temple if we weren’t Jewish. After a series of questions about our visit and our interest in the building, the kind old man turned and waved us to come in. The smiling cleaner stood by the gate happy to see visitors even though we were no worshippers.
The gothic red building stood tall in front of me. I felt as small yet peaceful in the shade of the tall pointed turrets and pointed domes that encompassed tales of the Jewish history, the promises of their marriages and the smoke of the holy words from their Torah.
Built by David Sassoon, the structure still stood untouched as if the gods had themselves blessed it. A small chapel like grey building with a triangular entrance and grotesque carvings on the side minarets housed the body of the late David Sassoon.
The area of the synagogue or known as the “Lal deval” amongst the locals, has the power to take you back in time. With not much history connected to it, a story is yet narrated of how the 8 Jewish families in total in Mumbai and Pune come to listen to the holy words from the books with men and women sitting separately, lulled by the lullaby of the Ten Commandments and the divine words narrated by their Moses.
I learnt that nobody other than a Jew was allowed for religious reasons, but yet without any resentment at heart or any hatred towards any other religion, us as Hindus were allowed inside with the faith in us that we come in respect and peace; this in itself is a message of the need of desperate rebirth of the fading harmony amongst all the different “dhramas” in India.
The building was completely empty save its caretakers and police men. No man was praying or no child skipped around running his hands across the red brick walls. But supposedly a wedding that occurred on the last Sunday was a picture completely different from this. The gates were opened to everyone, the hall of prayer was filled with laughter and varied conversations. People cheered as a cup and the rings were placed in boxes and in a one and a half hour wedding ceremony, families were joined, and the man and wife were bonded together into one person, into one soul.
To my foolish curiosity I learnt the tradition of smashing cups at the end of the wedding ceremony only occurs in Israel. My lack of understanding of the rituals might have offended the caretaker a little.
My jaw dropped when the doors to the inside were opened for I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. The painted windows colored the sunlight in various hues of red, blue and yellow illuminating the marble floor. The empty benches were lined at the side of the hall, in the center a stage, caged and clothed in blue velvet. At the far end of the hall was draped a red velvet curtain with a silver star with the Ten Commandments engraved in marble; in English and Hebrew, on the pillars at the side.
The balcony was lined with wooden fences and the same colored window decorated each wall. The golden chandeliers, without a speck of dust, hung from the high ceiling of the room. I couldn’t help but feel devotion and helpless in this divine place of the Jewish.
It was clear that which every stage of worship one visits, the devotion and love they feel, is the same; serene and purifying.
After a little wandering and pestering the caretaker with questions, we took our leave. Giving my thanks, I saw the cleaner smiling broadly and waving as I turned to take one last look at the red building hoping that I can visit again and meet the Jewish worshippers who managed to keep their roots and hold the teachings of their holy Torah in their heart without any complain towards the ignorance towards Jews in Maharashtra.