A Very Alibaug Passover
Some 120 km (but five hours by bus) South of Mumbai, down the palm-fringed Konkan Coast, lies the town of Alibaug. Really the collective name for the series of nearby villages, Alibaug serves as a quick-and-easy weekend getaway for Mumbai's upperclasses. Today, vacation bungalows and holiday retreats are tucked into the bylanes running off the single-lane highway stretching down to Goa. But 2000 years ago, the Konkan Coast served as the site of a historical shipwreck, stranding seven Jewish couples who survived and multiplied into the Bene Israel community of today.
The early community settled into rural life in their new home, many becoming oil-pressers, a trade that perseveres until today. While their own culture mingled with the cultures around them, they always maintained certain adherences to their homeland - they only ate kosher fish, and never worked on Shabbat. This earned them the name shaniwar-tel, or Saturday oil pressers.
Fast-forward 1800 years, to when Baghdadi merchants began to move to India. While building up their own community institutions, including synagogues and cemeteries, they made contact with this group of Jews who were also beginning to move into the growing city of Bombay. Migration continued, and circa-2019 I've been blessed with two amazing years working with the vibrant Indian Jewish community of Mumbai.
But only an hour's ferry ride away, across the water but clinging to the Maharashtrian coastline, the remains of the original Konkan communities still thrive in their ancestral villages. Walking down the lanes of Revdanda, one of the villages where a synagogue exists to this day, I felt like I was experiencing a tropical version of shtetl life. Village houses with open doors housed wandering children and women going about their daily chores. Grandmothers sat on hanging swings on front porches, while men squatted on the side of the road selling bananas and jackfruits.
Jewish houses were adorned with elaborate wooden and metal Magen-Davids, the way that Hindu households are adorned with idols and swastikas. Families lived in the same compounds that their ancestors have lived in for hundreds of years. I'm close friends with many members of the Bene Israel community in Mumbai, and I've seen how they live in the city, but this was seeing the city life after and the village life before, only a short ferry ride away.
A few years ago, while working a summer internship in Krakow, I went to visit my family's villages in Poland. Nowe Miasta Nad Pilica has no Jews today. I walked through cobbled lanes of dilapidated houses, literally crumbling to the ground, and thought of the Jews who may have lived in them. The cemetery has been flattened into an open field, used once a week for the town's Sunday Market. The synagogue was completely destroyed, and the land where it was is now the local supermarket. The Jewish community of Nowe Miasta now exists only in memory and in artefact, but the physical town has gone the way of all the other shtetls of Eastern Europe - empty remains.
Alibaug provided an opportunity to imagine what it would be like if the Jews of Eastern Europe were still living all over the Polish countryside. While I can only imagine how my great-grandparents celebrated their Judaism, Friday night I sat in a traditional Bene Israel home in Revdanda at a Pesach Seder in the shtetl. Many of the traditions were the same. Of course, the Seder and the rituals have been influenced by modernization and connection to outside Jewish communities. The prayer book, while printed in both Hebrew and the local Marathi, was likely produced in Israel by the Olei Hodu - the Indian Jews who have immigrated to Israel.
The family who invited me for Seder has always lived in Revdanda. They own an oil press, and still work (every day except Shabbat) grinding coconut oil. They had a month-old baby grandson, and his Brit had been the first in the Revdanda Synagogue in many years. We sat around the table, breaking matza, dipping spinach in lemon juice (an alternative to the parsley in salt water that I grew up with), and eating mutton curry with our fingers (I didn't partake in that last one - being vegetarian).
The next day I attended prayers in the Synagogue. Some 15 men (and no women) had gathered for Shacharit. Shoes were to be left at the door, so we sat - barefoot - on long wooden pews in a synagogue brightly decorated in shades of easter egg pink, purple, and blue, adorned with large glass hanging lanterns and metal bars carved into elaborate Judaic designs.
I sat on the shady front porch of the synagogue, cross legged on a mat, and picked apart celery leaves to be placed on the seder plates. We had the hardboiled eggs, the Charoset, the three matzot folded neatly into a handkerchief. The Zroa was left with the meat still on, and during Shulchan Orech the meat was cut off and divided amongst the community, symbolizing the Passover Sacrifice. The Second Seder, performed at the Synagogue with the whole community, was done entirely in Marathi. Even the Haggadah was fully transliterated into Marathi - no Hebrew. But I followed along, catching familiar phrases and getting lost amidst the foreign script.
Besides the Seders, Revdanda was wonderful. During the days I went for long walks on the expansive sandy beach, and explored the crumbling Portuguese ruins of Revdanda Fort, spilling over with groves of coconut palms. I brought my matza and my book and sat staring out at the Arabian Sea, remarkably cleaner there than in Mumbai, only a short distance away. I walked through the town lanes, and imagined the Jewish children running around, living a Jewish life alongside their neighbours, safely and happily, as perhaps my ancestors also did in their shtetls long ago.