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A slice of our heritage...

To serve the needs of the tiny Jewish community staying in Delhi, Judah Hyam Synagogue on the Humayun Road, built nearly half a century ago, is the only place of worship. MADHUR TANKHA pays a visit to this little-known piece of the ci ty's rich heritage....

A Jew priest blowing the sacred ram's horn at Judah Hyam Synagogue. Photo: S. Arneja.

STANDING SILENTLY on Delhi's Humayun Road, the sole Jewish synagogue of the city easily slips one's notice. But, if one digs into its history, a need springs up to tread back nearly half a century.

"The Jewish community, which has been habituating in the Capital for long built this Judah Hyam Synagogue nearly half a century ago. Besides Middle-East traders, who had regular contacts with India and several Jewish merchants from Persia, Iraq and Afghanistan pouring into Delhi of olden times, a few German and Polish families, who were facing persecution and atrocities at the hands of Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, also settled down here," informs Ezekiel Issac Malekar, who conducts religious services at the shrine. With the years and years of turning of history pages, the community is today reduced to a mere 5,000 sprinkled across the country, with only 50 people residing in Delhi at present.

"Today, we are a small community here. About 30 to 40 worshippers visit the synagogue during the Sabbath," adds Malekar. The place of worship also sees sometimes visitors from the Israeli embassy, the most noted foreign dignitary who ever visited it included the late Israeli President, Shimon Peres in 1993.

Letting out information about the synagogue's past, Malekar says, the late Jacob Solomon, the stationmaster of Delhi railway station, acquired a plot of land in 1932 from the Government to build a burial ground for the Jews, next to the Christian cemetery. Erza Kolet was one of the founder members. G.M. Benjamin, the architect who constructed the Parliament annexe and the Delhi High Court, was the chief architect of the synagogue, juxtaposed to the Jewish cemetery.

Today, the small Jewish community finds it difficult to afford a paid Hazan and so, Malekar has volunteered to conduct the religious services. On the entrance of the synagogue, it is inscribed, "Fear of God is beginning of knowledge." When one expresses amazement over this, Malekar says, "This actually means reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom." He conducts all the prayers, including ceremonies like bar-mitzvah - son of Commandment - for boys when they attain the age of 13 and for girls, when the become 12.

On the significance of these ceremonies, Malekar says, "This means that children are ethically and morally adult". Tsisith, a shawl is given to the children in which there are 613 precepts and each silken thread connotes one commandment. Jewish prayers bear some resemblance to Hindu temple prayers in the sense that here too; the head priest blows ram's horn, which is analogous to conch. During New Year or Day of Atonement ram's horn is blown 100 times as worshippers offer benediction, asking God for forgiveness.

But the similarities end here. Inside the hallowed precincts there are no frankincense, idols or pictures. Torah, the holy books of Jews, has been strategically placed towards east, so that it faces Jerusalem. Torah - which contains the first five books of Old Testament - has been kept on the wooden compartment called Hekhal. There is diya or Ner-E-Tamid - the eternal light - which contains coconut oil lamp that flickers throughout the day. For Saturday morning prayers, there have to be a minimum 10 people. During Sabbath, which starts from Friday, when the sun sets to Saturday, the Jews try to resist the temptation of lighting a cigarette or even a necessity like driving a vehicle. They don't pluck a flower.

"This is done so that rest is given to Mother Earth," adds Malekar. Before entering and leaving the synagogue, worshippers, who cover their heads with Kippa, a skull cap, kiss the Mezuzah. Inside this plastic casket there is a scroll on which verses from Deuteronomy have been inscribed. There is Thanksgiving on Friday evening. During sanctification, grape juice is served to the members. Members bring Siddur, the Delhi prayer book.

Since Judaism believes in oneness of the Almighty, there is an interfaith study centre within the synagogue precincts, where religions of various dominations are studied. It contains a collection of about 5,000 books. Meanwhile, outside the synagogue life goes on as usual with Delhiites scurrying across to meet their worldly targets.

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