Jewish India, a Spiritual Journey
A tour to Jewish India, an interview with Nathan Katz & Ellen Goldberg, founders of "India, My Second Home."
INDIA, A LAND ALIVE WITH GLORIOUS BEAUTY AND WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE, IS A VAST COUNTRY OF DRAMATIC CONTRASTS, EXTRAORDINARY CULTURAL RICHNESS, AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY.
WITH A HISTORY REACHING BACK FIVE MILLENNIA, IT IS ONE OF THE LARGEST AND MOST POPULOUS COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD. ITS ANCIENT CULTURE, HISTORIC AND SPIRITUAL MOSAIC, WORLD HERITAGE SITES, ITS PEOPLE, AND DELICIOUS FOOD MAKE THIS SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRY A CAPTIVATING TOURIST DESTINATION.
By Dina Szeinblum
Pictures courtesy of Ellen Goldberg
A TOUR OF JEWISH INDIA
One of the world's most exotic and attractive places to discover, India, is a natural treasure. From Grand National Parks with plentiful wildlife, backwaters in Kerala, hiking trails in the Himalayan peaks, to the many world heritage sites and wonders, such as Hampi's temples, Ellora and Ajanta caves, Rajasthan forts or the Taj Mahal, have made India famous over the years.
Renowned for yoga, Indian mysticism draws more than seven million visitors each year, who usually, as first-timers to India, are guided around the so-called Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, the most popular tourist sites in India. The route covers the birthplace of three great faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Nevertheless, less known about India is its long history as what is considered the most hospitable Jewish home in all of the Diaspora.
Yes, India has a hidden treasure: its Jewish heritage.
"This is “not a tour from the bus”is about people people’s experience. The Taj Mahal is beautiful but the people in India are more impressive."
For more than nearly 40 years, scholar and specialist in Indo-Judaic studies, Nathan Katz, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Florida International University (FIU), and his wife Ellen Goldberg, have been organizing Jewish trips to India.
Their tour reveals an intriguing history and culture of India’s distinctive Jewish communities: Kochi (formerly Cochin), Kolkata (formely Calcutta) and Delhi. The journey explores shipwrecks, maharajahs’ palaces, and magnificent old synagogues as it connects the traveler with Indian Jewish communities, their neighbors and its diverse faiths: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.
The tour, called India, My Second Home, is a two-week deluxe kosher tour, an exclusive program with the Jewish communities of Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata and New Delhi, escorted by Professor Katz and his wife Ellen, with visits to historic Jew Town and Ernakulam, fascinating cultural events and get-togethers in each city, sightseeing with English-speaking guides, and chartered sightseeing boats in Mumbai and Kochi, among other activities.
THE JOURNEY: FROM KOLKATA TO MUMBAI
The tour starts in Mumbai, the Gateway of India, which includes a trip to world heritage site Elephanta Island and its 5th century rock-cut temples.
After visiting Mumbai’s old synagogues the tour goes to Kochi (Cochin), home to a historic Jewish community. The tour then passes by the ancient Muziris seaport where the ancient Meditterranean and Middle East civilizations traded with the ancient Indians. Afterwards comes a cruise to Kerala’s backwaters and visits to the 16th-century Palace of the Raja of Kochi, who granted Jews land next to his Hindu temple, on which to build their synagogue.
The visit to the Kerala backwaters is followed by the city of Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, once the capital of British India and famous for it Raj-era architecture. Kolkata had a thriving Jewish community, which played a key role in the city’s development. A recently renovated Magen Abraham Synagogue, the Queen Victoria Memorial and a visit to a spectacular Jain temple Belur Math, one of the city’s most important Hindu temples, are included in this stop.
Next stop is Delhi, capital of India, where the tour visits the former Viceroy’s House, the Gandhi memorial and a Tibetan Buddhist temple where Professor Katz speaks about the Dalai Lama’s “Jewish secret.”
The tour then goes by train to the world-famous city of Agra, the ghost city of palaces Fatehpur Sikri and the Mehtab Bagh Moonlight Garden to watch a sunset view of the Taj Mahal. At the end of the tour, the group goes to the majestic Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, and finally to the red sandstones Agra Fort.
INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN KATZ AND ELLEN GOLBERG
Asked by JW about their trips, they enthusiastically invited us to learn more about Jewish India and share with our readers this spiritual journey.
JW: What can you tell us about India and the history of it Jews?
Nathan: Jews had been going to India for about 2000 years or close to it. They went there largely for commerce and to trade spices, but very early in the game, jews got interested in India’s spirituality. We can trace that to the first century when Josephus and Philo the greatest Jewish authors of the day, talked about Indian spirituality and held it up as something for Jews to emulate.
There has been a 2000-year Indian old fascination with Jewish spirituality. Throughout the years, you could find itinerant mystics, business people, and other Jews coming to India getting very deeply involved in different kinds of spiritual practices. Whether with the Hindus, the Jains or with the Sufis, Jews were there involved. Many Rabbis from around the 12 century and on came to India just to see these Jewish communities they hear about.
India is very friendly to Jews and has been for thousands of years, because Jewish people have been there since ancient Jewish communities. And India is very friendly to Israel as well.
JW: How you did get started in the Indian-Jewish tours and what makes them special?
Nathan: We lead actually started about 27 years ago, when I helped a Rabbi who used to organize and lead them. He retired and handed them over to my wife Ellen and me. When these tours started, it was the only Jewish tour of India. Now there are others, but ours distinguishes itself from the rest because of the knowledge we handle, my Ph.D. in Indian Studies. Deeply understanding its culture, philosophy, spirituality, religions, and languages is key to presenting India to visitors, and when I look at “Jewish India,” I feel proud that it’s something that I know a great deal about.
Our tour, is Kosher-vegetarian, it’s Shabbat observing, and it allows you to see real Jewish communities in India. We go into Jain temples, Buddhist temples; we meet with Hindu Swamis, as well as with Jews in each of the cities we visit. We can call our tour “Meet the Jews of India and their neighbors” because if you don’t know the neighbors you don’t know them. This is not a tour from the bus; it’s about the people experience.
The Taj Mahal is beautiful but the people there is more impressive.
JW: How is the interaction between the Jews and the members of the other religions?
Ellen: To understand the brilliance of survival through millennia that Jews have accomplished in India, you can only fully appreciate it by seeing the other communities, and you can’t fully understand it if you don’t meet and see the interaction between Jews and their neighbors, which was always so loving and respectful. For example, one time when some people saw Nathan with a kippah they asked where he was from. They had assumed he was from Israel, but when they discovered he was an American Jew, they invited him to have some tea, to know more about him, saying, “I just want to talk philosophy with you.”
JW: How do you see the connection between India and the Jewish people today?
Nathan: Today there are around 5000 jews living in India, but there are Judaic movements that are seriously practicing and learning. The majority have already made Aliyah, with around 70.000 Israelis being of Indian origin. The relationship between Israel and India is thriving. -we had a recent visit of the Prime Minister from India to Israel-. there is an affluence in both India and Israel, back and forth families on both sides, bar mitzvahs, weddings or business. And for example, the agricultural work Israelis are doing in India is transforming. The American Jewish community was involved in promoting ambassadorial level diplomatic relations between India and Israel, which were established in 1992, Americans have a lot to do with India, the two countries are very involved already.
JW: Can we say you are kind of an ambassador to India?
Nathan: Yes, when I first studied in India during the early 1970’s, not much was available, not diplomatic relations, so what is going now between Jews and Hindus has been my dream for 40 years.
JW: what would be your message for JW readers?
Nathan: I love India deeply. Indians like people to be religious, they do not muchcare which religion. if they see you do something religious you get their respect.