Saturday, February 23, 2019
The Saturday Snapshot #28
At home, I was never much for going to synagogue. Oh, I'd go, if my wife wanted to. Though really I was more performing my husbandly duty of keeping her company than fulfilling any personal desire to visit a place of worship related to my religion. And lately, not even that.
Out of town, however, is an entirely different matter. A sailor-finds-religion-in-port type of thing, where synagogues become a little bit of home turf in a foreign land. I have visited temples from Bridgetown to Vilnius to Jerusalem, gone to Sabbath services from London to Taipei, seen the historic buildings in Newport (the Touro Synagogue, built in 1761) and Charleston (blundering into Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, its congregation founded in 1749, stupidly never imagining it would still be in use, clomping inside in my big cargo shorts and short-sleeved sports shirt, crashing some poor kid's bar mitzvah, finding myself, trapped and aghast, amidst hatted ladies and men in linen suits).
My first thought, receiving this charmingly off-kilter photo of the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai, sent by my friend Michael Cooke, who is on a speaking tour of India, was, "So it's not just me."
His accompanying note was concise:
"With a sand-bagged guard hut in Mumbai. Beautiful building inside and out."
There are 4,500 Jews in India, a nation of a billion people, and the Magen David Synagogue, built in 1861, has a school that accepts non-Jews; indeed, it has to be the only synagogue school where 98 percent of the students are Muslim. Jews have been in India nearly 2,000 years; in Kerala there are two "Jew Streets."
There are actually eight synagogues in Mumbai; most modest, but grander than the Mogen David is the newer, larger, but also blue Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, built in 1884.
As well as a Chabad house that was occupied during the 2008 terrorist attacks across the city. Which explains the sandbagged security post. Synagogues abroad tend to be fortified, out of necessity. I remember visiting the Grand Synagogue in Rome. To get into its lovely Babylonian-style sanctuary, visitors must pass through one of those tight, 90-degree turn, bullet-proof security chambers, where one door clicks before the other opens. The grim result of an 1982 PLO attack where terrorists rushed in, firing machine guns and hurling grenades, wounding 37 people and killed a toddler.
It seemed poignant, in the sprawling Eternal City, where you can freely wander in and out of half the churches in Christendom, including the St. Peter's. But the Jews need police with machine guns in front of theirs. Maybe that's also a reason I visit; to show support for the beleaguered community that I belong to, a tiny and dwindling tribe, hated and attacked in all places and at all times, yet accused of secretly running the world.