A Jewish welcome
An account of a gentile’s first trip to a synagogue — The Magen
David Synagogue in South Mumbai
It is almost 9 o’ clock. I am right on time. As I stand in front of the Magen David Synagogue, located in Byculla, a suburb in south Mumbai, I can hardly conceal my excitement. After all, it has taken a series of messages and calls back and forth to seek permission to visit this place.
After the terrorist attacks on the Jews in the recent years, gentiles are not easily welcomed in Jewish synagogues.
The Magen David Synagogue is an orthodox Jewish synagogue erected in 1864 by David Sassoon. The Victorian style architecture was the worshipping place of the Baghdadi Jews who had to run for their lives to avoid persecution by the governor of Baghdad.
Inside the synagogue
After an identity check by the local police, who stand guard at the entrance, I’m allowed to enter the structure. The caretaker introduces himself with a smile and ‘Shalom’ which means hello. He guides me to a bench behind the prayer hall and gives me a kippah (small cap) to place on my head. In Jewish culture, covering your head is necessary to show respect for god.
A group of elderly men are reciting the Shacharit or the morning prayers. They pray in the direction of Jerusalem. One of them, Ellis Jacob, is kind enough to explain the proceedings of the synagogue and share information about the Jewish culture with me. The morning prayers begin around 8.30 am and continue till 10 am. The time for the evening prayers depends on the sunset but usually they start sometime between 6 and 6.30 pm, informs Jacob. “On Mondays and Thursdays, we read the Torah or the scrolls in parts. However, on Saturday, the day of Shabbat (the day of rest), a weekly section is read, which one can call ‘the scroll for the week’,” he adds.
Only adults can read the Torah and according to Jewish culture, one is an adult when one is over 13 years and a day. As we talk, Jacob guides me through a tour of the synagogue. At the centre of the prayer hall is a raised platform with a few chairs and a long table on which the holy books are kept. Noticing the curiosity in my eyes, he says, “This raised platform, that you are looking at, is called the Bima, and the Torah is read from here as a sign of respect for its holiness.”
A few feet away from the Bima is an ark, which is called the Eastern wall. A curtain hangs from the ark. Jewish symbols and the star of David are inscribed on it. An eternal light is suspended over the ark. I ask Jacob about the light. Another gentleman, Benny Iazar, joins the conversation. Iazar is a resident of Israel and is of Spanish origin. He has been invited by the Jewish community to help them in the proceedings of the synagogue. Iazar clears my doubts about the light. “It is said that when there was a temple in Jerusalem, a ray of light used to come out from its window. The temple was demolished by invaders. That is why this eternal light, called the Ner Tamid, is there in its memory,” he says.
Apart from the kippah, worshippers who are above 13 years of age, wear a Tallit or prayer shawl which has ritual fringes on the corners. The Tallit helps the worshipper to concentrate on the prayer. They also put on Tefillin which is a set of black leather boxes.
As the group of elderly men settle on a dining table in a room next to the prayer hall, nosh, or post service refreshments are served including bun omelette, tea, and fruits. After having the refreshments, the group stands up for the grace, a prayer to express gratitude to the almighty for the food they have had. The group then disperses for the day.
As we walk out, I notice a symbol and inquire about it. “It is the Mezuzah, the mark to identify a Jewish home. It is a box with scrolls encased in it. This is a prominent symbol that you will find on the door or gate of any Jewish home,” Jacob explains.
This being my first visit to a Jewish synagogue, I was a bit wary till the last minute. However, I was happy with the way I was treated and provided all the necessary knowledge. The devotion that the group had for their faith and their warmth, was inspiring.