Reflections and Recollections of Chabad in Mumbai


Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, may their blood be avenged


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Shabbat at Chabad Mumbai

By Howard Sackstein

“Now, I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds”

Bronzed from the beaches of Goa and exhausted from the constant trance parties of Anjuna, Hellipad, Baga  and Hilltop, we arrived in the sprawling mass of humanity, which is Mumbai. Bodies sleeping on the streets, beggars scamming tourists and the well heeled Bombay elite speaking English in their posh accents, punctuated with expletives, to impress their coteries. This is Colaba the heartbeat of Mumbai.

The smells of the street rise up and punch you in the nostrils. In Mumbai you can never be alone, at every step someone is selling to you, negotiating with you, cajoling you, tugging on your shirt sleeve.  The teaming multitude of people know the only way to survive is to engage, to enjoy, to accept – this is one of the most tolerant places in the world. In Mumbai you can be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Jew – all are welcome

In the shadow of the Gate of India, sits the Taj Palace hotel, pride of India, built by the founder of the Tata group, to revenge the British who declined him entrance to their lavish colonial hotels. The Taj Palace is built as a monument to Indian dignity, prosperity and independence. Its magnificent dome, its arches, its pools and uniform clad staff make this edifice an authentic tourist fantasy.

Down the main strip of the Colaba Causeway is Leopold’s Cafe, immortalised as the meeting place of Shantaram. Tourists sit at the restaurant tables with copies of Shantaram in their hands reading the monolith trying to grasp the singularity that is India. Occasionally Gregory David Roberts, former heroine addict, bank robber, mobster, author and philanthropist wanders into the restaurant. Tourists flock to him to talk about his book which has become the Rosetta Stone translating Mumbai to the meandering generation searching for spiritual and physical redemption on the streets of India.

If you cross the road and walk past the Sassoon Library, donated by the Indian Jewish businessman and philanthropist of that name, and past the trendy art galleries and music stores not far from the magnificent structure of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Train Terminus you come across the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. Nestled in a back alley behind flaking pale blue walls, the shul is ornate and cool in the searing Mumbai heat.

We entered before Shabbat in January 2008, not quite sure what to expect. This back alley building in the centre of the Hindu heart of capitalism is one of 7 or 8 shuls within Mumbai. One week later, Madonna and Guy Ritchie would tour the Knesset Eliyahoo shul as part of their spiritual quest in India.

The shul fuses five distinct Jewish cultures, the traditional Bene Israel Indian Jews, who trace their roots back in India two thousand years, Baghdadi Jews who came to settle in Mumbai over the past few centuries, Israeli business people, Jewish tourists with backpacks or staying in the opulent Oberoi or Taj Palace Hotels, all looking for the vestiges of something familiar in a very foreign land, and of course Chabad who have come to lead all of these disparate, often conflicting, scions of the tribes of Israel.

I sat down on the hard wooden bench next to an Indian Jew who asked my origin. When he heard I was from South Africa, he immediately asked if I knew Anne Harris. Anne had visited the previous year and had been a guest in the synagogue.

After the service, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg led a group of tourists and Israelis working in Mumbai back to his home for dinner.

We moved at a blistering pace back through the streets of Mumbai, no one gave the kippa clad group a second look. In comparison to other religious practices in the city this was uneventful. Back through the smelly streets of the Fort area, into Colaba, back past the Sassoon Library, past the new falafel shop of one of the Israelis, past Leopold’s Cafe and down into side alleys and back streets to come to Nariman House, home of Chabad in Bombay. It was so out of the way that I feared we would not be able to find our way back.

The Rabbis home was an entire floor of the building. The room was host to about 20 of us. Rabbi Holtzberg introduced us to Rivka his wife, and to his mother in law who was visiting from Israel, the baby was just over a year.

In the kitchen about three or four cooks and helpers prepared Shabbat dinner and the food kept on coming.

Israeli salads, spicy fish, chicken, desert - the meal was endless. Before desert, the Rabbi gave a lengthy lessons in Hebrew, lengthy at least to the four South Africans whose Hebrew was not up to the standard of the other guests, all of whom were Israeli.

Among the guests were diamond dealers and business people who regularly frequented Mumbai. The next night we would meet up with one of the Israeli diamond dealers to go clubbing in a disco called Polyester one block from the Taj Palace Hotel. Another guest was opening pure vegetarian Israeli falafel shops in India to cater for the needs of pure vegetarian Hindus and the Buddhists who will not harm any living creature.

Before desert and birkat hamazon, the blessings after the meal, Rabbi Holtzberg asked each person present to re-pay the favour of the meal. He did not want money, he wanted commitment, commitment to Judaism, to faith to ritual to charity. One by one, people around the large U shaped table rose and committed themselves to charity or teffilin or hospitality to the stranger.

The night ended with offers of hospitality for a return to Chabad for Shabbat lunch the next day or another Shabbat dinner when next in Mumbai. We thanked Rabbi and Rebetzen Holtzberg, for their hospitality and we commented on the cuteness of the baby – they told us their home was always open to strangers.

Last week a number of strangers entered their home - this time not for Shabbat hospitality, this time as the angels of death.

When the cute baby turned two years old on the last Shabbat, his parents lay dead in pools of blood at Nariman House. Saved by one of the helpers who cooked us dinner in the kitchen, she snatched the baby and ran from Chabad House when the terrorist entered.

Neighbours of Rabbi Holtzberg and Rivka had been shot while throwing stones at machine gun wielding terrorists while trying to protect their Jewish neighbours. In a country of religious tolerance like no other, the streets of Mumbai flowed with blood.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Train Terminus was under siege, Leopold’s Cafe had been attacked, the blood stained copies of Shantaram lay strewn across the rubble, the Taj had fallen, a symbol of bruised Indian pride.

Although the attacks were perpetrated by fratricidal Muslim terrorists, I am reminded of the quote from the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gitav, made famous by Robert Oppenheimer on the explosion of the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico in 1945, "Now, I Am Become Death (Shiva), Destroyer of Worlds".

But there was a difference between those merchants of death and the Hindu lord Shiva, for by Hindu tradition, Shiva destroys all - even evil - so that from destruction new good may be built.


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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