I attended a burial at the Jewish cemetery in Delhi last Thursday. It was late in the day after a record rain fall and the skies were dark and wet. The moody weather didn’t heighten the sadness of the event – rather, it seemed soothing to have the storm’s after-rain fall gently on the friends who gathered together. Sometimes it’s nice for the sun to hide in seeming solidarity with the moments when we’re feeling not so sunny.
The story of the burial isn’t mine to share. But the cemetery is common ground and after spending an hour within its walls, participating in the rituals of a burial, I wanted to return, take pictures, unearth its story.
This small, overgrown plot of land sits next to the sprawling Christian cemetery in the center of Lutyin’s Delhi, the part of the city built by the British when the colonial capital moved from Calcutta to “new” Delhi in 1912.
Sadly, the cemetery is strewn with broken bricks and trash from squatters who have lived on the property for over 40 years. Ezekiel, the caretaker of the Judah Hyam Synagogue next door says he can’t uproot the families who live in the graveyard because they are protected by the city’s settlement laws.
It doesn’t seem incongruous to have families living among the dead in India. The buried have more claim to land than many of the living who can’t afford to own or rent land or property. When you see families surviving in the open-air on corners of chaotic urban concrete, it’s nice to know that someone has claimed a bit of quiet garden.
Ezekiel is an Indian Jew from Bombay who has worked for the International Human Rights Commission in Delhi. He’s now semi-retired from law because he says his obligations at the synagogue occupy much of his time. Some of his family, like so many Indian Jews, moved to Israel after WWII.
Jewish settlements in India go back more than 2000 years beginning with the Cochin or Malabar Jews of Kerala in South India. This Jewish community dates to the reign of King Solomon when sailors from ancient Israel came to south India for trade in the tenth century B.C.
Not long before the birth of Christ, a shipwreck near Mumbai stranded a group of Bene Israel from Judea. These “sons of Israel” settled in Maharashtra and north-west India.
There are also more recent Ashkenazi and Iraqi Jewish settlements here.
The Jewish cemetery in Delhi is 80 years old. The city set aside this land for burials in 1932 for Jewish civil servants in the British colonial government. There’s a grave of a former British Indian soldier who fought during WWII. A victim of the Indo-Pakistan war is also buried here.
There are seven long-term Jewish families left in Delhi. The synagogue services this community as well as a revolving diplomatic corp, mainly from Israel. Ezekiel welcomes everyone into his congregation. He says he has even performed weddings for Hindus. He insists I bring my monsters to celebrate Rosh Hashanah next week…. I fear this may end his open-door policy!
Take a peek:
The marble is cool in hot, humid weather…
Ezekiel in the synagogue:
Eddie, my soccer star, wrapped in the Barcelona flag:
Some of my students:
And finally – one of the three beautiful women in this photo with me has just been promoted to Page One Editor/Deputy Managing Editor of the WSJ. I am so proud of you, dear friend!