It’s a Small World!

A Memorable Personal Experience While Traveling

Before my wife and I went to India for the first time last year, I arranged with a few Indian friends to meet their cousins in Mumbai after our tour had ended.

The first one was the cousin of Jewish Indian friends from Florida. We have met many of our friends’ extended families both when they have visited the United States and also several times in Melbourne, Australia where the bulk of his family lives.

One of his remaining cousins in India was Abraham Moses. He and his wife spent the day with us and showed us several Jewish sites which we never would have been able to visit on our own. We saw the synagogue where our friends in Florida were married 25 years ago. They also took us to a terrific seafood restaurant called Trishna. It was as if we were visiting long lost cousins. 

Our friends’ synagogue in Mumbai
In front of the ark of their synagogue
The interior of their synagogue

Most people are completely unaware of the ancient Jewish population in India (once more than 50,000), primarily in the Mumbai area.  Their numbers have decreased because of migration to Israel, the U.S., Canada and Australia.  The neighborhoods which may have once had many Jews have been replaced with the Muslim and Hindu population.  In the picture, you can see how the synagogues have been surrounded by ramshackle apartments. Newly-constructed high rise buildings are often directly adjacent to the older low-rise tenements. 

Muslim tenements in the previously Jewish neighborhoods

Interestingly, the Jews in India have almost never experienced any anti-Semitic incidents as in other countries with a large Muslim majority.  Despite a large outward migration, especially among the younger and more educated, the remaining Jews do not feel any prejudice.   Historically there were many Jews in the military and the government, and the Bollywood film industry.  


The next day we had arranged to meet the cousin of my other Indian friend from Florida, this time a Hindu first cousin, Bakin, who also happens to be a doctor.

Dr. Bakin Nayak at the City of Mumbai museum

He wanted to show us some out of the ordinary places in Mumbai, and so when he met us, he asked if there was anything that we had not yet seen. We told him that not only had we seen all of the usual tourist sites, but that the day before, we had a specialized Jewish tour.

Immediately, his ears perked up. He asked me the name of the Mumbai Jewish cousin. He explained that from when he was a small boy, his best friend growing up was a Jewish boy who had left India after studying medicine along with him and who had emigrated to Australia. They remained friendly and kept in touch almost every day.

Melbourne, in the south of Australia with the island of Tasmania off the coast

It turned out that this Australian doctor lived in Tasmania where he practices psychiatry. His brother lives in Melbourne, and by coincidence was married to the sister of our Jewish Indian friend from Florida. We had met this sister during our travels there but not her husband.

Our new Mumbai doctor-friend was so excited of this amazing coincidence that he called his best friend in Tasmania while he was driving. According to his Hindu beliefs, this was a perfect example of karma. I explained to him that the same phenomenon is seen by Jewish people as an example of “bashert” or destiny.

Our second day of visiting “our Indian cousins” was also a tremendous success.  He took us to an excellent vegetarian restaurant after we had visited a famous stepwell within the city of Mumbai.     

We never would have believed that in India with a population of more than a billion people, there would have been such an incredible chance of this connection between two families from completely different backgrounds.

It just shows what a small world it really is!

Giudecca Organ

 

I had a thrilling experience in Siracusa, Italy last year as part of a month we spent in Sicily and the region of Puglia. 

Siracusa is located in the southeastern part of Sicily.   The whole island is full of the vestiges of the many civilizations which have lived in this area.  Staying a whole week in this city gave us the opportunity to learn about the history of the island and to visit many of the nearby attractions.

We were very pleased to be staying in a small hotel called “La Via Della Giudecca” which is Italian for the “street in the Jewish Quarter.”  From the window of our room we were able to see directly across a very narrow alley to a church that people visited throughout the day.   Early one morning, I heard the sounds of an organ.  After mentioning this to the owner of our hotel, he asked me if I wanted to meet the person who was playing it.  She was the daughter of the owner of the store just across from the hotel and had studied ancient music in college. 

Street sign from our hotel window

The next day, she brought us into the church and we climbed up to the second story by a narrow staircase to an ancient organ which had only one register (keyboard).  This was located directly in front of the pipes of the organ. 

One register organ with interesting pedal configuration

She told us the story of the organ which was one of the oldest remaining organs in Sicily.  It dated back to the 18th century and originally required a person to pump the air behind it with a system of bellows.  When it was renovated in the early 1900s, it was re-fitted with an electric motor. 

After demonstrating the sounds of the instrument, she asked me if I would like to try playing it.   I jumped at the chance since I play the piano and even took some organ lessons when I was in high school.  My wife thankfully took a video of this experience, recording very well how excited I was.

The next day, we were given a tour of the church.  It stood on the original site of an ancient synagogue dating back to the 1100s when the population of Siracusa was about 20% Jewish. During that time, Sicily was under the control of the Spanish Crown.  When the Inquisition began in 1492, the whole Jewish population of Sicily was ordered to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most of the Jews of Siracusa and neighboring towns escaped to nearby ports in Greece or Turkey where they had strong commercial ties. 

The church opposite our hotel which was on the site of a synagogue from the Middle Ages

This Catholic church was built not long after in the early 1500s. Subsequently, fires had destroyed several structures and the present building dates back to the mid-1700s. 

One level below ground is a system of the original catacombs stretching for hundreds of feet to the Mediterranean and dated back to the Middle Ages. During modern times, these tunnels were used by more than 10,000 Siracusa residents during WW II when the island was heavily bombed by the British.   We were able to visit the cisterns which were the reservoirs for the water used by the city.

The mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath

On the second level beneath the church was the ancient mikveh, the Jewish ritual baths. Mikvehs are required to have a source of fresh flowing water, and there was still water running through it.  However, these baths had not been used for more than 500 years.  Although there are presently no Jewish people living in Siracusa, studies have shown that at least 30% of the present Sicilian population has common genetic markers with Sephardic Jews from Greece and Turkey.       

Visiting Sicily was an exciting part of our trip to southern Italy, but playing the organ in the church was one of the highlights.   It was even more meaningful since it was in a church in the location of where a synagogue had previously existed. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for Jews to live in this city for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. Being forced to leave your ancestral home where you had been living in peace with Christians and Muslims is not only sad, but it demonstrates the strength of the people who were able to maintain a sense of community even when outside powers attempted to threaten their very survival.   

Playing the organ was one of the highlights of our trip to Sicily

Staying a week opposite this church provided me a frame of reference to better understand the history of Siracusa and all of Sicily throughout the millennia.  Being allowed to play the organ in a place of worship which was once a synagogue helped me appreciate the flow of various cultures who had passed through this fascinating place.