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Indian Jews bring traditional celebrations to Israel

Members of the Jewish-Indian Bene Israel community are eager to share their Malida ceremonies and traditions with other Israelis, and this year they're doing it over Zoom.

Israelis of Indian origin have been busy this week preparing for the annual Malida ceremonies to be celebrated Jan. 27-28. With the country under closure and with family gatherings banned, festivities are being relegated to Zoom and other virtual meeting places. Still, the community refuses to give up on the joy these ceremonies are known for and the celebrations that have grown increasingly popular in Israel.

The Jewish Indian community in Israel is comprised of three groups: the Bene, Cochin and Baghdadi communities. The Malida ritual is performed also on other family occasions but always once a year, on the day Jews worldwide celebrate Tu Bishvat, the Jewish Arbor Day. The Bene Israel community believes that on this day of Tu Bishvat, hundreds of years ago, a dozen of Jewish men and women from ancient Israel were shipwrecked off the west coast of ancient India. Fearing for their lives, the survivors prayed to the Prophet Elijah and were saved. It is in memory and thanksgiving of that event that Indian Jews mark the Malida. They consider the prophet a protector of both the individual and the community.

The ceremony itself includes a series of prayers, many of them honoring Elijah. A special offering is prepared of sweetened dried rice mixed with fruits, nuts and aromatics. The Malida mixture is piled on a round plate, with different fruits placed around its base, all with ritual significance.

Tens of thousands of young Israelis flock every year to India on what has become their traditional year-long trip after they finish their army service. They take in the slow, easy-going Indian lifestyle, the bold colors, tastes and smells that are so particular to that continent. Still, after several months in India, many of them had never heard of the Malida ceremonies celebrated by Indian Jews or the rest of the community’s vast cultural heritage.

Artist and social activist Ilana Shazor was born in Israel, but both her parents immigrated from India. Her parents were part of the centuries-old Bene Israel community that lived and prospered in the Konkan region. When members of the community first arrived to Israel, they experienced some difficult years, fighting for acceptance by Israeli society and religious authorities. Many of them were directed on arrival to poor towns in Israel's periphery.

The author of the book "Mother India, Father Israel," Shazor has been campaigning many years for recognition of Indian Jewry. She is deeply invested in preserving the Jewish-Indian traditions and has been celebrating Malida since childhood.

"Traditionally, families performed Malida ceremonies throughout the yearly cycle. They celebrate Malida before a mother gave birth, they celebrate before one leaves home for higher studies and they celebrate making a special wish or canceling a pledge. But the one time that people perform it together, in much wider circles, is on Tu Bishvat," Shazor told Al-Monitor.

Shazor explained the week's festivities, which have had to accommodate the pandemic. "This year, we are celebrating Malida within the small family circle. In previous years, we went out to nature, made blessings, played games and enjoyed a vegetarian meal. This year, especially because of the difficult situation we are all experiencing, we invite the public to join us on Zoom. We started this celebratory week Sunday night, with a special night of studying the spiritual significance of Malida. We had religious speakers as well as academic researchers and activists from the community, all trying to reconnect. Because this is the spirit of Malida — reconnecting and bringing people together. Then, today and tomorrow, we will have Malida ceremonies online, performed in Yeruham, Jerusalem, Dimona, Ramle, Ashdod and elsewhere. In fact, on Thursday we will conduct a ceremony together with the Indian Embassy to Israel,’’ she said.

Shazor noted that few Israelis are even aware of the Indian Jewish communities. "We want to be part of the Israeli culture. Not just with this ceremony, but as Indians in this country. We want people to get to know our communities. There has never been in Israel any Knesset member of Indian origin, so we are on not just a physical periphery, but also a cultural one."

Indians across the globe celebrated their national Republic Day Jan. 26. Israel’s Foreign Ministry heaped congratulations on the Indian people via Twitter. Israel’s ambassador to India, Ron Malka, featured a picture of himself and his wife in traditional Indian costumes. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi tweeted, "The friendship between our peoples and the strategic partnership between our countries has grown over the years and will continue to strengthen."

Bilateral ties with India have recently become one of Israel’s diplomatic and security priorities, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fostering a warm and friendly relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian Jews in Israel hope these warm relations will spill over in their direction, exposing the richness of their history and culture to their fellow Israeli citizens.

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