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On mistaking a tradition

In January last year I made my first visit to Mumbai, India. It’s a colourful city, from the washing lines of Dhoby Ghaut and Slumdog Millionaire to the noisy markets and vibrant street life. It also has a buzzing Jewish community, and I visited several of the synagogues there, both downtown and in the suburb of Thane to the north of Mumbai, where the largest portion of the community live these days.

I found a couple of kosher restaurants and ate my first chicken lollipops. One of them even delivers – and in my hotel room I found myself the proud owner of buckets of mutton biryani. As is my wont, I had ordered too much food! Nominally I was in Mumbai for a chess tournament, and struggled against some very talented young Indians. But we played one game in the day each afternoon, and I found my relief in the mornings.

For I am fascinated by leyning, cantillation, by the different ways of reading Torah. And I had managed to find someone who had agreed to teach me the Indian way of reading Torah and Haftarah, the ancient tunes from their tradition which are still carried on by a handful of Chazzans, Cantors, in some of the old shuls there in Mumbai. So every morning I would go to the Magen Hasidim Synagogue, where my kind but stern teacher would sing to me and expect me to replicate his tunes, getting somewhat exasperated with my bad ear and general slowness to pick up the nuances of his melodies.

It was a wonderful experience. One class on a Friday morning was interrupted half-way through when my dear teacher remembered that it was almost Shabbat, and that the community needed chicken to eat. So he sharpened his knifes by the sink in the corner, and off we went to the local butcher, a couple of streets away on a busy High Street. A few sad-looking chickens sat outside the butcher’s store, and after a short blessing and a swish of his blade, they went to meet their Maker and we returned to the synagogue to resume our class. In short, in this brief trip I learned a lot.

It was Chanukah and on one day there I had the fortune to join the community in Thane for their morning minyan. They were very welcoming, explained to me a lot about their traditions. One of the younger members encouraged me to join their Facebook group there, and even to post there Divrei Torah – words of Torah – which I subsequently have done. I keep up with this group from time to time, and it was there a few weeks ago that I saw a post by an Indian Jew in Israel who was creating a Whatsapp group for all those interested in sharing and preserving Bnei Israel traditions, particularly with regard to their musical heritage.

My ears pricked up – this sounded like the perfect group for me! So I wrote to the guy, told him of my interest, and asked if I could join. He replied quickly and said: “Shalom, it is Avihay Bastekar. I gladly will add you. We would be happy if you know recordings from yor father and grandfather that you will record to the group. It is forbidden to upload photos and videos that are not connectd to the songs of the Bnei Israel community. You agree?

I thought to myself – ah. This is an entrance test – and I would need to share some tunes from my father and grandfather. Neither are alive today, both were Ashkenazi British Jews with more of a Russian than an Indian background. My great-grandfather, Alfred Rubenstein, had come to London from Minsk, not Mumbai. And my father – may he rest in peace – well let’s just say that when Harvey sings and sings loud – it reminds me ever so much of my own father’s voice in our synagogue back home in London. Which of course has its own beauty – but probably not exactly what my new Indian friend was looking for.

So I did the next best thing and offered what I could: a short video that I had captured of my teacher in Mumbai singing the tunes for the Indian Haftarah that he had taught me. And in 15 words, Avichai Bastekar replied: “it is very beautiful. But this is the custom of Baghdad and not Bnei Yisrael.”

I failed the test and – this happened a couple of weeks ago – he hasn’t subsequently put me in the group. I guess it was as bad a fail as the time I failed my driving test with 69 points and 3 major fails when you had to score less than 15. On that occasion I had terrorized my examiner by almost stalling on a level-crossing. Here perhaps my crime was even more heinous: I had risked polluting the purity of the Bnei Israel musical traditions with Baghdadi ones!

Why do I mention this today? Because Stephanie is my first student who has wanted to learn what I told her were the Indian tunes for reading Torah. Most of our students sing the Torah either the British way, known as Western Ashkenaz, or the American way, known as Eastern Ashkenaz. There are regional variations but these are the main two families of tunes. Stephanie to her credit wanted to do something different – and Stephanie, you read Torah beautifully today. I know we have some Baghdadis among us this morning, and please feel free to tell me later if the tunes were at all familiar to you.

Of course the Baghdadi Jews have had a huge influence in Jewish life throughout South East Asia, building synagogues and communities not just across India and here in Singapore, but also in Hong Kong, Yangon and in Shanghai as well.

Stephanie – you have worked diligently over the past year and it has been a pleasure studying together. As the youngest child in your family, you have now joined your siblings in the ranks of the adult Jewish community, with all the responsibilities that you know that brings.

In your family you have different traditions, and like so many families in our UHC community these traditions come from far and wide. We know that in the UHC we have members from many countries in the world. Some of them come from Brooklyn – and I believe that’s where your father might have come from – and others come from the Americas, both North and South, from the various countries of Europe, from Australia, from South Africa from Israel and from closer to home here in Asia. We are a mishmash, a mélange, a mixture of different traditions – be they food or musical – and we are not afraid to celebrate their pluralism. We can eat Ashkenazi chicken soup and we can eat Mujadara and Kube. We can sing Oseh Shalom a la the Israeli Nurit Hirsch – and indeed we did this morning – and we can dabble with Sephardi tunes as well. Sometimes we can even try to recreate the tunes of the Bnei Israel, the Indian Jews – with or without admission to their Whatsapp group. In that sense our community is somewhat post-traditional, it’s a pick’n’mix, which is anathema to the purists but essential to the identity of a community that by necessity is a Jewish home away from home to so many here in Singapore.

Stephanie – one day, perhaps at university already, you will visit synagogues in other countries and maybe they will call you a Jew from Singapore and ask to know what your traditions are, be it Singapore Jewish food or Singapore Jewish music. With your sense of humour, you’ll probably tease them and make something up. They will probably still think we live in China anyway. But if you answer more seriously, what would you say? It’s something you still have a few years to think about. But for all of us – particularly our UHC members – it’s a question worthy of consideration. As we prepare our kids for an increasingly globalized Jewish world, where most of the next generation is urbanized and fans of Drake and Sacha Baron Cohen, what do we have to preserve that is still uniquely local.

Shabbat shalom and a hearty Mazel tov to Stephanie and the whole Goldstein family.

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