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The Jewish Cemetary of New Delhi
Introduction: Next to Khan Market and bordering Judah Hyam, the city’s only synagogue, New Delhi’s Jewish cemetery is a testimony to the history of Indian Jews. Located on Humayun Road and founded in 1930, it encloses the tombstones of 42 Indian Jews.(1) Visually, the tombstones appear to be quite similar, with arched steles which frequently display stars of David. We will now enter the history of this cultural and religious hallmark of Indian Jews.
History of the Jewish Community in New Delhi: Of the Indian Jewish communities, the Bnei Israel, are most relevant to Jewish life in New Delhi. The Bnei Israel community claims that it is one of the “lost” tribes of Israel, which was shipwrecked off the Indian coast in 175 BCE. Although they originally settled along the Konkan coast, in the nineteenth century, they moved to Bombay and to other cities, including New Delhi.(2) According to their tradition, the Jew David Rahabi in 1000 C.E. recognized their ancestral Jewish customs. They were surnamed the “Shanwar Tells” (or Sabbath-observing oilmen) due to the fact they refrained from work on Shabbat, the Jewish weekly day of rest.(3)
In the 20th century, some Bnei Israel partook in the Indian nationalist movement. Hence, on Independence Day, some received the Padma Shri, one of the greatest awards of the Indian government. One such person was Ezra Kolet, prominent in the New Delhi Jewish community, who is buried in its cemetery. Ezra Kolet worked for the government in the Finance Ministry, and later in the Ministry of Shipping and Transport as chief comptroller of chartering. He founded the Delhi Symphony Orchestra in 1964.(4) He was the President of the Indian Council of Jewry, the leader and cantor of the New Delhi Jewish community, and frequently served as a liaison between Jews and the government.(5)
Additionally, “Baghdadi” Jews who arrived in India in the eighteenth century also lived in new Delhi.(6) Few Jews from Europe seem to live in New Delhi, since their culinary customs are not observed during certain Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah.(7)
Today, the Jewish community in New Delhi is very small, counting 5 to 6 families, most families having immigrated to Israel.(8)