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Once upon a time: A synagogue in the centre of Kala Ghoda stands the test of time
The blue facade of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue melts into the blue of the sky on most clear days. On such a Friday, a little after sunset, as officer-goers head home, a stream of dressed up people rush towards the synagogue located in Kala Ghoda for sabbath — day of rest and seventh day of the week in Judaism.
According to Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of Sir Jacob Sasson and Allied Trust, many visitors especially come from America for the sabbath. Amid the festive mood, the dinner to be served after the prayers is put together.
Since taking a motor vehicle is prohibited on sabbath, most people living in the vicinity usually walk down to the synagogue. The sky blue building is often referred to as the blue synagogue — a fact that doesn’t go down well with many in the community. Ironically, the colour was accidental.
“It was originally a greyish building. The painters who were doing the exterior added the blue to the building more than ten years ago,” said Sopher.
This building was built in 1884 by Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon. The synagogue is located at the absolute centre of the town close to several hotels. This was for a reason. Sopher says, “It was constructed to cater to the Jewish community in town. There are many hotels next to it as no one is allowed to drive on sabbath.”
The structure now requires restoration .”We want to carry out restoration work and have applied for permission from the heritage committee. We also need funding for the project,” added the chairman.
The synagogue’s decorative interiors include Victorian stained glass windows and rich Burmese teakwood furnishings and staircase. Incidentally, Madonna visited the synagogue when she came to Mumbai in 2008.
The Kala Ghoda Association has offered to chip in Rs 30 lakh towards the restoration of the building to maintain the heritage of the area. “We want to preserve buildings in the area, especially which have a heritage tag. Whatever surplus fund we get from the Kala Ghoda festival is used towards restoring such buildings. The idea is to maintain the heritage district without getting into the religious connotation behind each structure,” said association chairman Manek Davar.
Earlier, there was a huge Baghdadi Jewish community living in the area and the synagogue catered to them. Most of the affluent members of the community lived in the areas close to it. The Jewish Club and the David Sassoon Library were nearby too. In the High Holidays, the entire synagogue would fill up, with extra chairs between benches in the men’s gallery. The ladies would sit on the upper floor.
Now, this synagogue caters to the local Jewish community and to the foreigners who come from all parts of the world.
The constant police presence means people can’t enter the synagogue for just a visit. “Such security became especially important after the 26/11 attack in Mumbai,” said Sopher. A Jewish centre was targeted during the attack.
Marge Gubbay who came to India in 1959 from Israel has been going to the synagogue since she moved to Mumbai.”It used to be packed then, unlike the present days. The Baghdadi Jew population is dwindling in the area. Many Maharashtrian Jews visit the synagogue now. My children grew up here and visit the synagogue every time they come to India from overseas. My husband, when he was alive, said he felt free and connected here,” added Gubbay.
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