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Jewish Indian women elders spearhead revival of Purim musical tradition

11 27 89

This year, COVID-19 competes with Haman as the villain of the Jewish holiday of Purim for India’s Bene Israel “kirtankars.” The kirtankars, a group of elderly women from the Mumbai Jewish community who sing kirtan, or traditional devotional songs, had planned to perform a kirtan about Queen Esther in the synagogue for the holiday. But with places of worship mostly closed due to the pandemic, the women’s performance has been canceled.

Kirtans are traditional storytelling songs inspired by Hindu devotional music. The ones sung by the Bene Israel are in the local Marathi language and include Hebrew words. They extol great figures of the Hebrew Bible, such as Joseph, Moses, David and Elijah. The one the women had hoped to perform this week is called “Esther Ranichi Katha” or the tale of Queen Esther who saved the Jews.

“There’s been a spike in Covid cases, so religious worship has been restricted. We will probably have five to ten people — not even a minyan [prayer quorum] — at the synagogue. And it isn’t safe for the women, who are mostly in their 70s and 80s, to leave their homes to travel,” said Elijah Jacob, former Joint Distribution Committee director in India.

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“It’s a shame because they were so excited to do their recital,” he said of the kirtankars, or kirtan singers.

Jacob has been active in recent years in working with the women to preserve and perform the kirtans of the Bene Israel community, which were popular from the 1880s until the 1940s. Local interest in them waned considerably after the majority of Bene Israel Jews emigrated to Israel or Commonwealth countries after Israel and India gained independence.

“The last time I remember hearing a kirtan performed was at the Elly Kadoorie School here in Mumbai in the mid-1990s,” Jacob said.

The Bene Israel, the largest Indian Jewish community, is said to have had its founding with a shipwreck of Jews from the Kingdom of Israel off India’s Konkan coast circa 175 BCE. These Jews lived among the local Hindu community, and because everything was lost to them, they did not have Torah and Talmud texts to guide their lives. They didn’t have rabbis, nor did........

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