Home Culture Travel Prayer hall in Delhi brings a sense of Jewish history

Prayer hall in Delhi brings a sense of Jewish history

Time has taken its toll on the once stylish Delhi synagogue BARBARA KINGSTONE PHOTOS
Time has taken its toll on the once stylish Delhi synagogue BARBARA KINGSTONE PHOTOS

After the devastation at the Chabad House in Mumbai in November 2008,  I wasn’t surprised to be met at Judah Hyam prayer house in Old Delhi by a vicious-sounding barking dog – luckily it was behind a locked, wrought-iron fence.

Only after my guide, Meena, called out did the rabbi’s wife, whom she knows well, come to unlock the padlock. The diminutive woman has probably met hundreds of visitors a year who come to see the only Jewish community centre in this capital city with a population of over 14 million people.

That certainly was my assumption, since she seemed totally indifferent and really didn’t want to meet or talk to any visitors. However, with Meena at my side, she let us meander into the synagogue on our own. This seemed so out of sync with all the security in the rest of the country or, for that matter, anywhere in the world in a synagogue. Here, there was a gate and a dog, but not a guard in sight.


Her husband, Rabbi Ezekiel Malekar, was in Israel, I was told when I asked to meet with him. And then she (no name was mentioned nor did she seem willing to tell me) walked away.

So now on my own, I could really see the building at my own pace.

Once a city with a Jewish population of over 1,500, Delhi now has about 50 families, only about 20 of whom are somewhat active but not very observant.  But the blue stucco building with the cutouts of the Star of David above the entrance left no doubt that this was a Jewish house.

I recall visiting this community and prayer hall on my first trip to India more than 12 years ago. Nothing seems to have changed. The outside walls have tribute plaques giving credit to those who have donated large sums to the synagogue over the years. None seem to have been added since the 1990s. As a synagogue  established in the ’50s, it has now been reduced to a prayer hall, since getting a daily minyan and enough shul-goers is now impossible. Friday evenings seem to be the only time that a few Jews  gather and pray.

Delhi synagogue
Delhi synagogue

There are many more seats than needed. About 50 chairs face the bimah, some turned diagonally facing east.  Armchairs against the walls are old, but the elegance of times past still stand out.  The chairs feature beautiful wooden backs with cutouts of Stars of David, probably very appropriate at the time and an indication of affluence. There is an unexpected stylishness to them.

The Torahs were hidden behind somewhat worn coverings that have seen many better days, but according to the rabbi’s wife, there are four old Torahs. There was no answer when I asked where they had originally come from. The drab coverings are an indication of the reality of what has happened to the diminished Jewish population. And the overused, tired-looking multi-coloured yarmulkes that sit in a basket near the door reinforced that message.

Delhi synagogue
Delhi synagogue

The strangely out of place aged chintz drapery covering the windows, I’m sure haven’t been touched since I first saw them many years ago. Nevertheless, this visit left me with the triumphant feeling of knowing there are still a few Jews in this far-off city.

And although this may have once been a wealthy synagogue, time seems to have taken its toll. The visit, short as it was, left an indelible reminder of our survival, and even if there isn’t a daily minyan, and on the High Holidays tourists make up most of those praying, and even if there aren’t any kosher foods or restaurants that cater to dietary needs, Judah Hyam synagogue/prayer hall still exists and is visited.

The rabbi’s wife, now holding the leash of the heavy-breathing dog, lets us out of the gates. I don’t know which of us was more terrified – the dog of me or me of him. But I know that this sanctuary still attracts visitors, since it is still standing and opened, albeit not as welcoming as I would have liked. Yet, there is pride in knowing that no matter what the circumstances, we Jews continue to have a presence in this multi-religious city.