By: Syed Haroon Haider Gilani
Magen Shalom (earlier it was spelled as “Magain Shalome”) was a Synagogue (until 19th century, Beni-Israel Jewish Community in India, used the term “masjid“for Synagogues) of tiny Jewish community living in Karachi during 20th century, located on survey No. RC-3, measuring 1,190 square yards at Lawrence Road (Today it is called Nishtar Road) in the Ranchore Line Quarters area of Karachi . It was demolished by a mob on July 17, 1988, precisely a month ago before a C-130 plane carrying top military brass of Pakistan, including General Muhammad Zia Ul Haq. It is commonly described as built by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon in 1893. The synagogue was extended in 1912 by Umerdekar’s son, Gershon Solomon Umerdekar and a community hall named “Shegulbai Hall” was built by Abraham Reuben Kamerlekar in memory of Shegulabai Solomon Umerdekar. During 1916-18 the Karachi Jewish community opened a Hebrew school on the synagogue premises and in 1918 constructed the Nathan Abraham Hall.
AFTER READING YOUR ARTICLE ,I WAS SO SURPRISED TO SEE
THE KARACHI SYNAGOGUE MAGEN SHALOM WHICH WAS BUILT BY
MY GREAT GRAND FATHER DAVID SOLOMON UMADAKER AND MY
GRAND FATHER GERSHONE UMADAKER .I EVEN SAW THE PHOTO
OF MY ELDER BROTHER GERSON GERSHONE BAR MITZVA IN KARACHI
THANK YOU FOR ALL WHAT YOU HAVE PUT IN..
REUBEN GERSHONE UMADAKER
A few years ago, my visit to Bene Israel Graveyard, located in Mewa Shah Graveyard, revealed when I read the gravestone of Solomon David that reads, “Very well-known and highly regarded Solomon David always wanted a liberal Jewish community, through his own expense built a fine synagogue, Magen Shalome (In Herew הרווחה ידוע ומוערך מאוד שלמה דוד, ביקש תמיד של הקהילה היהודית דרך ליברליות שלו נבנה על חשבונו בית כנסת נאה, מגן שלום).”
In Karachi, Jews lived mainly in the Ranchor Line and Ramswami areas in Karachi and there were around 2500 Jews at the time of the partition of subcontinent. They were part of the larger Ben-e- Israel group of the British India. The synagoue was built to cater to this small but active community. Some accounts suggest that it was bulit by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon while others suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality towards the end of 18th century.
It is evident that the community despite the small number was vibrant and formed number of associations to oversee welfare and social activities of the group. The Young Man’s Jewish Association, Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund and Karachi Jewish syndicate were few such associations but they disappeared one by one as the exodus continued due to several factors most importantly ‘in 1970, Jews were offered and arranged by Global Jewish forums to USA’. The synagogue was the last active forum which was demolished to pave way for a commercial plaza (Khurram Shopping Mall) in late 80′s. A Jewish graveyard in Mewashah is the last surviving edifice.Ironically, a pseudo “The Bene Israel Trust” has recently claimed the Land of demolished “Magen Shalom”, a very precious piece of real estate, but no body ever took any interest for the only remaining Jewish Presence Memory, The Jewish Cemetery in Mewashah Graveyard in Karachi.
Jews in Karachi
Jewish community has long historic roots in Subcontinent. In areas, comprising today’s Pakistan had about 153 Jews, mostly living in Karachi by 1818, the number increased to 650 in 1919. At the time of emergence of Pakistan, there were approximately 2500 Jews living in Karachi only with one Synagogue named Magen Shalom. Another account describes the number of 400 Jewish people living in Karachi in 1959. A member of Jewish Family, Mr. Emanuel Matat told me, “When my father got married in 1957 in Karachi, there were 600 Jewish families living in Karachi. There were 10 – 13 families left by 1972. Actually in 1970 the Jews of Pakistan were offered to leave to America and that’s the main reason that time many of the community left”. The total population of Jewish community in subcontinent was about thirty thousand by that time. Also, two other Jewish cemeteries are reported to me during my quest about the Jewish presence in Karachi. Another account, details the activities of Jews in Karachi by Jonathan Marder.
“My family has a strong connection with Karachi, and probably accounted for most of the very small community of European Jews there. My great-grandfather, Simon Wyse, ran the Great Western Hotel, and my grandparents ran the Killarney Hotel there. The Killarney was first housed in a building that later served as the Russian Consulate which, I believe, has been restored as part of the Bay View School.
In the early 1930’s the hotel moved to a ‘palace’ built by a Parsi entrepreneur and was renamed the ‘Killarney Hotel, Marder’s Palace’. The building was, unfortunately, demolished in the 1970s. In its place stands the modern Sheraton Hotel.
My father grew up in Karachi before going to school in England, and went back in 1939 to serve in the Indian Army during the War. He now lives in the UK. One of his aunts married Moses Somake, an Iraqi Jew who, I have learnt, was one of Karachi’s leading architects. One of his buildings is the Flagstaff House that later became the home of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.”
Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit Karachi, but have heard many of my father’s and grandparents’ stories. I am in touch with many of our relatives, including Somake’s descendents.
The Beni-Israel Community of India in 19th Century
The Beni-Israel possess no historical documents peculiar to themselves; they have no charters granted by native princes, which are often a source of curious information. Their ancestors, they say, came to the coasts of India, from a country to the northward, about eighteen hundred years ago. They were in number seven men, and seven women, who were saved from a watery grave, on the occasion of a shipwreck, which took place near Chaul, about thirty miles to the south-east of Bombay. The place where they found a refuge, is named Navagaun, which is now part of Mumbai. They and their descendants met with considerable favour from the native princes, though they conceived themselves to be sometimes forced to conceal their principles. As they increased, they spread themselves among the villages of the Konkan, particularly those near the coast, and lying between the Bankot river (Savitri river), and the road which traverses the country between Panwel, and the Bhor Ghat. In this locality, and also in Bombay, in which they began to settle after it came into the possession of the British, their descendants and buildings are still to be found.
In 1840, the population on this island amounted to about 1932 souls; in the English territories in the Konkan, to about 800; in the districts belonging to Angria, to 870, in certain villages below the ghat, of the Pant Sachiva (Bhor State), to 209; in the districts of the Habshi to 444; and, in the Bombay army, including women and children, to about 1000. These numbers, which amount altogether to 5255, I take principally from a census made under my own direction. They fall short of the general native estimate by nearly 3000, and possibly some houses may have been overlooked by the persons sent forth to collect information.
The Beni-Israel in their physiognomy resemble the Arabian Jews, though they view the name Yehud, when applied to them, as one of reproach. They are fairer than the other natives of India of the same rank of life with themselves; but they are not much to be distinguished from them with regard to dress. They have no shendi, like the Hindus, on the crown of their heads; but they preserve a tuft of hair above each of their ears. Their turbans, angrakhas, and shoes are like those of the Hindus; and their trousers like those of the Muslims. Their ornaments are the same as those worn by the middle class of natives in the Maratha country. Their houses do not differ from those of other natives of the same rank. They do not eat with persons belonging to other communities; but don’t object to drink from vessels belonging to Christians, Musalmans, or Hindus. They ask a blessing from God both before and after their meals, in the Hebrew language.
Each of the Beni-Israel, generally speaking, has two names, one derived from a character mentioned in Scripture, and another which has originated in deference to Hindu usage. The Hebrew names current among the men are the following: —Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Reuben, (which is said most to abound) Joseph, Naphtali, Zebulun, Benjamin, Samson, Moshe, Aaron, Eliezer, Phinehas, David, Solomon, Elijah, Hezkiel, Daniel, Sadik, Haim, Shalom, and Nashim. The name Judah, it is to be remarked, is not to be found among them. The Hindii names, by which they are most commonly known among the natives, are Saku, Jitu, Rama, Bapii, Sawandoba, Tana, Dhonda, Abau, Bandu, Nathu, Dada, Dhamba, Bala, Baba, Vitu, or Yethu, Phakira, Yeshu, Satku, Apa, Bhau, Bapshah, Gaiiria, Pita, Bawa, Anandia, Kama, Jangu, Aba.
Among these there are only a few which correspond with those of the heathen gods. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Saphira, Milcah, Zilchah, Miriam, and Hannah, are the Hebrew names given to the women. Esther, the favourite Jewish name, does not occur among them. The names derived from the Hindus which are found among them, are Balku, Abai, Ama, Yeshi, Zaitu, Tanu, Hasu, Ladi, Baina, Aka, Kami, Bayewa, Baia, Nanu, Raju, Thakii, Kalabai, Maka, Saku, Gowaru, Dudi, Sai, Sama, and Bhiku, Pithu, Wohu, Dhakalu. The Hebrew names are first conferred on the occasion of circumcision; and those of a Hindu origin about a month after birth. The surnames of the Beni-Israel are generally de rived from the villages in which they originally settled.
The vernacular language of the Beni-Israel, is the Marathi. A few of them, however, are able to converse in Gujarati and Hindustani (Hindi). The Beni-Israel resident in the Konkan, principally occupy themselves in agriculture, or in manufacturing oil.1 Those who live in Bombay, with the exception of a few shopkeepers, are artizans, particularly masons and carpenters. A few are blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and tailors. Some of them, generally bearing an excellent character as soldiers, are to be found in most of the regiments of Native Infantry in the Bombay Presidency; and few of them retire from the service, without attaining to rank as native officers. There are not many of them who possess much property. Their head-man in Bombay, however, is believed to possess one or two lakhs of rupees. A considerable number of families are supposed to be worth from 1000 to 5000 rupees. Like the Parsis, they do not tolerate professional begging beyond their own community.