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Guarding the dead

A small cemetery in the Capital bears witness to the role of a minuscule Jewish community

Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar at the Judah Hyam synagogue. Photographs: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint<br />
Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar at the Judah Hyam synagogue. Photographs: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint

The Capital’s only Jewish cemetery is walking distance from the Khan Market Metro station. It is a serene corner of Delhi, and 42 Jews rest here in peace. This is where the man once described by The Times Of Israel newspaper as “India’s top-ranking Jew" is now buried.

Lt Gen Jack Farj Rafael Jacob—who died on 13 January after a brief illness aged 92—was the hero of the Bangladesh war, the man who famously negotiated Pakistan’s surrender in 1971. Delhi is now left with only 10 Indian Jewish families, according to Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, the Maharashtra-born rabbi of Judah Hyam, the city’s only synagogue, which borders the cemetery. Seated one evening in the empty hall of his temple, which has been visited by the likes of former Israeli president Shimon Peres and Tibetan leader Dalai Lama, Malekar says India has about 5,000 Jews—4,000 of them live in and around Mumbai.

While Delhi has also been shaped by people who happen to be Jewish (read Delhi’s great Jews), its small Hebrew graveyard does not give away much about the community. Rabbi Malekar, too, is not familiar with the stories of most of those buried here. Even so, reading the epitaphs on these dusty tombstones does offer a sense of a unique Jewish-Indian world. Some of the inscriptions hint at interesting stories—the mother and father have markedly Jewish names, while the names of a husband or wife appear to be Hindu. One tomb commemorates martyrdom in an India-Pakistan war; another celebrates a career as a signalman.

A few of the people in the graveyard, set up in 1930, would be known to those who keenly follow Jewish life in India. Ezra Kolet, for instance, was the president of the Indian Council of Jewry, and was also the founder of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra.

Sadly, some of the old sepulchral stones at the cemetery have decayed and are difficult to decipher—the letters have faded, so have the Star of David signs. Some tombs have grass growing around them, some have cracked. The grave that appeared least lonely on a recent afternoon had a dog snoozing next to it. Here are all the people who lie at rest at the graveyard; the names that could be deciphered are in the descending order of the year of death or burial and most of the descriptions have been taken from their epitaphs:

The cemetery

1. Lt Gen Jack Farj Rafael Jacob (his tomb is still a mound of earth)

2. Samuel Nissim Luddy, 1918-2013 (a proud resident of Calcutta, he “lived life to the full")

3. Isaaco Joseph D’Ascoli—died in 2011

4. Beatrice Moses, 1934-2007 (daughter of Abraham and Flora Solomon Saigaonkar, and wife of Nissim Moses Talkar, she was a sweetheart wife and mother)

5. Cathora Shalom Payne, 1930-2007 (her other name was Kanwal Sehgal; wife of Ram Sehgal; daughter of Sarah and Shalom Payne, she is remembered forever by Dimpy and Nandita)

6. Diana Kolet, 1922-2005 (daughter of Shebabai and Rahamim Kolet)

7. Ruth Kolet, 1920-2004 (wife of Ezra Kolet)

8. Matilda Abraham, 1929-1998 (wife of M.B. Singh, she was Leah and Moses Abraham’s daughter)

9. Sophie Moses, 1910-1996 (daughter of Captain Solomon and Rifka Samson, she was Menahem Moses’ wife)

10. Moshe, died 1995, 79 years (son of Hannah and Aaron Joseph, whose memory will never fade, bore his pain silently as his wife, daughters, grandchildren, sons-in-law and brothers stood by)

11. Dr Sarah Kolet, 1906-1993 (daughter of Rahmim and Shebabai Kolet, she had smiles for all and a heart of gold)

12. Ezra Kolet, 1914-1992 (son of Shebabai and Rahamim Kolet)

13. Ann Samson, died in 1986

14. Mrs Ivy Narain, 1944-1986

15. Shanta Simha Chenoy, 1930-1981 (daughter of Hannah, who was founder and principal of Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College, and Satish Sen)

16. Meera, 1929-1977 (daughter of Sherula and Aaron Jacob)

17. Yadullah Mobasser, died in 1974, aged 59

18. Elizabeth Kolet, 1903-1971

19. Aaron Solomon Jacob Mendrekar, died in 1970, aged 83 (he breathed his last on a Sunday)

20. Solomon Daniel Belkar, 1908-1969 (born in Igatpuri, died in Ludhiana, and buried in Delhi)

21. Dr Rachel Judah, 1907-1967 (she was gentle in mind and patient in pain)

22. Luna Reubens, 1895-1966 (her life was an example of courage and patience)

23. Mrs Sarah Jacob, died in 1965, aged 76

The tombstone of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Ephraim Jhirad, who died in 1965.

24. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Ephraim Jhirad, died in 1965 (Wise in heart and mighty in strength. He died on 17 September during the India-Pakistan war while commanding the 8th battalion of the Garhwal Rifles. He was greatly mourned by Joyce Rebecca, his beloved wife)

25. Sybil Daniel, 1912-1963 (his sudden death on 27 June shocked everybody)

26. Sheba Rahamin Kolet, died in 1962, aged 76 (a virtuous woman whose price was far above rubies, she passed away peacefully after a lifetime of selfless courage that was an inspiration to all)

27. Mary Abraham, died in 1961

28. Naomi Jhirad, 1945-1959

29. Elizabeth, died in 1956, aged 75

30. Mrs Jerusha Joseph Samson, 1919-1955

31. Elizabeth Moses Isaacs—1888-1954 (“a loving sister she had always been, many a sorrow she had seen")

32. Benjamin Samuel Reuben—died in 1952, aged 46 (“on that sad unhappy day, with farewells left unspoken, he softly slipped away")

33. Herbert Appel—1905-1952 (he was born in Bonn, Germany)

34. Hyeen Benjamin, 1930-1949

35. Victor E. J. Reubens, died in 1948

36. Baby of Albert Rubens, 20.5.1947 to 30.5.1947 (the child lived for just 10 days)

37. Signalman Bernard Pruim, 1925-1946 (beloved son of Joseph Pruim, his identity number at work was No. 2624730 Royal Signals)

38. Ezra Penkar, 1943-1944 (son of Jacob Penkar)

39. Hanukh Jhirad, died in 1944, aged 28

40. Flora Simon Chandgaokar, died in 1935, aged 25 (daughter of Khan Sahib Dr D Aaron Rohekar)

41. Benjamin (Benny) Jacob, born in 1932 (he was a loving husband and a beloved father)

42. Dr J.H. Legbheim, dates not legible


Delhi’s great Jews

People from a Jewish background who shaped our Capital

Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed

Today a Sufi saint, Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, whose small red-coloured shrine lies outside Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, was born an Armenian Jew in the late 16th century in modern-day Iran. A scholar of Torah, he had converted to Islam by the time he reached Sindh, where he is said to have developed an affection for a Hindu boy. Soon after, Sarmad settled in Delhi and became a naked ascetic. His followers included the Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh, who was killed by his brother Aurangzeb in the war of succession. Sarmad, too, was executed in the second half of the 17th century.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Booker-prize winning novelist and scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala lived in Civil Lines, north Delhi, for more than 20 years. Born in 1927 to a family of Polish Jews in Cologne, Germany, most of her father’s side of the family was killed in the Nazi camps. On completing her college education in London, she married the Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and shifted to Delhi, the setting of many of her novels. She died in New York in 2013.

Hannah Sen

Her mother was a Baghdadi Jew and her father, a Hindu who converted to Judaism. Hannah Sen was the founder and principal of Delhi’s Lady Irwin College—a block in the college is named after her. According to the encyclopaedic Jewish Women’s Archive website, Sen helped “found the Lady Irwin College of Home Science in New Delhi, of which she served as principal until l947… Sen later worked with the ministry of relief and rehabilitation, focusing on women and children who were displaced as a result of the Partition of the subcontinent. She continued her interest in social affairs by representing India at international conferences of non-governmental organizations, UNESCO, and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Hannah Sen remained close to the Jewish community and contributed to the building of the synagogue in New Delhi." She died in 1957.

Joseph Allen Stein

The American architect designed some of post-independence Delhi’s most influential garden-buildings such as the India International Centre (IIC), the Triveni Kala Sangam and the India Habitat Centre (IHC). The biggest auditorium at the IHC is named after him. Born to Jewish parents in Omaha, Nebraska, US, in 1912, he died in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2001.

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