Byculla – Community Compass

Though known for its predominantly Muslim population, Byculla has a healthy mix of various communities. Sitting in his clinic at Jerbai Baug, counsellor Dr Rajan Bhonsale, who has been practising here for 20 years, smiles, “My clinic is next to the Gloria Church opposite which is the bright, aquamarine Moti Masjid (in pic above), next to which is the ostentatious Hanuman Mandir.”Byculla has always been associated as a Muslim area thanks to the Saboo Siddik College of Engineering and the All-India Khilafat Committee’s College of Education. But there is much more. However, Hyder Ali, a shopkeeper, says, “That is just a misconception. Byculla is really very cosmopolitan.” Not too many know that Byculla has the largest population of Jains in South Mumbai with the Adinath Jain Derasar located in the Sheth Motishah Lane aka Love Lane.Besides, you will find a sizeable population of Parsis too in Jerbai Baug and Rustom Baug. There is a large population of Maharashtrians at the BIT Chawls and a large Goan Christian community on the Mazgaon fringes that run the Christ Church and Antonio D’Souza schools — and of course there is the Gloria Church. And then there are the Jews. The Magen David Synagogue has on campus the century-old EEE Sassoon School. “Presently there are 550 students, about 98 per cent belonging to the Muslim community,” says Solomon J Sopher, managing trustee of the school. You couldn’t get a more cosmopolitan in Mumbai. “I wouldn’t like to practise near my house in Cuffe Parade because I wouldn’t be able to interact with such a diverse group of people,” smiles a content Dr Bhonsale. Heritage but all of 5 devotees bow here each day The 143-year-old Magen David Synagogue at Babasaheb Ambedkar Road may have been awarded heritage status but the Jews aren’t pleased. Solomon J Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of Sir Jacob Sassoon Charity and Allied Trusts, is upset. He thunders, “We haven’t been told officially that this is a heritage structure. Has anyone asked me whether we want heritage status for any of our synagogues? What will we get out of it anyway?” Built by David Sassoon, it is one of the remnants of the glorious days of the Baghdadi Jews in Mumbai. In the early 1900s, the population of Baghdadi Jews in Byculla had been approximated at 20,000. Many worked as labourers in the neighbouring Sassoon Mills (now Khatau Mills). With the creation of two nations — India in 1947 and Israel in 1948 — the Jewish community in Byculla diminished rapidly with many Bene Israel Jews leaving for Israel in 1973 with the country’s recognition of their community.Around the same time, Magen David — that was so far limited to Baghdadi Jews — finally opened its doors to the Bene Israels. “The Baghdadi Jews who came into India from Iraq in the 1800s were very staunch in their beliefs and didn’t want to recognise Bene Israels as Jews. This was mainly because of inter-caste marriages that may have been probable in the Bene Israels’ 2,000-year-old lineage,” says Sopher, adding, “Now the bigotism has decreased. We wouldn’t want to distinguish between Jews. There are only 70-80 Baghdadi Jews in Mumbai and we can’t just run this synagogue with that number. Also there are just 5,000 Jews left in Mumbai.” As Bensiyon Ghosalkar, a Bene Israel and caretaker at the synagogue, says, “Not more than five Jews visit the synagogue at an average each day.”However, next week, for the only time of the year, on September 22, the Magen David Synagogue will see a congregation of a few hundred Jews as they listen to the clarion call to God, symbolised by the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) by the rabbi, as they end their month of penance and repentance, the Elul Rahamin.