With family roots in India stretching back two millennia, Cantor Aviva Marer grew up surrounded by the sweet delicacies and culture of her ancestral homeland.
Since arriving at Temple Emanu-El in Edison last year, Marer has introduced the congregation to the melodies and traditions that are part of her heritage as a Bene Israel Jew, the first of whom were believed to have arrived in the subcontinent — survivors of a shipwreck — some 2,000 years ago.
At the synagogue’s Selihot program on Sept. 20, Marer included more than 200 congregants in the performance of one of Bene Israel’s cherished customs, the Malida ceremony, traditionally held at celebrations.
The penitential prayers of the Selihot service are recited the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, often preceded by an educational program.
Marer, whose parents emigrated from India to Canada, was raised in Ottawa. Her parents, Uriel and Naomi Kolet, now Vancouver residents visiting for the holidays, attended the event.
In addition to sharing her personal experiences, the cantor gave an overview of the rich history of the Bene Israel, one of three groups of Jews — along with Baghdadi and Cochin — who have lived for centuries among Hindus, Jains, and Muslims in a country with no history of anti-Semitism.
Her own family’s history is testament to the acceptance of Jews in India. Her grandfather, Ezra Kolet, was head of transportation for the Indian government and a lay leader who conducted religious services and built Judah Hyam Hall, the first synagogue in New Delhi.
Despite their level of acceptance, Marer said, the Bene Israel were committed Zionists, and many immigrated to Israel after its establishment. It is estimated there are now some 70,000 Indian Jews — about half of them Bene Israel — in Israel. Marer also said there are large Indian-Jewish communities in Boston, Toronto, and Queens.
“When the Bene Israel came to India it was before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem,” said Marer. Tradition holds that a Jewish trader from Aleppo, David Ezekiel Rahabi, arrived in 1645. When he found that the community members maintained certain vestigial aspects of Judaism but were unaware of the teachings and holidays practiced in much of the Jewish world, he set about teaching them.
Remnants of earlier beliefs remained so ingrained, some still held in modern times. “My grandmother didn’t believe in Hanukka,” said Marer. “She was convinced North American Jews invented it to keep up with Christians on Christmas.”
Marer demonstrated how the Bene Israel put their fingers to their noses to form the Hebrew letter shin, for “Sh’ma,” when chanting the prayer, rather than closing their eyes. She called up congregant Laurel Stahl of Somerset to demonstrate the unique handshake, which includes kissing a finger, with which members of Bene Israel greet each other.
The Malida rite “is a ceremony born out of hope and faith, done during a simha,” Marer said; it was performed at her bat mitzva, after her marriage to her husband James, and after the birth of her son, Benjamin, six months ago.
It is also known as the Eliyahu Hanavi ceremony because of the Bene Israel’s strong connection to Elijah the Prophet, Marer said. Legend has it that indentations on a rock in the village of Khandala, regarded as a shrine by Indian Jews, were left by Elijah’s chariot wheels and horse hoof prints right before he ascended to heaven.
“We believe Elijah left them as a sign to us that even in this corner of the world, when the Messiah comes we will not be forgotten,” said Marer.
The ceremony involves eating five pieces of fruit that symbolize fertility and a flattened rice called poha infused with coconut, cardamom, almonds, and confectioner’s sugar.
The Malida “is steeped in tradition and food like any good Jewish ceremony,” Marer said.
Program participants joined in parts of the ceremony, after plates of poha and fruit were distributed. They held aloft dates and repeated the blessing over the fruit, followed by the recitation of Psalm 121.
They sang “Eliyahu Hanavi” — with an “upbeat” Bene Israel melody — “to show our great reverence for the Prophet Elijah,” said Marer.
When the full ceremony is carried out, she said, the leader chants Torah verses from Genesis and Deuteronomy, signifying that Torah is a never-ending cycle of life.
Afterward, congregants were treated to elaborate Indian-Jewish desserts, some adorned with edible silver leaves.