Monday, February 22, 2010

Entering the Jewish faith

Jaimol Fernandez, an Anglo-Indian got married to Mordokkayi Shafeer, a Kochi Jew. When she was six months pregnant, Jaimol converted to Judaism in an elaborate ceremony at the Magen Hassidim Synagogue, Mumbai

Photo: Mordokkayi Shafeer and Jaimol Fernandez

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mordokkayi Shafeer is a Jew who lives in Kochi. The community has only forty members, thanks to regular migration to Israel. So when Shafeer wanted to get married, he had to look outside the community. Through a matrimonial web site, he got in touch with Jaimol Fernandez, who is of mixed origin.

Her father is an Anglo-Indian while her mother is a Hindu. “Since I came from an inter-caste background I had no hesitation in marrying Shafeer,” says Jaimol. They tied the knot in a civil ceremony on June 21, 2009.

Shafeer’s parents are conservative. They insisted that Jaimol get converted to Judaism. But since there is no conversion provisions at the synagogue at Kochi, the couple made repeated appeals to the Magen Hassidim Synagogue, at Mumbai, but there was no response “They were not keen at all, because we had a registered marriage,” says Shafeer. “Thus, they did not recognise our union.”

Two months later, Jaimol got pregnant. This caused a turmoil in the family. “For the Jews the mother holds a very important position,” says Shafeer. “My parents were desperate that Jaimol becomes a Jew.”

Meanwhile, Shafeer managed to befriend a relative’s father-in-law, Abraham Moses, who is a member of the Mumbai synagogue. Thanks to Moses’ persistent appeals, permission was finally granted for a conversion ceremony, as well as a Jewish marriage.

On the evening of January 20, Shafeer and Jaimol arrive at the synagogue at Agripada. Then Jaimol enters a room where the 12-member committee is sitting. This is known as the Beit Din – the rabbinical court.

They ask her to recite the Jewish prayer: Shema Israel.

Jaimol had memorised it earlier, so she has no problem in saying, in clear Hebrew:

Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad,
Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed.

(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.)

Several other questions follow: Why did Jaimol want to be a Jew? What is the last festival of the Jews in the year?

Jaimol replies that she wants to be a Jew because she is married to one. The last ceremony is Hanukkah, the festival of lights in late November.

Fifteen minutes later, Shafeer is called in. The committee secretary tells him that Jaimol had passed the examination. “She could now go through the conversion process,” says Shafeer. But before that, Shafeer has to deposit the necessary fees.

The next morning at 7 a.m. Jaimol steps nude into a tank, behind the synagogue. She dips herself seven times, which is considered a significant number in Judaism. This ceremony is known as the mikvah - a ritual bath for spiritual purification.

When Jaimol comes out, she drapes herself with a white cloth. Then Ariel Naugaukar, the hazzan (the person who leads the delegation in prayer) holds a cloth bag, which has 21 coins, and hits it gently against the back of Jaimol’s neck. Some prayers are said.

Later, Jaimol has to select a Jewish name. “I chose Serah, (‘Princess’), because I like the tone,” she says. She also had to adopt a Jewish father, and the couple selects Abraham Moses.

Following the conversion, an hour-long wedding ceremony also takes place (see box).

Two weeks later, at a hotel in Kochi, Jaimol has a wistful smile on her face when I ask her whether she will miss going to a church or a temple, since the Jewish religion forbids entry into other religious places. “I feel sad, but I have accepted it,” she says.

Shafeer also feels sad because his relatives, many of whom live in Israel, did not accept Jaimol initially because she was not a Jew. “But when I informed them about the conversion and the wedding, I got e-mails which said, ‘Jaimol, welcome to the family,’” he says. “This shows narrow-mindedness on their part.”

Quite unlike the broad-minded Jaimol, who is gradually getting used to Jewish customs.

Every Friday, after 7 p.m., the day of the Sabbath begins. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. The Jews try to follow this. The elderly Jews abstain from shaving, having a bath, or using the electric switches.

The rule is that no cooking can be done for the next 24 hours. However, they keep one kerosene stove working continuously. “We warm our food on it,” says Jaimol. “It is just a matter of getting used to. Anyway, my mother-in-law does all the cooking, since I am working in the BPO industry.”

Regarding food, the Jews are very particular about it being kosher. “That means the meat has to be cooked according to the rules of Judaism,” says Jaimol. Here is one guideline: All the blood has to be drained out from poultry and meat before it is eaten.

(Incidentally, only two Jews in Kochi have received the permission from the synagogue to slaughter approved animals. In Kochi, only chicken and ducks can be eaten).

“Because of kosher rules, we don’t eat non-vegetarian food from outside,” says Jaimol.

But she is not upset by this restriction. What Jaimol likes the most about the community is the helpful attitude of the members.

“If you are in trouble, people immediately come forward to offer assistance,” she says. “So we are never alone. This is one of the big advantages of being a member of a very small community.”

Jaimol pauses, sips a cup of tea and says, simply, “I am happy that my child is going to grow up as a Jew.”

Shafeer smiles brightly when she says this.



‘Behold, you are betrothed unto me’

For the wedding, Jaimol wears a white saree, while Shafeer is wearing a blue skull-cap, as well as a blue cloak.

The hazzan, Ariel Naugaukar, says several prayers. A few members of the Bene Israel community are present. For the wedding there has to be a minyan - a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish males.

Shafeer stands opposite Jaimol, holding a glass of wine, which has a silver ring dipped into it.

From the Torah, which Ariel is holding, Shafeer reads out the prayers in Hebrew. Jaimol watches him silently. Then he drinks half the glass. Thereafter, Jaimol finishes the rest.

Then Shafeer takes out the wedding ring and says, in Hebrew, to Jaimol, in the presence of two witnesses, "Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel." He places the ring on the forefinger of Jaimol’s right hand.

Then a glass wine, which is wrapped in a cloth, is hit against some stones. “This is to show our sadness at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem,” says Ariel. “They are now linked with the spiritual and national destiny of the Jewish people.”

Then Shafeer ties a necklace around Jaimol.

The marriage ceremony is over.

Thereafter, they sign the ketubah -- the marriage contract. The ketubah explains the husband's obligations to the wife, the rules of inheritance, and the responsibilities regarding the support of children. It also provides for the wife's support in the event of divorce.


Major Jewish festivals

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It is usually celebrated in September. It starts at sundown as are all Jewish observances. It is commemorated by loud blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn. Rosh Hashanah means, ‘the beginning of the year’.

Yom Kippur is celebrated eight days after Rosh Hashanah. It is the day of atonement, when Jews focus on their misdeeds and faults. The Jews are expected to pray for forgiveness. There are lengthy devotional services and a 24-hour fast. Israel comes to a complete halt.

Sukkot, also known as the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot is celebrated with a mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. On Sukkot, Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


  1. For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments.

    We have three websites

    1) Shofar Sounders WebPage

    2) Joint Effort with Michael Chusid, an expert Shofar sounder and commentator

    3) Shofar WebPage

  2. Shevlin
    I liked your blog. I had read about your article in IE and google searched for the article to help my friend who is doing research in Jews of Kochi. I have sent him your blog link. Hope it would help him.

  3. I wanted to see some more pictures. you have mentioned see box for pictures. I would like to see them . Where is the box.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Wow! amazing post..
    For the best Egypt bride and groom profiles, register free on allyseek. Visit: Egypt Matrimony