The Jewish Holiday of Simchat Torah is a special one. It is the festival in which we celebrate finishing a full cycle of reading the Torah and immediately start it again in a never-ending sequence. In many ways, it is a holiday of cycles.
On this occasion, Jews around the world take a pause from the daily ritual of studying the sacred books and instead lift them way up high to rejoice and to celebrate the special occasion.
This element of celebration, regardless of age seniority or how each individual learnt the Holy Scriptures, creates an equal opportunity for all. No matter how hard one learnt the Torah throughout the year; we all get to celebrate and rejoice. This occasion is about being equally happy, about being equal. It is this democratic element of equality that is so central and evident in this unique holiday.
Equality and tolerance have always been part of the shared values of the Jewish community in India as a whole and here in Calcutta. It is in this community that all Jews were and still are treated equally and fairly without any differentiation and is open for all, as it always had been contributing and being contributed.
This holiday is dedicated to the celebration upon the ending of the Book of DVARIM and the beginning of reading in the Book of BERESHIT.
Finishing reading all five HUMASHIM in one year was a custom introduced by the Jews of Babel. It was different from finishing the full cycle of the Torah in three and a half years. This custom was practiced in Jerusalem many years ago, up until the entire Jewish world adopted the tradition of the Jews of Babel.
The Jewish community in Calcutta, which has it roots going all the way to the Jews of Babel, has a long and rich history. Jews have been in Calcutta continuously for more than two centuries now. Originating from various places, like today’s Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the community received the name of the “Baghdadi Jews”.
The monuments of the Jewish community have left their mark in this city:
-Nahoum's bakery that every son and daughter of Calcutta remembers fondly.
-Buildings like Ezra Mansion, Chowringhee Mansions, Esplanade Mansions and the synagogues of Neveh Shalom, Beit El and Magen David.
-The Jewish Girls School, that to this very day is a monument of the community leadership and central role in the Mosaic that makes Calcutta.
The Jews of India and Calcutta have not only made a significant contribution to the history of this country – and the great Indian war hero, General Jacob is only one example out of many - but also had an important part in the history of the Jewish people.
One special characteristic of the Jews of India and especially in Calcutta is the fact that they did not face persecution. In fact, it was the Jews of Calcutta who provided shelter for their brethren after the Holocaust and where fleeing Jews found shelter at that time.
This holiday and this time of the Jewish year, symbolizes rejuvenation and a new beginning. Simchat Torah is a holiday that symbolizes the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one, simultaneously.
It is the never-ending circle of reading the Torah, which has brought us here today, and the rejoicing of it. One circle of reading in the Torah that ends while another starts right after it. It is about the joy of this process.
But more than that, it is the never-ending circle of Jewish life that we are celebrating today too.
When the state of Israel was founded, many Calcutta Jews decided to continue their circle of Jewish life in Israel and made Aliya. It had made our life and culture in Israel all together richer.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the indispensable role that the Jewish community here in India and especially Calcutta play in the unique and exciting creation of the relations between Israel and India. In 21 years of full diplomatic relations we have built one of the most outstanding friendships that two nations share. Any building, no matter how tall, beautiful, shining or impressive, needs to rest on a solid foundation. And you, ladies and gentlemen, all of you and each and every one of you, are this foundation.
So we come here with a mixed feeling. A feeling of pride of who we are and what we Israelis have achieved. But also a sense of humility in recognizing that we stand today at the heart of a great Jewish community. We stand here today in front of you with a sense of gratitude for your indispensable contribution to what we daily aspire to achieve here in India. But more than anything else we come here with a tremendously strong sense of kinship and deep love to all of you.
Thank you and Hag Sameah