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Growing up Jewish in Pakistan

198-pakistan Svia Epstein and her sister Elishama Jacobs

Svia Epstein and Elishama Jacobs are two sisters whose parents, traditional Jews living in India, moved to Pakistan when their father was relocated to work as an engineer in Pakistan. The sisters brought with them a most interesting collection of historic photographs.

They told a fascinated audience in Modiin the story of Jews who left the Galilee more than 2,000 years ago, before the Second Temple was destroyed. The boat taking them to their new home was shipwrecked near Alibag, about 48 miles south of Bombay, India, and all their belongings were lost. They made that area their home and in 1676 David Rehavi, visiting the area from Holland, found people practicing Judaism, who had no prayer books. Throughout the centuries the Hebrew language was lost to them, but customs remained. He tested them by showing them two baskets, one containing kosher fish and the other non-kosher fish and they rejected the non-kosher fish.

Their father, Aaron Benjamin, was an engineer, trained onboard ship, and married when he was 30 years old. Their mother, Yerusha Samson, belonged to a family from Aden. They were five children, Svia, Ezra, Milka, Abigail and Elishama. Their mother was very young, and married straight from school. She had been sent to St Columbia's School, which was run by Scottish nuns, and she was not encouraged to continue her studies. She was told: "You will never get married". Then after her marriage her husband would not let her study. She died three months before her 90th birthday.

Their father became chief mechanical engineer on his ship. Some years before partition, he was offered a job in Pakistan.

The family lived on Manora Island, just off the Pakistani coast. They were taken to school on the mainland every day by a boat owned by their father, a ten-minute journey each way, and a school bus waited for them. The island had a port workshop and dry dock. They spoke Urdu, a mix of Arabic and Parsi. Forty-five minutes away from their island was another island with holiday homes, and here they spent their holidays. Giant turtles would come in from the sea and lay eggs, which servants would sell to local Chinese restaurants.

The family group was known as the 'golden gang'. They kept Jewish traditions. There was Kiddush on Friday nights, and Jewish holidays when they stayed home. Their mother kept a kosher home. They mainly ate fish, and a servant would go to Karachi to buy bread and butter.

At Pesach time their mother made matza from home ground wheat, and the Dutch would send rice pancakes. Their father would take a goat to be sacrificed, and some of its blood would be smeared over their doorpost, a tradition that remained from the Bible. A big pot of rice was cooked and taken to the poor.

Succot was a fantastic holiday for them. They had a big succa and they would eat coconut and ice cream. One of the servants, Ali Akbar, would make biryani, a spicy rice dish, for them.

For Purim they dressed up in fancy dress costumes.

In the community there was a mikveh, and it was used according to Sephardi ritual. There was a synagogue in Karachi in 1893, but it no longer exists. A shopping mall stands on the site today.

The cemeteries are all gone now. The gravestones were taken for building.

There were some 2,500 Jews living in Pakistan, and they were the cleverest of all. They spoke English and went to Karachi Grammar School. At the school there were no native teachers, and English was the common language used for teaching. It was like an international school. All the children from rich families went there. The school motto was "Let the unlearned learn".

There were no problems between the Muslim population and the Jewish community, but the Muslims never offered their father a job. There was a political attempt to keep Jewish boys and girls separate from non-Jews. They always had to be chaperoned, never allowed to be alone. When a cousin married a Muslim woman his family sat shiva.

When the troubles began, prior to partition, they needed police protection, and protection for the synagogue, and were forbidden to use Zionist materials.

One by one, each child was sent to England to live in safety. When they left Pakistan, they could not fly direct to Israel. The route they used was Karachi to Bombay, then to Iran and from Iran to Israel. Elishama came to Israel in 1970, taught in schools and became a school inspector.

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