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February 26, 2017 3:20 pm

Due to India’s Dwindling Bene Israel Population, Mumbai Muslim Father-Son Artisans Unlikely to Pass on Trade of Engraving Jewish Headstones to Next Generation

avatar by Shiryn Solny

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The Bene Israel community in India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Members of India’s Bene Israel community. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A Muslim father and son from Mumbai who have been engraving Jewish gravestones together for decades may not be able to pass on their trade to the next generation due to the Indian city’s dwindling Jewish community, the Los Angeles Times revealed, in an in-depth feature on Sunday.

Mohammad Abdul Yaseen, 76 — who has been practicing his artisanship since 1969 — and his 53-year-old son, Islam, have been embellishing the headstones of Bene Israel community members buried in Mumbai’s oldest Jewish cemetery, most of whose more than 6,500 graves are decorated with Stars of David.

However, according to the LA Times, with a mere 2,000 Jews left in Mumbai and the surrounding state of Maharashtra – and fewer than 5,000 in all of India – the two men receive requests to carve only two or three headstones each month, other than an occasional one from a nearby church.

Abdul Yasee, the article said, was illiterate until 1968, when he began working as an assistant to a headstone engraver and member of Bene Israel, who taught him Marathi, Hindi, English and Hebrew. When his boss immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, Abdul Yaseen took over the practice.

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Though he has been invited by community members to move to Israel and continue his work there, he declined on the grounds that he has never traveled abroad and never considered leaving India.

About his working with Jews in a country with a strict ethnic and religious hierarchy, Abdul Yaseen said, “India should always be mixed like this. It doesn’t matter that I am Muslim. It only matters that the community has taken us in and treated us well.”

The Bene Israel — which believe they are descended from 14 Jews who were stranded on India’s Konkan shore after being shipwrecked — have lived in India for two millennia. Their population, which reached 20,000 in the 1940s, began shrinking following India’s independence in 1947 and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when many began immigrating to the Jewish state.

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