Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah, Religious leader
Rabbi Ezekiel N. Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, into a family that emigrated there from Baghdad in 1820. From the time he was a young man he wished to serve the community as a rabbi and went to train in America for this purpose. After he graduated from the University of Calcutta with a degree in philosophy, he traveled across continents to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1952 and immediately returned to India, where he served as religious leader of his native community for twelve years.
Rabbi Musleah improved religious instruction in Calcutta, guided many members of the community to make aliyah to Israel, opened interfaith dialogue, and represented the community with excellence. But the community was dwindling, as Jews left Calcutta to immigrate to other parts of the world, making it increasingly difficult to maintain a community with all its necessary institutions. He, too, decided to pursue a more vibrant Jewish life in the United States, and emigrated with his family in 1964.
He served as rabbi of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, the second oldest functioning Jewish congregation in the U.S., and later became chairman of the Beth Din, or Jewish religious court, based in Philadelphia. He received his doctorate in Hebrew Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary, culminating in the publication of his research in a book called On the Banks of The Ganga: The Sojourn of Jews in Calcutta, a foundational and scholarly work. He continued to research and write about the Calcutta Jewish community in four other publications: Kol Zimra: a Hebrew-English volume of religious songs sung in Jewish India; Kirú Aharai: a manual for mourners; No Shortcuts to Far Horizons, his autobiography, and Bits and Pieces, a memoir.
Rabbi Musleah and his wife Margaret have three daughters, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His daughter Rahel, a journalist, singer and speaker, has recorded the music of the community in Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India, and in B’Kol Arev: Songs of the Jews of Calcutta. She writes and speaks extensively on the Jewish community of Calcutta, its stories, customs, history and music.
Rabbi Musleah has adapted a quote from Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American pastor, to reflect his insight on the continuity of his family:
“The Musleah Tree – Baghdad, Calcutta, United States of America.”
“We ask the leaf – Are you complete in yourself?”
And the leaf answered ‘No, my life is in the branches.’ ”
“We ask the branches, and the branches answer: ‘No, my life is in the root.’”
“We ask the root, and the root answers: ‘”No, my life is in the trunk.’”
“We ask the trunk, the root, the branches and the leaves. Keep the branches stripped of leaves and I shall die.”
Rabbi Musleah comments: “I am the leaf. I have had my fill of chlorophyll – color, warmth and anchor – but I have never felt complete in myself. My life is in my roots – the source, kernel and anchorage of my forbears. But roots are not sufficient for survival. We need a sturdy trunk and branches to attain stability. My wife, Margaret, of Baghdadi rabbinic stock, adds stamina and continuance to the health of our tree. In no small measure she exemplifies “the woman of valor” and sound motherhood to our children, who represent endurance by transmitting to their children what we have taught them. Each part of the tree must play its role in the survival process.
“I as leaf will cease to exist. The life I have lived; the pioneering path I have traversed; the color, warmth and ardor that I have tried to exhibit—all have come to naught but for the hope that come next spring, a fresh set of leaves will appear and the tree will continue to thrive.
“This is the tenor of Etz Musleah – the Musleah tree. It is the story of a tree rooted in Baghdad, Iraq, regenerated and blossomed in Calcutta, India, and matured in America. It has had vicissitudes, been hit by storms, struck by high winds and reinforced. After all, the name of the tree is Musleah [Hebrew, matzliah, successful]– it is destined to renew itself and flourish!”