In central India, Mohammad Abdul Yaseen, 76, has spent half a century meticulously etching Hebrew memorials into the headstones for members of Mumbai’s dwindling Bene Israel Jewish community (there are only 2,000 Jews left in Mumbai, and fewer than 5,000 in all of India). Mr. Abdul Yaseen is said to be “an unassuming symbol of Mumbai’s polyglot heritage” – he’s a Muslim engraver, working on Jewish headstones, in a country that is primarily Hindu. As a boy growing up in Uttar Pradesh, he did not learn how to read or write any language much less Hebrew. In 1968, he moved to Mumbai and found a mentor in Aaron Menasse Navgavikar, a Bene Israel Jew who engraved tombstones and was looking for an assistant. Working with Mr. Navgavikar, Abdul Yaseen learned not only the local language of Marathi, but also Hindi, English and Hebrew. In the 1970s, Abdul Yaseen took over the practice when Navgavikar moved to Israel.
His son, Islam, soon joined the trade, and now operates the heavy stone cutter as well as handles the artistry of chiseling the stone. The funeral practice now only get a few requests for headstones per month as the market for their expertise is limited — Hindus cremate the dead and Muslim graves rarely feature elaborate headstones.
Despite some setbacks, Mr. Abdul Yaseen is proud that his business represents an interfaith symbol in his country. “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.”