Reflections 2009

The Jews of India

Kartikey Pradhan

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The history of Judaism from ancient times has been entangled with the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora. The first exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt to the land of Israel has further strengthened the idea that the Jews will be delivered back to the Promised Land by God if they follow his commandments and keep the covenant. Since the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians and the forcible expulsion requiring the Jews to move to Babylon, the Jewish community increased its reliance on the written texts-Torah, around 538 B.C, not completely written down until 586 B.C. The ability of the Jewish people to be able to live in different cultures and nations and still keep their Jewish identity intact even after assuming certain cultural characteristics from the Gentiles makes the study of the Jewish people even more fascinating. The establishment of the state of Israel marked an end to the history of the Jews existing as a nation without a state to them finally able to move over to the land of Israel and live on the Promised Land.

The study of the Jewish Diaspora generally revolves around the experiences of the Ashkenazi Jews with origins in Europe, and Sephardic Jews originating in the Middle East.  The study of the Jewish Diaspora in India in India is a neglected subject, partially due to their smaller numbers.  The existence of a common link between Abrahamic faiths, have led to Jewish ideas and concepts play an important role in the development of both; Islam and Christianity. These pre-defined notions and ideas have lead to the development of a love-hate relationship between the Jewish people living in the Middle East and Europe. The history of the Jewish Diaspora in India can be said to be uncommon due to a special relationship of respect, tolerance and co-existence emerging from the interaction between India’s Hindu civilization and the Judaic civilization. This paper is going to gloss over this relationship with a focus on the different kinds of Jewish communities in India, their arrival, culture, acculturation, practices and finally their migration to Israel after the 1950’s.

The Jewish people in India are divided into different group, tracing their arrival to India from divergent theories. The three main communities of Jews in India are the Cochinis, the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis. The Cochin Jews claim their ancestry to Jerusalem, fleeing the Roman invasion and the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D (Katz 2000).  The Bene Israel base their arrival into India on a story describing a shipwreck on the coast of the Indian state of Maharashtra, carrying the ancestors of the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews is often the term used in India for Jews migrating from Arabic and Persian speaking regions, regardless of them having origin in Baghdad (Katz).  Before elaborating further on the different Jewish communities of India it is important to point out that the Indian Jewish Diaspora is unique to the point that historically, there have been no traces of anti-Semitism found in India (Katz).

Bene Israel

The Bene Israel were the largest Jewish community in India, found in the Indian state of Maharashtra. As per existing legends, a ship carrying their ancestors wrecked near the coast of Maharashtra, leaving behind seven families. They swam to a village known as Navgaon and settled there. With the passage of time, they forgot their traditions and Hebrew, thereby adopting local customs. Their customs such as avoiding work on Saturdays separated them from other Indian communities, not having any such restrictions (Isenberg).  They took to the profession of oil pressers which resulted in them being known as Shaniwar Telis (Saturday oil pressers) (Isenberg).  They referred to themselves as the Bene Israelis rather than Jews for the most part of their history.

It is believed by them that they had lost their Jewish identity until the arrival of a Jewish scholar from the Middle East to India in the 10th century, essentially teaching them the Torah and Jewish religious customs (Isenberg).  As the Bene Israelis started asserting their religious traditions around the eighteenth century, association with other Jewish communities became more common (Isenberg).  The Bene Israel have several customs that make them distinct from other Indian Jews. One of the is known as the Malida, where the men sit around a plate containing rice, fruits, flowers and spices, singing praises to God (Isenberg).  They abstained from eating beef probably in respect for the majority Hindu community’s beliefs (Isenberg).  Another Bene Israel custom traceable to Hindu influences was refraining from widow remarriage (Isenberg).  The Bene Israel were not very particular about maintaining kosher law as compared to other Jewish communities of India pointing towards a loss Jewish customs from being ensconced away from mainstream Jewry. 

The Bene Israeli community has a history of fighting in the military of the Maratha hero Shivaji, but their rise to prominence was typically during the English rule of the Indian subcontinent (Isenberg).  Many of them fought for the British in various wars, resulting in the British resulting in the British giving them special preferences. In later periods they achieved high levels of education, and served the British as well as the subsequent Indian governments as government’s officials, professors and soldiers. Some of them were able to reach high ranking positions in modern India. The Bene Israeli population at its peak was around 30,000 during the 1950’s (Weil).  With many of them having migrated to Israel and other western countries, their population in India is approximately 5000 mostly older people, living around the suburb of Mumbai (Weil).

Cochini Jews 

The Cochini Jews were one of the first Jewish communities of India, living the Southern Indian state of Kerala.  The available evidence points out that the Cochin Jews arrived in India during phases in different phases rather than a single emigration (Katz).  There are various theories about the origin of the Cochin Jews ranging from them coming to India as traders during King Solomon’s time, being related to one of the ten lost tribes or escaping persecution after the destruction of the second temple (Katz).  The presence of distinctly Indian goods such as peacocks and spices during King Solomon’s time reinforce the existence of a trade relationship between the ancient Israelis and Indians (Katz).  It is possible that the existence of a Jewish settlement in South India was known to other Jews due to the arrival of additional Jewish immigrants at later stages.

The principal Jewish settlement in Kerala was known as Cranganore, later sacked by Muslim rulers, forcing them to take refuge with the Hindu King in the region (Katz).  The Cochin Jews had been presented copper plates by the Hindu ruler, guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy and security under his rule, as a token of appreciation for their contribution to the society (Katz). The date for this occurrence ranges from the fourth century A.D to the tenth century A.D. (Katz). The Cochin Jews are divided into three groups. The largest group is known as the “Meyuhassim” (meaning privileged in Hebrew) or the “Malabari” Jews, referring to the coast of the Kerala, often known as Malabar. This is the oldest group tracing their ancestry to the time of King Solomon. The second group, known as the Pardesi (foreigner) Jews, refers to the groups of Jews that came to India during different times, from parts of the Middle East and Europe. Both groups came to identify themselves based on skin color, with the lighter “Pardesi” Jews being the White Jews and the darker “Malabari” Jews referred to as the black Jews. The “Pardesi” Jews looked on the “Malabari” Jews as impure, avoiding marriages and refusing them to conduct religious rites (Jacobs and Ezekiel).  Most of the Cochin Jews have left India for Israel resulting in their population dwindling from 3000 in the 1940’s, 200 of which were the Pardesi Jews, to presently about seventy older people, seventeen of them “Pardesi” (“The Virtual Jewish History Tour”).

Baghdadi Jews

Baghdadi Jews arrived in India primarily during the eighteenth century from Middle Eastern countries (Katz).  As the name suggests, most of Baghdadi Jews arrived in India from Baghdad but a large number of them arrived from other Arabic and Persian speaking countries (Katz).  The Baghdadi Jews came to India for a combination of reasons that includes escaping from religious persecution and better business prospects (Katz).  Their communities were generally concentrated in major Indian commercial centers during the time such as Mumbai, Calcutta and Surat along with Rangoon which was then a part of British India (Katz).  They were mainly in the textile business and some of them were able to achieve considerable success as businessmen. A famous Baghdadi Jewish family were the Sasson’s, famous for their philanthropic activities such as building hospitals, schools and libraries. The Baghdadi Jews were relatively powerful due to their influence on the Indian economy. Many of them adopted English language and culture and immigrated to England. They tended to keep themselves separate from other Jewish communities in India, turning more accepting of other Indian Jewish communities during mid-twentieth century and embracing a nostalgic Indian identity after moving out of India.

Tribal Jews

The recent coming to light of some tribal groups in the North Eastern states of India having Jewish customs, and attempts by certain Jewish organizations like Amishav to convert them to the practice of Judaism has created complications to the question of Jewish identity (Katz).  These tribes inhabit the Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, and Nagaland along with regions of Burma and Bangladesh (Katz).  Tracing their origin from tribes entering India from China, they claim ancestry from the tribe of “Menashe.” The official stand of Israel of refusing to identify them as Jewish, thereby refusing them entry into Israel has created a controversy propagated by their inability to provide proof of their lineage, leading to further complications. In addition to the above mentioned groups, there are scattered traces in India of several other Jewish groups that came to India throughout the ages. Portuguese Marranos are the Jews that accompanied the Portuguese ships travelling to India for trade. 2000 Ashkenazi Jews were housed in India as temporary refugees escaping from Nazi Germany, some of whom stayed in India (Katz).

Throughout the ages, the Jews in India have developed a special relationship with the majority Hindu community. They have adopted some of the cultural practices of the majority culture but still have managed to keep their religious identity intact. There could be many possible reasons for this phenomenon but it is essential to look at the role played in this by the catalyst for this phenomenon, Hinduism. The presence of a wide variety of sects/religious traditions in Hinduism, ranging from monotheism to polytheism, allowed the Jews to “acculturate” themselves with the Indian culture to essentially become Jewish Indians (Katz).  The acceptance of external traits such as dressing, language, food and customs by the Jews in India was an important factor in them becoming a part of Indian society. Being non-Hindus they assumed roles in the Indian social hierarchy based on their profession which largely left them out of the caste system (Katz).

A reason that might have contributed to the Jews successfully becoming a part of the Indian culture without a feeling of persecution, a theme common to other immigrant communities in India escaping persecution like the Zoroastrians and Tibetans, is the ability of the Indian culture to allow immigrants to integrate themselves based on a distinct identity (Katz).  Many Indian communities have legends that mythicize stories of their origin from different traditions and regions. This helped utilize the Jews to stick to their legends of arriving during ancient times from Israel in a positive light. Many such stories are based on the idea of the arrival of immigrants from foreign countries to be welcomed by local rulers who allow them to keep their unique traditions and culture (Katz). This would allow them to maintain a separate status from other Indian castes and possibly create a special identity based on their uniqueness.

The en masse migration to Israel has devastated the state of Indian Jewry. Few Jews remain in India, most of whom are older people not wanting to leave the country of their birth due to the inability to adapt to a foreign, western culture in Israel. Younger people have left for a multitude of reasons; ranging from the desire to move back to the land of Israel, to the hopes of finding a better future. The miniscule population of Jews in a heavily populated, independent India put the Indian Jews in a precarious situation. On one hand, there was a strong pull to be finally able to move back to the Jewish state of Israel, and on the other hand, Indian politics, intermingled with caste as well as religion might result in them in a vulnerable position as a minority. The pro-Arab stance of secular Indian parties in relation to Palestine and the Arab world, partially due to the large Muslim presence, further complicated the issue (Egorova).  A point to note is that the rise of nationalist Hindu fundamentalism as a response to Islamic expansionism leads to both; the Jews and the Hindutva groups to sympathize and form alliances with each other (Egorova).  Finally, with the end of Indian Jewry in the near future, it is important to rescue the wealth of the Indian Jewish culture in the form of various manuscripts, paintings, artifacts hymns and poem before they are completely lost.

Works Cited

Egorova, Yulia.  Jews and India: Perceptions and Image. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Isenberg, Shirley Berry.  India’s Bene Israel, A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook . Berkeley: Judah L.

Magnes Museum Library, 1998

Katz. Nathan.  Who are the Jew of India?. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

“The Virtual Jewish History Tour.” Jewish Virtual Library.  The American-Isreali Cooperative         

Enterprise. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/indians.html, March 15, 2009.

Jacobs, Joseph and  Joseph Ezekiel.  “Cochini Jews.” Jewish Encyclopedia.

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4435-cochin, March 15, 2009.

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