Judaism: Judaism in Asia

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For as long as two millennia, perhaps even longer, there have been Jewish communities scattered throughout South, East, central, and Southeast Asia. Most have lived in port cities, such as Surat, Kochi (formerly Cochin), Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Kolakata (formerly Calcutta), Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Singapore, Bangkok, Kobe, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Other Jewish communities were found at major trading centers along the Spice Route, which meandered westward from South India through Kabul, Herat, and thence Iran and Turkey. Jewish communities also thrived along the Silk Route at Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarkand in central Asia and at Dunhuang, a cosmopolitan Gobi Desert oasis, but the best known was at the route's eastern terminus, Kaifeng.

Some of these Jewish communities are old, dating from at least the early medieval period if not ancient times, whereas some of them emerged when merchant houses in India established branches eastward during the nineteenth century. Some communities are newer: Bangkok's Jewish community dates from the first half of the twentieth century, and Shanghai's modern Jewish community has existed only since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992. Many of these Asian Diaspora communities have been in decline since the middle of the twentieth century due to emigration to Israel and elsewhere.

It is in the oldest of these Jewish communities that one finds the most profound interactions with the host culture. The best examples are Kochi in India and Kaifeng in China.

Kochi, India

According to local traditions, Jews first settled on India's southwest coast when the Second Temple was destroyed and the Romans exiled all Jews from Jerusalem in 70 ce. They fled along maritime trade routes, which had been in use since King Solomon's time; travel along these routes had recently become faster with the discovery of the monsoon winds by Greek navigators early in the first century. The Jewish refugees settled at Cranganore, among other towns, where they were granted political autonomy by local monarchs and flourished as agriculturists, international spice merchants, petty traders, and shipbuilders and in government service and the military. During the fourteenth century Jews migrated to Kochi. Their numbers in the Malabar rose as high as three thousand at the time of independence, but fewer than fifty remain at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Where there were once nine flourishing synagogues as well as Jewish schools, scribes, scholars, mystics, and poets, in the early twenty-first century the Cochin Synagogue, built in 1568, fails to obtain a prayer quorum of ten adult males unless there are Jewish visitors from elsewhere in India or abroad.

The Kochi Jews, always part of the Jewish mainstream both commercially and culturally, were knowledgeable about their religion and savvy about affairs of state and currency fluctuations even in far-off Europe, not to mention among the plethora of princely states of South India. Knowing the languages of the subcontinent, the Middle East, and Europe, they played invaluable roles in both commerce and diplomacy.

The Kochi Jews' religious life evidences a high degree of acculturation into their Indian context but not assimilation. For example, during their autumn holy days and at weddings, many customs of the Nayar (the local dominant caste) and symbols of royalty were adopted. At weddings, for another example, Kochi Jews borrowed an elephant from a neighboring Hindu temple to convey the bridegroom to the synagogue for nuptials. During the festival of Rejoicing in the Torah (Simat Torah), Kochi Jews added three elements to their celebrations that are found nowhere else in the Jewish world: they displayed their Torah scrolls on a temporary ark on the days just prior to the festival, during the afternoon prayers they performed outdoor circumambulations of the synagogue with their Torah scrolls, and at the conclusion of the festival they ritually demolished their temporary ark to the accompaniment of unique Hebrew songs. All of these behaviors reflect Hindu temple festivals, when the deity (mūrti ) of the temple is first displayed, then taken on procession, and then (often) disposed of. None of these practices violates Judaic law (halakhah ), so these borrowings from the local Hindu culture were judicious and reflected the Kochi Jewish community's firm Jewish identity, based on Judaic learning.

Another example of the acculturation of Kochi Jews is the position of women in the community. Kochi Jewish women were remarkably well educated, with fluency in Hebrew and knowledge of Judaic law. They were active in composing Malayalam folk songs, sung at weddings, during matzo baking, and on other occasions. These songs interweave Jewish and Malayali motifs and symbols, and they played an important role in establishing and celebrating the Indian Jewish identity of these Jewish communities. The high position of Jewish women in Kochi is also reflected symbolically. For example, liturgical events deemed important, such as Torah readings, were performed from a second bimah located in front of the ezrat nashim (women's section), which is up a flight of stairs. Women's ritual garments (mundus ) were used to decorate the synagogue as well as for a parochet (curtain) in front of the holy ark. These unique expressions of the Judaism of the women reflect the religious and secular power of women of the local dominant caste, the Nayars, with whom the Jews had particularly close relationships.

Kaifeng, China

The Kochi Jews were acculturated, which is to say they were culturally at home in their Hindu environment, without becoming assimilated, which involves a surrender of identity. Not so with the Jews of Kaifeng, China, at least not in the long run.

Jews came to China following two routes. Persian Jews came via the Silk Route. Judging from a Hebrew manuscript on Chinese paper discovered in a Buddhist library in Dunhuang as well as Muslim travelers' reports, Jews were established in China no later than the eighth century. Indian Jews came via maritime routes to the South China Sea and settled in port cities. The Kaifeng community is the only one that survived the Middle Ages, having been "discovered" as an isolated, moribund community by Jesuit missionaries during the early seventeenth century.

Jews lived in Kaifeng for nearly a thousand years, where they were traders, agriculturists, artisans, physicians, and government officials. More than a few passed the rigorous civil service examinations and became mandarins. They constructed a synagogue in Kaifeng in 1126 that included an ancestor hall, typical of Chinese temples. Through the years Kaifeng's Jews increasingly identified with Chinese high culture. A 1488 inscription in their synagogue proclaimed:

Although our religion agrees in many respects with the religion of the literati, from which it differs in a slight degree, yet the main design of it is nothing more than reverence for Heaven, and veneration for ancestors, fidelity to the prince, and obedience to parents, just what is included in the five human relations, the five constant virtues, with the three principal connections of life.

To Western Jews it is striking to hear Judaism described in such Confucian terms. Similarly it is remarkable to see in the Cochin Synagogue reflections of Hindu temple behavior. But on the other hand, one can imagine that to an Indian or Chinese Jew it would be unnerving to know that their American coreligionists understand Judaism fundamentally as ethical monotheism; such a characterization might sound Protestant. The point is that Judaism, like any ancient religion, has many threads within itself, and one or another of these threads becomes highlighted in response to the ethos of the host culture in which a particular Jewish community finds itself. Such a process could be indicated by using a concept borrowed from Gestalt psychology, that of background and foreground. In relation to a background (the host culture), certain elements in a perceptual field rise to the foreground (the particular Judaisms of India, China, or the United States). As Judaism, or any religion, moves from culture to culture or as it moves through time, differing threads are foregrounded and others backgrounded, depending on the host culture and its vicissitudes.

Contemporary Indian Jewry

India had and still has the largest number of Jews of any country east of Iran. Indian Jewish population peaked in 1950 at around thirty to thirty-five thousand, after which emigration to Israel and other places reduced their number to around four to six thousand by the beginning of the twenty-first century, more if the so-called Bʾnai Menashe and Bʾnai Ephraim are counted.

There have been three major distinct Jewish communities in India. The oldest group, which in the early twenty-first century numbers less than fifty, is found in and around Kochi in the southwestern state of Kerala. Perhaps five thousand Cochinim, as they are called in Hebrew, live in Israel. The largest group is known as Bene Israel and is found chiefly in and around Mumbai, with active communities in Pune also in Maharashtra state, in Ahmedabad in Gujerat state, and in New Delhi. All told, there are four to five thousand Bene Israel in India and forty to fifty thousand in Israel, where they make up a significant ethnic group (edah in Hebrew) known as Hodʾim, "Indians."

The most recently arrived group, which is known in India as Baghdadis, or Middle Eastern Jews, is made up mostly of Arabic speakers who migrated to India during the late eighteenth century, about the time the British arrived. These immigrants settled in India's port cities, especially Mumbai and Kolakata. Numbering about five thousand at their peak, they have declined to around one hundred, most all of whom are elderly. The Baghdadis played a significant role in the development of British India's ports. Beginning as jewelers and opium traders, Baghdadi entrepreneurs soon moved into textiles and shipping in Mumbai and real estate, jute, manufacturing, and tobacco in Kolakata. Replicating the Jewish experience in the United States, humble boxwallahs (door-to-door salespeople) settled down and became department store magnates. Of the three groups, only Bene Israel remains viable as a community.

Whereas most Bene Israel live in Mumbai, the nearby Konkan coast is their spiritual home. Bene Israel Jews trace their community back to seven couples from Israel who survived a shipwreck off Navgaon in the unknown distant past. Somehow the descendants of these Jews clung to vestigial Judaic observances despite centuries of isolation. Their tenacity in maintaining the Sabbath, ritual circumcision, Jewish dietary codes, and the Hebrew Shema (the affirmation "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One") set the stage for their unlikely transformation from an anonymous oil-pressing caste in the remote Konkan into modern, urban members of the world Jewish community. This evolution occurred over two hundred years, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century.

A Kochi merchant heard rumors of a Konkani caste that rested on Saturday and circumcised their sons on the eighth day, so David Rahabi, the eldest son in Kochi's leading mercantile house, visited them. After spending time with the community, examining their dietary habits as well as their eccentric (by Hindu standards) religious observances, he concluded that they were lost Jews. Rahabi took three of them back to Kochi, where he educated them in Hebrew and the rudiments of Judaism and sent them back with the title of kazi, religious leader. This began a long-standing relationship between Bene Israel and Kochi Jews; as the Bene Israel prospered, they hired Kochi Jews to be their cantors, teachers, ritual slaughterers, and scribes. Bene Israel Jews recall these events as their "first awakening."

Subsequent encounters with British and American missionaries and with the nascent Baghdadi community of Mumbai built upon the sense of Jewishness among Bene Israel. This period is known as their "second awakening." They learned Bible stories from the missionaries, and they shared their synagogues (they built their first one in Mumbai in 1796) and cemeteries with the Baghdadis. Both the British and the Baghdadis offered opportunities in Mumbai, whether in the military, railway, or civil service or in the mills and docks of the illustrious Sassoons, and Bene Israel migrated to the new, glamorous city in search of their fortunes. It did not take long until there were more Bene Israel in Mumbai than in the Konkan.

Gradually the Baghdadis, in an effort to become accepted by the British as "European" rather than "Indian" (a label with tangible economic benefits as well as social snobbery), came to adopt British condescension toward all things Indian, including the Bene Israel Jews, who were unmistakably Indian in both appearance and culture. This condescension became all the more ugly when the Baghdadis began to cast aspersions upon the very Jewishness of the Bene Israel. The heart and soul of the newly found and hard-earned identity of the Bene Israel was under attack.

In Mumbai the Bene Israel learned about both the Zionist and Swaraj movements for independence from Britain in Palestine and India respectively, and they were rent by competing nationalisms. On the one hand, as Jews they had internalized the longing to return to Jerusalem and rebuild Zion. On the other hand, their unhappy experiences with the Baghdadis led them to mistrust foreign Jews, and as Indians they yearned for independence from the British. Moreover they were fond of the British, who were their employers and often patrons, and wanted to support them as well. Mahatma Gandhi appreciated their ambivalence. Leaders of the Ahmedabad Jewish community (where Gandhi had headquarters at his Sabarmati Ashram) asked the Mahatma what should be the stance of India's Jews vis-à-vis the independence movement. He is said to have replied that the Jews should "stand aside" because, as a small community, they would be crushed between the competing and overwhelming forces of the British Empire, Indian nationalism, and Muslim separatism. As a community they did stand apart, although many Bene Israel became involved as individuals. The bottom line, however, is that the great majority of Bene Israel emigrated to Israel.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century the Bene Israel community had stabilized. Those who intended to emigrate had done so, and most of those who remained intended to stay. Most are in Mumbai, where they work in the professions, education, industry, the military, and commerce. Most are educated and in the middle class. During the 1980s the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT) established two schools in Mumbai, one for boys and one for girls, to provide vocational training. The ORT schools became popular among Jews and non-Jews alike. Soon services expanded to include classes in religion, Hebrew, and Israel studies. The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) also became active in Mumbai, sending rabbis from the United States to help meet the community's religious and educational needs. The Israeli consulate also serves as a community focus. Several of the synagogues in Mumbai have a full range of programs, from prayer services to singles groups to computer classes. Summer camps at a rural retreat center have provided an intense infusion of Jewish spirit to many of Mumbai's younger Jews. Kosher meat and wine, ritual objects, books, Indian Jewish calendars, and the accouterments of Judaic religious life are available, and India's generally tolerant attitude toward religions and religious pluralism bode well for the future of the Jewish community in Mumbai.

Smaller organized communities in Ahmedabad and Pune face more difficult challenges, but their synagogues are lively, and social and educational programs are well subscribed. In New Delhi there are only a handful of Bene Israel families, but they are augmented by Israeli and American diplomats and businesspeople. Regular prayers are held at the synagogue, and the Israeli embassy helps out with the community's Passover seder.

In Israel, despite initial difficulties in adapting to a new culture, climate, and economy, the sizeable Bene Israel community has maintained its own identity, largely through a singular ritual activity. Long devoted to the Prophet Elijah as a sort of patron saint, his veneration has become central to their new Israeli identity as Hodʾim. The propitiatory rite known as malida, after a parched rice mixture served with fresh fruits and flowers, is often the culmination of a pilgrimage to an Elijah cave near Haifa.

In the mid-twentieth century several shamans and leaders of tribal people in extreme eastern India (the states of Mizoram, Manipur, and Tripura) and western Myanmar (formerly Burma) began having dreams and visions that told them of their lost, true identitythat they were Jews of the tribe of Menashe who had wandered from ancient Israel along the Silk Route to Kaifeng, China, then through Southeast Asia, finally settling in their current, remote mountainous homes. Their religious enthusiasm spread, such that in the early twenty-first century there are thousands of Kuki tribals on both sides of the border who are living as Jews. Some traveled to Israel, where they learned Hebrew, studied, and converted to Judaism; some later returned home as religious leaders. A number of synagogues sprouted up, and there are regular visits from Israeli and American coreligionists. Several hundred Kuki tribals now live in Israel, especially in the Yesha (settlements), but most wait for redemption at home. In the 1990s a similar group, who called themselves Bʾnai Ephraim, emerged in Andhra Pradesh, a state on the Bay of Bengal on India's southeast coast.

Most demographics of Indian Jewry do not include these tribals, and there are no reliable estimates of their number, but it is incontestable that some of them have undergone conversion and are therefore Jewish. It is also the case that most are sincere in their beliefs and aspirations, but their passionate yearning for Israel has provoked controversy. Israeli immigration officials generally take an unsympathetic, skeptical view, believing these groups to be opportunists who seek only a higher standard of living. Some accuse immigration authorities of racism, pointing out that many Russians who are white but are not Jewish have been welcomed in Israel, whereas these tribals, who are not white but who have at least some claim to Jewishness, receive only scorn. From the other side of the controversy, the Israeli and American supporters of these immigrants are criticized for settling them in disputed territories as a way of bolstering Israeli claims to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Contemporary Chinese Jews

The ancient Jewish community at Kaifeng was on its last legs when Jesuits first visited in the seventeenth century. Even then local Jews bemoaned the withering away of traditions and observances, the dismal state of Hebrew learning, and the lack of a rabbi. Their synagogue was destroyed by a series of floods in 1841, 1849, and 1860, as it had been several times before, but by this time the community was too impoverished and isolated to rebuild it. Intermarriage was the rule, and assimilation had worn down their sense of Jewish identity.

However, due to the interest of Jewish tourists and then to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, the community experienced something of a rebirth. Although virtually no Jews or Jewish descendants were found in Kaifeng during the 1980s, in the early twenty-first century hundreds of people in Kaifeng claim to be Jews. Some petition the Chinese government to be allowed to list their ethnicity as Jewish on their identity cards. Others hope to learn something about the religion of their ancestors. One Kaifeng Jew even attended rabbinical school in New York. There is also talk of building a Jewish museum in Kaifeng, but it seems that the Chinese bureaucracy is reticent.

In Shanghai and Hong Kong, on the other hand, Jewish life seems to be on the rise. Shanghai is more significant from a historical point of view, whereas Hong Kong has the more active Jewish life in the twenty-first century.

Modern Jewish communities in China date to 1844, when Elias Sassoon, one of the sons of the Mumbai industrialist David Sassoon, arrived in Shanghai. Elias Sassoon established his family's business interests, mostly in opium, and soon had offices in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Hong Kong. As soon as Japan was "opened" to Western trade in 1858, a branch office was opened in Tokyo. Jews from Kolakata, Iraq, and elsewhere soon followed. Shanghai's synagogues were built during the late nineteenth century, and soon the city's Jewish community had its own newspaper and glossy magazine, a religious school, a secular school, a hospital, and chapters of Bʾnai Bʾrith and various Zionist organizations.

At the same time that Shanghai's Sefardic community was coming of age, Ashkenazic Jews from Russia migrated east, following the overland trade route to Manchuria, especially to the city of Harbin, in northeastern China. These adventurers and furriers were joined by a wave of migration spurred by the 1917 Russian Revolution. Within a few years Harbin had thirteen thousand Jews, and there were more in Tianjin and other cities in the region. When the Japanese conquered Manchuria in 1931, most of these Ashkenazim moved to Shanghai, where they built their own synagogues and institutions. They were soon joined by German and Polish refugees from Adolf Hitler. At their peak there were more than thirty-thousand Jews in Shanghai, which was the only city in the world to remain open to Jewish immigration throughout World War II. The end of the war was followed by the Communist victory in China, at which time all but a handful of China's Jews left.

With China's opening to the West and especially the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, commercial opportunities in Shanghai enticed a number of Jews to take up residence there, with the result that a Jewish community may be in the process of rebirth. The Chinese government refurbished one of the old synagogues in Shanghai, but only as a museum. Prayers are forbidden.

Hong Kong is home to a thriving, prosperous Jewish community of about five hundred families. The community itself dates to the Sassoon and Kadoorie families, who arrived during the middle of the nineteenth century. Jews played a significant role in the development of Hong Kong, having electrified the city and established the famous Star Ferry. Even the city's main thoroughfare, Nathan Road, is named for a Jewish governor from the early twentieth century. The beautiful Ohel Leah Synagogue dates from the turn of the century, and the city has kosher facilities, a Jewish school, and a Jewish historical society and library, and prayers are held at several locations. The question facing Hong Kong's Jews is the same as that facing the entrepreneurial class as a whole, whose well-being is dependent upon a continued laissez-faire approach from Beijing. There is also a small Jewish community in Taipei composed of both Sefardic and Ashkenazic members as well as a handful of Jewish Chinese nationals.


Jews have lived in Japan since the Sassoons established themselves there in the mid-nineteenth century. Indian, Iraqi, and European Jews settled in Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Kobe.

Japanese attitudes toward Jews seem highly contradictory. Anti-Semitic literature enjoys great popularity among Japanese readers, who otherwise display no negative behavior toward Jews. Although Japan was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, the country, nevertheless, afforded refuge to thousands of Eastern European Jews, including the entire Mir Yeshiva from Poland. Among the Jews of Japan are Russian-speaking former residents of Manchuria and Shanghai, Indian and Middle Eastern Sefardim, and a variety of foreign Jewish temporary residents. There are synagogues in Tokyo and Kobe.

Since World War II, Japan has been especially fertile ground for the emergence of new religions, and Japan's long-standing, ambivalent fascination with the Jewish people led to intriguing syncretic religious expressions. For example, there is a small but serious group of Japanese converts to Judaism led by Setsu Zau Abraham Kotsuji. Another group, the 50,000-strong Jewish-Christian Makuya, led by Abraham Teshima, believes itself to be the lost tribe of Zebulun. Although they accept the Christian Messiah, they study Hebrew and visit Israel frequently.

Central Asia

Jews may have settled in central Asia, long associated with the legend of the ten lost tribes, earlier than in either India or China. Pottery shards bearing Hebrew names, which date from the first to third centuries ce, have been found in Turkmenistan, and it is believed that some of the many Jews of the Persian Empire were involved in the Silk Route trade when Persia ruled the region before the fourth century bce.

Whether under the Persians, or the Hellenistic dominions of the Baktrian kingdom (fourth century bce to third century ce), or the Buddhist Kushans (third to sixth centuries ce), Jewish traders and settlers were found in towns throughout central Asia. The mercantile Jewish Radanites and the semiheretical Karaites were bolstered when a neighboring Turkic tribe, the Khazars, converted to Judaism around 750 ce and dominated much of the Silk Route, the lifeblood of the community. It was toward the end of this period that Persian-speaking Jews made their way to China's Middle Kingdom and settled in Kaifeng.

After two hundred years of Arab rule and Islamicization, central Asia came to be dominated by "pagan" Mongols, led by Chinggis Khan, in the early thirteenth century. From the perspective of the Jews in the region, Chinggis and his Mongol successors often favored minority groups (Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Jews, and animists) as a bulwark against the Muslims to their south. It has also been suggested that the Mongols were already familiar with Jews by the time they arrived at Samarkand, where they made their capital, from Kaifeng and elsewhere along their routes of conquest.

By the fourteenth century central Asian Jews were enjoying a cultural and religious revival, following two hundred years of hostile Islamicization. Timur Shah, known in Europe as Tamerlane, expanded the Mongol Empire, which under his reign extended as far north as the Volga River, as far west as Damascus, as far south as Delhi, and as far east as China. Although Timur adopted Islam, his rule was based more on the laws and traditions of Mongolia, which had been brought to the region by Chinggis Khan and were known as Yasa, than upon Islamic law, sharī ʿah. Jews were allowed to practice their religion freely and to pursue their livelihoods as physicians, translators, diplomats, merchants, agriculturalists, traders, and artisans.

For reasons unknown, Timur Shah became a devotee of the biblical prophet Daniel, and he is said to have reinterred Daniel at Samarkand, where a saint's cult emerged. The prophet became the "patron saint" of Bukharan Jews, and a number of epic and liturgical poems in Judeo-Persian (written in the Hebrew script) were composed about him. In this respect also the Bukharan Jews resembled their Indian counterparts. In Kochi the seventeenth-century qabbalist Nehemia Mota emerged as patron not only of local Jews but of the whole area; the Bene Israel have long had a similar special relationship with the Prophet Elijah, and the scribe Ezra sustained far-flung Baghdadis.

The fourteenth century was a time when Judeo-Persian literature flourished, and the religious saga, the Musa-Nama, has ever since embodied the mores and values of central Asian Jews, even those who migrated to Jerusalem centuries later. City-dwelling Bukharan Jews spoke Judeo-Persian for the most part, whereas their rural coreligionists spoke mostly Uzbek and Turkic. Most knew both.

It is also believed that Timur's closest adviser and prime minister was a Jew, David ha-Tsaddiq. Patterns resembling the Jewish experience in Kochi and Kaifeng were replicated in Samarkand under the Timurids. Like David ha-Tsaddiq in Samarkand, Yehezkel Rahabi was prime minister to an eighteenth-century Hindu maharaja in Kochi, and Kaifeng had its share of Jewish mandarins.

By the sixteenth century Islamicization led most of Samarkand's Jews to migrate to Bukhara. When the Timurids were defeated by the Persian Safavids a hundred years later, government policy supported forced conversion to Shīʿah Islam, and the ensuing persecution took its toll on the beleaguered community.

A late-eighteenth-century revival was sparked by the arrival of a shaliach (emissary) from the mystical city of Tsfat in the Holy Land. Yosef ha-Maʾaravi imported books and led a religious revival and by the same token instituted a Sefardic rather than a Mizrai ethos. A school for poets developed, and the literary outpouring was so great that a Russian bibliographer counted some 250 Judeo-Persian books and 20 manuscripts in the Jewish Museum of Samarkand in 1994.

When Shīʿah zealots forced conversion on the Jews of Meshed, the holy city in eastern Iran, many fled to Bukhara. A contemporary missionary reported some three hundred families of anusim (those forced to convert) among Bukhara's Jews. Fearful of Persian religious intolerance, many central Asian Jews flocked to territory newly conquered by Russia in the late nineteenth century. Sizable communities were to be found not only in Bukhara city but in Samarkand and Tashkent, all now in Uzbekistan, and in Turkmenistan as well.

Bukharan Jews began to migrate to the Holy Land as early as 1827, and by 1892 they had established the Bukharan Quarter in Jerusalem. There ensued ongoing travel between Bukhara and Jerusalem, sparking yet another period of intense literary activity. Some 170 books in Judeo-Persian were published in Jerusalem. The Bukharan Jews built synagogues in Jerusalem that one observer described as resembling a masjid (Muslim house of worship). Custom and architecture reflected central Asia: the prayer halls were carpeted, and men prayed shoeless, sitting on the floor. Religious leaders were called by the Persian title, mullah, and Torah cantillation resembled Qurʾān recitation.

Prior to World War II large numbers of Russian Ashkenazic Jews settled in the cities of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Largely irreligious, they adapted to local traditions, which by the twentieth century had become indistinguishable from those in Iran or Afghanistan. At this time the region was home to sixty thousand Jews.

Judaism, like other religions, was suppressed under Soviet rule, and the Bukharan Jews devised ingenious techniques for practicing an attenuated form of the religion as well as for maintaining a Jewish identity under the suspicious eyes of Kremlin authorities. The annual memorial service became an emblematic ritual, performed in homes or community halls without prayer books. If an unfriendly eye should happen upon the event, it could appear as an innocuous meeting or meal devoid of religious content.

However, everything changed with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Almost immediately, in 1992, Israel became the third country to recognize an independent Uzbekistan, after only the United States and Turkey. In the early twenty-first century about twenty-eight thousand Jews remain in Uzbekistan, where there are sixteen synagogues. In Tashkent one finds the seat of the chief rabbinate of central Asia as well as the region's sole rabbinical seminary. Relations with Israel are cordial, and the community regularly receives Jewish visitors, pilgrims, and rabbis from Israel, the United States, and Europe. Bonds between resettled Bukharan Jews in Israel and the United States and their kin in Uzbekistan are strong, as they have been ever since the first Bukharans settled in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century.

Southeast Asia

In the early nineteenth century Baghdadis from Kolakata pursued their fortunes to Yangon in Myanmar, gradually joined by Bene Israel and a few Kochi Jews. Later that century they built their synagogue, which still welcomes visitors to its well-maintained sanctuary. Satellite communities emerged in many of Burma's (Myanmar's) trade and shipping centers, including Mandalay, Myanmo, Moulmein, Bassein, Akyab, and Toungyi.

The community was virtually destroyed in the 1940s, when the Japanese, suspicious of Jews as potential British sympathizers, conquered Burma and drove most of its thirteen hundred Jewish inhabitants to Kolakata. About five hundred returned after the war. Burmese Judaism enjoyed a brief flowering after independence and the establishment of cordial Israeli-Burmese relations, based on the warm friendship between Prime Ministers U Nu and David Ben Gurion. After a military coup in 1962, the position of minorities in Burma degenerated, and most Jews left. A handful of Jewish descendants remain. Other Kolakata Jews migrated farther east to Singapore, Malaya, Bangkok, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

As soon as Stamford Raffles established a British settlement at Singapore in 1818, Indian Jews followed, mostly to pursue the opium trade. They settled in the Chinatown section that by the middle of the century had a synagogue and a cemetery. Twenty-five years later the community had migrated to what was then a suburban quarter, where they built the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, followed after another quarter century by Chesed El Synagogue and a religious school.

Out of a community that at one time numbered two thousand, David Marshall was undoubtedly the first citizen. The island nation's "father of independence," he was prime minister in 1955 and United Nations ambassador thereafter. In the early twenty-first century about three hundred Jewish families, mostly Sefardim, can be found in the prosperous, tiny state, enjoying a full religious life under the leadership of an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

A handful of Jews reside in Bangkok as citizens of Thailand, where the law requires that all nonethnic Thai citizens adopt a Thai name. This requirement has caused considerable distress among Muslims, the largest minority in Thailand. Jews have been the only group exempted from the law. The local Thai Jewish community, comprised of several hundred Sefardim and Ashkenazim, is augmented by a significant number of Jewish businesspeople and young Israeli backpackers. Two synagogues are maintained, one in a residential area and the other in the business district, both led by a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary.

As the Inquisition reigned in Spain, Spanish Jews and Marranos had an added impetus to join in Spanish and Portuguese voyages of exploration. They sailed to Mexico, the American colonies, Goa, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Sadly the Inquisition followed them, and by 1580 an auto-da-fé was held in Manila.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century Jews from Alsace, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt began to settle openly. They were soon joined by Russian and central European Jews, who found their way to the Philippines via Harbin and Shanghai. After the Spanish-American War, American Jews added to Manila's community. In 1922 a formal congregation was established. In the early twenty-first century about 250 Jews live in the Philippines on a permanent basis.


The study of Asian Jewish communities uproots several common stereotypes. For example, the adage that "East is East and West is West" becomes transparent as a colonizing myth once a Jewish perspective is adopted. The study of these communities also reconfigures the common understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people. It is commonly held that Judaism is one of the sources of Western civilization and that Judaism is a Western religion. Such a view blinds one to Jewish experience in Asia; it silences the millennia-old, rich cultural interactions between Judaic, Indic, Sinitic, and Islamo-Mongol cultures. On the other hand, Jews have traditionally spoken of themselves as an am-olam, a "universal people," a cultural and mercantile bridge in a world bifurcated into an East and a West. The study of the Asian Jewish experience debunks the Jews-as-Westerners view and confirms the traditional self-understanding of Jews as a truly universal people.


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Nathan Katz (2005)

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Judaism: Judaism in Asia

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