Jews of India

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JEWS OF INDIA The Jewish population of India is diverse—much like that of India itself—with histories extending over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Jews reached India by various routes and means, settling at different times, often in separate areas of the subcontinent, where they successfully adapted to the local environment. The Jews of India have lived peacefully with their neighbors in the subcontinent. Indian social paradigms allowed these groups to thrive unhindered and to survive into the twenty-first century, unlike the Jews of China, whose ancient communities had largely disappeared by the early twentieth century. Though small in size, the Jewish communities produced individuals and institutions that have enriched the substance of Indian society.

The Bene Israel, the largest group of Indian Jews, first settled on the Konkan Coast, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, south of the region that would eventually become Bombay (Mumbai). Arriving by sea from a place to the north, their traditional account mentions a shipwreck in which all their possessions were lost while several passengers survived. Eventually, as their numbers grew, their descendants spread to locations throughout the state of Maharashtra and beyond in the subcontinent. The other group claiming great longevity in India is based farther to the south, along the Malabar coast in the modern state of Kerala. They are known as the Cochin or Shingly Jews. The most recently arrived group of Indian Jews is that of the Iraqi or Baghdadi Jews, who can be found primarily in Mumbai, Pune, and Kolkata in ever dwindling numbers. This group includes Jews from other Arab lands, including Syria and Yemen. The most recently emerged group is that of the Jews of Assam. The latter, also known as the B'nei Menashe, from the northeast reaches of the subcontinent, have taken their place in Indian Jewish history only during the last several decades of the twentieth century. In addition, there are European Jews, primarily those who sought refuge in India before and during World War II.

The Bene Israel

The Bene Israel of Maharashtra state and the Jews of Kerala claim title to being among the first Jews on Indian soil. According to their folk tradition, the ancestors of the Bene Israel arrived at the village of Naveder Navgaon on the Konkan coast as the result of a storm at sea, which blew their ship far from their destination (perhaps Broach, a busy port to the north). As the story goes, the seven couples who miraculously survived the shipwreck made their way to shore and became the nucleus of the Bene Israel community. A memorial monument designed by a member of the community—Joshua Benjamin, (b. 1920) former chief architect to the government of India—stands on the shore near the village. The survivors took up the craft of oil pressing, which required little overhead and created a commodity much needed in that tropical region. In the villages, where they were known as teli (oil pressers), the Bene Israel came to be called the shaniwar teli, or those oil pressers who did not work on Saturday, in distinction from other teli of the area. As such, the Bene Israel can be traced in the local archives of the Hindu and Muslim rulers of the region. For example, two men named Aron and Sileman Israil are listed in the tax records for the coastal town of Revdanda in 1759. It is only in the British records that Bene Israel recruits are designated as being members of the "Jew Caste." The community had remained largely in the villages and towns of the Konkan until the advent of the European powers in the 1700s, when they began migrating to British-controlled territories. It was also during the eighteenth century that a traveler named David Rahabi is thought to have visited the Konkan, though this date is disputed by some historians as too recent. Rahabi (whose name might reveal Egyptian origin) was happy to have found an Indian community that observed the Sabbath by not working, recited the Kriyat Shema (the credo "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one") on auspicious occasions, and followed the laws of kashrut (dietary purity). The impact of caste consciousness on the Bene Israel community is evident in its division into Gora (white) Israel and Kala (black) Israel. Individuals in each group maintain that the terms have nothing to do with color, but rather refer to children of "mixed marriages" with members of the surrounding population.

In the period during which Bombay was growing as a port for the goods of British traders, the Bene Israel began to move out of the Konkan. Since some of the men of the community had already served in the military forces of the local leaders, the Marathas, enlisting in the British East India Company's forces was, perhaps, a natural choice. Others, who had served as contractors (suppliers) for the armed forces of the local rulers, moved to the city seeking business opportunities. Life in the expanding city of Bombay and in Pune (the traditional seat of Hindu power on the Deccan Plateau) brought about changes in social and economic patterns among the Bene Israel. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, military recruits fanned out over British India, settling in the regions of their posting from Karachi to Rangoon. When, in 1813, the British allowed Christian missionaries into India to preach and teach, the first group to arrive was the American Marathi Mission, which sent its members into the Konkan. Since they were well acquainted with the concept of monotheism, the Bene Israel were among the first to obtain positions as teachers in the American Marathi Mission schools. Hoping to convert the locals by means of Bible study, the impact of missionary education on the Bene Israel had precisely the opposite effect. By disseminating Hebrew bibles, along with those translated into Marathi, and in pioneering Hebrew language education among the Bene Israel, the missionaries provided the catalyst for a rejuvenated Jewish community in the Konkan and in Bombay.

Another catalyst came from Bene Israel contact with the Kerala Jews from the Malabar coast. In the second half of the eighteenth century, during the Mysore wars, a commander in the British East India Company Army was captured by the enemy, Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore. According to the oral tradition of the Bene Israel, Commandant Samaji (Samuel) Hassaji (Ezekiel) Divekar, after having revealed his Bene Israel origins, was released as a result of the intervention on his behalf by the sultan's mother. A very pious woman, she prevailed upon her son to show mercy to Divekar, as he was of Israil stock—a people she knew of from the Qur'an, but whom she had never seen. Following what he considered a miraculous escape, Divekar returned to Bombay via Cochin, where he saw and admired several synagogues. As a gesture of thanks, Divekar constructed the first synagogue in Bombay in 1796; it is known as the Sha'ar Harachamim (Gate of Mercy) Synagogue. Throughout the course of the next century, synagogues were built in twelve towns and villages of the Konkan.

The contributions of the Bene Israel to India are found in politics, economics, the arts, and sciences. Beyond their original participation in military life—unique among Jewish diasporas—the Bene Israel continued to forge careers in the armed services. Several who actively engaged in politics during India's freedom struggle include Abraham Erulkar (1887–1960), who was dean of Bombay University's Faculty of Medicine as well as president of the Indian Medical Council; he tended Mahatma Gandhi during several of his fasts. His brother, David Erulkar (1891–1970), was part of the defense team (with Mohammad Ali Jinnah) during the trial of the radical Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1916. Elijah Moses served as mayor of Bombay in 1937. Jerusha Jhirad (1890–1984) was among Bombay's most distinguished gynecologists, in addition to serving her community as a religious innovator by helping to bring liberal Judaism to India. Bene Israel original literary works in Marathi began with Samuel Shalom Kurulkar's novel Gooldhusta, published in 1878. Meera Jacob Mahadevan (1930–1979) instituted the Mobile Creche network, which supplied child care for poor and migrant construction workers. She also authored a novel in Hindi (Apna Ghar [Our home], 1961) interpreting the impact on the Bene Israel community of the nearly simultaneous independence from British rule of both Israel and India. Perhaps the most prominent author in Jewish India is the poet Nissim Ezekiel (1924–2004). A professor of American and English literature at Bombay University, Ezekiel published A Time to Change and Other Poems, The Unfinished Man, and Hymns in Darkness, along with articles and literary criticism. His works, written in English, reflect the modern, post-colonial, urban Indian ethos. Another modern author is Esther David (b. 1945), whose novels include The Walled City and Book of Esther, along with the short stories in By the Sabarmati.

The Kerala Jews

The Kerala Jews in South India also claim ancient origins for their communities. Linguistic research has produced a connection between some Hebrew words and both Sanskrit and Tamil. As the southern portion of the Indian subcontinent has long been rich in spices—particularly pepper—it is not surprising that sailors from southwest Asia might have risked the long voyage from southern Israel or Yemen to India. King Solomon is reported to have imported tukki (peacocks) to his palace court. Tukki is a Tamil word. The Hebrew word for ivory (shenhav), another luxury item, is related to its Sanskrit term (ibha dana). There are also literary concepts, such as courtly love poetry, that suggest a link between ancient Israel and India.

According to the traditions of the Kerala Jews, early settlers built a synagogue in the town of Cranganore (also known as Shingly). A tombstone in the region is dated to the thirteenth century. Another item attesting to the antiquity of the communities is a foundation stone inscribed in Hebrew, dated 1344, from Kochangadi. The local raja had given a grant of land and privileges to a man named Joseph Rabban, written on copper plates in archaic script; various scholars have dated the plates from the fourth to the eleventh century a.d.

During the fourteenth century, as a series of storms silted up the port of Cranganore, that community fled south. There they met other Jews who had migrated from Arab lands, as well as descendants of refugees from Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese nobleman Martim Pinhiero (perhaps a converso, a crypto-Jew) sold Hebrew books in Cochin in 1506. Another source reports Jewish traders in Cochin in 1518. Cochin Jews played important roles in the business enterprises of both the Portuguese and Dutch traders who brought their political and military might to bear on India. Ezekiel Rahabi (1694–1771), a wealthy trader, served simultaneously as leader of the Cochin community, advisor to the maharaja, and agent for the Dutch. Ultimately, when the British arrived to oust the latter, the Jews of Kerala found new benefactors. With ancestors reaching back to the Portuguese and Dutch periods in Cochin, the most prominent family of Jews in the late twentieth century was that of Koder. Wealthy and influential, the Koders, as leaders of the White Jewish community, had participated in Cochin's municipal government, directed the electricity board, and operated the ferry transport company. Changes in Kerala's political environment reduced the economic and political authority of the Koders, but in the Jewish life of Cochin and beyond, the Koder family name still reverberates.

The gem of Cochin Jewish life, known as the Pardesi (Foreigners') Synagogue, was built in Matttancheri (in an area now called Jew town) in 1568; those responsible for its construction included refugees from the Iberian Peninsula who had arrived in India by various routes. The site, a gift from the maharaja, is located adjacent to his palace. Inside the Pardesi Synagogue are the treasures of Cochin Jewish heritage: the delicately painted blue willow Chinese tiles (1762) that cover the floor of the sanctuary, and the copper grant given to Joseph Rabban by the raja. The copper plates lie at the core of the continuing conflict among Kerala Jews, which is expressed in the community's division into three groups: White Jews, Black Jews, and the meshuchrarim (manumitted). Members of both the White and Black groups claim to be descendants of the first Jewish settlers in India, hence the dispute over the origins of Joseph Rabban. The meshuchrarim (also known as Brown Jews) are considered the descendants of local people who served the White Jews and, upon release, adopted Judaism. Well into the twentieth century, these groups were exogamous. However, since Indian independence and the creation of the state of Israel, the considerable number of people lost to all Cochin Jewish communities because of emigration has led to a softening of the lines, and—out of necessity—intermarriage among the groups. The White Jews make great efforts to bring Black Jews to their synagogues for holidays in order to ensure a minyan (quorum required for public prayer). The tiny communities remaining in Kerala see their days numbered; the Paradesi Synagogue has been designated a national treasure by the government of India. On the occasion of its quarter-centenary celebrations in 1968, a postage stamp featuring the interior of the building was issued and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi participated in the festivities.

The Iraqi Jews

The third major Jewish group, known as Baghdadi or Iraqi Jews, comprises the most recent arrivals to British India. Perhaps a more accurate name for this group would be "Jews of Arab lands" because the Arabic language and later English were the common links among the members of this community. The first Arabic-speaking Jew to settle in India was probably Joseph Semach from Syria, who arrived at Surat in 1730, later settling in Bombay. Shalom Cohen reached India and settled in Calcutta in 1798. The arrival of Baghdadi Jews infused new vigor into Jewish life in India, bringing a vibrant religious energy with which they constructed synagogues and community institutions wherever they settled.

David Sassoon (1792–1864) established a far-flung mercantile empire stretching from Bombay to Singapore, via Calcutta (Kolkata) and Rangoon. David Sassoon Enterprises consistently employed family and community members in its network of factories, warehouses, and shipyards. His great wealth enabled Sassoon to be a major philanthropist for both the larger Jewish community as well as the cities in which he lived and or had major establishments. After building the Magen David (Shield of David) Synagogue (1861) in Bombay, he went on to construct the Ohel David (Tent of David) synagogue in Pune in 1863, known locally as the "Red Temple" (Lal Deul). Throughout the nineteenth century it was a city landmark, as it was the tallest building in Pune. He also funded the construction of the Sassoon Hospital there. The Sassoon family were great benefactors of the city of Bombay, where they constructed the Sassoon Docks (1870). They also established the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution near Bombay University, which now houses the Sassoon Library, where a life-size marble statue of David Sassoon stands near the entrance.

Calcutta's Iraqi community eventually supported three synagogues and two Jewish schools. The community's prosperity was so well known that an emissary was sent from Jerusalem (then part of the Ottoman Empire) to seek funds for the poor Jews of the Holy Land. Unlike the other Jewish communities of India, the Baghdadis, or Iraqis, never felt quite at home in India. They continued speaking Judeo-Arabic at home and even published a community newspaper in that language. From the second generation, they took to wearing Western dress and identified more with the British than with their Indian neighbors. For the most part, they were in India but not of it. This led the Baghdadi community to maintain a distinction, as far as possible, from the other communities of Indian Jews. Hence, there were separate sections for Bene Israel graves in the Baghdadi Jewish cemeteries. In Bombay, where the Iraqis had at first prayed together with the Bene Israel, synagogue separation was instituted as soon as the size of the Baghdadi population allowed for it. Following Indian independence and the creation of the state of Israel—with the consequent diminishment of both the Baghdadi and Bene Israel communities—members of the latter group were regularly, actively encouraged to join the Iraqis in their synagogues in order to form the minyan.

By the late twentieth century, the number of Baghdadi Jews in India was small, but a few individuals made vital contributions to Indian life. One of the most prominent is General J. F. R. Jacob (b. 1921), who played an important role as chief of staff in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Subsequently, he served as the appointed governor of the Indian states of Goa, Haryana, and Punjab.

The Jews of Assam: B'nei Menasha (Children of Menasseh)

In the mid-twentieth century a group claiming to be descendants of the tribe of Menasseh (the son of the biblical Joseph) emerged in eastern India in the regions of Manipur and Mizoram, where prayer halls serving the communities dot the region. After several young members of the B'nei Menasha, also known as Shinlung, had reached the Jewish ORT Technical School in Bombay, and were accepted there, they forged a path to Israel, which many of their coreligionists have since followed.

European Jews in India

Although there have probably been Jews from the northern Mediterranean in India since Greek and Roman times, their numbers have been small and their names have been erased over the years. It is, therefore, interesting to note that two individuals in particular—both scientists—stand out: one in the sixteenth century, at the dawn of European exploration and involvement with the subcontinent, the other in the early twentieth century.

Garcia da Orta (1499/1500–1568) was born in Portugal, educated in Spain, and taught at Lisbon University before sailing for India in 1534. In Goa, he treated the viceroys, along with other Christian dignitaries, as well as the local Muslim ruler, Burhan al-Din Nizām al-Mulk. In acknowledgment of his services, da Orta was granted the island Mumbai, a small fishing village at that time (1554/1555). Da Orta's real interest lay in India's wealth of medicinal herbs, which he investigated for nearly thirty years, ultimately producing his vast work in Portuguese, Colloquies on the Simples, Drugs and Medical Applications in India, publishing it in Goa in 1563. After St. Francis Xavier in 1560 introduced the Inquisition in Goa, da Orta—a converso—moved his residence to Mumbai, where he died in 1568. However, after his sister had, under torture, admitted that the family were crypto-Jews, Garcia da Orta's remains were exhumed and burned at the stake alongside his sister and his treasured books.

Another European Jew came to India after having been denied a teaching position because of his religion. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine (1860–1930), born in Odessa, developed the first effective cholera vaccine, which he introduced in India in 1893. Three years later, when plague broke out in Bombay, Haffkine worked there to develop a vaccine, which he produced within three months. After being honored by Queen Victoria and receiving British citizenship in 1899, Haffkine returned to India. He lived and worked in Calcutta for several years until ultimately settling in Paris. His contribution to India was recognized in 1925, when the Plague Research Laboratory he had established in Bombay was renamed the Haffkine Institute.

In the years surrounding World War II, Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust made their way to India, which provided them a haven from the horrors of Europe. Many of them were professionals or businessmen who, in the aftermath of the war and India's independence, left the subcontinent. Yet, as evidenced by Anita Desai's novel, Baumgartner's Bombay (2000), traces of this vanished group survive.

Brenda Ness

See alsoBene Israel ; Rabban, Joseph ; Sassoon, David


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