Bene Israel

views updated May 23 2018


BENE ISRAEL , Jewish community in India.

In India

The original tradition, as related to Christian missionaries early in the 19th century, is that the Bene Israel are the descendants of the survivors (seven men and seven women) of a shipwreck off the Konkan coast at Navgaon, about 26 miles south of Bombay. Their ship was said to have come "from northern parts" and the date was "some sixteen to eighteen hundred years ago" (J. Wilson, Lands of the Bible (1847) ii, 667). In the 19th century various theories were propounded by Europeans about Bene Israel origins conjecturing that the Bene Israel were an offshoot of the Jewish settlements in Yemen, refugees from the persecution of the Jews by Muhammad, or descendants of the Babylonian-Persian Diaspora. Later, in the light of the study of the Bible, of other Jewish literature, of ancient history sources relating to India, the Middle East, etc., some members of the Bene Israel community itself delved into details of possible Bene Israel origins. H.S. Kehimkar (History of the Bene Israel of India (1937) written in 1897) favored the theory that the ancestors of the Bene Israel left the Galilee because of persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 b.c.e.). D.J. Samson's argument for Bene Israel arrival in India at some time between 740 and 500 b.c.e. appeared in 1917 in an issue of the Bene Israel periodical The Israelite (i, no. 4,68–70) in an article entitled The Bene Israel: Who, Where, Whence. In any case their descendants remained for centuries isolated from Jewish life elsewhere. Thus they forgot much of the Hebrew language, prayer and ceremonies, and adopted customs and dress of their Konkan neighbors, and their language, Marathi, as their mother tongue. Throughout the centuries they clung, however, to some fundamentals of the Jewish tradition and observed circumcision, dietary laws, the Sabbath, and most fasts and festivals prescribed in the Torah, and recited the Shema. But they were otherwise unaware of Torah, or of talmudic and halakhic lore. In their new surroundings the Bene Israel turned to the pursuit of oil-pressing and agriculture and became known to their neighbors as Shanwar Tells ("The Sabbath-observing oilmen"), indicating both their occupation and their religious observance. The presence of a special Jewish group in the Konkan region remained unknown to outsiders, except for casual references to them.

Bene Israel tradition tells of a Jew, David Rahabi, who about the year 1000 c.e. (or, some say around 1400 c.e.) discovered the Bene Israel in their villages, recognized their vestigial Jewish customs, and taught them about Judaism, preparing certain young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the Bene Israel. They were called Kajis and their position became hereditary. They were also recognized officially as judges in disputes within the Bene Israel community. Somewhere along the line the Bene Israel formed a special attachment to the Prophet Elijah. They invoke his blessings on all auspicious occasions. Another typically Bene Israel feature is their custom called Malida, i.e., the preparation of a ceremonial food offering (composed of special ingredients) accompanied by recitation of Jewish prayers, psalms, and other appropriate biblical quotations on the occasions of purification after childbirth; preparation for a wedding; when taking, and after completing, a vow; after a circumcision, and for all other auspicious occasions; whenever there is a crisis or need for divine help; for the expression of gratitude to God; and on Tu Bi-Shevat to celebrate the first fruits of their locale, and also to give respect to the Prophet Elijah at Kandala, the place where he is believed to have appeared to the Bene Israel.

In mid-18th century, many Bene Israel moved from their villages into the rapidly developing new city of Bombay. Here the horizons of the Bene Israel were widened as they benefited from the educational and employment opportunities offered under British rule. The British authorities were anxious to recruit reliable soldiers to their "native" regiments. Some Bene Israel had already served in the army or in the navy of other Konkan potentates, and many enlisted under the British. Most of these rose to officer rank and established a reputation as good fighters in the Anglo-Mysore, Anglo-Afghan, and Anglo-Burmese wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were also efficient civil servants.

An impetus to their return to traditional Judaism was given to the Bene Israel through the cooperation of Cochin Jews who visited Bombay and the Konkan villages, and through the new wave of immigration of Arabic-speaking Jews from Baghdad to Bombay in the early decades of the 19th century. The secular education of the Bene Israel was considerably influenced by Congregational missionaries from America who opened schools both in Bombay and in the outlying towns and villages. They trained Bene Israel to become teachers in these schools, and it was in these schools that the Bene Israel got their first understandable introduction to be Bible. Then, in 1826 a Jew from Cochin, who had been converted to Christianity, Michael Sargon, was deputed to work among the Bene Israel. He not only devoted his energy to teaching them in the Marathi language, without any attempt at proselytization, but also mediated in their disputes. Somewhat later the most celebrated of all Christian missionaries to work among the Bene Israel, the Rev. John Wilson of the Scottish Presbyterian Mission, started his educational activities among them. In 1832 he published a Hebrew Grammar in Marathi, and Bene Israel studied Hebrew in the high school and in the college founded by him. Gradually the missionaries withdrew from the field of primary education and the Bene Israel took their education into their own hands. H.S. Kehimkar, in collaboration with his brother and A.D. Pezarkar, started a small primary school in 1875. It later became necessary to solicit for funds, and generous aid was given by the Anglo-Jewish Association of London, Jewish philanthropists in England and France, members of the *Sassoon family, and the Government of Bombay. The school, with its own building, grew into a high school teaching Marathi, English and Hebrew. Originally called the Israelite School, the name was changed in the early 1930s to the Elly Kadoorie School, in recognition of a large donation (earmarked for the reconstruction and extension of the old school building) by Sir Elly *Kadoorie of Hong Kong.

Religious development was also very much facilitated for the Bene Israel by translations of the Old Testament by an association of Protestant Christian missionaries of all denominations beginning in the early twenties of the 19th century. Since its establishment in 1857 Bombay University included Hebrew in its curriculum.

Originally, the communal organization, religious as well as secular, of the Bene Israel was headed by the Kajis. With the establishment of synagogues (the first was established in 1796 in Bombay by Bene Israel army officer Samuel Ezekiel *Divekar and was named Sha'ar ha-Rachamim ("Gate of Mercy")), the secular functions of the Kajis were gradually taken over by the Muccadams, who either were the most prominent persons in the local community, or who succeeded their fathers in the office. In large synagogue congregations the Muccadams were aided by Choglas, or councilors. Eventually the ritual functions of the Kajis came to be performed by the ḥazzanim who were initially recruited from Cochin but later also from among the Bene Israel themselves.

The Bene Israel established additional synagogues in Bombay – Sha'ar Razon (1839), Etz Hayim (1888), and Magen Chassidim (1931) – and also several prayer halls. From 1848 onwards Bene Israel synagogues were also established in 12 different towns on the Konkan coast; and far afield in the cities of Poona, Ahmedabad, Karachi (now in Pakistan) and New Delhi.

The relations between the Bene Israel and the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Konkan coast proved to be very peaceful. The only thing that the Bene Israel found upsetting was that their neighbors did not always identify them as Jews, and until well into the second half of the 20th century associated them with the caste of oil-pressers because of the traditional occupation of their ancestors, though already in the later British period the occupations of the Bene Israel were quite diverse.

Apart from serving in the British "native" regiments they were employed as civil servants in government, railway, postal and customs offices; as teachers, hospital assistants, nurses; many were skilled carpenters, masons, and mechanics; but very few were engaged in trade or commerce. Many Bene Israel who attended Elphinstone, Wilson and other colleges affiliated to Bombay University became well known as engineers, lawyers, physicians, educators, architects, writers and social workers. Prominent among the leaders and educators of the 19th century were Hayim Samuel *Kehimkar, historian of the community, and Joseph Ezekiel *Rajpurkar, writer and translator of Hebrew liturgical works into Marathi. One of the earliest liturgical works to be printed was by a Yemenite Jew from Cochin, Solomon Shara'bi, Seliḥot According to the Sephardi Rite (1841). It was followed by the publication of the Hebrew calendar (Luaḥ, 1845) and the first Passover Haggadah (1846, facsimile reprinted by W.J. Fischel, 1968) with a Marathi translation. From the last decade of the 19th century the Bene Israel published a number of journals and periodicals in Marathi and English. Some of them were short-lived, but The Israelite continued from 1917 to 1927; The Friend of Israel lasted from 1916 to 1921; The Maccabi from 1946 to 1971.

In the first half of the 20th century some Bene Israel participated in the Indian nationalist movement.

Bene Israel who have received the Padma Shri, one of the highest awards of the Government of India, awarded on Indian Independence Day to outstanding individuals in various fields of endeavor are (1) Dr. (Miss) Jerusha Jacob Jhirad, in 1966, for her work in gynecology and for her services in social welfare; (2) Mr. David Abraham Cheulkar, in 1969, for his character acting in Indian films; and (3) Dr. Reuben David Dandekar, in 1975, for his outstanding work and originality as superintendent of the Ahmedabad Zoo. (A fourth Indian Jew to receive the Padma Shri Award is a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of Bombay: Mr. Ezra Mir, in 1970, for his outstanding work in making Indian documentary films and children's documentaries.) Among the many other Bene Israel who have achieved careers of distinction in India are Khan Bahadur Jacob Bapuji Israel, who as chief administrator in the State of Aundh, made specific innovations for rural development many decades before similar reforms were begun elsewhere; Shalom Bapuji Israel, who from ordinary police constable rose to be Dewan of Janjira State; Dr. Abraham Solomon Erulkar, an ardent nationalist, who had attended upon Mahatma Gandhi during almost all of his fasts (not as Gandhi's personal physician) especially in his capacity as then president of the Indian Medical Council; David Solomon Erulkar who was the Junior Council for-the-defense in the famous trial of the freedom-fighter Lokamanya B.G. Tilak (a Hindu), working together with the Senior Council in the case, a famous Muslim, Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Erulkar was also on the governing body of the International Labor Organization of the League of Nations. He founded The Israelite magazine. David Ezra Reuben secured first place in the competitive examination for admission to the Indian Civil Service in 1917. He was the only Bene Israel ever to serve in the ics. He was made Chief Justice in 1951 of the Patna Court (in Bihar State). Miss Rebecca Reuben obtained her T.D. degree from London University; was principal of the Israelite School 1922–1950; issued a monthly journal for Jewish children, called Nofeth (written in Marathi it served as an excellent tool for education in things Jewish); authored highly successful series of English readers for secondary schools, also a grammar, and guides for teachers; Dr. Elijah Moses, Mayor of Bombay 1937–1938. Several officers in the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force, notably including Vice Admiral Benjamin Abraham Samson, former Commandant of the Indian Defense Academy, who commanded the Western Fleet during hostilities with Pakistan in 1965, subsequently managing director of the Mazagaon Docks where he supervised the construction of the first two Indian-built frigates; Major General Jonathan Reuben Samson of the Indian Engineers, now general manager of the Armored Vehicle Factory at Avadi, Madras; Dr. Sarah Jacob, principal of the Jaipur Government Medical College; Dr. Eliezar Moses Best, dean of B.J. Medical College and superintendent of Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad; Mrs. Meera Jacob Mahadevan, author and innovative social worker who conceived of and developed a network of Mobile Creches and Schools for the impoverished, neglected children of itinerant laborers; Solomon Shalom Aptekar, popular author and playwright of the 1920s; Joseph David Penkar, pioneer in the Indian screen industry, script and song writer; Nissim Ezekiel, highly rated Indian poet writing in English, editor, art critic, playwright, reader in American Literature at Mumbai (formerly Bombay) University; Dr. Esther Solomon, Ph.D., Sanskritist at Gujarat University; Samuel Israel, director of the National Book Trust of India since 1974; Ezra Kolet, formerly in government service in the Finance Ministry, later in the Ministry of Shipping and Transport as chief comptroller of chartering and as additional secretary to the ministry, the moving spirit of the Delhi Jewish community, and founder, secretary and violinist of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra; and Judah Reuben, India's only Jewish umpire (cricket), member of the All India Panel of Umpires.

Most Bene Israel congregations became affiliated (in reality very loosely) either with the World Council of Synagogues (Conservative) or with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. A significant development in the religious field was the establishment in 1925 of the Jewish Religious Union in Bombay by Dr. Jerusha Jhirad who, upon her return from medical training in England, used the London organization as the prototype. In Bombay this was an entirely spontaneous move without outside financial help, though prayer books and other literature were obtained from the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London. The Bombay Jewish Religious Union was one of the founder members of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (established in 1926) and made a small annual contribution toward its expenses. In the 1950s the Bombay congregation's own funds were supplemented with financial aid from circles of Progressive Judaism outside India and from Sassoon Trust Funds, all of which enabled the Bombay Jewish Religious Union, now called Congregation Rodef Shalom, to obtain premises of its own and the services of two young rabbis, both graduates of *Hebrew Union College. In August 1957 Rabbi Hugo Gryn (for more than two full years), followed by Rabbi Elisha Nattiv (for about three years) ministered to this congregation and exerted an influence among the Jews of Bombay far beyond the three hundred members of Congregation Rodef Shalom.

The first contacts of the Bene Israel with the modern Zionist movement go back to the time of Theodor Herzl. In 1897 the Bene Israel were invited to participate in the First Zionist Congress. They refused with the explanation that the community was waiting for "the Divine Hand" to bring them back to Zion. The first Zionist association was founded in Bombay in 1919. Visits of Zionist leaders such as Israel *Cohen in 1921, the first Zionist emissary to India on behalf of the World Zionist Organization, and subsequently of Immanuel Olsvanger, and others, stimulated the community's interest in and support of the Jewish National Home.

In the second half of the 20th century the numbers of the Bene Israel community have significantly decreased due to the emigration of its members to Israel, Europe, and the Americas. In the early years of the 21st century there were approximately 4,000 Bene Israel left in India, most of them living in Maharashtra State. Other Bene Israel communities functioned in Ahmedabad and New Delhi. Communities maintained a number of synagogues and prayer halls, such as the Magen Hassidim and Tiferet Israel synagogues in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue in Thane. In some places, there was a regular minyan; in others there were services on Saturday mornings and not on Friday nights, or on High Holidays only. The first synagogue in Bombay celebrated its bicentenary in February 1996.

[Walter Joseph Fischel,

Shirley Berry Isenberg, and

Benjamin J. Israel /

Shalva Weil and

Yulia Egorova (2nd ed.)]

In Israel

Between 1948 and 1952, approximately 2,300 Bene Israel emigrated to Israel. As a result of sit-down strikes and hunger strikes (see below), the Jewish Agency returned a total of 337 individuals, in several groups, between 1952 and 1954. Most of them were brought back to Israel by the Jewish Agency after several years. From the establishment of the state until 1969, over 12,000 Bene Israel emigrated to Israel. They were mainly absorbed into the branches of industry in which they were occupied in India, such as textiles and metals, as well as into public services. They settled mainly in Beersheba, Dimonah, Ashdod, and Eilat. Some settled in kibbutzim and moshavim.

social-religious crisis

The Bene Israel became the focus of a controversy which arose in 1954 over the basic question of the personal status of the Bene Israel regarding marriage with other Jews. Although the Chief Rabbinate had laid down in essence that "the sect of the Bene Israel in India is of the seed of the House of Israel without any doubt," several rabbis in Israel refused to marry Bene Israel to other Jews. This standpoint was based on halakhic decisions that had been given for Jews from Baghdad who had settled in India, and who denounced intermarriage with those whom they considered to belong to an inferior caste. On first coming to India in the 18th century, the Baghdadi Jews had prayed in the synagogues of the Bene Israel and buried their dead in their cemeteries. However, as they became more settled and acquired a higher status and education, they began to keep apart and to question whether the Bene Israel were legitimately Jewish. They considered that association with the Bene Israel should be debarred for fear of illegitimacy (mamzerut), since the latter were unfamiliar with the Jewish laws of divorce (gittin), absolved themselves from levirate marriage, and did not practice ḥaliẓah. Not one of the rabbis outside India who returned a negative decision concerning the Bene Israel in previous generations had ever visited there or met representatives of the Bene Israel community in order to obtain knowledge of their customs or information directly from them. In Israel the controversy arose between those who rejected the Bene Israel and those who regarded them as Jews in every respect. In 1962, the Israel Chief Rabbinate appointed a commission of four rabbis who were charged with meeting representatives of the Bene Israel. From the evidence of the leaders of the community who appeared before the rabbis and from earlier sources, it became clear that the Bene Israel had not been accustomed to divorce women at all, in the same way that divorce was not practiced among Indians other than Muslims until about a century ago. It was only on the arrival in India of rabbis from Baghdad and Yemen who were experts on the Jewish laws of divorce that a number of Bene Israel had approached them. Concerning widows the Bene Israel generally followed the custom of their Indian neighbors and did not permit them to remarry, so that the question of levirate marriage or ḥaliẓah did not arise. On Oct. 18, 1962, the council of the Chief Rabbinate decided that marriage with Bene Israel is permissible. However, the rabbi registering the marriage was bound to investigate, as far back as three generations at least, the maternal ancestry of every applicant of the Bene Israel, man or woman, wishing to marry outside the community, in order to establish to what extent there were not intermixed in the family persons who were non-Jews or proselytes. The rabbi concerned was also bound to establish as far as possible that neither the parents of the applicant nor his grandparents had remarried after a previous divorce, and that they were not within the prohibited degrees of kinship.

These directives aroused fierce resentment, culminating in a stormy strike in Jerusalem in the summer of 1964, in which several hundred of the Bene Israel from all over Israel participated. Subsequently, the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, issued the statement that "the government of Israel reiterates that it regards the community of the Bene Israel from India as Jews in every respect, without any restriction or distinction, equal in their rights to all other Jews in every matter, including matters of matrimony."

To these troubling afflictions had been added the difficulties of absorption of the Bene Israel into a society totally different from that to which they had been accustomed in India, and the difficulties of finding employment and of language. When the first groups of Bene Israel encountered the difficulties of absorption, they reacted by sit-down strikes of groups and individuals. The presence of Bene Israel strikers at the doors of the offices of the Jewish Agency became a regular feature of the 1950s. In the Indian Parliament, a debate upon discrimination against Indian Jews in Israel took place at the beginning of the crisis. On Sept. 8, 1952, a statement of the Indian deputy minister for external affairs, Shri Anil R. Chanda, was read in answer to a question in the Indian Council of States in New Delhi, as follows: "The government of India has received complaints from some Indian Jews who had returned from Israel that there was discrimination against them on account of their color. The government has not verified any of these complaints, and in any event, such individual complaints do not justify a general statement that there is a color bar in Israel." The young generation of Bene Israel has become integrated into Israel society and found its place in all fields of Israel life. Their communal attachment is still strong and finds particular expression at meetings on festivals.

[Naftali Bar-Giora]

As a result of natural increase, the Bene Israel in Israel number over 50,000. They tend to live in well-defined communities such as Dimonah, Ashdod, Yeruḥam, Kiryat Gat, and Lydda (Lod); there are large communities in Ashkelon, Beersheba, Ramleh, and Kiryat Ata. Many Bene Israel are employed in the transportation and communications industries as skilled workers and clerks; others work in the armed forces and police. More than half the women are employed outside the home. Social life is organized around the synagogue, which acts as a community center in each urban settlement. Communal events are arranged by nearly 30 voluntary associations around the country; two associations are national and the rest serve local interests. Activities are conducted in Hebrew, English, and Marathi, the native tongue of the immigrant generation. A Marathi quarterly called Mai Bolli has been published in Israel since 1989. In 1995, the Indian Women's Organization celebrated its quartercentary celebration in Lydda.

[Shalva Weil (2nd ed.)]


H.S. Kehimkar, History of the Bene Israel of India (1937); M. Ezekiel, History and Culture of the Bene Israel in India (1948); R. Reuben, Bene Israel of Bombay (1913); L.I. Rabinowitz, Far East Mission (1952); N. Bar-Giora, Massa be-Hodu (1953); W.J. Fischel, Ha-Yehudim be-Hodu (1960); idem, in: Essays… Abba Hillel Silver (1963), 170–85; S. Strizower, Exotic Jewish Communities (1962), 48–87; I. Nissim, Benei Yisrael, Piskei Halakhah (1962); B.J. Israel, Religious Evolution among the Bene Israel of India since 1750 (1963); S. Shellim, Treatise on the Origin and Early History of the Bene Israel (1963); R. Dafni, Indian Jews in Israel (1969). add. bibliography: S. Samuel, Treatise on the Origin and Early History of the Bene Israel of Maharashtra State (1963); J.H. Lord, The Jews of India and the Far East (1907); S. Strizower, The Children of Israel: The Bene Israel of Bombay (1971); S.B. Isenberg, India's Bene Israel, A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook (1988); J. Roland, The Jewish Community of India (1998).

Bene Israel

views updated May 14 2018

Bene Israel

ETHNONYMS: Beni Israel, Shanwar Teli


Identification. The Bene Israel Indian Jews lived in Bombay and in villages on the Konkan Coast, south of Bombay, in Maharashtra State. Today less than 5,000 Bene Israel live in India, and more than 30,000 live in Israel. The Bene Israel claim that they originated in Israel and were shipwrecked off the Indian coast in the year 175 b.c. The name "Bene Israel " means "Children of Israel" in Hebrew, bolstering their origin claims.

Location. In India the Bene Israel originally lived in more than 100 villages along the Konkan Coast, such as Pen, Ashtame, and Navgaon. In the nineteenth century they moved to Bombay and set up small colonies in other cities in India (e.g., Ahmedabad, Poona, and Delhi), leaving only a few hundred families in the Konkan.

After 1948 the Bene Israel community (all but 5,000) gradually moved to Israel, where they live exclusively in urban settlements. At first, the Bene Israel had difficulty adjusting to a climate colder than India's, but this problem passed.

Demography. The Bene Israel population increased from 6,000 in the 1830s to 20,000 in 1948. Since then, due to natural increase and the decline of infant mortality in Israel, an estimated 32,000 Bene Israel live in Israel; less than 5,000 remain in India.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Bene Israel speak Marathi, an Indo-Aryan language, although it is dying out among the younger generation in Israel. In addition, the more educated speak English. In Israel, the Bene Israel speak modern Hebrew.

History and Cultural Relations

The Bene Israel claim that they are members of "lost" tribes that reached India as long ago as 175 b.c. According to their tradition, their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Konkan Coast and lost all their holy books; they only remembered the Shema, the Jewish prayer expressing faith in God. They lived among the Hindus and adopted several of their customs. When discovered by a Jewish outsider, David Rahabi, possibly in the eighteenth century, they observed the Sabbath, dietary laws, circumcision, and many of the Jewish festivals, but they had no synagogue. Navyacha San, the New Year, was only celebrated for one day; the rationale for several Jewish fast days appeared to have been forgotten; and Hannukah (the Feast of Lights) was unknown, since it had developed after the Bene Israel departure from the land of Israel.

From 1750 onward, the Bene Israel embarked upon a process of adjusting to mainstream Judaism. They gradually moved from the Konkan villages to Bombay and other cities as their involvement with the British Raj increased. Their first synagogue, named "Gate of Mercy," was established in Bombay in 1796. The Bene Israel were also assisted in their religious life by Cochin Jews from the Malabar Coast, who acted as cantors, ritual slaughterers, and teachers. In the Second half of the nineteenth century, the Bene Israel of Bombay were joined by some Jews from Baghdad (including the Sassoon family), who served as a reference model of normative Judaism. Paradoxically, the arrival of Christian missionaries in the Konkan from 1810 promoted the Bene Israel rapprochement with world Jewry by introducing them to the Hebrew Bible and other religious texts in Marathi translation.

After the British withdrew from India in 1947 and the State of Israel's establishment in 1948, Bene Israel began emigrating to Israel. By 1960, it became clear that certain rabbis in Israel would not marry Bene Israel to other Israelis on Jewish legal (halakhic ) grounds, alleging that there were doubts concerning their Jewishness. Between 1962 and 1964, the Bene Israel organized a series of strikes and demonstrations in Israel involving the whole community to demand status as "full Jews." In 1964, the Chief Rabbinate withdrew its halakhic objections and declared the Bene Israel "full Jews in every respect."


In India, the Bene Israel tended to live in typical tenement buildings in Bombay, although the upper middle classes lived in private houses. In Israel, many Bene Israel live in apartment blocks (called shikunim ) in "development towns."


The traditional occupation of the Bene Israel in the Konkan villages was that of oil pressing. They were known as Shanwar Telis or "Saturday oilmen" because, as Jews, they refrained from pressing oil on Saturdays. In the towns, Bene Israel were primarily employed as clerks. Only in the Konkan villages did the Bene Israel sell the oil they pressed to other members of the village or neighboring villages. Otherwise they were and are employed in the services. In recent decades only a minority of the Bene Israel were still living in the Konkan villages, engaged in cultivation and agriculture and industries inDirectly associated with their traditional occupation of oil pressing. The majority of those still in India are employed either as white-collar workers or as mechanics and skilled laborers in factories and workshops. A significant minority were employed in India in the professional category as doctors, teachers, and lawyers. As a result of their previous ties with the British, many Bene Israel members are still to be found in the armed forces and the transportation and communication industries. Almost 50 percent of the women work outside the home in Israel.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Bene Israel strictly observed "caste" endogamy, marrying only other Bene Israel and, later, other Jews. However, there was no intermarriage between Gora (White) and Kala (Black) Bene Israel, the former claiming descent from the original families who were shipwrecked off the Konkan Coast and the latter being the descendants of mixed marriages with Hindus, possibly even Untouchables.

Kinship Terminology. In India, Bene Israel kinship terminology reflects local Marathi terminology, whereas in Israel the Bene Israel terms dod (uncle) and doda (aunt) refer to parent's siblings without specification of maternal/paternal linearity.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Bene Israel traditionally prefer cross-cousin marriage in order to ensure that wealth and prestige are retained within the family. Postmarital residence is ideally patrilocal, although actually there are variations from the ideal. Divorce is completely disapproved of and was extremely rare in India, although in Israel it is on the increase. Widow remarriage was also discouraged in India. The incidence of polygamy is sharply declining among the Bene Israel; and in Israel, where polygamous marriages are forbidden under Contemporary Jewish religious law, there are only a few Bene Israel polygamous families in the whole country.

Domestic Unit. In India, the ideal pattern of family living among the Bene Israel was a structure based on a complex network of rights and duties between members that is usually described as "joint." In its ideal form, the joint family has its basis in common property; members live in a single Household and share common resources. Most Bene Israel joint families are lineal, whereby sets of two husband-wife pairs (with children) belonging to different generations live Together. In addition, there is a collateral joint family composed of a man, his wife, and their unmarried children and a man's married brother(s) with wife (or wives) and children. The "augmented family" refers to a lineal joint family where the senior male member has died. "Family with dependents" refers to a unit composed of husband, wife, and their unmarried children and other kin such as the wife's brother, who could not be said to constitute an augmented family. "Nuclear Families," composed of a husband and wife with or without unmarried children, represent a high percentage of families, particularly in Israel but also in India too, depending upon the stage in the life cycle. In many cases, the phenomenon of "proximal housing," whereby patrikin live in separate yet adjacent or neighboring apartments, enables families to operate in a joint fashion by adhering to the ideal of mutual cooperation without making coresidence a requirement.

Inheritance. A man's estate is divided among his widow and sons, although an amount is kept aside for unmarried daughters' dowries.

Socialization. Socialization of the child is carried out within the joint family, all female members helping to raise the young child and male members acting as discipliners. The mother's brother is particularly loved. A high value is placed on education. Today in Israel all Bene Israel attend regular schools with other Israeli children. Boys have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the age of 13.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In a manner not surprising to anyone familiar with the literature on caste, the Bene Israel were incorporated into the caste system. Although they themselves did not subscribe to the Hindu religion and mystic beliefs, they referred to themselves and were regarded by others as a caste. Caste features not only influenced external relations with non-Jews but also pervaded Jewish life internally in India. Thus the Bene Israel were divided into two jatis or subcastes called "Whites" and "Blacks," or Gora and Kala. The White Bene Israel claimed direct descent from the seven couples who landed on the Konkan Coast, while the Black Bene Israel were said to be the descendants of unions between Bene Israel men and non-Bene Israel women. Until the twentieth century, Gora and Kala neither intermarried nor interdined: their relationship was characterized by their belief in the concept of pollution. As late as the 1970s a weak distinction between Gora and Kala was reported to have been preserved in very limited Bene Israel circles, but with the breakdown of caste, particularly in urban surroundings, jati divisions have lost much of their significance.

Political Organization. There never was a single Bene Israel leader, but different factions supported different social and charitable causes. The Stree Mandel, established as a women's organization, is still active today, even in Israel. The Home for Destitutes and Orphans was established in 1934. During the twentieth century, sports clubs, Zionist organizations, and credit associations were set up, and many were carried over to Israel. The Bene Israel also published a large number of communal periodicals.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Bene Israel, as Jews, believe in one all-powerful God. Their beliefs, for example with respect to afterlife, were also influenced by Hinduism.

Religious Practitioners. The task of guiding the Community in religious matters was traditionally entrusted to three leaders from three particular families. Their positions were Inherited over several generations. By the nineteenth century, Cochin Jews from south India served among the Bene Israel as teachers, cantors, and ritual slaughterers. The Bene Israel never had any rabbis or priests (cohanim ) themselves.

Ceremonies. When first "discovered," probably in the seventeenth century, the Bene Israel were found to be practicing circumcision and the dietary laws as prescribed in the Bible; they observed many Jewish festivals and recited the Shema, the confession of the Jewish faith, at every ceremonial occasion. From the nineteenth century, they began to come in line with the religious customs of other Jews. Today they practice Judaism like other Jews, although certain rites, such as the prewedding mehendi (henna) ceremony, are clearly influenced by Hindu custom.

Arts. Bene Israel sing and dance as other Maharashtrians. They also act out special kirtan (religious singing) of distinctly Biblical character, in which they sing about and act as Old Testament figures.

Medicine. Bene Israel believe in the efficacy of scientific medicine; some also receive homeopathic treatment.

Death and Afterlife. The Bene Israel believe in an afterlife, influenced both by Hindu and Jewish belief. The dead are buried according to Jewish custom in a special Jewish cemetery. If a person has committed suicide, he or she is buried just outside the walls of the cemetery.

See also Cochin Jew


Israel, Benjamin J. (1984). The Bene Israel of India. Bombay: Orient Longman.

Kehimkar, Hayeem S. (1937). The History of the Bene Israel of India. Tel Aviv: Dayag Press.

Roland, Joan (1989). Jews in British India. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press.

Strizower, Schifra (1971). "Verbal Interaction among the Bene Israel." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 13:71-85.

Weil, Shalva J. (1988). "The Influence of Caste Ideology in Israel." In Cultural Transition, edited by M. Gottesman, 150161. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.


Bene Israel

views updated May 23 2018


BENE ISRAEL The largest and, perhaps, the oldest of the India's Jewish communities is known as the Bene Israel (children of Israel). Though in numbers they rank among the smallest of Indian minority groups, their long history on Indian soil, their dispersion throughout the subcontinent, their steadfastness in preserving their identity for centuries—much of that time beyond the perimeters of Jewish learning and law—and the peace in which they lived amidst their neighbors make the Bene Israel unique among the Jewish diasporas. The use of the term "Israel," rather than "Jew," to self-designate may be an indication of the antiquity of their presence in India. Israel was the name of the northern kingdom, which broke away from Solomon's kingdom in the tenth century b.c. It was subsequently conquered and absorbed by the Assyrians in 723 b.c., leaving the smaller Kingdom of Judah to survive until it was conquered by the Babylonians in the early sixth century b.c. The term "Jew" came into use only after the Babylonian exile. There are biblical and Talmudic references to India (Hodu) and evidence of loanwords in Hebrew from Sanskrit and Tamil, indicating familiarity with the region as early as the first millennium b.c., when the Hebrew texts were canonized. The lack of Hanukkah celebrations in the traditional Bene Israel annual holiday cycle suggests that the founders of their earliest community might have left ancient Israel prior to the Maccabean Revolt of 165 b.c.

Disaster, Deliverance, and Discovery

According to their oral traditions in Marathi tales—which were later recorded, translated, and studied by visitors, missionaries, and scholars—the ancestors of the Bene Israel reached the shores of the Konkan coast after having been blown off course by a storm. The seven couples who survived the shipwreck struggled ashore near the village of Navgaon, having lost all their belongings in the sea. These fourteen founding fathers and mothers were able to survive by adopting a trade that they had, perhaps, plied before arriving in the Konkan: oil pressing. Since oil was a commodity very much in demand, and since the necessary ingredients were not difficult to obtain, providing a needed service and maintaining a low profile proved a successful method of adapting to the Indian environment. Jewish oil pressers alongside Hindu, Muslim, and even Christian craftspeople were not unusual in the Konkan. Over time the Bene Israel tradesmen came to be known as the Shanwar Teli (Saturday oilpressers), indicating that they refrained from work on that day. Certain striking similarities to Hindu tales and practices are evident in elements of the traditional Bene Israel origin story. There are resonances with the origin tale of the Chitpavan Brahmans of the Konkan and Shani (the deity of the planet Saturn whose day of observance is Saturday) holds special significance for people in the region.

Despite their accommodation to life in the Konkan villages, another tale relates that the Bene Israel were different enough from their neighbors so that a visiting Jew from abroad, known as David Rahabi, could recognize them as such. The local Bene Israel women took him to the market to assure him that the meal they were preparing in his honor would conform with the laws of kashrut ( Jewish dietary requirements). Rahabi was so impressed with their fastidiousness and by their repetition of the Hebrew phrase Shemah Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad (the Hebrew credo "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is One") that he took these Konkan oil pressers to be preservers of cultural ties to a Jewish past. So, the tradition relates, Rahabi selected three heads of families from among the teli folk and taught them the Torah Laws from which, he concluded, they had been estranged for a long time. Although his identity, place of origin, and date of arrival remain subjects of controversy, it is acknowledged that Rahabi initiated the first religious revival among the Bene Israel.

Life in Konkan Towns and Villages

Gradually the Bene Israel population extended throughout the northern Konkan, settling in villages and towns, earning their livelihood, along with oil pressing, in country trade and military service with the Hindu forces of the Marathas and the Muslim forces of the Siddis (the rulers of Janjira). The tax files of the local Konkan administrators (the Peshwah Daftar) contain names such as Eloji (Elijah) teli, Samsen and Abhram teli, along with Aron and Sileman Israil in the record for the mid-eighteenth century. Toward the end of the century, surnames are linked to villages with a suffix -kar such as Naogaonkar, Waskar, and Chordekar. By the late twentieth century, there were over 140 village-linked surnames. Subdivisions within the Bene Israel village communities, perhaps reflecting accommodation to Indian patterns of endogamy, recognized two groups: the Gora (fair) and Kala (dark) Israel, the distinction based on descent from either two Bene Israel parents, in the former case, or only one in the latter. These patterns were brought to the cities when, in the eighteenth century, the Bene Israel began migrating first to the Maratha capital, Pune, in the plain beyond the Western Ghats and then to Bombay, which had been acquired by the British East India Company and was being developed as a factory and port for goods procured by company agents.

The British: Military, Missionaries, and Renewal

After the defeat of the Marathas in 1818, the British were in control of much of the Konkan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, and the ensuing policy changes brought new opportunities to the Bene Israel. Even prior to British hegemony, some Bene Israel had begun enlisting in the British East India Company's Native Regiments, continuing the tradition of military service they had maintained in the Konkan. This brought Bene Israel families to the cities. (Samuel) Hassaji (Ezekiel) Divekar, a captain in the company army who had been taken prisoner in the Mysore wars, came in contact with the Jews of Cochin. Upon his release, he built the first Bene Israel (Gate of Mercy) Synagogue in Bombay in 1796. Subsequently synagogues were constructed in a dozen towns and villages throughout the Konkan.

By the early nineteenth century, the company lifted its ban on missionaries, which led to the arrival of American missionaries in Bombay and the Konkan. The education now made available to the Bene Israel launched the second religious revival in the community. The Old Testament was translated into Marathi, and the Hebrew taught to them at Mission schools enabled the brothers Haeem Samuel Kehimkar and Joseph Samuel Kehimkar to open the first Bene Israel school in 1875. Jewish instructors there taught Hebrew and Bible classes to Bene Israel children. By mid-century, Iraqi Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs began arriving in Bombay, providing a further boost to the Bene Israel community there and in Pune. The Bene Israel were eager to send their boys and girls to school. Dr. Rebecca Reuben (1889–1957) studied at the High School for Native Girls at Pune, while teaching herself Hebrew. She went on to study at Bombay University, graduating first in her class, the first Indian female to do so, and continued her studies in England. After her return to India, she contributed greatly to the fields of education and community service. Dr. Jerusha Jhirard (1890–1984) obtained her medical degree in England, returning to serve as superintendent of Bombay's Cama hospital. She also founded the Bene Israel Women's Association and, in 1925, brought Liberal Judaism to Bombay—introducing modern Western ideas into traditional Bene Israel identity. Dr. Jhirard was honored with the prestigious Padma Shri Award (the fourth-highest civil award for national distinction) in 1966.

By 1948 both India and Israel had won independence from Britain, emerging as new nations in the world community. In the aftermath, some Bene Israel found themselves in Pakistan, where the surroundings were hostile both to Israel and to India. Many Bene Israel began to emigrate from their ancient homeland: some found their way to Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Others went to Israel. The Bene Israel community, which had reached its peak in the decade between 1941 and 1951 at approximately 20,000, has declined dramatically. As of 2004 approximately 4,000 Bene Israel remained in India.

Brenda Ness

See alsoJews of India


Goodman, Hananya, ed. Between Jerusalem and Benares: Comparative Studies in Judaism and Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Isenberg, Shirley Berry. India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 1988. Includes voluminous bibliography with complete texts of rare sources.

Israel, Benjamin D. The Bene Israel of India: Some Studies. London: Sangam Books, 1984. Most scholarly work by a Bene Israel author.

Kehimkar, Haeem Samuel. The History of the Bene Israel of India. Tel Aviv: Dayag Press, 1937. First history of the Bene Israel written by a member of the community (in 1897, published in 1937).

Ness, Brenda Joseph. "The Saturday Oilpressers: The Bene Israel of Maharashtra." In Charisma and Commitment in South Asian History: Essays Presented to Stanley Wolpert, edited by Roger Long. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003.

Samuel, Shellim. Treatise on the Origin and Early History of the Beni-Israel of Maharashtra State. Mumbai: Iyer and Iyer, 1963. Important as a Bene Israel view of the community's history.

Bene Israel

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bene Israel (Heb. ‘Sons of Israel’). Early Jews (of the biblical period), but more particularly a Jewish community in India. Indian Jews claim their community dates back to the days of the Maccabees and survived in complete isolation. By 1969, 12,000 had emigrated to Israel, although the religious establishment initially raised questions of personal status and legitimacy: in 1964, the Chief Rabbinate declared them ‘full Jews in every respect’.