Who Are the Jews of India?
by Janice Hussain
India has been a refuge for many religious communities. Zoroastrians, Sufis, and Bahais have all sought protection in India. Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are all indigenous to the subcontinent. Invaders from central Asia introduced Islam, while colonialists from Europe brought Christianity. India became the home to these and many other religious groups. Jews were no exception.
Compared to India’s overall population of one billion people, the number of Jews living there today, about 6,000, is minuscule. Even so, the Jews of India do not belong to a single community, but to many different communities, each with its unique culture and background. Their origins vary as well, each having arrived in India in different ways. This article will provide an overview of the three main Jewish communities in India: the Bene Israel, the Cochin, and the Baghdadi.
The Bene Israel is the largest Jewish community in India. Its members believe that their ancestors can be traced back to 14 survivors of a shipwreck that occurred during a passage from Israel to India. However, other scholars believe that they descended from the “Lost Tribes” of the Children of Israel, whom the Assyrians exiled in 800 BC. Although their Hebrew language was lost over time, the Bene Israels continued their tradition of observing the Sabbath as a day of rest and circumcised male members of the community. They also observed the kosher law of not eating fish without fins or scales. However, they were not aware that these practices were Jewish traditions until a Jewish merchant named David Rahabi arrived in west India around 1000 AD. Rahabi informed the community that they were practicing Jewish traditions. Some Israeli festivals were celebrated but known by Indian names. Also, many traditions were heavily influenced by Indian customs. For example, in the marriage ceremony, the bride was dressed in a white sari. Bene Israel members also adopted Hindu practices such as not eating beef and not allowing widows to remarry.
The Bene Israel community became a considered part of the Indian caste system, with many of its members in the profession of oil pressers. In fact, some think that the Bene Israel originated from the tribes of Zvulun and Asher, because oil pressing was a common profession for members of these tribes.
The Bene Israels divided their community into two groups, Goras and Kalas. The Goras, which means “white” in Hindi, were the majority in the community. A Gora’s parents were both Jewish who descended from the original Jewish settlers in India, while the Kalas, or “black,” were the descendants of mixed marriages between Jews and Hindus. These two groups used to pray together, but traditionally, the Goras didn’t accept the Kalas as complete Jews and didn’t associate with them, nor were there intermarriages between them. Today, however, there is little or no distinction between the two groups.
In the 1950s, The Bene Israel’s population numbered about 30,000 members in India, making them 0.01% of the Indian population. Since the 1950s, though, most members of the Bene Israel have immigrated to Israel and some to English-speaking countries such as Australia, England and the United States. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 Bene Israels living in Bombay.
The Bene Israel is one of the few Jewish communities in the world today that has not experienced much anti-Semitism. For over one thousand years, they were free to practice Judaism and develop as a community, while living peacefully but separately with Indians.
The second Jewish community of India is the Cochini Jews, who live in Cochin in southern India. Similar to the Bene Israels, the exact arrival time of the first Cochini Jew is unknown. What is known is that they did not come to India in a single emigration. Some believe that, like the Bene Israels, the Cochinis descended from the Lost Tribes. Another theory holds that the Cochini Jews arrived in India after being exiled from Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Others believe that the Cochini Jews arrived in India because King Solomon wanted them to conduct commercial business with a kingdom in Kerala in south India. In the 17th and 18th century, Cochin received an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Meanwhile, the Jews of Cochin said they came to Cranganore after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
Like the Bene Israel, they were divided into “white” Jews, “black” Jews, and Meshuchrarim, or “freemen”. The white Jews were a mixture of Jewish exiles from Europe, who followed Sephardic traditions as well as some Ashkenazi traditions. The black Jews had separate synagogues from the whites. The Meshuchrarim were freed slaves, and their offsprings were attached to either of the two communities. Nevertheless, they had no rights to attend services at the synagogues until 1932. These three groups do not intermarry, similar to the practices of the Indian caste system.
After World War II, most of the 2,500 Jews who lived in Cochin immigrated to Israel, leaving fewer than 100 in India. In 1970, the Jews from Cochin in Israel numbered approximately 4,000.
The third major Jewish community in India is the Baghdadi Jews. In the 18th century, Jews who were later recognized as the “Baghdadi Jews” arrived in India from Arab countries. These countries included Syria, Iran, and Yemen. Many were from Baghdad and other places in Iraq. They came to India because of religious persecution in their home countries, as well as commercial reasons. Most of the “Baghdadis” were merchants before they arrived in India. They settled in the main commercial cities of India, such as Gujarat, Bombay, and Calcutta. The Baghdadi population was about 7,000 in the 1940s, but today there are fewer than 50 Baghdadis in all of India.
There are other smaller communities of Jews in addition to the Bene Israel, Cochin, and Baghdadi. In east India, in the state of Manipur, a community of Jews views itself as descendants of the Menashe Tribe, one of the Lost Tribes. These Jews, who have a Chinese appearance, claim that after their forefathers were exiled and enslaved by the Assyrians, they escaped from slavery and arrived in China. Later, they moved to the Chinese-Burmese border and to India. There are many Christians in the state of Manipur as well. Some Manipur Jews believe that the Christian missionaries in the 19th century forced these Jews to convert to Christianity.
European Jews are also prevalent in India. During World War II, about 2,000 Jewish refugees escaped from European countries and arrived in India. These Jews often worked in high-skilled professions such as medicine. Jewish people also joined British services in India. In the 1920’s, the Viceroy of India, Lord Reading, was born to Jewish parents.
The central organization for Indian Jews is the Council of Indian Jewry, which was established in 1978. It consists of representatives from the various synagogues and Jewish organizations. The committee deals with important religious rituals, such as marriage and conversion. It also helps provide kosher food for the various communities.
There are three Jewish schools in Bombay, but over the years, the number of Jews enrolled in them has declined. Israel and India have had diplomatic relations since 1992, and Israel has a consulate in Bombay and an embassy in New Delhi. Subsequently, many Indian Jews have made aliya, which means that they have emigrated to Israel. Since 1948, 26,536 Jews have left India for Israel. As the population continues to shrink, the future of a flourishing Jewish presence in India remains in doubt.
Janice Hussain (’08) is a first year student at Brandeis University.
Dr. Erulkar was the personal physician and friend of Mahatma Gandhi. His father who is also a doctor, Abraham Erulkar, donated land for the synagogue in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Dr. Erulkar's daughter became the first lady of Cyprus. (The-south-asian.com.)