Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history. Indian Jews are a religious minority of India, but unlike many parts of the world, have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. The better-established ancient communities have assimilated a large number of local traditions through cultural diffusion. The Jewish population in India is hard to estimate since each Jewish community is distinct with different origins; while some allegedly arrived during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, others are seen by some as descendants of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes. In addition to Jewish expatriates and recent immigrants, there are five Jewish groups in India:
The 'black' Malabar component of the Cochin Jews, according to Shalva Weil, might have arrived in India together with Solomon's merchants. The Cochin Jews settled down in Kerala as traders. The 'white' component is of European and other Jewish descent.
The so-called "Spanish and Portuguese Jews" and British Jews arrived at Madras during the 17th century, mainly as traders and diamond businessmen.(There are two Sephardic Jews remaining in Chennai, Davvid Levi son of Sarah Levi. Sarah Levi is the daughter of Levi Franco and Esther Cohen. Levi Franco's family stayed in Chennai from 1700, Levi Franco's great grand father was Salomon Franco, Salomon Franco died in Chennai on 1768) They also have a large presence in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, where the Goan Inquisition was initiated in 1560.
The Bene Israel arrived in the state of Maharashtra 900 years ago.
Another branch of the Bene Israel community resided in Karachi until the Partition of India in 1947, when they fled to India (in particular, to Mumbai). Many of them also moved to Israel. The Jews from Sindh, Punjab or Pathan area are often incorrectly called Bani Israel Jews. The Jewish community who used to reside in other parts of what became Pakistan (such as Lahore or Peshawar) also fled to India in 1947, in a similar manner to the larger Karachi Jewish community.
The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Surat from Iraq (and other Arab states), Iran and Afghanistan about 250 years ago.
The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to Judaism.
The Bene Ephraim (also called "Telugu Jews") are a small group who speak Telugu; their observance of Judaism dates to 1981.
The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities is in Cochin. The traditional account is that traders from Judea arrived in the city of Cochin, Kerala, in 562 BCE, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE. after the destruction of the Second Temple. The distinct Jewish community was called Anjuvannam. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the Paradesi Jews, the descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492.
Central to the history of the Cochin Jews is their close relationship with Indian rulers, and this was eventually codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges. The date of these plates, known as "Sâsanam", is contentious. The plates themselves provide a date of 379 CE, but in 1925 tradition was setting it as 1069 CE, The Jews settled in Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar Coast, where they traded peacefully, until 1524. The Jewish leader Joseph Rabban was granted the rank of prince over the Jews of Cochin, given the rulership and tax revenue of a pocket principality in Anjuvannam, near Cranganore, and rights to seventy-two "free houses". The Hindu king gave permission in perpetuity (or, in the more poetic expression of those days, "as long as the world and moon exist") for Jews to live freely, build synagogues, and own property "without conditions attached". A link back to Rabban, "the king of Shingly" (another name for Cranganore), was a sign of both purity and prestige. Rabban's descendants maintained this distinct community until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers, one of them named Joseph Azar, in the 16th century.
In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam.
Foreign notices of the Bene Israel go back at least to 1768, when Yechezkel Rahabi wrote to a Dutch trading partner that they were widespread in Maharatta Province, and observed two Jewish observances, recital of the Shema and observation of Shabbat rest. The legend of their origins claims that they descend from ancestors, 14 Jewish men and women, equally divided by gender, who survived the shipwreck of refugees from persecution or political turmoil, and came ashore at Navagaon near Alibag, 20 miles south of Mumbai, some 17 to 19 centuries ago. They were instructed in the rudiments of normative Judaism by Cochin Jews. Their Jewishness is controversial, and initially as not accepted by the Rabbinate in Israel. Since 2009 however they intermarry throughout Israel and are considered Israeli and Jewish in all respects.
They are divided into subcastes, which do not intermarry: 'Black' (Kara) and White (Gora), the latter believed to be lineal descendants of the shipwreck survivors, while the former are considered to descend from concubinage of a male with local women. They were nicknamed the shanivār telī ("Saturday oil-pressers") by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays, Judaism's Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Pen, Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India. The largest synagogue in Asia outside Israel is in Pune (Ohel David Synagogue).
Mumbai had a thriving Bene Israel community until the 1950s to 1960s when many families from the community emigrated to the fledgling state of Israel, where they are known as Hodi'im (Indians). The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel. In India itself the Bene Israel community has shrunk considerably with many of the old Synagogues falling into disuse.
Unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. However, Jews were persecuted by the Portuguese during their control of Goa.
The first known Baghdadi Jewish immigrant to India, Joseph Semah, arrived in the port city of Surat in 1730. He and other early immigrants established a synagogue and cemetery in Surat, though most of the city's Jewish community eventually moved to Bombay (Mumbai), where they established a new synagogue and cemetery. They were traders and quickly became one of the most prosperous communities in the city. As philanthropists, some donated their wealth to public structures. The David Sassoon Docks and Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today.
The synagogue in Surat was eventually razed; the cemetery, though in poor condition, can still be seen on the Katargam-Amroli road. One of the graves within is that of Moseh Tobi, buried in 1769, who was described as 'ha-Nasi ha-Zaken' [The Elder Prince] by David Solomon Sassoon in his book ‘A History of the Jews in Baghdad’.
Baghdadi Jewish populations spread beyond Bombay to other parts of India, with an important community forming in Calcutta (Kolkata). Scions of this community did well in trade (particularly jute and tea), and in later years contributed officers to the army. One, Lt-Gen J. F. R. Jacob PVSM, became state governor of Goa (1998–99), then Punjab, and later served as administrator of Chandigarh. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) became the first ever Miss India, in 1947.
THE BNEI MENASHE
They are a group of more than 9,000 people from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur who practice a form of biblical Judaism and claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Many were converted to Christianity and were originally headhunters and animists at the beginning of the 20th century, but began converting to Judaism in the 1970s.
The Bene Ephraim are a small group of Telugu-speaking Jews in eastern Andhra Pradesh whose recorded observance of Judaism, like that of the Bnei Menashe, is quite recent, dating only to 1981.
There are a few families in Andhra Pradesh who follow Judaism. Many among them follow the customs of Orthodox Jews like long side locks in male hair, having head covering all the time etc.
Judaism in Delhi is primarily focused on the expatriate community who work in Delhi, as well as Israeli diplomats and a small local community. In Paharganj, Chabad has set up a synagogue and religious center in a backpacker area regularly visited by Israeli tourists.
Jews also settled in Madras (now Chennai) soon after its founding in 1640. Most of them were coral merchants from England who were of Portuguese origin and belonged to the Franco, Paiva or Porto families. In 1688, there were three Jewish representatives in the Madras Corporation. Most Jewish settlers resided in the Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet. They also had a cemetery in the neighbouring Peddanaickenpet. The Jewish population in Madras began to dwindle at the turn of the 18th century (There are two Sephardic Jews remaining in Chennai, Davvid Levi son of Sarah Levi. Sarah Levi is the daughter of Levi Franco and Esther Cohen. Levi Franco's family stayed in Chennai from 1700, Levi Franco's great grand father was Salomon Franco, Salomon Franco died in Chennai on 1768).The last of the tombstones in the cemetery date to 1997.
INDIAN JEWS IN ISRAEL
The majority of Indian Jews have "made Aliyah" (migrated) to Israel since the creation of the modern state in 1948. Over 70,000 Indian Jews now live in Israel (over 1% of Israel's total population). Of the remaining 5,000, the largest community is concentrated in Mumbai, where 3,500 have stayed over from the over 30,000 Jews registered there in the 1940s, divided into Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, though the Baghdadi Jews refused to recognize the B'nei Israel as Jews, and withheld dispensing charity to them for that reason. There are reminders of Jewish localities in Kerala still left such as Synagogues. Majority of Jews from the old British-Indian capital of Calcutta (Kolkata) have also migrated to Israel over the last six decades.
In the beginning of the 21st century, new Jewish communities have been established in Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities in India. The new communities have been established by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which has sent rabbis to create those communities. The communities serve the religious and social needs of Jewish business people who have immigrated or visiting India, and Jewish backpackers touring India. The largest centre is the Nariman House in Mumbai.
(2) THE JEWS IN MUMBAI (BOMBAY)
The history of the Jews in Mumbai (previously known as Bombay), India, began when Jews started settling in Bombay during the 18th century, due to its economic opportunities. The Jewish community of Bombay consisted of the remnants of three distinct communities: the Bene Israeli Jews of Konkan, the Baghdadi Jews of Iraq, and the Cochin Jews of Malabar.
Bombay is home to the majority of India's rapidly dwindling Jewish population. At its peak, in the late 1940s, the Jewish population of Bombay reached nearly 30,000.
The first Baghdadi Jew, Joseph Semah, moved to Bombay from Surat in 1730 and the first member of the Bene Israel community to move from the Konkan villages south of Bombay to the city arrived in 1746 part of the Divekar family. In 1796 Samuel Ezekiel Divekar (1730-1797) established "The Gate of Mercy" synagogue.
Less than 4,000 Jews live in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, and there are eight synagogues in the city. Today, the majority of Mumbai's Jews reside in Israel.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs a Jewish Community Center and has 500 members with classes on Hebrew and Judaism, holiday parties, youth discos and clubs for children and seniors. Also, there is an "ORT" (Organization for educational Resources and Technological training), an international Jewish organization with the mandate of helping impoverished Jews and which sells kosher wine, challah, chicken and baked goods.
Also, started in 2004 is the Hazon Eli Foundation for Jewish Life in India, based in Thane (a suburb of Mumbai where many younger Jewish families are moving to), to teach Torah, Hebrew and Jewish law to the suburban population. A Sunday school is run there for children under 13, which attracts about 25 students weekly.
In Mumbai, there is also the Jewish founded "Sir Jacob Sassoon High School" and "Sir Elly Kadoorie High School". Today there are only a handful of Jewish students left, but they once had Hebrew and Torah classes.
TERRORIST ATTACKS ON MUMBAI
Until the terrorist attacks on Mumbai of November 2008, the Mumbai Chabad House Jewish outreach center was at Nariman House, Hormusji Street. In the attack, six Jews were held hostage and murdered at the center, the 29-year-old Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his 28-year-old wife, Rivka, Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum , Bentzion Chroman , Yocheved Orpaz and Norma Shvarzblat-Rabinovich . The parents of Rivka Holtzberg have announced their intention to continue Chabad's emissary work in Mumbai, although the Chabad House may move to a new location in the city.
Mumbai Jews' ties with their city's Muslim community have historically been strong and remain so even after the Mumbai attacks. The two groups have been drawn together as minorities in a Hindu-dominated land – even by the similarities of their non-vegetarian diets of Kosher and Halal foods. "For these reasons, most Bene synagogues in Mumbai are in Muslim areas," Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, said. Mumbai's Muslim Council had ordered that the nine gunmen killed should not be buried in the city, a gesture which was highly appreciated by the Mumbai Jewish community.
(3) Cochin Jews, also called Malabar Jews, are of Mizrahi and Sephardi heritage. They are the oldest group of Jews in India, with possible roots claimed to date to the time of King Solomon. The Cochin Jews settled in the Kingdom of Cochin in South India, now part of the state of Kerala. As early as the 12th century, mention is made of the Black Jews in southern India. The Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, speaking of Kollam (Quilon) on the Malabar Coast, writes in his Itinerary: "...throughout the island, including all the towns thereof, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets, and to a small extent the Talmud and Halacha."These people later became known as the Malabari Jews. They built synagogues in Kerala beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries.They are known to have developed Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect of Malayalam language.
Following expulsion from Iberia in 1492 by the Alhambra Decree, a few families of Sephardic Jews eventually made their way to Cochin in the 16th century. They became known as Paradesi Jews (or Foreign Jews). The European Jews maintained some trade connections to Europe, and their language skills were useful. Although the Sephardim spoke Ladino (i.e. Spanish or Judeo-Spanish), in India they learned Judeo-Malayalam from the Malabar Jews. The two communities retained their ethnic and cultural distinctions. In the late 19th century, a few Arabic-speaking Jews, who became known as Baghdadi, also immigrated to southern India, and joined the Paradesi community.
After India gained its independence in 1947 and Israel was established as a nation, most Cochin Jews emigrated from Kerala to Israel in the mid-1950s. Most White Jews though preferred to migrate to Australia and other Commonwealth countries, as Anglo-Indians did. Most of their synagogues have been sold and adapted for other uses. The Paradesi synagogue still has a congregation and also attracts tourists as a historic sight. The synagogue at Chennamangalam was reconstructed in 2006. The one at Parur is currently being reconstructed.
Descendants of Cochin Jews have had their DNA analyzed. A 2009 DNA report states that "Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) and Indian Jews (Bene Israel and Cochini) [maternally] cluster with neighbouring autochthonous populations in Ethiopia and western India, respectively, despite a clear paternal link between the Bene Israel and the Levant."
(4) HOW NOT TO BE A JERK IN JEWISH INDIA
Wow, the ladies here wear saris to synagogue! Is that a Hindu influence?”
Nathaniel Jhirad, a 23-year-old Indian Jew in Mumbai’s Bene Israel community, hears this question a lot. Every time, he’s tempted to reply: “You wear skirts; that is not an ancient garment from the Mythical Land of Authentic Judaism!”
Jhirad’s fantasy riposte, told to me over a cup of coffee during my recent reporting trip to India , sounds jokey. But it gets at an issue that I’ve come to believe is the single hardest thing for Western Jews to grasp when visiting this country: 68 years after India gained independence from its British colonizers, many of us — including Jews — are still colonizing it.
The Jewish tourist’s kneejerk “Hindu influence!” response seems petty to Jhirad, because it assumes that Bene Israel customs betray outside influences, while the tourist’s own clothes/accent/behavior are real Judaism — pure, original, uninfluenced — as if there is such a thing. “They see the local accents,” Jhirad said, “but they don’t see that their own Hasidic Yiddish or Hebrew accents are no more authentic.”
Worse, foreign Jewish educators — from Chabad, Israel and elsewhere — sometimes parachute in and, with the best of intentions, ignore or even undermine local 2,000-year-old customs.
In synagogue, Jhirad sometimes feels they are trying to “overpower” his voice, literally and figuratively. Since the age of 13, he said, “I have been stopped physically on the bimah and told, ‘this is not the way you do the prayer.’ And I have to fend this off on my own.”
Asked if the foreign educators make enough of an effort to learn about Indian Jewish traditions, 23-year-old Leya Elias told me she has yet to see rabbis participating in Malida, the popular Bene Israel thanksgiving ceremony. “They say it’s not a Jewish custom.”
“But it’s been an important part of our culture here since so many years!” her friend, 24-year-old Nikita Worlikar, interjected. “If they want to get to know the Bene Israel, it would be nice for them to be part of something we do on a regular basis.” Then she added: “If tomorrow we come to your home and say, ‘Oh, you’re doing this wrong, this is not the custom of how to do it’ — it’s very rude.”
I heard similar comments from other Bene Israel Jews. JDC director Elijah Jacob recalled the time Chabad rabbis in nearby Pune brought alcohol into the synagogue — a big taboo in India — and tried to get the Jews there to drink; they were politely asked to leave and to take their vodka with them. Educator and kosher supervisor Sharon Galsurkar remembered an Israeli man decreeing at a Bene Israel meal that each person must recite a blessing over everything he or she eats — even though Indian Jewish custom dictates that only one person recites the blessing and everyone else just says “Amen.”
“These people have good influences,” Jhirad told me, “but they’re not leveraging the 2000-year-old Jewish history in India.”
When I asked Jhirad what it would look like for someone to properly leverage that history, he unhesitatingly delivered this five-part answer:
Attend the religious ceremonies of local Jews.
Ask educated locals about any practice that seems unfamiliar.
Find out how much the locals are able to connect that practice to a textual reference, halachic (Jewish legal) ruling, or historical event.
Keeping in mind the logic behind the practice, turn to existing halachic literature to find out if the practice squares with Jewish law.
Respectfully communicate the answer back to local Jews.
So, for example, a rabbi who notices Mumbai Jews removing their shoes before entering a synagogue shouldn’t scold them for breaking a prohibition against barefoot prayer, or assume that they’re copying their Hindu and Muslim neighbors. Instead, they should ask the locals about their rationale and do research before reporting back. Otherwise, Jhirad said, it’s just religious colonialism.
None of us are immune to this (often inadvertent) mistake. Even though my family comes from Mumbai, I myself fell prey to it. Taking a break from tracking down the source of my Indian Jewish family’s mystical rituals , I spent a day visiting first the Haji Ali mosque, then the Mahalaxmi temple, and finally the Sadhubella temple. Per the local custom, I took off my shoes at each site, until the soles of my feet got black.
So, when I later found Jews taking off their shoes at Shaar Harahamim synagogue, I assumed it was because they had absorbed their Hindu and Muslim neighbors’ custom.
But the Bene Israel told me otherwise. In separate interviews, both Jhirad and Jacob told me it’s a sign of extra respect shown at this synagogue because of its unique backstory . Both cited the biblical example of Moses taking off his shoes in front of the burning bush. Both said that this particular practice cannot be chalked up to Muslim or Hindu influence.
My first impulse was to doubt them, to argue back, to Jewsplain their own Jewish customs to them. I had to check that impulse. It wasn’t easy.
But who said it would be easy? The work of decolonializing our minds is hard; we don’t get a medal every time we succeed. We just get to not be that person — the person asking the eyeroll-inducing questions — the inadvertent colonialist.
Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history where they lived without any recorded anti-Semitism from the local majority populace, the Hindus. They have absorbed many local traditions through cultural diffusion. The Jewish population in India is hard to estimate as each community is distinct with different origins. Some allegedly arrived during the Kingdom of Judah while others claim to be descendants of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes. In addition there are recent immigrants.
Groups are Cochin Jews, Spanish and Portuguese Jews, Spanish and Portuguese , Bene Israel, Baghdadi Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim.