India’s Jews
April 19th, 2009 by Elijah

Indian Jews are a religious minority of India. Judaism was one of the first non-Dharmic religions to arrive in India in recorded history. 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; some arrived during the time of the Kingdom of Judah, others are seen by some as descendants of Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes. Of the total Jewish population in India, about half live in Manipur and Mizoram and a quarter live in the city of Mumbai. Unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without anti-Semitism from Hindus (though they were victims of anti-Semitism by the Portuguese and their Inquisition during their colonial rule in Goa). The Jews settled in Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar Coast, where they traded peacefully, until 1524 when their quarter was razed by invading Muslims. Jews have held important positions under Indian princes in the past and even after independence from British Rule, have risen to very high positions in government, military and industry.

In addition to Jewish expatriates and recent immigrants, there are five native Jewish communities in India:

The Cochin Jews arrived in India 2,500 years ago and settled down in Cochin, Kerala as traders.
The Bene Israel arrived in the state of Maharashtra 2,100 years ago.
The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city Mumbai from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and Arab countries about 250 years ago.
The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who claim descent from the tribe of Menasseh.
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 three longest-established Jewish communities, traders from Judea and Israel arrived in the city of Cochin, in what is now Kerala, 2,500 years ago. According to recordings by Jews, the date of the first arrival is given at 562 BC. Assimilated with the local population, the community built synagogues and colonies there. The synagogue in Cochin, is a protected heritage site and is a popular tourist destination although it actually does not belong to the Cochin Jews, but rather to Pardesi Jews. There are currently 53 practicing Cochin Jews left in Kerala, about 8000 now practice in Israel.

There are said to be 3 categories of Jews in Cochin; “white”, “brown” and “black”. They all claim to be exiles from Palestine from the year 70 C.E. It is believed that the “black” Jews (menucharim) came after the Islamist conquest of Persia in the 7th century and that the “white” Jews came from their expulsion from Spain in 1492 C.E.

An Indian Jewish family in Cochin, India, circa 1900

An Indian Jewish family in Cochin, India, circa 1900

The Bene Israel arrived 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just south of Mumbai. The families multiplied and integrated with the local Maharashtrian population adopting their language (Marathi), dress and food. They were nicknamed the shanivār telī (“Saturday oil-pressers”) by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays which is Judaism’s Shabbat. The Bene Israel claim a lineage to the Cohanim, which claims descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses. In 2002, a DNA test confirmed that the Bene Israel share the same heredity as the Cohanim. Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India. Mumbai had a thriving Bene Israel community until the 1950’s to 1960’s when many families from the community emigrated to the fledgeling state of Israel. 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.

The Baghdadi Jews are not exclusively of Iraqi origin: many came from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen as well. These Jews emigrated to India around 250 years ago and settled in the city of Mumbai. They were traders and quickly became one of the highest earning communities in the city. As philanthropists, some of them donated their wealth to public structures. The David Sassoon Docks and a Sassoon Library are some of the famous landmarks still standing today. As well as Mumbai, Baghdadi Jews spread to other parts of India, with an important community in Kolkata. This community did well in trade particularly jute and tea. In later years, contributed officers to the army with Lt-Gen J. F. R. Jacob PVSM, becoming state governor of Goa then Punjab and later administrator of Chandigarh.

The Bnei Menashe (“Children of Menasseh”) are a group of more than 9,000 people from India’s North-Eastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram who claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Linguistically, they are Tibeto-Burmans and belong to the Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples. They are called Chin in Burma. Depending upon their affiliations, each tribe refers to itself as Kuki, Mizo, Zomi or Chin. It is however more common for people to identify themselves by their subtribe, each of which has its own distinct dialect and identity. Claiming to be descendants of the Tribe of Manasseh, they have since been recognized by Israel as a lost tribe, and most have left, or plan to leave India and emigrate to Israel after undergoing a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. The breakaway Judaic group was named Bnei Menashe by Eliyahu Avichail because they believe that the legendary Kuki-Mizo ancestor Manmasi is one and the same with Menasseh, son of Joseph.

They have no written history but their legends refer to a beloved homeland they were driven away from called Sinlung/Chhinlung. Anthropologists and historians believe that it was located in China’s Yunnan province and that the Tibeto-Burman migration from there began about 6000 years ago. National Geographic’s Genographic Project plans to sample the gene pool of northeastern Indian tribes which may shed definitive light on their origins. The Bnei Menashe believe that the traditional Mizo-Kuki harvest festival song “Sikpui Hla (Sikpui Song)” which features events paralleled in the Book of Exodus, such as enemies chasing them over a red-coloured sea, quails, and a pillar of cloud is clear evidence of their Israelite ancestry. Translation of the lyrics: While we are preparing for the Sikpui Feast, The big red sea becomes divided; As we march along fighting our foes, We are being led by pillar of cloud by day,” And pillar of fire by night. Our enemies, O ye folks, are thick with fury, Come out with your shields and arrows. Fighting our enemies all day long, We march forward as cloud-fire goes before us. The enemies we fought all day long, The big sea swallowed them like wild beast. Collect the quails, And draw the water that springs out of the rock.’

The Bene Ephraim, (“Sons of Ephraim”) also called Telugu Jews because they speak Telugu, are a small community of Jews living primarily in Kottareddipalem, a village outside Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India, near the delta of the River Krishna. The Bene Ephraim claim to trace their observance of Judaism back to ancient times, and recount a history similar to that of the Bnei Menashe in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur: adoption of Christianity upon the arrival of Baptist missionaries around the beginning of the 19th century.

Since 1981, about fifty families around Kottareddipalem and Ongole (capital of the nearby district of Prakasham) have studied Judaism, learned Hebrew, and sought recognition from other Jewish communities around the world. Because of the very recent emergence of this community, and the current overwhelming emphasis on the use of Hebrew as a living language, rather than merely a liturgical language, the impact of Hebrew on the daily speech of this community has not led to the development, as yet, of a distinctly identifiable “Judæo-Telugu” language or dialect. The community has been visited over the years, by several groups of rabbis, who have thus far not seen fit to extend the same recognition to this community as that recently extended to the Bnei Menashe.

Delhi Jewry: Judaism in Delhi is primarily focused on the expatriate community who work in Delhi, as well Israeli diplomats and a small local community. Jewish life in Delhi centers around the Judah Hyam synagogue, which has services run by Ezekiel Isaac Malekar. In Paharganj, Chabad has set up a synagogue and religious center in a backpacker area regularly visited by Israeli tourists.

Bombay/Mumbai: Jews in India typically have not intermarried with gentiles. In recent years, however, Indian Jewish Rabbis such as Ezekiel Isaac Malekar have presided over inter-faith marriage. The majority of Indian Jews have “made Aaliyah” (migrated) to Israel since the creation of the modern state in 1948. A total of 75,000 Indian Jews now live in Israel (1.1% of the nation’s total population).

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One Response  
  • George Mathew writes:
    October 31st, 20108:40 pmat

    The Black Jews were only a few when they made Aliya to Israel during the 1950s and 60s. Large perecentage of them became the forefathers of today’s ‘Nazerenes’ of India. DNA testing at ‘Family Tree DNA – Houston’ has confirmed their Middle East Semitic heritate. Debbie Katz and Jacob Mankalathil has admin’s of ‘Cohen’ and ‘Syrian Christian DNA Project’ has confirmed the presense of sizable Cohen DNA amongst the Nazerenes who are also called ‘Suriyan’ or ‘Syrian Christians’.

    Editor’s Note: We suggest to contact Shavei Israel to verify the DNA aformentioned in the comment. Shavei Israel has done extensive research in this area and the related findings of lost or hidden Jews of the 12 tribes of their patriarch Jacob [Israel].

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