Who Are the Jews of India? by Nathan Katz
Of all the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the Indian Jews were among the oldest and perhaps the most interesting. They adjusted without assimilating within the larger culture and were not persecuted in any way by the majority Hindu community. Nathan Katz's book, "Who Are the Jews of India?" is an in-depth account of the history of Indian Jews. For those who are interested in learning about this once tiny (now fast disappearing) but influential community, Katz's book will be a rich source of information. Attractive black and white photographs accompany the text.
Within a year of each other, India gained independence from Britain and Israel was established as a Jewish state. After these two events, the majority of Indian Jews left for Israel, UK, Australia and other places. Despite the presence of some prominent Jews on the Indian cultural scene of my youth (poet Nissim Ezekiel, actors David Abraham and Nadira, cartoonist Abu Abraham) and a Jewish distant cousin in my family, I never paid much attention to the history and heritage of Indian Jews until much later. Actually, not until I became acquainted with Jews in America.
To paraphrase historian Bernard Lewis, Judaism flourished in Europe and the Islamic world not inspite of but BECAUSE of the hostility of the Christian and the Muslim hosts (Christians being much more brutal than Muslims). Lewis concludes that it was the fear and the adversity of living as a beleaguered minority that lent vibrancy to Judaism and its scholarship in Europe and the middle east. He goes on to assert that in China and India, two countries where Jews were welcome and remained unmolested by the majority culture, Judaism atrophied and assimilated into the host culture. Katz argues the opposite - that it was precisely the welcome and respect accorded to Indian Jews that enabled them to continue being fully observant Jews while being respectful of the host nation's religions and culture. According to Katz, "Indian Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host community. Then, when twentieth century conditions permitted they returned en masse to Israel, which they had always proclaimed to be their true home despite India's hospitality. The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora." Whatever the truth, Nathan Katz paints India as an idyllic and tranquil haven within the turbulent and sometimes tragic Jewish history - somewhat like the present day USA.
(Synagogue in Cochin, India. More photos here)
Jews arrived in India in three distinct waves. The exact date of the earliest arrival is murky, wrapped as it is in several myths and legends. The date goes back to as early as the destruction of the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to the 2nd century A.D. The second influx is thought to have occured around the 10th century A.D and the last one in the 1800's. Three culturally distinct communities of Indian Jews arose around these separate groups of immigrants.
The Bene Israel (sons of Israel): The earliest arrivals on the Konkani coast of western India close to Bombay, the Bene Israel, a peasant community, practiced a vestigial, attenuated form of Judaism and did not even call themselves Jews. They knew they had arrived from outside India but could not recall from where. That they were different from the surrounding communities of Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians (Parsis), was clear only from a few unique observances the significance of which the Bene Israels could not explain. Without knowing why, they rested from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, circumcised their boys on the eighth day after birth and called their prayer Shema. In fact their Judaism was recognized by Christian missonaries and other Jews probably around the 18th century when the name Bene Israel was bestowed on them. Up until then, mostly employed in the business of pressing oil, they were known as "Shaniwari Telis" or "Saturday Oil Pressers" - not because they pressed oil on Saturdays but because they fastidiously avoided doing so. On Saturdays, their Hindu neighbors tended to their cattle because the Bene Israelis would not leave their homes to do any farm chores. Thus, according to Katz, "the Shabbat kept the Jew rather than the Jew keeping the Shabbat."
The Cochin Jews: The most integrated of Indian Jews, this group arrived in Kerala, a coastal state in south west India sometime in the 10th or the 11th century. The Cochin Jews became prosperous landowners, businessmen, influential with the local rulers and fully aware of and conversant in their Jewish heritage. They built the first synagogue in India. The beautiful Cochin synagogue which was built next door to a Hindu temple, is to this day a tourist attraction. Scrupulously observant of Judaism in their private and public lives, it is interesting to note how the Cochin Jews emphasized certain beliefs and invented practices to mirror the religious beliefs of their Hindu hosts. For example, they introduced a tradition of circumnavigating the synagogue with the Rabbi carrying the torah and the congregation following in a procession, much as the Hindus do around a temple with offerings for the residing deity. They may even have practiced a form of caste system by limiting social intercourse between dark and fair skinned members of their community. The Jews of Kerala did not think of themselves as anything but Indians. They served the Maharajahs, the British and then participated in India's freedom movement like most other Indian communities.
The Baghdadi Jews: This last group arrived in India from the end of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century, mostly from Iraq but also from several other countries such as Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Afghanistan and also Iran to avoid persecution by Muslim rulers in that region. This Arabic and Persian speaking group of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews was collectively known as the Baghdadi Jews. Unlike the previous two communities, the Baghdadi Jews considered themselves subjects of the British Raj rather than Indians. They never fully integrated into mainstream Indian society, remaining aloof, choosing to interact with Indians only for business dealings. They built schools, synagogues, hospitals and cemeteries to service only Baghdadi Jews. Considering themselves more authentic and a better class of Jews, their treatment of the other two older Indian Jewish communities, especially the Bene Israels was harsh and quite contemptuous. In fact the Baghdadis may have practiced the first real brand of Jewish "caste system" in India. Based primarily in Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta and Rangoon (Yangon), many Baghdadis had been wealthy businessmen in their original homelands. In India they started with import and export with the middle east, Turkey and Europe. Later, they expanded their trade to the east into Burma, Malaya, Singapore, China and even Japan. The Baghdadi Jews dealt with merchandize as diverse as carpets, gems, textile and opium. In fact, the first big money made in India by the most famous Baghdadi Jewish family, the Sassoons of Bombay, was by acting as procurers of opium for the British government which was at that time conducting its notorious opium war in China. The Sassoon family later became very, very wealthy by diversifying into real estate and textile mills. Their vast wealth earned them the name of "Rothschilds of the east." Baghdadi Jews built some grand and ornate synagogues in Bombay, Calcutta and Pune. It was this newly arrived Jewish group's steadfast allegiance to the British Crown rather than to India, that may have soured Indian - Jewish relations somewhat during India's freedom movement. At the time of India's independence in 1947 and the creation of Israel in 1948, the Indian Jews for the first time felt conflicted about their "homeland." Most chose Israel and the exodus of Jews from India was nearly complete by the 1950's. The number of Indian Jews in India is now very small and consists mostly of elderly members.
Fast forward to the late twentieth and the early twenty first century. Although India formally recognized Israel in 1950, the two countries established full diplomatic relations only in 1992. Israel has a soft spot for India because of the happy history of the Jews of India. Now the two countries are quite close although India must walk a tight rope to keep its friends in the Islamic world reassured that friendship with Israel does not compromise older alliances. Right wing fanatics in both countries would like precisely that - a well armed hostile Indo- Israeli coalition against Muslims - a dangerous alliance by any measure.
A light hearted aside on the new India - Israel lovefest. Israelis are justifiably thrilled to have found a large friendly nation in that part of the world which welcomes them and also offers some spectacular tourism experience. Nowadays, many Indian cities and small towns are awash with Israelis, especially the young who arrive in throngs for much needed R&R at the end of their compulsory military service. In areas popular with the Israelis, many shopkeepers and hotel employees speak smatterings of Hebrew and Internet Cafes offer Hebrew keyboards. Visiting Israeli military and government officials declare expansively that in India they have found one billion members of the lost tribe of Israel !
Note: A charming first person account of growing up Jewish in India is "Hooghly Tales" by Sally Solomon, a Baghdadi Jew of Calcutta.