History of the Jews in India

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For Van Gogh album, see Hodi (album).
A map of India, showing the main areas of Jewish concentration.

The history of the Jews in India reaches back to ancient times.[1][2]

Judaism was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] In addition to Jewish expatriates[6] and recent immigrants, there are five Jewish groups in India:

  1. 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.[7]
  2. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews and British arrived at Madras during the 17th century, mainly as Traders and Diamond Businessmen.[8] They also had a large presence in the Portuguese colony of Goa, where the Goan Inquisition was initiated.[9]
  3. The Bene Israel arrived in the state of Maharashtra 900 years ago.[10]
  4. The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Mumbai from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Arab countries about 250 years ago.[2]
  5. The Bnei Menashe are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram who are recent converts to Judaism.[11]
  6. The Bene Ephraim (also called "Telugu Jews") are a small group who speak Telugu; their observance of Judaism dates to 1981.

Cochin Jews[edit]

Main article: Cochin Jews

The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities is in Cochin.[12][13] 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.[14] 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.[14]

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",[15] is contentious. The plates themselves provide a date of 379 CE, but in 1925 tradition was setting it as 1069 CE,[16] 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".[17] 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".[18][19] 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 sixteenth century.

In Mala, Thrissur District, the Malabar Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery, as well as in Chennamangalam, Parur and Ernakulam.[20]

Bene Israel[edit]

Main article: Bene Israel
Bene Israel women and children inside the Synagogue of Ahmedabad.

The Bene Israel claim that their ancestors arrived 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just south of Mumbai.[citation needed] They were nicknamed the shanivār telī ("Saturday oil-pressers") by the local population as they abstained from work on Saturdays, Judaism's Shabbat. 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 fledgeling state of Israel. The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel.[21] 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.[22]

Bombay/Mumbai[edit]

South Asian Jews & Baghdadi Jews[edit]

Geographic distribution of Iranian languages, including Judeo-Persian languages
Main article: Baghdadi Jews
Main article: Uzbek Jews
Knesset Eliyahoo, a 150 year old Jewish Synagogue in Fort, Mumbai, India

Despite the name, the Baghdadi Jews and South Asian Jews are not exclusively of Iraqi origin; many came from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria. The Jews from South Asia are referred to come from the Iranian and Indian plateau and Iraq attached to the Iranian plateau. Afghan Jews from Herat til 1947, 40.000 Jews counted as Asian Jews. Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan, In 1970 around 103,058 Jews and 94,900 Jews in Uzbekistan in 1989 counted as South Asian Jews who have changed from a Bukharan, Uzbek ethnicity to Ashkenazi when moving to Israel or USA. Same for others Jews from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Syria Jews are also counted first as Asian Jews and then changed in to Ashkenazi Jews. The Tajik Jews where counted as 1989 as 14,836 and the Dushanbe synagogue has been used often. Yemen Jews can be count as/ or Middle East Jews or Jews from neighbouring area Asia.

Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand. Photograph taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky sometime between 1909 and 1915.

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.


Bnei Menashe[edit]

Main article: Bnei Menashe

The Bnei Menashe are a group of more than 9,000 people from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur[11] 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.[23]

Bene Ephraim[edit]

Main article: Bene Ephraim

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.

They were few families in Andhra Pradesh who follow Judaism. Many among them follow the customs those followed by Orthodox Jews like hair customs of having unshaved long side locks, having head covering all the time etc.,

Delhi Jewry[edit]

Judaism in Delhi is primarily focused on the expatriate community who work in Delhi, as well 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.

Chennai[edit]

Jews also settled in Madras (now Chennai) soon after its founding in 1640.[24] Most of them were coral merchants from England who were of Portuguese origin and belonged to the Paiva or Porto families.[24] In 1688, there were three Jewish representatives in the Madras Corporation.[24] Most Jewish settlers resided in the Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet.[24] They also had a cemetery in the neighbouring Peddanaickenpet.[24] The Jewish population in Madras began to dwindle at the turn of the 18th century and it is not known whether there are any Jews still residing in the city. The last of the tombstones in the cemetery date to 1997.[24]

Today[edit]

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). 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.

Notable Indian Jews[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities by Orpa Slapak. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 2003. ISBN 965-278-179-7.
  2. ^ a b Weil, Shalva.India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle. Mumbai: Marg Publications [first published in 2002; 3rd edn.]. 2009.
  3. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Indian Judaic Tradition" in Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby (eds) Religions in South Asia, London: Palgrave Publishers, 2006. pp. 169-183.
  4. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Bene Israel Rites and Routines" in Shalva Weil (ed.) India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2009. [first published in 2002; 3Arts, 54(2): 26-37.
  5. ^ Weil, Shalva. (1991) "Beyond the Sambatyon: the Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes." Tel-Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.
  6. ^ Weil, Shalva. "From Persecution to Freedom: Central European Jewish Refugees and their Jewish Host Communities in India" in Anil Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt (eds) Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945, New Delhi: Manohar and Max Mueller Bhavan,1999. pp. 64-84.
  7. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Cochin Jews", in Judith Baskin (ed.) Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. pp. 107.
  8. ^ "Madras Jews
  9. ^ http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/A-Jewish-past-annihilated-over-time/articleshow/29680724.cms
  10. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Bene Israel'" in Judith Baskin (ed.) Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. pp. 59.
  11. ^ a b Weil, Shalva. "Lost Israelites from North-East India: Re-Traditionalisation and Conversion among the Shinlung from the Indo-Burmese Borderlands." The Anthropologist, 2004. 6(3): 219-233.
  12. ^ The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities by Orpa Slapak. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 2003. p. 27. ISBN 965-278-179-7.
  13. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Cochin Jews," in Carol R. Ember, Melvin Ember and Ian Skoggard (eds) Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement, New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002. pp. 78-80.
  14. ^ a b Schreiber, Mordecai (2003). The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia. Rockville, MD: Schreiber Publishing. p. 125. ISBN 1887563776. 
  15. ^ Burnell, Indian Antiquary, iii. 333–334
  16. ^ Katz, Nathan (2000). Who are the Jews of India?. University of California Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780520213234. 
  17. ^ taken from WP article on Rabban, which appears to rely on Ken Blady's book Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000. pp. 115–130. Weil, Shalva. "Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: the Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala." Contributions to Indian Sociology, 1982. 16(2): 175-196.
  18. ^ Three years in America, 1859–1862 (p. 59, p. 60) by Israel Joseph Benjamin
  19. ^ Roots of Dalit history, Christianity, theology, and spirituality (p. 28) by James Massey, I.S.P.C.K.
  20. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Where are Cochin Jews today? The Synagogues of Kerala, India." Cochinsyn.com, Friends of Kerala Synagogues. 2011.
  21. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Religious Leadership vs. Secular Authority: the Case of the Bene Israel." Eastern Anthropologist, 1996. 49(3- 4): 301-316.
  22. ^ Who are the Jews of India? - The S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. University of California Press. 2000. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-520-21323-4. ; "When the Portuguese arrived in 1498, they brought a spirit of intolerance utterly alien to India. They soon established an Office of Inquisition at Goa, and at their hands Indian Jews experienced the only instance of antisemitism ever to occur in Indian soil."
  23. ^ "More than 7,200 Indian Jews to immigrate to Israel". The Times Of India. September 27, 2011. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f Muthiah, S. (2004). Madras Rediscovered. East West Books (Madras) Pvt Ltd. p. 125. ISBN 81-88661-24-4. 
  25. ^ http://www.estherdavid.com/reubendavid.html
  26. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Esther David: The Bene Israel Novelist who Grew Up with a Tiger" in David Shulman and Shalva Weil (eds) Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship on India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008. pp. 232-253.

Further reading[edit]

  • India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook Isenberg, Shirley Berry; Berkeley: Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1988
  • Indian Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle Dr. Shalva Weil (ed). Mumbai: Marg Publications, 3rd ed. 2009
  • Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century: A Perspective from the Margin, Katz N., Chakravarti, R., Sinha, B. M. and Weil, S., New York and Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007
  • Karmic Passages: Israeli Scholarship on India,Shulman, D. and Weil, S. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.2008

External links[edit]