Bene Israel

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Bene Israel
בני ישראל
बेने इस्राएल
Israeli Bene Israel.jpg
Bene Israel
Regions with significant populations
 India> 5,000
Traditionally, Judeo-Marathi;
those in Israel, mostly Hebrew
English and Marathi[1][2]
Related ethnic groups
Bukharan Jews, Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews, Konkani people & Marathi people

The Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel", also the "Shanivar Teli" caste (Saturday Oil Presser caste) or "Native Jew Caste")[3] are a community of Jews in India. It has been suggested[4] that it is made up of descendants of one of the disputed Lost Tribes and ancestors who had settled there centuries ago. In the 19th century, after the people were taught about normative (Ashkenazi Jews/Sephardi Jews) Judaism, they tended to migrate from villages in the Konkan area[5] to the nearby cities, primarily Mumbai,[4] but also to Pune, Ahmedabad, India; and Karachi, in today's Pakistan.[6] Many gained positions with the British colonial authority of the period.

In the early part of the twentieth century, many Bene Israel became active in the new film industry, as actresses and actors, producers and directors. After India gained its independence in 1947, and Israel was established in 1948, most Bene Israel emigrated to Israel, Canada and other Commonwealth countries and the United States.


Bene Israel teachers of the Free Church of Scotland's Mission School and the Jewish English School in Bombay, 1856

According to the Bene Israel tradition, they arrived in India sometime in the first or second century when their ancestors were shipwrecked in western India while on a trading voyage to the far east.[7] On the other hand, some historians have thought their ancestors may have belonged to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel,[8][9] but the Bene Israel have never been officially recognized by Jewish authorities as such. After migrating to India the Bene Israel gradually assimilated to the people around them, while keeping some Jewish customs.[10] The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides mentioned in a letter that there was a Jewish community living in India: he may have been referring to the Bene Israel.[11]

At a point in history which is uncertain, an Indian Jew from Cochin named David Rahabi discovered the Bene Israel in their villages and recognized their vestigial Jewish customs.[12] Rahabi taught the people about normative Judaism. He trained some young men among them to be the religious preceptors of the community.[13] Known as Kajis, these men held a position that became hereditary, similar to the Cohanim. They became recognized as judges and settlers of disputes within the community.[14]

Bene Israel tradition places Rahabi's arrival at either 1000 or 1400, although some historians have dated his arrival to the 18th century. They suggest that the "David Rahabi" of Bene Israel folklore was a man named David Ezekiel Rahabi, who lived from 1694 to 1772, and resided in Cochin, then the center of the wealthy Malabar Jewish community.[15][16][17] Others suggest that the reference is to David Baruch Rahabi, who arrived in Bombay from Cochin in 1825.[18]

It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s; 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century; and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000.[19] Since that time, most of the population has emigrated to Israel.

Under British colonial rule, many Bene Israel rose to prominence in India[citation needed]. They were less affected than other Indians by the racially discriminatory policies of the British colonists, considered somewhat outside the masses[citation needed]. They gained higher, better paying posts in the British Army when compared with their non-Jewish neighbours.[10] Some of these enlistees with their families later joined the British in the British Protectorate of Aden.[20] In the 19th century, the Bene Israel did however meet with hostility from the newly anglicized Baghdadi Jews who considered the Bene Israel to be "Indian". They also questioned the Jewishness of the community. In response, the Bene Israel educator and historian, Haeem Samuel Kehimkar, spearheaded the defence of the Jewishness of the Bene Israel in the late 1800s. In his writings, he tried to portray the Bene Israel as a totally foreign community in India. He also divided the community into two endogamous groups, white (gora) and black (kala). He claimed the whites had pure blood and the blacks were the progeny of Indian women and therefore impure.[21][22]

In the early twentieth century, numerous Bene Israel became leaders in the new film industry in India. In addition, men worked as producers and actors: Ezra Mir (alias Edwin Myers) (1903-1993) became the first chief of Films Division of India, and Solomon Moses was head of the Bombay Film Lab Pvt Ltd from the 1940s to 1990s.[23] Ennoch Isaac Satamkar was a film actor and assistant director to Mehboob Khan, a director of Hindi films.[24]

Given their success under the British colonial government, many Bene Israel prepared to leave India at independence in 1947. They believed that nationalism and the emphasis on indigenous religions would mean fewer opportunities for them. Most emigrated to Israel,[25] which was newly established in 1948 as a Jewish homeland.[26][27]

Life in Israel[edit]

Between 1948 and 1952, some 2,300 Bene Israel immigrated to Israel.[28] In India, the Bene Israel and other Jews lived in urban areas, however in Israel they were settled into development towns.[29] Several rabbis refused to marry Bene Israel to other Jews, on grounds that they were not legitimate Jews under Orthodox law. Between 1952 and 1954, following sit-down protests and hunger strikes by Bene Israel demanding to be sent back to India, the Jewish Agency repatriated 337 members of the Bene Israel community to India, though most eventually returned to Israel years later.[30][31]

In 1962, authorities in Israel were accused by articles in the Indian press of racism towards the Bene Israel.[32][33] In the case that caused the controversy, the Chief Rabbi of Israel ruled that before registering a marriage between Indian Jews and Jews not belonging to that community, the registering rabbi should investigate the lineage of the Indian applicant for possible non-Jewish descent, and in case of doubt, require the applicant to perform conversion or immersion.[32][33] The alleged discrimination may actually be related to the fact that some religious authorities believed that the Bene Israel were not fully Jewish because of inter-marriage during their long separation.[34] Between 1962 and 1964, the Bene Israel community staged protests against the religious policy. In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate ruled that the Bene Israel are "full Jews in every respect".[25][35]

The Report of the High Level Commission on the Indian Diaspora (2012) reviewed life in Israel for the Bene Israel community. It noted that the city of Beersheba in Southern Israel has the largest community of Bene Israel, with a sizable one in Ramla. They have a new kind of transnational family.[36] Generally the Bene Israel have not been politically active and have been of modest means. They have not formed continuing economic connections to India and have limited political status in Israel. The community despite being in Israel for many generations has maintained many of their traditions from India such as Malida and wedding rituals such as mehndi.[37] Jews of Indian origin are generally regarded as Sephardic; they have become well integrated religiously with the Sephardhim community in Israel.[38]

Religiously, the Bene Israel adopted the devotional singing style Kirtan from their Marathi Hindu neighbors. A popular Kirtan is one based on the Story of Joseph.[39] Their main traditional musical instruments are the Indian Harmonium and the Bulbul tarang.[40]

Migration to other countries[edit]

Members of Bene Israel also settled in Britain,[41] and North America, mostly in Canada.[42]

Notable people[edit]

  • Reuben Dhondji Ashtumkar, (1820–after 1877) Bene Israel soldier who fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857
  • Firoza Begum (actress) (born as Susan Solomon), actor in India in the 1920s and 1930s[23]
  • David Abraham Cheulkar (1908–1982), actor in India better known as David, he starred in Boot Polish (1954) and sang (on screen) "Nanhe Munne Bachche."[23]
  • Reuben David (1912–89), zoologist, founder of Kankaria Zoo, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, father of Esther David
  • Esther David (1945–), writer and critic, daughter of Reuben David
  • Fleur Ezekiel, model and former Miss World India
  • Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), poet[43]
  • Eban Hyams (born 1981), Indian-born Australian professional basketball player
  • Jerusha Jhirad (1890–1984), the first female Indian Jewish physician and a distinguished gynaecologist[44]
  • Ezra Mir alias Edwin Myers (1903–1993), producer, the first chief of India's Film Division, called the Information Films of India under British rule; noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the producer of the largest number of documentaries and short films."[23]
  • Benjamin Abraham Samson, Indian Navy Admiral
  • Leela Samson (1951–), dancer, choreographer, and actress

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Roland, Joan G. (2018). Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Routledge.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Fischel, Walter (1970). "Bombay in Jewish History in the Light of New Documents from the Indian Archives". Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research. 38/39: 119–144. doi:10.2307/3622356. JSTOR 3622356.
  4. ^ a b Weil, Shalva (2010). "Bombay". In Stillman, Norman A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Leiden: Brill.
  5. ^ Weil, Shalva (1981). The Jews from the Konkan: the Bene Israel Community of India. Tel-Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth.
  6. ^ Weil, Shalva (2008). "The Jews of Pakistan". In Erlich, M. Avrum (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora. Santa Barbara, USA: ABC CLIO.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Weil, Shalva (2013). "Jews of India and Ten Lost Tribes". In Patai, Raphael; Itzhak, Haya Bar (eds.). Jewish Folklore and Traditions: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO.
  9. ^ Neubauer, A. (1868). Géographie du Talmud (in French). Paris: Michel Lévy Frères. p. 386., who wrote: "The Bané Israel, a Jewish tribe in India, claim, we have said, to descend from the ten tribes; this tradition deserves serious examination." (End Quote)
  10. ^ a b Weil, Shalva (2009) [2002]. "Bene Israel Rites and Routines". In Weil, Shalva (ed.). India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle (3rd ed.). Mumbai: Marg Publications. pp. 78–89.
  11. ^ Roland JG (1998) The Jewish communities of India: identity in a colonial era. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers
  12. ^ Weil, Shalva (1994). "Yom Kippur: the Festival of Closing the Doors". In Goodman, Hananya (ed.). Between Jerusalem & Benares: Comparative Studies in Judaism & Hinduism. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 85–100.
  13. ^ Weil, Shalva (1996). "Religious Leadership vs. Secular Authority: the Case of the Bene Israel". Eastern Anthropologist. 49 (3–4): 301–316.
  14. ^ Sohoni, Pushkar; Robbins, Kenneth X. (2017). Jewish Heritage of the Deccan: Mumbai, the northern Konkan, Pune. Mumbai: Deccan Heritage Foundation; Jaico. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-93-86348-66-1.
  15. ^ "David Ezekiel Rahabi (Jewish-Indian leader)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10 March 2013.
  16. ^ "Bene Israel". Retrieved 10 March 2013.
  17. ^ Shalva, Weil (2002). "Cochin Jews". In Ember, Carol R.; Ember, Melvin; Skoggard, Ian (eds.). Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 78–80.
  18. ^ Haeem Samuel Kehimkar, The History of the Bene-Israel of India (ed. Immanuel Olsvanger), Tel-Aviv : The Dayag Press, Ltd.; London : G. Salby 1937, p. 66
  19. ^ Weil, Shalva. "The Bene Israel of India". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
  20. ^ Saphir, Yaakov (1968). Even Sapir (in Hebrew). 1. Jerusalem. p. 217.
  21. ^ Numark, Mitch (2001). "Constructing a Jewish Nation in Colonial India: History, Narratives of Discent, and the Vocabulary of Modernity". Jewish Social Studies. 7 (2): 89–113. doi:10.2979/JSS.2001.7.2.89. Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  22. ^ Yulia Egorova (5 September 2018). Jews and Muslims in South Asia: Reflections on Difference, Religion, and Race. Oxford University Press. pp. 36–40. ISBN 978-0-19-985624-4.
  23. ^ a b c d Menon, Harish C. (14 December 2005). "Jews, the lost tribe of Indian Cinema". IndiaGlitz.
  24. ^ Religion and Society. Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, Vol. 38 - India. 1991.|pages=53|note=Reference notes him as Ennoch Isaac Satamkar
  25. ^ a b Weil, Shalva (2008). "Jews in India". In Erlich, M. Avrum (ed.). Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Diaspora. Santa Barbara, USA: ABC CLIO.
  26. ^ Roland, Joan G. (1989). Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover: University Press of New England. pp. 34–35.
  27. ^ Weil, Shalva (2005). "Motherland and Fatherland as Dichotomous Diasporas: the Case of the Bene Israel". In Anteby, Lisa; Berthomiere, William; Sheffer, Gabriel (eds.). Les Diasporas 2000 ans d'histoire. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes. pp. 91–99.
  28. ^ Weil, Shalva. (2000) India, The Larger Immigrations from Eastern Countries, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute and the Ministry of Education. (Hebrew)
  29. ^ Rajendra Madhukar Abhyankar (2008). West Asia and the Region: Defining India's Role. Academic Foundation. pp. 196–197. ISBN 978-81-7188-616-6.
  30. ^ Weil, Shalva (2011). "Bene Israel". In Baskin, Judith (ed.). Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  31. ^ Bryan K. Roby (4 December 2015). The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel's Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle 1948-1966. Syracuse University Press. pp. 116–120. ISBN 978-0-8156-5345-5.
  32. ^ a b Abramov, S. Zalman, Perpetual dilemma: Jewish religion in the Jewish State, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1976, p. 277-278
  33. ^ a b Smooha, Sammy, Israel: pluralism and conflict, University of California Press, 1978, p. 400-401
  34. ^ How Do the Issues in the Conversion Controversy Relate to Israel?. Retrieved on 2010-12-16.
  35. ^ Uzi Rebhun; Chaim Isaac Waxman (2004). Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns. UPNE. pp. 230–231. ISBN 978-1-58465-327-1.
  36. ^ Weil, Shalva (2012). "The Bene Israel Indian Jewish Family in Transnational Context". Journal of Comparative Family Studies. 43 (1): 71–80. doi:10.3138/jcfs.43.1.71.
  37. ^ Manfred Hutter (17 July 2013). Between Mumbai and Manila: Judaism in Asia since the Founding of the State of Israel (Proceedings of the International Conference, held at the Department of Comparative Religion of the University of Bonn. May 30, to June 1, 2012). V&R Unipress. pp. 21–28, 31. ISBN 978-3-8470-0158-4.
  38. ^ "Report of the High Level Commission on the Indian Diaspora" (PDF). Indian Diaspora. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 October 2010. Retrieved 29 April 2010.
  39. ^ Judith Cohen: Jüdische Musik. IV: Östliche Diaspora (14.–19. Jahrhundert). 3. Orientalische Gemeinden. b. Indien (Bene Israel, Cochin). In: MGG Online, November 2016
  40. ^ Rina Krut Moskovich: The Role of Music in the Liturgy of Emigrant Jews from Bombay: The Morning Prayer for the Three Festivals. In: Asian Music, Bd. 17, Nr. 2 (Music in the Ethnic Communities of Israel) Frühjahr–Sommer 1986, S. 88–107, hier S. 90
  41. ^ Weil, S. 1974 'Bene Israel in Britain', New Community 3(1-2): 87–91.
  42. ^ Henry, Michele (2 April 2015). "Passover a spicy affair for Toronto's Indian Jews | The Star". Toronto Star. Retrieved 3 June 2019.
  43. ^ Joffe, Lawrence (9 March 2004). "Obituary: Nissim Ezekiel". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  44. ^ "Bene Israel | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved 14 August 2019.

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