History of the Jews in Sri Lanka
Jews in Sri Lanka have had a presence on the island nation since at least the 9th century. In the 10th century, Abu Zeid al Hasan, an Arab Muslim traveller from Siraf, Persia, stated that there were ‘a great number of Jews’ in Serendib, as Sri Lanka was known to the Arabs.
In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela, a Sephardi Jew (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent) who was a medieval adventurer from Navarre, Spain, reported that there were 3,000 Jews in Sri Lanka.
These early Jews in Sri Lanka either assimilated into the local population over the centuries, or, upon the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century, were forced to abandon their faith and identity (leading to an assimilation in more recent centuries) or slaughtered in an extension of the Portuguese Inquisition.
Neither practising Jews, nor people who preserved a knowledge of being descendants of Jews, appear to have survived from that early period, although Jewish lineages may be present. Holders of the "de Fonseka" surname in Sri Lanka may be the mixed descendants of "de Fonseca" surnamed people, which is commonly associated with Sephardi Jewish origins. The other famous known Jewish origin descendents would be the "Alkegama's". Their history could also be traced back all the way down to the Colonial times in Ceylon.
The Vishwakarma (or Visvakarma) community is a caste/community comprising five sub-groups – carpenters, blacksmiths, bell metalworkers, goldsmiths and stonemasons. It is stated that the Tamils belonging to this caste have Jewish lineage. The goldsmiths or Thattars as they are known were money lenders to the rich and powerful and over time came to wield huge influences over Kings, Lords and State.
Due to their enormous wealth and power, The Tamil Thattar Jews were systematically killed as the state and its rulers deemed it a better option than pay back the money owed. Over time the Thattars assimilated in their brother/ sisters casts and their numbers dwindled. Less than 350 Jewish Thattars are estimated to exist today. Many prominent Tamil Jews have kept their lineage strong but in secret. It is stated that they still class themselves at Tamil Thattar Jews but due to persecution have kept it hidden and tend only to reveal to their fellow brothers.
Their rituals and practices have mixed Hindu and Jewish elements and this can be witnessed in their marriages but as the community slowly thins out the Hindu element has taken prominence over the Jewish.
Famous Jews in Sri Lanka
- Sir Sidney Abrahams, British-born Chief Justice.
- Rhoda Miller de Silva, American-born journalist and Communist (sister of Howard Fast).
- Jeanne Hoban Moonesinghe, British-born journalist, Trade Unionist and Trotskyist (Jewish maternal grandfather)
- Edith Gyömrői Ludowyk, Hungarian-born psychoanalyst, feminist and historian of Buddhism.
- Ven Nyanaponika Thera, (Siegmund Feniger ) German-born Sri-Lanka-ordained Theravada Buddhist monk, co-founder of the Buddhist Publication Society
- Anne Ranasinghe, German-born poet.
- Hedi Stadlen Keuneman, Austrian-born musician and Communist.
- Bella Sidney Woolf, British-born author, writer of the first pocket guide book to Sri Lanka, wife of Wilfrid Thomas Southorn, sister of Leonard Woolf.
- Leonard Woolf, British-born political theorist, author and civil servant, husband of Virginia Woolf.
- Baron Solomon Benedict de Worms (1801–1882), oversaw large plantations in Sri Lanka with his brothers Maurice and Gabriel.
- Gabriel Benedict de Worms (1802–1881), German-born planter, candidate for the Legislative Council of Ceylon, brother of Maurice Worms, nephew of Nathan Meyer Rothschild.
- Maurice Benedict de Worms (1805–1867), German-born planter, established Rothschild Estate in Sri Lanka, brought first tea plants to Sri Lanka from China, brother of Gabriel Worms, nephew of Nathan Meyer Rothschild.
- Harris, Andrew (9 June 2011). "Secrets of Ceylon: What Happened to the Jews of Sri Lanka?". eJewish Philanthropy. Retrieved 22 March 2015.
- William D. Rubinstein (ed.), The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011