Indian Jews get spoken about only when the Head of State/Government of India or Israel call on each other. People are largely unaware of the Jewish presence in the country. With most Jews having undertaken “Aliyah” (“return to the promised land of Israel”) after the ‘State of Israel’ was formed in 1948, today they number just 5,000 or so in a population of 1.3 billion in India. However, they left their mark with their presence as administrators, businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers, actors, writers, army men, etc. As of 2017, ‘Indian-origin Jews’ constitute around 85,000 or 1% of the population of Israel. India is one of the only countries where the Jews have not faced ‘Anti-Semitism’ (except during the 26/11/2008 terrorist attack at the Chabad House in Mumbai). A few interesting facts about the Jewish presence in India:
[Note: The first 4 are the major (ancient/historical) and the next 2 are the minor (recent/debatable) Jewish communities in India]
- Cochin/Malabar Jews: These ‘first Jews of India’ are believed to have arrived as King Solomon’s merchants (reign: 970BC to 931BC) around 3,000 years ago making Judaism’s presence in India as old as that of Buddhism and Jainism. (Some historians peg their date of arrival from the ‘Kingdom of Judah’ at 562BC). More Jews are said to have come in another wave a millennium later when the ‘Second Temple’ of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD. These Malabari ‘Black Jews’ spoke a language known as ‘Judeo-Malayalam’, a mixture of old Hebrew and Malayalam.
- Bene-Israeli Jews: These are the ‘Marathi-speaking Jews’ around Mumbai/Konkan whose ancestors arrived in a shipwreck near Alibaug 1600-1800 years ago. Their integration into the dominant culture of Maharashtra runs deep. They adopted the Marathi language as their own and have clung on to it even after migrating to Israel from the 1950s. A Marathi newspaper circulates within the community in Israel. They wear the local Maharashtrian dress and tie the mangal sutrain weddings. Some who had made Karachi their home fled to Bombay after the Partition in 1947. At their peak, they numbered around 20,000 in 1948. Half of India’s Jewish population today (around 2,500) belongs to this community and stays in and around Mumbai.
- Madras Jews: These ‘Sephardic Jews’ (‘White Jews’/‘Pardesi Jews’ as they came to be known in South India) were expelled from Iberia (Spain & Portugal) as per the ‘Alhambra Decree’ after Iberia’s complete ‘re-conquest’ by the Catholic monarchs from the Muslim powers in 1492. Some of them made their way to Madras in the 16th century. They spoke a unique language ‘Ladino’ (‘Judeo-Spanish’). They came into contact with the already existing ‘Black Jews’ of Cochin and learnt Tamil and Judeo-Malayalam from them. Some Sephardic Jews had reached Goa and met with the Bene-Israelis that had long established themselves there– both groups had to flee the ‘Goa Inquisition’ that commenced in the mid-1500s. Today, the Sephardic Jews are scattered around the world. In 2014, the Governments of Spain and Portugal decided to confer citizenship on the descendants of this Jewish community.
- Baghdadi Jews: During the latter part of the Mughal rule, this ‘Judeo-Arabic’ speaking ‘Mizrahi’ merchant community arrived at Surat from Iraq and other Arab countries. They settled in the two major British-controlled port cities of Calcutta and Bombay. After the First World War, they gradually grew less Middle Eastern and more European in custom, adopted English while discarding Arabic as their main language, turned to the Sephardic Rabbi of Britain over the Baghdadi ones for religious guidance and a section turned towards ‘Zionism’ whose movement was being led by the Jewish community of North America and Western Europe at that time.
- Bene-Ephraim Jews: This Telugu speaking Jewish community claims ancestry to the ‘Tribe of Ephraim’ (one of the ‘12 lost tribes of Israel’). Their arrival to India is unclear. They did not practise Judaism for centuries but still observed many traditions unknowingly. From the 1980s, since the time their leader went to Jerusalem, they have become convinced of their ancestry and have started practicing all aspects of modern Judaism including learning Hebrew.
- Bnei-Menashe Jews: This ethno-linguistic group from the North-Eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram who speak Tibeto-Burman languages like Mizo and Kuki and whose ancestors migrated from Burma around 300 years ago claim to be descendants of the lost ‘Menashe’ tribe of Israel. They have no hard-evidence to that claim, though some of their songs and festivals share similarities with Jewish ones. They were ‘animists’ for centuries who later converted to Christianity. In order to undertake ‘Aliyah’, the Israeli Government requires them to be trained and formally converted to Judaism. However, a lot of questions are raised over their ancestry due to lack of records and at times they are not considered Jewish enough.
By Binoy Lobo