Judaism within India has traditionally been represented by three distinct Jewish communities, the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel and the Baghdadi Jews (Egorova 2006:1, 4). It is notable that only the Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews are “recognized as ‘conventionally’ Jewish” (Egorova 2010:108). Nathan Katz has stated that Indian Jews have traditionally been treated better than other Diasporic communities, and as a result were able to flourish within, as well as contribute to, Indian society (Katz 4). The Cochin Jews are the oldest Jewish community in India as well as the most well known. This group is extremely proud of their history, as well as of their acceptance in India (Katz and Goldberg 1989:54). This community is further divided into three different groups known as the “White Jews”, the “Black Jews” and finally the Meshuhrarim, which are the former slaves of the first two groups (Egorova 2006:4). The Bene-Israel have a relatively unknown history and scholars are forced to rely primarily on Christian missionary writings for information dating prior to the nineteenth century. According to these missionaries, they began as oil-pressers on the West Indian Coast before moving to Bombay and changing occupations in the mid 1800s (Ergova 2006:4). The Baghdadi Jews also emerged in the late 1700s with their main communities in Bombay and Calcutta (Ergova 2006:5). Despite the name, this group includes a diverse range of Jews originating throughout the Middle East (Egorova 2006:5). In spite of sharing the same religion, each community mostly kept to themselves, although at times they have shared synagogues and cemeteries (Egorova 2006:5-6). As a result, the dominant Indian culture has affected each community differently and each group enjoys distinct rituals and texts. [It must be noted that other Jews, not affiliated with the above three communities, immigrated to India as refugees during World War II, but they will not be discussed in regards to the established Jewish groups in India.]
The Cochin Jews have a unique foundation myth that contains two sacred origins, Israel and Shingly (Katz 11). This myth is depicted in rituals, songs and most notably, a series of paintings in their main synagogue. The paintings begin by linking Palestine to India by depicting trade dating to the time of Solomon, with the next image showing Jews fleeing by sea to Shingly following the destruction of King Herod’s Temple. The third image shows their ship landing on the Indian coast, complete with a map of India with Shingly clearly marked. The remaining images illustrate the Indian King receiving them and the establishment of their synagogue in the modern period (Katz 13-15). Despite this rich myth, very little is known about the Cochin Jews in pre-Colonial India. According to Nathan Katz, “no external documentation proves Jews lived there between the fourth and ninth centuries”, however, Arab journals refer to Jewish merchants in India as early as c. 850 CE (26-30).
One of the earliest references to the Bene-Israel may be found in a letter from the Jewish scholar Maimonides, who refered to a group in India that only practiced circumcision and the Sabbath. The first definitive mention is found in 1768 in a letter between a Cochin Jew and “his Dutch business partner” referring to the group by name (Katz 91-92). Traditionally, they were referred to as Shanwar Telis, meaning “Saturday Oil Pressers” (Katz 96). Scholars are unsure when the group emerged in India, but Christian missionaries wrote that in the early 1800s, the Bene-Israel claimed to be descendents of an ancient shipwreck leading some missionaries to declare them a “Lost Tribe of Israel”(Katz 2000, 93-95). In attempts at conversion, missionaries taught the community Hebrew and English, which in turn strengthened their own identity and link to Judaism, rather than aiding in their conversion to Christianity. This allowed them to translate their own distinct prayers and songs (Katz 95). The Bene-Israel currently has two synagogues in India (Egorova 2010:106).
The Baghdadi Jews began as a growing community of Middle Eastern Jews who spoke Arabic and Persian. According to Katz, they were attracted to the economic opportunities to be found in the new thriving centre of Calcutta, and as a result their community began to spread throughout the major cities within British Colonial India (Katz 128-130).
Each of the three respective communities has a variety of religious and societal practices. The Cochin Jews have their own unique “festival prayer books”, first published in 1757 in Amsterdam (Katz 49). This group also has more elaborate and distinct Passover rituals. For example, there is a greater emphasis on purity, which will be discussed in greater detail in regards to the influence of Hindu Society below (Katz and Goldberg 1989:56). There are a number of unique songs found in various religious festivals that are not found in any other Jewish community as well (Katz 73-82). The Bene-Israel have a notable emphasis on “Elaihu Hanabi” or “Elijah the Prophet”, who they claim visited their ancestors, and thus connects them to the Book of Kings found in the Hebrew Bible (Katz 101-102). The Bene-Israel also engage in a food ritual known as the “Malida rite”, which is a special food offering (Katz 103). Additionally, women often practice fasting rituals for auspiciousness and there is also an increased emphasis on arranged marriage and related rituals (Katz 116). In a similar vein, the Baghdadi Jews raise Ezra to an elevated status, although their religious practices are similar to those of other mainstream Jewish groups (Katz 135).
Despite maintaining their Jewish identity, their geographical location and the existing societal pressures found in India have greatly influenced all three of the main Jewish communities. The Cochin Jews are unique in that they are considered to be both Jewish and Indian, an achievement that relied on three distinctive aspects of the community. As described above, they have a foundation myth that celebrates both their homeland and their Diasporic status. As such, they have “emulated and thereby affirmed the social hierarchy” found in their new land, and finally they used Hindu rituals and symbols within their own religion (Katz 10). Perhaps most notably, they emulated the Brahmin class, to legitimize their own identity within India (Katz 9-10). As discussed above, they have a unique foundation myth, which they claim is further legitimized in the Cochin Synagogue by the presence of two copper plates. These plates, which they claim to date to 379 CE [though likely dating to 1069 CE], describe their royal reception by King Cheramanperumal and this story is repeatedly celebrated through unique folk songs, which celebrate their founder, Joseph Rabban, and the Indian king as well as their new home rather than Israel (Katz 2000:33-37).
The Cochin Jews also established their own caste system. In the 1500s, Sephardic Jews traveled to Cochin and blended with notable elite families, creating a “sub-caste”, often referred to as “White Jews” or “Paradesi (foreign) Jews”. This group enjoyed an elevated status in the synagogue (Katz 38, 59-60). In a similar vein, there is an emphasis on having “untainted” Jewish blood as well as light skin colour. It is likely that this emphasis on “purity” is a result of their emulation of the Brahmin elite class (Katz 44, 61, 72). Perhaps most interesting is the extent that Hindu purity notions are reflected in kosher laws. For example, if a Gentile touches the surface kosher wine is place upon, it is no longer considered to be pure, and during Passover, every grain is analyzed for outside contact. In addition, during preparations for Passover, there is extensive cleaning and scrubbing and, everyday items are replaced with those deemed pure whenever possible (Katz and Goldberg 1989:60-61). According to Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg, “the ritual observances of the Cochin Jews serve as a means of periodically reaffirming their status in the Indian caste hierarchy” (Katz and Goldberg 1990:202).
Adaptations can also be seen within the Bene-Israel, when large groups took jobs in Bombay, which meant working on the Sabbath. As a result, there was a shift in emphasis to their Friday evening service rather than the traditional Saturday service (Katz 97). The Bene-Israel also created a sub-caste, not based on skin colour but instead upon supposed lineage; notably, however, all castes shared the synagogue, but the elite, known as the Gora, enjoyed special privileges and a heightened status (Katz 99-100). It is also interesting that traditionally they also chose not to consume beef and engaged in other traditional Hindu practices such as “shunning widow remarriage and propitiated certain Hindu deities” on occasion (Katz 100).
Despite their contact with Indian society, the Baghdadi Jews continued to speak Arabic and enjoy Arabic culture. When they moved to Bombay however, the group found themselves identifying with the British, rather than the Bene-Israel who were the dominant Jewish group in the city (Katz 136). According to Katz, the Baghdadi Jews were more “cosmopolitan” and thus identified more strongly with British customs than traditional Indian ones and as a result, they adopted English, but also retained their Hebrew and Arab-Jewish identity (Katz 141-143).
Finally, it must be noted that the creation of the State of Israel has created a drastic population shift for Diasporic communities, including those in India. Beginning in the 1950s, Cochin Jews began to immigrate to Israel en masse and as a result, the once thriving community has greatly been reduced. For many, it was the Promised Land and a new beginning (Katz and Goldberg 1993:251-253). Despite initial questions of the “authenticity” of the Bene-Israel’s form of Judaism, many saw economic opportunity in a young nation requiring craftsmen and skilled workers. As a result, the Bene-Israel’s population, in particular its youth, has largely immigrated to Israel (Roland 247-252). Due to their close ties with Britain, following Indian independence, many Baghdadi Jews considered emigration but only those with close ethnic ties with Israel left, due to the opportunities that remained in India (Roland 263).
Despite sharing a common religion, it is apparent that the three main Jewish communities in India have developed their own respective traditions and celebrated history. Each has reacted to their unique relationship with their adopted Indian homeland and it is clear that certain aspects of Indian culture and religion, such as concerns with maintaining proper societal hierarchy and purity have influenced each community, most notably the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel. Despite their proud Jewish-Indian identities it is clear the creation of the State of Israel has had a profound affect on the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel and their future in India remains unknown.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Egorova, Yulia (2006) Jews and India: Perceptions and Image. New York: Routledge.
_____ (2010) “From Dalits to Bene Ephraim: Judaism in Andhra Prades.” Religions of South Asia. Vol. 4. pp. 105-124.
Israel, Rachael Rukmini (2002) The Jews of India: Their Story. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.
Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg (1989) “Asceticism and Caste in the Passover Observances of the Cochin Jews.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 57. pp. 53-82.
_____ (1990) “The Ritual Enactments of the Cochin Jews: The Powers of Purity and Nobility.” Ritual Studies Vol. 4. pp. 199-238.
_____ (1993) The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.
Katz, Nathan (2000) Who are the Jews of India? Los Angeles and Berkley: University of California Press.
Roland, Joan G (1989) Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover: Brandeis University Press.
Slapak, Orpa (1995) The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. London: University Press of New England.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
The Malida Rite
British Colonial India
Missionaries in India
Dutch Occupied India
Sub-Castes in India
India and World War II
Hinduism in Israel
Purity in Hinduism
Islam in India
Christianity in India
Article written by Jessica Swann (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.