by Annie Henriques
- There are 3 distinct groups:
- The Cochin Jews
- The Baghdadis
- The Bene Israel
It’s important to think about why there is still a Jewish community in India. As a host society, India combined tolerance with cultural diversity, which made all the difference. There are so many religions and castes in India that the Jewish communities could fit in seamlessly as another caste.
The Cochin Jews:
These are almost certainly the oldest group of Jews living in India today. They probably began arriving 2,500 years ago in 562BCE following the destruction of the first temple and then in 70CE after the second temple was destroyed. Others say they may have descended form the Assyrian exile via Yemen. However they came to India, the authenticity of their Judaism has never been questioned. It is said of the Keralan region: “If you have a new religion to mart to the world, nowhere will you find a more promising seedbed than in Kerala.”
The Jews became firmly established in Kerala, around Cochin when the local king “Hindu Raja” made a set of copper plates for the then Jewish leader Joseph Rabban in 1000CE. This gave Jews lots of privileges and sealed their role in the community. These plates are displayed at the old Cochin synagogue, The Paradesi. During the 16th century, there was an influx of Jews to this area, mainly Sephardic in origin.
The Cochin Jews were well assimilated and they shared their customs and rituals with local people. They tended to mix with people of the same class, education and occupational standing. They talked in a dialect, namely Judeo-Malayalam, which was a cross between Hebrew and the Keralan language. They contributed hugely to Malabaran society and played a role far out of proportion to their numbers. They were spice merchants, showed prowess on the battlefield and always had strong loyalty to Keralan governors.
Over time, Cochin Jews started to adopt a caste system very much like their Hindu neighbours. There were the white Jews, “The Paradesis” as they were known, and the black Jews, “The Malabaris”. Despite the scriptures saying that those who kept faith were ritual equals, differences persisted. The Paradesis wouldn’t give the Malabaris full rites in the synagogue. This divisiveness continued until 1932 when Abraham Barok Salem, a disciple of Gandhi, brought the Paradesis to their knees by showing them the error of their ways. He insisted on equal rites for all Jews. In fact, the Paradesis intermarried to such a degree that there were issues with mental health. Anyway, these Jews were lazy, and when their inheritance ran out, they had very little work. The British were not keen to employ them.
By contrast, the Malabaris, who had married local Hindus and Muslims, were poorer but much more settled. Their skin colour was probably still lighter than other groups in the area but they mixed in much better. By the 1950s, when most Cochin Jews emigrated to Israel, there were four times as many Malabaris as Paradesis.
Many Cochin Jews made aliyah to Israel from the 1950s onwards and settled with other Keralans there. They moved to Israel not because they were persecuted but they had a strong religio-Zionist dream.
Although there are probably less than 50 Jews still living in Cochin, two synagogues survive in Crangamore or Shingli (otherwise known as Jew town). As long as they keep up some traditions, this community will never die. Cochin Jews are alive and well and living in Israel. There is a major Keralan synagogue, Tekkumbagam, in the town of Ernakulam in Israel.
The Baghdadi Jews
In the late 18th century, Jews came from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Iran and Iraq to avoid persecution in these countries. They also came because of the trading possibilities. Sometimes they are known as the “Iraqi Jews” or the “Yehudis”.
These Jews were big merchants and businessmen and they settled in the large commercial cities – Surat in Gujarat and Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta. Some set up small businesses but many grew rich and became important figures in the Indian economy. They built synagogues, schools, cemeteries and departments in hospitals where the rights were reserved for Baghdadi Jews only. They began shifting from their native Arabic tongue to English and over time started to adopt English customs. They were the richest of the Jews in India.
Many Baghdadis started emigrating to England and were active within the upper classes of British society. Since the 1940s, more and more Baghdadis have left India and today there are between 100 and 250 left (estimates are very variable).
Like the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel may well have been in India since the destruction of the second temple in 70CE. Rumour has it that a commercial ship got wrecked near the coast at Konkan and 14 people survived. This was the nucleus of a Jewish community. They settled in a local village and started working as oil pressers; in time, this became their main profession. Interestingly, Hindus wouldn’t work as oil pressers because they considered this as destroying life so opening up opportunities for the Bene Israel.
Over time, they forgot their Hebrew and their religious traditions but carried on some Jewish customs. They observed Shabbat and circumcised their sons on the eighth day after birth. They didn’t eat fish that had fins and scales. They observed some Jewish festivals but knew nothing of Hanukkah. Their surnames all ended with –kar and they abstained from work on Saturdays. They also made first names by adding –jee to familiar Hebrew names, so Moses becomes Musajee and Samuel, Samajee.They became known as the “Saturday oil pressers”. Gradually they moved to the cities, mainly to Bombay.
It was when David Rahabi, a Jewish merchant, arrived in Bombay that the Bene Israel learnt to follow all the Jewish traditions (between 1000 and 1400 AD). David was said to be Moses Maimonides’ brother and he worked with three men from the Bene Israel and they became spiritual leaders known as the “Kaji”. These leaders passed their skills on through the family line.
From the 18th century onwards, they developed contacts with the Cochini Jews and with Jews from Iraq and the Yemen. Some Bene Israel Jews became soldiers in the Indian-British army and were posted at Aden in Yemen. When the war ended, they brought back Yemenite cantors and started to develop the Yemeni style of praying. Once people were brought in from the Yemen, the Kaji started to lose their traditional role as head of the community.
In general, the Bene Israel followed many of the customs around them. For example, sons would bring their wives to live in their family home. The men would manage the financial affairs and settle arguments; the women did the cooking, looked after the house and brought up the children. Some of the men in the Bene Israel practised polygamy and this was a mark of social status. These men could get re-married if their wives died, but the women rarely re-married and stayed as widows.
The Bene Israel have a few unique customs. They have a thanksgiving ceremony called “Malida” where community members sit around a plate of roasted rice, fruits, spices and flowers. They praise the Lord and revere Elijah as the precursor of the Messiah. They also abstained from eating beef in deference to their Hindu neighbours; this helped to raise their social status.
On Yom Kippur, it was the practice to take warm and cold baths before their 26-hour fast. They closed their doors and held prayers in each other’s homes. Everyone wore white. In fact, there were no synagogues built until the 18th century.
The Bene Israel divided into two groups: “Gora” (white), where both parents are of the Jewish religion; and “Kala”, where the father is Jewish but the mother non-Jewish or vice versa. They pray together, but Kalas are not allowed to hold the sefer or blow the shofar! Did this come from the caste system around them?
Some think that they called themselves Bene Israel as the Muslims looked on this more favourably than if they had been called Jewish. In the Muslim Koran, the Bene Israel are referred to as the Chosen People of the Almighty. During the 20th century, some began to refer to themselves as Jews, but the term Bene Israel is still more common and often how people refer to themselves on a passport.
In the latter part of the 19th century, some Bene Israel joined the British Army in India and fought for the British Empire. The Bene Israel built up a reputation as loyal and intrepid soldiers. In the 1950s, many of them took up professions – doctors, lawyers, civil servants etc. Indeed, the opportunities offered by the British meant that many women took up professions in teaching and nursing at a time when Hindu women still stayed at home.
But, from a peak number of 30,000 in the 1950s, there are now fewer than 5000 Bene Israel; most of them live in Thana, a suburb of Mumbai. Some went to Israel and others to Australia, the States and England.