A unique and multicultural group of people, the Jews of India add exciting flavor to India’s already diverse population. Centered in three main communities in Bombay, Calcutta, and along the Malabar Coast, these unusual sects of Jews have combined many of their ancient Israelite customs with traditional Indian lifestyle, and have created a rich culture all their own.
The Jews of Cochin are the oldest of the three Jewish communities. Records date the community, which is located in the modern state of Kerala on the southwest coast of India, to have originated during the reign of King Solomon. There is controversy over the exact dates of first Jewish settlement, but there was known to be a successful commercial community set up in the city of Cranganore by the 6th century BCE.
The ancient Cochin Jews enjoyed a fairly high standard of living on the Malabar Coast. Located in a thriving economic center, the Jews achieved commercial success. Early Jewish leader, Joseph Rabban, received engraved copper plates in 1000 CE permitting the right to collect tolls, exemption from paying taxes, and a confirmation that the Jews had been firmly established in the area. There is evidence they followed mainstream rabbinic law and they had a unique liturgical prayer called kolas, which they sang in the native Malayalam language.
The Cochin community grew during the sixteenth century after an influx of Sephardic Jews escaping the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, and others who emigrated from the Middle East, Persia, Yemen, and Germany. The newcomers were called Paradesis, a word that means “foreigners” in Malayalam. While the Paradesis adopted the native language and customs, they made certain efforts to distinguish themselves, such as building separate synagogues and developing distinct sub-communities. Eventually the Paradesi Jews became known “White Jews,” and the native Malabari Jews as “Black Jews.” The different Cochin communities were influenced by the Hindu caste system, however they did not divide themselves into different castes. While they may not have socialized between color and class, they enthusiastically embraced their common Jewish culture.
The Bene Israel
The Bene Israel community, located primarily in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is the largest of the Indian Jewish communities, having more than double the populations of the Cochin and Baghdadi Jews put together by 1838. Theories have traced the origins of the community from 8th century BCE to the sixth century CE, and have documents indicating settlers who were stranded after a shipwreck off the Konkan coast.
The Bene Israel Jews were known for sesame oil pressing, and initially were scattered through the Bombay area forcing them to worship in their homes as opposed to a central synagogue. They observed holidays in accordance with the Bible, observed the Sabbath and circumcision, but were not familiar with rabbinic Judaism. Instead, leaders called Kazis guided the services.
Similar to the Cochin community, the Bene Israel had racial distinctions within its community. The Kala were “black” Jews, rumored to have intermarried with non- Jewish natives, and the Gora where the “white,” more “pure” Jews. After British control, and the later Zionist movement, these distinctions faded as the Indian Jews developed a more a cohesive identity.
The Baghdadi Jews
The Baghdadi Jewish community is the youngest of the Indian Jewish communities and was founded in early 18th century in the west coast port of Surat. Due to major trade between the Persian Gulf and India, many Jews of Arab descent coming from the Ottoman Empire, Aden, Yemen, and Syria were drawn to the vast commercial opportunities and religious freedoms of India (see Spice Trade in India).
The Baghdadi Jews settled in both Mumbai and Calcutta. The Mumbai community was initiated primarily by David Sassoon, a chief treasurer to the governor of Baghdad and an influential businessman. Sassoon and his family single-handedly shaped the Jewish community, building the Magen David synagogue in 1861 which contained a hostel and Talmudic school, hospitals, and employed many Ottoman Jews in his vast textile industry. The Calcutta community led by Moses Dwek ha-Cohen, was also a center of industry, and depended on the leadership of a few very wealthy families including the Ezras and the Elias, who funded the schools, jobs, and organized worship of the Jewish community.
The Jews and the Colonizers of India
The Cochin Jews were persecuted under Portuguese rule (1498-1663), as fervor from the Inquisition followed immigration to India. Under Dutch rule (1663-1795), the Jews gained better status, as the Dutch looked favorably upon the cosmopolitan Paradesi community. During British rule the Cochin Maharaja, who had left the Jews in peace, was granted semi-independent status; however, since the Empire was constructing so much in Mumbai and Calcutta, Kerala’s economy plummeted. In search of jobs and opportunity, many of the Cochin Jews moved to Mumbai, deserting the Malabar community; this is a major reason the numbers of Cochin Jews in Kerala is presently so small.
In contrast, with the arrival of the British East India Company in 1674, Mumbai was transformed into a bustling metropolis, granting the Jews of the Bene Israel community enormous opportunity. Jews were given jobs in the military, the navy, commerce, and construction, but ironically abandoned their original oil pressing monopoly as the Empire took over. With Western influence, the Bene Israel Jews were introduced to the more traditional Jewish practices. The first synagogue was built in 1796. Interestingly, Christian missionary schools provided the first centers for Hebrew education. Although Christian missions aimed for conversion, their institutions actually strengthened the Bene Israel community, proven by its larger population today (around 5,000 people) (see Christianity in India).
The Baghdadi Jews arrived in India during British rule, so their relationship with the Empire differed from the more indigenous communities. Most of the Baghdadi Jews came to India purely for commercial reasons, and did not make large efforts to assimilate to the native culture. Most Baghdadis, especially today, choose a more European or Arab style of dress, and discriminate among the darker the members of the community. The Baghdadi Jews depended on British rule for their livelihood. An estimated 200 Baghdadi Jews live in India today.
Struggles for Identity: War, Zionism, and Indian Independence
As many Indian Jews benefited from European rule, the issues surrounding Indian independence became controversial. The Zionist movement grew in the early twentieth century and forced many Indian Jews to reconsider their loyalties: did they have a stronger attachment to India or Judaism? And how would the Jewish communities survive without the helping hand of the Empire?
The breakout of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust continued to bring the Jewish community together, and many Indian Jews joined the British armies. Relief movements organized by the JRA, the Jewish Relief Association of Bombay, helped hundreds of European Jews escaping persecution, and set up hostels and homes for them to live.
After the war in Kerala, many Jews left to go to Israel hoping to find a better sense of Jewish identity in a Jewish state. Many from the Bene Israel community, whose population peaked during the twentieth century at 25,000, also emigrated to Israel and other nations such as the U.S. and Canada, concerned with their economic prospects in India. The Baghdadi Jews were hurt under Indian independence. Relations with the Middle East changed and many of the Sasson factories closed. Many of the Bagdhahdi Jews immigrated to other countries to protect financial interests (see Partition in India).
A Tolerant Reception
One of the most interesting things about Indian Jewish communities is their place in India, which is known for its general lack of anti-Semitism. In ancient times, the Cochin Jews were accepted by the Hindu rulers, and for the most part lived in a peaceful environment. The major reason for this phenomenon is the predominance of the Hindu caste system. Considered their own separate caste, the Jews did not disrupt Indian society. As long as they married and socialized in their own group, which they did enthusiastically, the other castes had nothing to complain about.
The environment changed some with European domination. Many of the European settlers persecuted Jews or attempted conversion, nevertheless a large majority granted the Jews a chance at economic prosperity and freedom. The relationship between the British and the Jews became more controversial as the independence movement grew stronger. While leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were amicable towards the Jews, other groups grew resentful of the Jewish financial attachment to the Empire, and wanted to eliminate the European influences from the country. As the political climate heated up, and the Zionist movement attracted many to Israel, the Indian Jewish identity became complex. However, compared to the long history European anti-Semitism, India’s tolerance is truly unique.
The traditionally matrimonial structure of many Hindu castes has encouraged education for females, giving many Jewish females a chance for education, and giving the area of Kerala a 94% literacy rate, 87% for women compared to 52% for the rest of India.
Both the Cochin and the Bene Israel were agricultural communities and still practice ancient traditions, such as the grinding of the mazzot for Passover or oil pressing.
Weddings are an interesting mix of Jewish and Indian culture. Most marriages are still arranged in traditional communities. There is a mehndi ceremony and Indian garb, yet the couple is still married under a huppah in a synagogue.
Works Cited and to Consult
- Egorova, Yulia. Jews and India : perceptions and image. New York : Routledge, 2006.
- Fernandes, Edna. The last Jews of Kerala : the two thousand year history of India’s forgotten Jewish community. New York, NY : Skyhorse Pub., 2008.
- Katz, Nathan. Who are the Jews of India? .Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
- —Studies of Indian Jewish Identity. Ed. Nathan Katz. Delhi: Rajkamal Electric Press, 1995.
- — Indo-Judaic studies in the twenty-first century : a view from the margin. ed. Nathan Katz, Ranabir Chakravarti, Braj M. Sinha, Shalva Weil. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Oommen, Ginu Zacharia. Ethnicity, marginality & identity : the Jews of Cochin in Israel. New Delhi : Manak Publications, 2011.
- Roland, Joan. The Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998.
- Slapak, Orpa, ed. The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1995.
Author: Stacey Menchel, Fall 2000
Last edited: October 2017