Monday, September 24, 2018 -
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The world’s oldest Jewish community…is in India

Mumbai's Magen David synagogue

By Irene Shaland

I DREAMT of India for years. As my husband Alex and I planned our trip last year, we both began to see India as the place in space and time where one comes for self-discovery and personal growth.

We started our trip with a specific agenda. Curious about inlaid marble art of Taj Mahal and love sculptures of Khajuraho, we came to India to see the temples and palaces. But something unexpected and wonderful happened. It was the tiny Jewish community of India that became the most amazing discovery of all and transformed our trip into a spiritual journey.

When we returned, our friends were surprised and asked, “Jews — in India? How on earth did they get there?” But they did.

Where did the Indian Jews come from?

The story about the Indian Jewish community is not widely known, even though they have been living in their Indian homeland — in freedom and prosperity — for well over 2,500 years. This community consists of three distinctive groups: the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, and the Baghdadi.

The Cochin Jews are considered the oldest, continuously living Jewish community in the world. They began arriving from Judea, 2,500 years ago, on the Malabar Coast of India and settled as traders near the town of Cochin in what is now the southernmost India’s state of Kerala. The first wave probably arrived in 562 BCE following the destruction of the First Temple.

The second wave likely came in 70 CE after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The late 15th century saw the arrival of the third wave: Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain. Refugees escaping prosecution by the colonial Portuguese Inquisition in Goa, India, followed them.

The Cochin Jews have enjoyed special protection by the local rulers. In 392 CE (though some scholars maintain that this event happened much later, in the 11th century), the Hindu Raja (king) issued his permission for Jews to live there freely. Ancient copper plates with his decree are now kept in the Holy Ark of the Cochin Synagogue.

The Cochin Jews speak Judeo-Malayalam, a hybrid of Hebrew and the language of the state of Kerala. Only a few families are currently living in Cochin because most members of the once large community moved to Israel.

The Bene Israel Jews arrived 2,100 years ago from the Kingdom of Judea and settled in what is now the state of Maharashtra. The original group — either traders or refugees from the Romans — was shipwrecked and the survivors, seven men and seven women, were thrown on the Konkan coast, not far from today’s Mumbai (Bombay).

With no possessions and unable to speak the language, they joined the cast of oil-pressers. Ironically, they were nicknamed the “Saturday oil pressers” because they abstained from working on Shabbat. The Bene Israel Jews speak Hindi and Marathi, the languages of the Maharashtra state. Once thriving and populous, the Bene Israel group now numbers 3,500 to 4,000 people. Most of them live in Mumbai, and only a few families live in Calcutta and Delhi. The majority of the Bene Israel  moved to Israel, and is now 10 times their population in India.

The Baghdadi Jews arrived in India about 280 years ago. The name is somewhat misleading. Not all were of Iraqi origin; many came from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other Arab countries. They settled in Rangoon, Calcutta, and Bombay. Rich and educated, they quickly became the wealthiest community. Also called Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews, they turned their new home cities into cosmopolitan, thriving entrepreneurial centers. Some became prominent politicians, like the Governor of Goa, Jacob PVSM; others turned to philanthropy and built libraries and hospitals. The Baghdadi Jews speak Hindi, Marathi and Bengali, the languages of the Maharashtra and Bengal states.

Whether they speak Hindi, Judeo-Malayalam or Marathi, none of these languages has a word for anti-Semitism! Nevertheless, after 1948, when India gained independence from Great Britain and went through partition, and after the birth of the State of Israel, most of the India’s Jews — the Baghdadi, Bene Israel and the Cochin — left their Indian homeland. That is because they found themselves in a country burning with violence. As the tiniest of minorities, they could easily envision being crushed between the conflicting forces of Hindu nationalism and Muslim separatism. So, they left behind more than a 2000-year history of freedom and prosperity and began their mass exodus to the new state of Israel, where they now constitute about 1% of the total population. Some emigrated to the UK or the US.

So, who is left? With so few Jews in a 1.2-billion-people Hindu-Muslim country, where would you find any Jewish-related sites today?

Mumbai

Jews settled in Mumbai (Bombay) in the 18th century: first Baghdadi arrived in 1730s and then Bene Israel began migrating from the countryside in the 1740s. Today, Mumbai has the largest Jewish community in India: 3,500 to 4,000 people, most of whom are the Bene Israel. We visited two of the city’s eight synagogues: Kenesseth Eliyahoo and Magen David. Both were built by the Sassons, the wealthiest family of the Baghdadi Jews. The elegant blue structure of the Mogen David Synagogueiii was erected in 1861.

Hanna and Eliyahoo of Mumbai

Our guide Hanna Shapurkar, a Bene Israel Jew, and synagogue’s caretaker Eliyahoo Benjamin, a Baghdadi Jew, told us about the 150-year-old history of his synagogue. At one time, the congregation did not accept the Bene Israel. “They were thought to be too dark-skinned, not pure Jewish in blood,” said Eliyahoo. But now, when so few are left, the differences are forgotten and they often pray together, especially during the holidays. Eliyahoo’s and Hannah’s first language is Marathi.

Muslim youths of Mumbai defending the shul

The Magen David Synagogue is now in the middle of the Muslim neighborhood.  Hanna and Eliyahoo told us that during one of the Hindu-Muslim clashes, the street youngsters wanted to make sure that no one harmed the synagogue. A group of Muslim boys joined their hands and formed a protective wall across the building’s gates. This is the house of G-d, they said.

We visited Kenesseth Eliyahoo synagogue located in the famous Colaba district, not far from major city landmarks, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gates of India. This is where Hannah tells us about the Indian Jewish philanthropy.

Jewish philanthropy

Colaba, an affluent area in the center of Mumbai, is where most of the richest members of the Baghdadi community lived, including the Sassons, whose ancestor David Sasson fled Iran in the early 1800s. He and his eight sons created an international commercial empire and became one of the wealthiest families in India. They also created something that never existed in India before: philanthropy. The Sassons built synagogues of course, but also schools and hospitals, kosher shops and leper asylums. They built important Mumbai landmarks too: the elegant Flora Fountain and the Venetian Gothic-style David Sasson Library.

To meet the oldest Jewish community in the world, we had to leave the cosmopolitan Mumbai and fly to the south of the country, the town of Cochin.

To read the rest of this article, including about the communities in Delhi and Cochin, is available in the print IJN only. Contact Carol at (303) 861 2234 or carol@ijn.com to order your copy.




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