There are fewer than 4,000 Jews in India, while the number of Indian Jews in Israel is close to a hundred thousand. Here is a look at how this happened.
The first time Sophie Judah became aware of her Jewish identity was when she was 14 and her uncle gifted her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. “Since then,” she says, “I have read it seven times, and have read (Leon Uris’s novel) Exodus 10 times.” Sophie, who was born in Pune, is 56 now and lives with her husband and five children in Israel.
I heard about Sophie by accident. Some time back, I stumbled on a coffee-table book about Indian Jews, a collection of deeply moving stories about everyday life within this community. The book, Dropped From Heaven, was authored by an Indian Jew, Sophie Judah, and while in Israel later that year, I resolved to meet her at her home in Hod Hasharon, a town north of Tel Aviv. Sophie and her husband Simon had a fascinating story to tell me.
In Pune, as a young stewardess at Indian Airlines, the doe-eyed Sophie was reprimanded by her father, an army officer, every time she mentioned moving to Israel. “We are Indians first and Jews later,” her father used to say. Her family wasn’t overtly Jewish, even though some Jewish practices were followed at home, and they didn’t work on Saturdays — observing the Sabbath.
Sophie had three close friends in India. “Two were Hindus; the other was a Malayali Christian,” she remembers. “We couldn’t stay apart from each other!” This isn’t hard to imagine. As Simon Judah, who used to work in India Steam Ships in Pune, says, “India was never anti-Semitic. That was a plus, but it also had its minuses.” His paradoxical comment has a strong basis: India was one of the few countries that had a Jewish population and was never anti-Semitic. This tolerance, in a way, cost India its Jewish population.
“In India, you felt more accepted, and you gradually intermingled and integrated and lost your identity,” says Simon who speaks Hindi as well as he speaks Hebrew. He eats only Indian food. He prays in Marathi. And even after all these years, he sometimes feels alien in his Jewish homeland. He says he doesn’t know why he came to Israel, but “there was something within me that dragged my footsteps here,” he adds. Simon emigrated to Israel in 1969 and Sophie followed after she married Simon in 1973.
India today is left with less than 4,000 Jews, while Indian Jews in Israel number close to a hundred thousand. Only recently, dozens of Jews immigrated to Israel from Manipur and Mizoram, after a five-year struggle to get visas. These Bnei Menashe say they are descendants of a biblical Jewish tribe, banished from ancient Israel to India in the eighth century B.C. An Israeli chief rabbi recognised them as a lost tribe in 2005 and about 1,700 moved to Israel over the next two years.
There were three groups of Jews who migrated from India after Israel’s creation in 1948, the Bene Israel from the Mumbai area, the Cochinis from Kerala and the Baghdadis, Middle Eastern Jews who had come to India under the British rule. The Judahs are from the Bene Israel clan who were thrilled at the formation of Israel in 1948. “When the wheels of the plane touched the tarmac, I felt I had come home,” says Sophie, recollecting the first sight of her new country, Israel.
Like every immigrant community, Indian Jews faced troubles being accepted in Israeli society, especially because their traditions were quite different from those of other Jews and incorporated various Hindu practices.
Raymond Abraham, 78, was one of the first immigrants who arrived in Beersheva, Israel, in 1949. Abraham was born in Karachi and fled to Bombay during the Partition. “Then in 1949, when I was 18, some people came from Israel and asked us to emigrate,” said Abraham. Having no home in India, his family sailed to the port of Haifa in Israel, where they stayed in a camp with Jews who had come from all over the world. Then they were divided into groups and distributed around the country. Only Indian Jews came to Beersheva. “There was no food, no water, but it was a good time — because we came with a passion to build Israel,” he says.
In the 1950s, when the Indian Jews began to migrate, they were among the darkest of all the new immigrants and experienced racism. Shalva Weil, senior researcher on Indian Jews, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, says, “In India, they never had to fight for their basic rights but in Israel they did, and this was something new for them.”
They had held influential positions in Bombay, Kochi and Calcutta. There had been Vice Admirals, Governors, Major Generals and businessmen. They served as officers in the British Indian Army and gained higher positions in Post & Telegraph, Railways, Ports and the medical profession. They expected to hold similar positions in their new homeland. But that wasn’t to be, at least initially. At first, when they arrived in Israel, they had difficulty being recognised as ‘authentic’ Jews. In 1962 they held a sit-down strike, and in 1964 they were accepted as “full Jews in all respects,” Weil says.
After all these decades, Jews of Indian origin have come full circle. Just as they had struggled to keep their Jewish culture alive in India, they are now struggling to keep their Indian culture alive in Israel.
Many of Judah’s generation now have children and grandchildren born in Israel. Therefore, while the older generation still speaks Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali and Hindi and cooks Indian food at home, the Israeli-born generation speaks only Hebrew and knows little of its Indian heritage.
“One of the main reasons I came to Israel was because I didn’t want to see my children marry non-Jews,” says Sophie. “There were so few Jews in India.” She raised her five children in Israel and, today, three of them are married to people of Yemeni, Greek and Iraqi descent. Since the Jews have Hebrew as a common language, and since most of the main Jewish practices are similar, integration into the Israeli society is quite seamless for second-generation immigrants. “I am not sure how much of an Indian background my son will get,” says Moshe Judah, Sophie’s son.
“My first son was born in India, so he is the only one who can speak Marathi,” says Rabbi Eleazer Sasonkar, who migrated to Israel in 1972. “His siblings tease him about his Hebrew pronunciation,” he adds, “but he doesn’t care. Also, I haven’t seen him have a meal without dal.”
Unlike most European immigrants to Israel, though, Indian Jews were not persecuted in India. Hence their memories of that country are not sour and they don’t want to break ties with India completely. Sophie’s mother and sister still live in Ahmedabad and the Judahs visit them occasionally.
The Judahs are planning to start a museum to preserve the heritage of Bene Israel. They have collected many black-and-white photographs of their ancestors, showing women with nose rings and dressed in saris, in the traditional Western Indian style. The museum will recreate Jewish villages in India and the Indian-style elevated ‘huppah,’ the canopied platform where weddings were held. Since many of the Bene Israel were oil pressers, the museum will have a section dedicated to that profession. The songs and prayers in India have a different ring to them from Jewish rituals elsewhere, and the museum will showcase Indian Jewish songs for every occasion — birth, death, circumcision, Purim and Passover.
“It is too expensive to rent a place, but we are trying hard,” says Simon, who thinks it is important for the younger generation to be aware of their lineage. The museum will be located in Hod Hasharon.
There is no Jewish museum in India in honour of Indian Jewish culture, but perhaps India will feel the need for it soon..