Indian Jews and their heritage

THERE are approximately 14 million Jews living all over the world. More than five million of them live in the United States and less than five million live in Israel, the promised land. There are less than two million Jews in Europe, 400,000 in Latin America, and 350,000 in Canada. There are less than 100,000 Jews in Africa and ninety per cent of them live in South Africa. There are 100,000 in Australia and New Zealand. The rest of them are scattered in different parts of the world, with the lowest numbers in El Salvador, Iraq and Tahiti (120 each). There is a growing concern about the declining demographic trends among the Jews: world Jewry is losing annually an average of 50,000 or 150 every day. In India presently, the Jewish population is estimated at 6,000.

Jews are the only people in the world who have been confronted with hostility in every country they have settled. Opposition to the Jews did not begin in Germany but dates back to 2,000 years before Christian era. The most distinctive aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by the host majority. The only country in the world where the Jews could live without fear of persecution was India, because of the Indian tradition of Catholicism and assimilation.

There are several legends on the arrival of the first Jews on the west coast of India. One of them relates to the period of King Solomon, when there was trade in "teak, ivory, spice and peacocks between the lands of Israel and Malabar coast" and Jews arriving as merchantmen. Others date their arrival to 772 BCE, at the time of the Assyrian exile, Babylon defeating Judea in 568 BCE, or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There is also a belief that 10 Jewish families released from jail by a Persian king in 605 BCE came to Kodungalloor on the Kerala coast. There were subsequent waves of migration in 369 AD. There are Biblical references on Jewish connections with India in The Book of Esther, citing decrees enacted by Ahaseurus relating to the Jews dispersed throughout the provinces of his empire from Hodu (India in Hebrew) to Kush. No reliable evidence exists, but most historians agree on the dates of Jewish settlements in India during the Middle Ages. The local rulers and populations did everything to befriend, protect and allow Jews to prosper.

Jews of India are not a single community: among themselves they are divided into different communities and each one has its own culture, background and origin and different ways of arrival. Their traditions are diverse and their contribution to the bright mosaic of Indian culture commendable. Though there have been quite a few books on Indian Jews, the book under review is comprehensive, authentic and provides a wealth of information based on thorough research by distinguished scholars.

There are three major groups of Jews in India: Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel (children of Israel who are the largest in number and said to be the "most Hindu-ised Jews) and Baghdadis, who were the last to arrive from Iraq and Syria. The earliest documentation of permanent settlement is that of the Cochin Jews. At the time of Indian Independence, there were 2,400 of them; their Pardeshi synagogue, established in 1568, which is a heritage monument, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1968. Today, there are just 17 of them.

Indian Jews and their heritage

The famous Jewish copper plates inscribed in ancient Tamil script during the period of king Bhaskara Ravi Varma (962 - 1020 CE) contains grants and privileges given to the Jews. The privileges included the right to be exempt from and to collect certain taxes and gifts including a palanquin, drum and trumpet (very significant at that time). After the grant, the Jews lived in and around Cochin and prospered for more than 1000 years. There were internecine quarrels after Vasco da Gama's arrival on the west coast. Jews from Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and other European countries and Syria came and settled in Cochin and came to be known as the white Jews and the local ones were called Malabari or black Jews and interestingly intermarriage did not take place between these communities. In 1524, on the pretext that Jews were interfering with the pepper trade, Moors attacked them, burnt their houses and synagogues. When the Portuguese arrived, they only found destitute Jews.

After the Portuguese, more Jews arrived fleeing persecution from the Middle East. Cheraman Perumal gave them special privileges and allowed them to build a synagogue next to his palace and adjacent to the temple. This synagogue is the oldest surviving one in the former British Empire. It contains gold and silver decorated Torah Scrolls, an Oriental carpet and crowns of solid gold set with gems by the Ethiopian emperor Hailey Selassie.

The first synagogue in Mumbai was established in 1796 and was called Shar Harahamim (Gate of Mercy) by Samuel Ezekiel Divekar. By the 20th Century, the majority of the Bene Israelis, who were spread in the Konkan region, moved to Bombay and set up synagogues. They took up English education and there were a large number of eminent Indian Jews, including lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists and writers. It is estimated that there are 60,000 Indian Jews in Israel who maintain their own identity.

Though Indian Jews have been the subject of several books, this book is comprehensive. It covers the customs and cultures of all the major three groups and their splinter groups in the eastern and the north-eastern regions. It explains the role played by them in the development of India and their unique achievements as a community and their contribution to society at large. It is highly authentic as each essay is well researched in anthropology, history, architecture and literature.

The book also contains excellent photographs illustrating the topics discussed. Jewish presence in Bombay over the last 250 years is discussed in the essay by Sifra Samuel Lentin. Jay A. Waronkar details the history and the unique architectural styles and identity of Indian synagogues. The Pardeshi synagogue of Cochin forms the subject of Ilana Weil's study while the marriage customs of Cochin Jews is dealt with by Samuel H. Hallegua: they are typically Keralite, including the tying of the tali. Again the Kerala perspective of Jewish holidays is brought out in the study by Galia Haco. Joan Roland describes the contributions of Indian Jews. The best essay in the volume is by the editor of the volume on Bene Israeli rites and routines.

The Jews in India are a diminishing lot and their contributions to the land in which they live are substantive. Though the Pardeshi synagogue in Cochin is a heritage site, other synagogues in Kerala and other parts of the country are in a state of deterioration. Since this book brings out their significance and serves as an eye-opener, public attention should focus on their preservation lest they should be lost to posterity.

India's Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life Cycle, edited by Shalva Weil, Marg Publications, 2003, Rs. 2250.


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