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In Search of the (happy) Jewish Story
– in India
By Irene Shaland
“Growing” into India
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. The truth, not told you by travel agents, is that you have
to know deep down why you
are coming to India.
If you do, you are bound to discover the most
refined beauty and the deepest spirituality. You will start seeing
India as not merely a country but a subcontinent or rather a
universe. Travelling through that universe, you gradually learn -
like peeling the onion, layer after layer – some very
important truths about people and history and myths they create. If
you don’t, you will be overwhelmed by heat and smells, crowds
and beggars, street dogs and cows, and noise and dirt.
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 turned out to be the most amazing discovery
and transformed our trip into a spiritual journey instead.
When we returned, many of our friends were surprised to
hear: that: “Jews – in India? How on earth did they ever
get there?” But they did. And they have been living in their
Indian homeland -- in freedom and prosperity -- for well over 2500
Where did the Indian Jews come from?
The story about the Indian Jewish community is not
widely known, and here it is. This community consists of three
distinctive groups: the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, and the
Baghdadi. Each group has their own story to tell.
Though Paradesi Synagogue of Cochin was built in the 16th century by "foreigners" ("paradesi") it stands as a symbol of the 2,500 year-old Jewish community.
The Cochin Jews are considered the oldest,
continuously living Jewish community in the world. They began
arriving in waves from Judea, 2500 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 BC 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 always enjoyed special protection
by the local rulers. As early as 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. He documented his decree on ancient copper
plates, which 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 2100 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 accounts for
about 3500 to 4000 people. Most of them live in Mumbai, and only a
few families live in Calcutta and Delhi. The majority of the Bene
Israel, which is ten times their population in India, moved to
The Baghdadi Jews arrived in India about 280 years
ago. The name is somewhat misleading. Not all were exclusively of
Iraqi origin; many came from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and
other Arab countries. They settled in Rangoon, Calcutta, and Bombay,
and because they were 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
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 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. They moved out because after the partition of
1948, Indian Jews found themselves in a different country, one that
was burning with violence. As the tiniest of small 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 chose to immigrate
to the UK or the US.
Okay, our friends would say, then 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? Where would you meet the
Jews themselves? Instead of a simple answer, let me take you on an
Jewish pilgrimage in India: in search of
places, people and stories
Synagogue near the tomb of a Muslim emperor
In Delhi, most tourists are encouraged to see the
Emperor Humayan’s Tomb, which is the World Heritage Site, and
is considered to be an architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal.
Near by is a tiny, one-room building that houses the best-kept
secret in India’s capital, the Judah
Here is where we arranged to meet with
Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.
Ezekiel Isaac Malekar of Delhi
Mr. Malekar is a prominent Delhi attorney. He is
also a Jewish community leader, Rabbi, Cantor, writer, and Hebrew
scholar. If you were to see him on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
you would perceive him to be a Columbia University professor. A Bene
Israel Jew, his native language is Hindi, and in his perfect British
English, he told us about the tiny, but closely tied Jewish
community of Delhi. One of the oldest Jewish communities in the
world (Jews have been living in Delhi for over 2000 years), it now
numbers a little over 40 people or 10 families. So the synagogue
also serves the needs of
expatriates working in Delhi, Israeli
diplomats, and Jewish tourists. When we discussed the complexity of
the Jewish identity in the Hindu-Muslim culture, the subject of Mr.
Malekar’s many studies, he said: “As a Jew, I have
Israel in my heart, but as an Indian – India is in my blood.
This is my homeland.”
After leaving the synagogue, we continued our
exploration of Delhi’s Jewish history, in - of all places - a
Jewish atheist’s shrine in a mosque
Jami Masjid of Delhi
is the largest
mosque in Asia, build by Shah Jahan of Taj
Mahal’s fame. It is an irony of
history that both the Shah and the mosque have a curious Jewish
connection. Visitors and worshipers alike enter the mosque through
the grand royal entrance. At the right-hand side portal is a Muslim
saint’s tomb. It is dedicated to a …Jew. His name was
Sarmad and he was from a Persian-speaking, Armenian Jewish merchant
family. Sometime in the 1630s, Sarmad arrived in the courts of Shah
Jahan in Delhi and Agra and became close to both the Shah and his
oldest son, the heir presumptive. Sarmad had an interesting career:
He was a Jew who turned from Muslim to Hindu and then to atheist. He
discovered a homosexual love, and as a result abandoned his wealth
and turned ascetic, wandering through the imperial courts as a naked
fakir. A brilliant linguist, Sarmad translated the Torah into
Persian. He also ridiculed all major religions of his time but was
very popular as both a poet and a philosopher. Aurangzeb, an evil
son of Shah Jahan, who killed his oldest brothers and imprisoned his
father in order to get the throne, never forgave Sarmad for his
friendship with his father and his brother. In 1661, he had Sarmad
arrested and beheaded for his heretical poetry. Then Sarmad’s
final and typical Indian transformation happened: he became
venerated as a great Sufi, an Islamic mystic, and was buried in a
shrine in Jami Masjid where the anniversary of his death is
commemorated annually in a festival.
Author talks to Mr. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, a prominent Delhi attorney and a Jewish community leader, Rabbi, Cantor, writer, and Hebrew scholar
India and Holocaust
There was another, much more recent Jewish story that
we heard while in Delhi. It was told by Ezekiel Malekar when he
learned that my grandmother’s family perished in Poland during
the Holocaust. It goes like this: In the beginning of the World War
II, a ship with 1200 Polish Jewish orphans and some adult guardians
was not allowed to dock in Britain. However, it was sponsored by a
Baghdadi Jewish philanthropist, and ended up in Bombay. But there
again, the British authorities would not grant them entry without
permission from London, so the Maharajah (great king) of Jamnagar,
in an India state of Gujarat, accepted them as his personal guests.
There, the refugees were well cared for until the war ended. In
1989, the surviving members of the group along with their children
and grandchildren, returned to Gujarat from the US and Israel, and
dedicated a memorial to their safe haven, India’s state of
Gujarat. The same group returned in the year 2000 when Gujarat was
badly affected by a natural disaster, and the group worked to
rebuild two villages. About ten years ago Ezekiel Malekar wanted to
publish an account of that unparalleled chapter in the Holocaust
history and contacted the Maharaja’s family for comments.
Maharajas’ son responded that his deceased father would not
have wanted any publicity because the Maharajah thought of the
Polish refugees as his own brothers and sisters and treated them as
such. The story of India as a shelter for Jews during the Holocaust
is not commonly known, but what a very Indian story it is. ii
Not just Delhi, but Mumbai as well proved to be a
collection of surprising Jewish stories and sites. Would you ever
think of India’s financial and movie capital as the city of
the eight synagogues?
Jews settled in Mumbai (Bombay) in the 18th
century: first Baghdadi arrived in 1730s and then Bene Israel began
migrating from the countryside into the city in the 1740s. Today,
Mumbai has the largest Jewish community in India: 3500 to 4000
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
was erected by David Sasson in 1861. Hanna and Eliyahoo were
waiting for us inside.
Mumbai: Inside the Kenesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. The Synagogue is located in the famous Colaba district where many of the wealthiest Jewish families used to live.
Hanna and Eliyahoo of Mumbai
Hanna Shapurkar and Eliyahoo Benjamin showed us the
imposing Magen David Synagogue. Hanna is an art historian and a
tour guide. She is petite, vivacious, and outspoken. We talked about
our families and the food we like to cook for the holidays.
“Yeeeak,” she grimaced when I tell her about my usual
holiday brisket: “Beef!” Hanna says that though she is
Jewish, she would never eat meat of a cow, a holy animal for the
Hindus. Her family cooks “mutton” for Rosh Hashanah. We
also talked about Jewish education in India and importance of the
JCC as a unifying center for the young Jews of Mumbai. Like Ezekiel
Malekar of Delhi, Hanna is a Bene Israel Jew.
Inside the Mogen David Synagogue: Mr. Eliyahoo Benjamin, a synagogue caretaker (left) and Hanna Shapukar, a tour guide (right), proudly show the author around the synagogue. Mr. Benjamin is a Baghdadi Jew and Hanna is a Bene Israel.
Eliyahoo Benjamin is this synagogue’s
caretaker. He proudly told us about the 150-year-old history of his
synagogue. At one time, his congregation did not accept the Bene
Israel. “They were thought to be too dark-skinned, not pure
Jewish in blood,” he says, But now, when so few are left, the
differences are forgotten and they often pray together, especially
during the holidays. Eliyahoo is a Baghdadi Jew. His 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. So, the group of Muslim boys
joined their hands and formed a protective wall across the
building’s gates. This is the house of God, they said.
We also visited another great Mumbai synagogue
called Kenesseth Eliyahooiv;
it is located in the
famous Colaba district, not far from major city landmarks like the
Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gates of India. And this is where Hannah
tells us about the Indian 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. After visiting the Kenesseth
Eliyahoo Synagogue, we went to the Sasson’s library’s
imposing reading room, absorbed its colonial splendor, and reflected
upon the impact the Jews made into so many world cultures.
But in order to meet the oldest Jewish community in the
world, we had to leave the cosmopolitan Mumbai and fly to the south
of the country, a town of Cochin.
One-street Jew Town and the foreigners’ shul
The oldest continuously
living Jewish community in the world dates back 2500 years and
consists now of a few families living in the Jew Town part of the
port city of Cochin in the southernmost state of India called
Kerala. The Jew Town now is just one long north-south street
bustling with shops and boutiques, some of which have signs like
“A.J. Taylor’s Shop.” The street is called
Synagogue Lane and
this is where we go to meet Mrs. Salem.
Reema lived all her life on the Synagogue Lane. She
looks a lot like my own Mom, tiny and pale, an elegant lady in her
eighties. She and I talk about Canada, where her children and
grandchildren live, and Cochin, which she says she would never leave
because this is her real home; this is where she is surrounded by
her many friends, both Muslims and Christians. The Salems, Reema’s
husband’s family, were among the oldest families of
Cochin, tracing their ancestry to the first arrivals from the
Kingdom of Judea 2500 years ago. Reema herself came from the
Paradesi or the “foreigners,” the Sephardim running away
from the persecution in Spain and Portugal in the late 15th-early
Both Reema’s and her husband’s family are the Cochin
Jews. Their native language is Judeo-Malayalam.
I bought a book from Reema that her husband's father, Abraham Barak Sale wrote about the 450-year-old Cochin Synagogue. I
remember seeing its model displayed in the Diaspora Museum in Tel
Aviv. Then Reema showed us where her street ends and the synagogue
stands. The synagogue has the most remarkable Clock
Tower with different faces. The clock facing
the street displays Roman numerals for merchants, the one facing the
synagogue has Hebrew letters, and the side facing the harbor has
Indian numerals. The “foreigners,” the Spanish Sephardim
(Reema’s ancestors) built the synagogue in 1568. The name
Paradesi means “foreign.”
Synagogue is the most popular site in
Cochin. Most of the tourists are Indians. The synagogue structure is
unique and resembles Kerala Hindu temples, which are very different
from the other Hindu temples throughout the subcontinent. The
red-tiled roof covers two of the synagogue’s whitewashed
buildings, and the entrance is a plain wooden door leading to a
treeless courtyard. The caretaker, Mr. K. J. Joy, tells us that the
courtyard is used for Simhat Torah procession just like Hindu temple
courtyards are used for their celebrations. We were asked to remove
our shoes, just like anyone should when entering a Hindu temple.
Here we see the most colorful of interiors: blue tiles from China
cover the floor (every one of them is different); silver and brass
chandeliers from Belgium; and a multitude of oil lamps of every
possible color. The Holy Ark, a work of art, made by the Kerala wood
carvers, houses the famous copper plates, upon which is written the
Raja’s guarantee of all freedoms for the Cochin Jews. The Ark
is covered by a beautiful curtain. Mr. Joy told us that the curtain
is made from a ceremonial dress, called
mundu, that Cochin Jewish women make for
their weddings or when their six-year-old son reads from the
No longer do they have a Rabbi, but a few remaining
congregants continue to pray together every Shabbat and on holidays.
The synagogue is adjacent to the Krishna Temple. Mr. Joy told us
that one might hear the chanting from the Temple during the prayers
at the synagogue. This could be a manifestation, I think, of
uniquely Indian harmony: two ancient civilizations, with their
languages and religions blending together in peace.
Our final visit in Cochin was to the grave of an old
Everybody in Cochin prays to a Jewish saint
Cochin: the Ancient Jewish Saint's Grave
ancient cemetery that was in that part of town for many centuries
did not survive. Small houses surround the only remaining grave
memorial that is honored by many symbols brought by Muslims, Hindu
and Christians. The people of India are the most pious and
tolerant, we are told. They come to pray, bring their grievances,
and ask for favors from an ancient Jewish saint, who they say has
divine powers. The sign reads in Hebrew: “…the
abundance of the light of his wisdom (“Torah”) shines on
all communities…let his soul be in the bundle of the living
his rights will protect us, Amen (זיע"א)…”
(Translated by Hanoch Ben-Yami, Ph.D., Philosophy Professor at the
Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, 2011)
Delhi, Mumbai, and Cochin were along our Jewish
pilgrimage route. All our newly made friends are members of the
tiniest among the smallest Indian minorities -- the Jews of India.
They are the least known among the Diaspora and arguably are the
These new friends, our US friends, continue asking
“are they Indian or Jewish?”
Who do they think they really are?
The truth about the Jews of India is that they are
both: fully Jewish and, at the same time, fully Indian. How did they
manage that? I found the best answer in the writing of Nathan Katz,
the world’s leading authority on the Jewish communities in
India and a pioneer of the Indo-Judaic studiesv.
Dr. Katz maintains that Indian Jews formed their
historic identity based on myths and legends which they continue to
tell about themselves. These stories relate events that may not be
purely factual, but they serve to organize people’s
perceptions into meaningful experiences. Just like many of us who
may talk about World Wars I and II as pivotal events in our family
histories, the Cochin and the Bene Israel Jews talk about their
arrival to India over 2000 years ago, as though these events are
still fresh in their memory. And they are.
The Cochin Jews’ ancestors might be traders
or the refugees from the invaders who destroyed the Temple, either
the First or the Second. The first Bene Israel might be running away
from the Romans, or they might be people of commerce. And, they
might be neither. As far as I know, nothing supports any of these
stories, but at the same time, nothing contradicts them. Actual
facts are not really relevant when we deal with identity; it is the
thousands-year-old narrative, the stories people tell about
themselves over many generations, which create that identity.
“Peoples’ historical self-understanding shapes their
identity more than mere history,” says Katz. Because the
person you are now depends on whom you think you were – very
What can we learn from the Jews of India?
As for me, their stories prompted me to think of
how my own Jewish identity was formed: “Aggressors, murderers,
Zhidy parshivue (wretched
kikes)!” It was the Six-Day War in Israel, and in Soviet
Russia two little girls, my friend and I, were desperately trying to
shrink, to become invisible, when crossing the courtyard of our
development. Our hearts were pierced by angry stares and shrieks of
those, who just-yesterday, were kind neighbors. In the forty years
that followed, my husband and I travelled the world, remaining
ever-attuned to the Jewish story that seemed to be an endless chain
of persecutions, humiliations, mass murders: from century to
century, from country to country. But when we came to India, we
uncovered an entirely different chapter in Jewish history, the
happiest of Jewish stories ever told. As Katz states, the tiniest of
India’s communities managed to live happily in freedom while
preserving their religious and cultural identity without either
rejecting or being overwhelmed by the large society they lived in.
Why did that happen? Because of the acceptance and tolerance of
Hindu? Because of creativity of the Jews themselves who created
their own myths of origin while managing to adopt local customs?
The Indo-Jewish stories might lead us to think of
something very important for many a Diaspora Jew: acculturation
For many Jews, like my family and me, who immigrated to
the US from the socialist countries, acculturation –
understood as becoming part of the society while retaining one’s
own religious and historical identity – was never an option.
The loss of that identity as the pre-requisite to acceptance or
assimilation was our only way. Being Jewish in the old country was
an obstacle to overcome, a stamp in your passport preventing you
from achieving your full potential. In the new country, all we ever
wanted was to mutate from “immigrants” to “true
Americans,” whatever that meant. Few were able -- or willing
-- to find their religious identity.
But is it true only for the former Soviet Jewish
immigrants? Numerous recent books and studies lament either the
disappearance of the American Jewry or the decline of strength of
No Indian Jew would ever be able to relate to that
Our trip to India gave us more cultural and
spiritual treasures than we could have ever expected. It affirmed
our original belief: India indeed proved to be the
place for self-discovery and personal growth
-- in a way that could not be matched by any other country. I kindly
challenge you to prove it for yourself.
The author expresses her deep gratitude to Mr.
Raj Singh whose talent, patience and great knowledge of the region,
have made our explorations possible. Mr. Singh’s Chicago-based
company is “Exotic Journeys:”
333 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL 60601; (312) 475-0655
Judah Hyam Synagogue: http://delhishul.com/,
2 Humayan Road, New Delhi
110003; phone 91- 981- 831-7674. They have services every Friday:
7:00 PM in the summer, 6:30 PM in the winter.
India and Holocaust: After
we returned home, I was able to locate an extraordinary study
published in Delhi in 1999, now out of print: Jewish
Exile in India: 1933-1945, edited by Anil
Bhatti and Johannes H. Voigt.
Books by Professor Nathan Katz
that became our gateway to understanding the Jews of India: The
Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India,
University of South Carolina Press, 1993 and Who
are the Jews of India? University of
California Press, 2000.
Among the books analyzing
the decline of strength of Jewish identity:
Steven M. Cohen’s A Tale of Two
Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews,
2006 and The
Vanishing American Jew by Alan M.
from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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