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A Tour Like No Other

6,000 out of 1.38B is 0.00043%. That's the size of the Jewish population in India. The community is so small that our high school curriculum skipped the faith and the history of the Jews in India, even though we learned about the Palestinian conflict.


Many around the world first learned there are Jews in India when the terrorist attacks unfolded in Mumbai in November 2008. Among many others killed in the four days of mayhem were a Rabbi and his wife who died in the Chabad House in Colaba.


This weekend, our good friend "E" from Princeton sent me a link to a seminar titled, "Tour of Jewish India". E's email was the impetus I needed. She is Jewish but not from India. If she was learning about her community in India, shouldn't I know more?!


First, a caveat: I am no scholar and do not claim that this post does the topic justice.


Jews arrived in India in ancient times and brought the first of the foreign religions to our shores. The Jewish population in India peaked at 20,000 in the 1940s. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the numbers dwindled due to migration.


There are five Jewish communities in India.


The Cochin Jews live in Kerala in the southwest. They were the earliest to arrive and assimilate when they fled Greek persecution from the coastal areas of what is now Israel. They came after the fall of the second temple in King Soloman's reign, arriving at a port town called Cranganore in 50CE. The ruler of the Chera dynasty warmly welcomed these "traders from Judea".


The Bene Israelis settled in the west around Bombay, now Mumbai. The story goes that around 200CE, a ship load of Jews set out for destination unknown. Their ship wrecked near the coast of Mumbai in a town called Alibaug. Only a dozen or so survived and they steadfastly grew their community with help from the Rabbi of the Cochin Jews. Even though the Bene Israelis lost their belongings and religious texts in the shipwreck, they maintained the traditions that are central to the faith including Shabbat and dietary restrictions.


The Bnei Menashe call the northeast home and live on the Indo-Tibetan-Burmese border. This group does not have Jewish ancestry. They converted from Christianity to Judaism in the 20th century and gained recognition from the Chief Rabbi of Israel.


The Bnei Ephraims are in the south. They are the descendants of the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the ten lost tribes. Their history includes traveling through western Asia, China and Tibet before arriving in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh in the early 1900s.


The Baghdadi Jews arrived in Gujarat but made a home in Calcutta, now Kolkata, on the east. The Baghdadi Jews have flourished as entrepreneurs. As the name suggests, they migrated from Iraq and came in the 18th and 19th century, even before the Mughals arrived in India.


Courage, diplomatic savvy, business sense, and education are key to how such a small number of Jews have co-existed peacefully alongside the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Zorastrians, and Buddhists. They have assimilated in remarkable ways. The early Jews operated with the blessing and protection of the Indian rulers. The modern Jews have incorporated a myriad of local traditions including culinary ones while adhering to dietary and religious practices.


Even though small in numbers, Indian Jews have contributed in important ways to the history of India.


Shaikh David Sasoon, a Baghdadi Jew, headed a massive global conglomerate that traded in opium, real estate, and textiles. Known for securing India's victory in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war for the liberation of Bangladesh, Lieutenant Jack Farj Rafael (JFR) Jacob went on to serve as the Governor of Goa. Numerous others have contributed to the art and culture of India.


Remarkably, Jews have not felt any antisemitism in India. This makes me enormously proud of India’s rich tradition of respectful co-existence. In the video that E sent, the narrator makes a point of this on several occasions.


Reinforcing the closeness between the Jewish community and broader India, the Rabbi of the Synagogue Judah Hyam Hall in Delhi has said, “Israel is in my heart, India is in my blood." Although the city has a few dozen Jews, the synagogue hosts thousands of diplomats and visitors who temporarily call Delhi home due to work or travel.


Thank you E for taking me on this tour and encouraging me to learn about the Indian Jews and their rich history of assimilation, and resilience.


Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata

(Image from wikipedia.com)














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