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Indo-Israel friendship poised for greater heights

Indo-Israel friendship poised for greater heights

Publication: Bharatiya Pragna
Date: August 2002
"Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by a host majority. The secret of India's tolerance is the Hindu belief which confers legitimacy on a wide diversity of cultural and religious groups even as it forbids movement from one group to another" - Raphael Meyer India has, historically, been a refuge and sheltered people of all religions, creeds and beliefs - Zoroastrians, Jews, Sufis and more recently Bahais - all were granted protection and security when they sought it. They were accepted into the fold of the mainstream society, given land and equal opportunity to excel in their profession of choice - and remain Indians. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism are religions of the land - all were born in India. The central Asian invaders brought Islam. The colonial powers brought Christianity. India remained a large hearted host to all, enriched its cultural heritage and became a truly secular nation. In the first of our series on 'Spirit of India' - we feature the story of the Jewish Community of India.

The earliest Jews cane to India two thousand years back. They were escaping persecution in Galilee. Some came after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Sephardic Jews came to India from west European nations such as Holland and Spain. The 16th and 17th century migrations saw Jews from Persia, Afghanistan, and Khorasan (Central Asia) settle down in northern India and Kashmir. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jewish settlers came from the Middle East and North Africa. Jews settled in different areas - from Kashmir in the north to Kochi (Cochin) in the south, Kolkata in the east to Mumbai in the west. By the fate 18th century, Mumbai had the largest Jewish community in India (particularly in Thane). Today only a few thousands remain - most having migrated to Israel, England, USA and Australia. They have left behind them a rich legacy of synagogues, public institutions and nostalgia. Only two synagogues remain open in Kolkata for its 60 odd Jewish population. The Pardesi synagogue at Kochi, Kerala is the oldest among the surviving synagogues. It is a National Heritage.

Some Eminent Jews of India

"Israel is in my heart but India is in my blood:' - Ezekiel Malekar, Delhi

There have been many among them who rose to national stature

(Late) Mrs Hannah Sen, President of All, India Women's Conference and also the first lady director, Lady Irwin College for Women, Delhi

(Late) Mr Ezra Kolet did pioneering work in the shipping industry.

Mr J M Benjamin, former Chief Architect to the Government of India and former secretary, Delhi Urban Arts Commission.

Mr Haffkine, after whom the famous Haffkine Institute in Mumbai was named.

The Sassoons, after whom the Sassoon docks, the Sassoon Hospital, and two of Mumbai's well known sites - the Jacob Circle and Flora Fountain have been named.

Dr E Moses who was the Mayor of Mumbai.

Maj Gen Samson who was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and a few other Jews with the Indian Armed Forces.

General Jacobs became the Governor of Goa. An erstwhile Chief of the Naval Staff was also a Jew.

Poet Nissim Ezeickel and the famous cartoonist Abu Abraham

The actress/dancer Helen, the late Hindi film actor David and the late Sulochana - the Queen of Indian Silent Films.

Dr Erulkar was the personal physician/friend of Mahatma Gandhi. His father, also a doctor, Abraham Erulkar, donated land for the synagogue in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Dr. Erulkar's daughter became the First Lady of Cyprus and was married to the President of Cyprus.

Dr Jerusha Jhirad was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India.

Jews of India - The Kochi Jews

A street entrance of a Jewish town in Kochi reads Kochi is a city which has welcomed, befriended and protected Jews for centuries."

Kochi is a handy name for a cluster of islands and towns sprinkled with shady lagoons, tropical forests and canals winding past houses on stilts. This is a multicultural land where, in addition to the Jewish sights, one can see Portuguese churches, Dutch architecture, mosques, Hindu temples and a British village green.

Kochi has an ancient and multifaceted Jewish community which is as old as the Diaspora. Located in the tropical state of Kerala and alternately referred to as the Venice of the East and queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi is one of the 3 largest ports on India's west coast and one of the finest natural harbours in the world. The markets are filled with the scent of spices and the shouts of vendors; the docks are lined with merchants' houses and cargo ships. The crystal-blue sky and tropical foliage, the pastel houses, the bright raw silk of the clothes and the ever-present smiles blend into one exquisite rainbow.


One legend holds that the Jews first settled in India during the time of King Solomon, when there was trade in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks between the Land of Israel and the Malabar Coast, where Kochi is located. Others put their arrival at the time of the Assyrian exile in 722 BC, the Babylonian exile in 586 or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. No reliable evidence exists, but most contemporary scholars fix the date at some time during the early Middle Ages. It is the Bible that contains the first mention of Jews in connection with India. The Book of Esther, which dates from the second century BC, cites decrees enacted by Ahasuerus relating to the Jews dispersed throughout the provinces of his empire from Hodu to Kush. Hodu is Hebrew for India: Kush is Ethiopia. Talmudic and midrashic literature also mention spices, perfumes, plants, animals, textiles, gems and crockery which either bearing names of Indian origin or are indigenous. The earliest documentation of permanent Jewish settlements is on two copper plates now stored in the main synagogue of Kochi. Engraved in the local language, they detail the privileges granted to Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth-century Hindu ruler of Malabar. According to the inscription, the ruler awarded the Jews the village of Anjuvannam, meaning "five castes," as the Jews were believed to be the lords of the five castes of artisans. The plates also state that Anjuvannam shall remain in the possession of the descendants of these Jews "so long as the world and moon exist."

Twelfth-century Jewish, Christian and Muslim travelers described Jewish settlements around Kochi. The main community was in Cranganore, north of Kochi. For some time the Jews of the Malabar Coast served as a way station to the Jewish community in China. In 1167 Benjamin of Tudela wrote of 1,000 Jews on the Malabar Coast "who are black like their neighbors and are good men, observers of the law and possess the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and some little knowledge of the Talmud and the halakha."

The Jews prospered in Anjuvannam for more than a thousand years after the grant of the copper plates. Then, with the extinction of the line of Rabban, dissension arose between two brothers of a noble family for the chieftanship of the principality. The neighboring princes intervened and dispossessed the Jews. In 1341 the brothers fled to Kochi with their followers and established the Kochangadi synagogue there.

In 1524, on the pretext that the Jews were tampering with the pepper trade, the Moors attacked the remaining Jews of Anjuvannam, burning their homes and synagogues. The destruction was so complete that when the Portuguese arrived a few years later they found only destitute Jews, who continued to eke out a miserable existence. Finally, the remaining Jews deserted their ancient settlement and fled to Kochi.

As the Portuguese made inroads along the coast more Jews arrived, which remained under the Indian protection. Spanish and Portuguese exiles came after the Inquisition, and others arrived fleeing persecution in the Middle East. In 1560 the Portuguese set up an office of the Inquisition in Goa, halfway between Mumbai and Kochi, and even more Jews sought the protection of Cheraman Parumal, the Raja of Kochi, soon labeled the "King of the Jews" by the Portuguese authorities.

Raja Parumal of Kochi gave land next to his palace for the construction of a synagogue - just 30 yards away from his temple.

L-R: View of synagogue from the palace; the King's temple with the synagogue in the background.

The Jews could not have survived under Portuguese rule (1502-1663) had it not been for Parumal. In 1565 he gave them a strip of land next to his palace and in 1568 permitted them to build a synagogue. He appointed a hereditary mudaliar (chief) from among the Jews and invested the position with special privileges and jurisdiction in all internal matters in the Jewish community. This office continued in force under subsequent Rajas and even under Dutch and British rule. The Hallegua family, which still holds the title, continues to be influential in Kochi.

Jews of India - the Bene Israel

The Jews of India are not one singular community' but are divided into different communities. Each community has its own culture, background, origin and claims its arrival to India in different ways and it is not always clear how they really came. The three main Jewish communities of India are: Bene Israel who believe themselves to be the descendants of the original settlers who came to India as early as 2,000 years ago; Kochi Jews of southern India, who were centered in Kerala; and the Iraqi Jews, called Baghdadis, who began settling in India at the end of the 18th century. There were Ashkenazi Jews and also a community in Manipur, east India, which claims Israeli origin speculated to be one of the lost tribes - and call themselves Bne Menashe. Each group has active synagogues.

Bene Israel

The Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel") claim to be descendants of Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BC. They settled down primarily in Mumbai, Kolkata, Old Delhi and Ahmedabad and their native language became Marathi. The Bene Israel look in appearance like the non-Jewish Maratha people, indicating intermarriage between Jews and Indians. However, the Bene Israel maintained the practices and rituals of Judaism.

The ancestors of Bene Israel were oil pressers in Galilee, who fled on a ship towards India. Close to the Indian coast their ship got wrecked but some survived the shipwreck - the present day Bene Israel are the descendants of those survivors, who swam towards the land and arrived at a village called Navgaon, where they buried the bodies of those who died in the shipwreck. There is a memorial in Navgaon to those who did not make it to the Indian shore. The survivors settled in the village and started working in agriculture and subsequently in oil producing, which later became their main profession.

They were distinguished from other caste telis (oil pressers) and called Shanivari telis, because of their observation of Sabbath on Saturdays (Shanivar). The Bene Israel community grew and became a guild of oil pressers. They left their first village, Navgaon, and dispersed to other villages and towns along the coast of Konkan, becoming the oil producers and oil pressers of their respective villages. Gradually they derived their surnames from the villages they settled down in - Rohekar; Penkar; Palkar; Ashtamkar originated from the villages of Roha, Pen, Pali or Ashtam respectively.

In the early 17th century, the Bene Israel came in contact with the Jews from Kochi who brought them into the mainstream of modem Judaism. The Bene Israel began to move to Mumbai in the late 18th century and built their first synagogue, Shaare Rahamim [Gates of Mercy], in 1796. In time, the Bene Israel in Mumbai became, demographically, a strong community. In the early 19th century, the Bene Israel numbered approximately 6,000, by 1948 their numbers had grown to 30,000 - today there are only about 5000 in India - the majority having emigrated to Israel and some to Australia and England. Many of its members were employed in government service, and a considerable number of others distinguished themselves as officers in the Indian army. In the 1950's and 1960's, when the majority of Indian Jews immigrated to Israel, a significant number of the Bene Israel remained in India. Among the well-known members of this community in modern day Mumbai is the poet Nissim Ezekiel.

Baghdadi / Iraqi Jews & Manipur Jews

The Baghdadi Jews first arrived from Iraq, Syria, and Iran sometime in 1796, fleeing persecution in their native lands and settled mainly in the port cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Rangoon. They retained their language, Arabic, and a separate cultural identity. Mostly traders and financiers, their contribution to the industrial growth of Mumbai is well documented. The most prominent Baghdadi Jew was Sir David Sassoon who established the Indian House of Sassoon in 1832 and paved the way for the arrival of many other Iraqi Jews in India.

These communities were then set on a firm foundation by the house of David Sassoon in the second half of the nineteenth century, and by his grandson Jacob Eliyahu Sassoon in the early twentieth century.

Eminent in Mumbai - David Sassoon himself had to flee Baghdad in 1826 from the oppression of the Governor and Wali of Baghdad. Starting cautiously, the Sassoon family business gained ground and strength. With increasing wealth, the Sassoons gave huge sums to both Jewish and public institutions. The community was set on a firm foundation by the house of David Sassoon.

"The synagogues built by the Baghdadis still survive. David Sassoon built the Magen David Synagogue in 1861 in Byculla, where the family first lived. This was then the best location in Mumbai before other areas were developed. The large synagogue was set in extensive grounds, which were to prove very valuable. Built in the spacious style of Victorian architecture, it was fronted by pillars and a clock tower. David Sassoon also built an elementary school on one side in the same large compound to provide education for the community's children in Torah. This was later expanded to a high school by his grandson Jacob Sassoon, and renamed "The Sir Jacob Sassoon Free High School". The synagogue and school grounds became in effect a community centre for the Jewish community of Byculla, where young and the old meet together in the evenings."

"The Ohel-David Synagogue was built by David Sassoon in 1863 in Poona, where he had his resort home. The synagogue is a well-known landmark in Poona, of impressive architecture in spacious grounds in a central location in Poona cantonment. David Sassoon's Poona home, where he died in 1864 much mourned by Jews and Indians alike, was across the street from the synagogue. His sons buried him in the synagogue grounds in a fine mausoleum. The synagogue and mausoleum were visited by the President of India, Dr Zakir Hussein, at a special Memorial Service on December 10, 1968, on the occasion of the Centenary celebration of the Sassoon General Hospitals in Poona established by the Sassoons."

David Sassoon's grandson, Jacob Sassoon, built the Kneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in the Fort in 1884, in memory of his father Eliyahoo Sassoon (founder of E.D. sassoon and Company).

The Kolkata Story

Shalon Cohen, an ambitious young merchant, was one of the first settlers to arrive in Kolkata from his native Aleppo, in 1798. Kolkata was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce. Early Jewish settlers in Kolkata were traders who established trading links from London to Shanghai - dealing in indigo, cotton, yam, silk, Veniceware, precious stones, gold leaf, ivory and coffee. The Kolkata Jewish community was set up by Shalon Cohen and consolidated by his nephew/son-in-law Moses Duck Cohen, who is remembered for his dedicated service to the community. "He played a leading role in framing the first constitution of the community (29 August 1825) and in establishing the first formal synagogue, Neveh Shalome (Abode of Peace) in 1826, as well as first purpose built synagogue, Bethel in Pollock Street, where it still stands." Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the wealthier members of the community began to adopt western dress and etiquette. The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but by the 1890s English was widely spoken. They also moved to select residential areas, South of Park Street.

The community increased from 15 in 1799 to 200 in 1825, and in 1860 they numbered 600 and rose to 2000 by the end of the century. "Japanese invasion of Burma (Myanmar) led to an influx of Jews fleeing from that country raising the Jewish population in Kolkata to an all-time high of about 5000 in early 1940."

David Joseph Ezra is associated with some of the city's most imposing buildings - Esplanade mansions, Ezra mansions and Chowringhee mansions as well as Ezra street. David Joseph Ezra made his fortune from prime real estate.

Elia David Ezra, son of David Joseph Ezra built the city's most magnificent synagogue - the Magen David Synagogue.

DJ Cohen and Reverend E M D Cohen played a more direct part in civic work and social uplift. Under Reverend E M D Cohen's proprietorship the Hebrew newspaper Pariah had a circulation of 500 copies a week in 1880s.

Kolkata Jews left for Israel, England and the US, and today only a few remain in this bustling city.

Of the five synagogues, only two remain open for a population of about 60 Jews: Neveh Shalome Synagogue established in 1825, the first Synagogue in Kolkata and rebuilt in 1911, and the Magen David Synagogue, built by Mr Elias David Joseph Ezra to perpetuate the memory of his father, Mr. David Joseph Ezra who died in 1882. This is the largest Synagogue in the East and is magnificent in architecture and design. Each week on Erev Shabbat, prayer services are held, alternating between the Synagogues.

"The keeper of both these synagogues, the individual who is also the keeper of the sanctum sanctorum, where the Torahs are kept, is a Muslim. Only in India will you witness such a level of spiritual neighborliness between two religions which seem to optimize violence to us, living in the West."

Manipur Jews (Bne Menashe)

Manipur Jews or the Bne Menashe maybe one of the lost tribes.

In the states of Manipur and Mizoram exists a community which sees itself as descendants of the Menashe Tribe (one of the 10 lost tribes). These people claim that after their forefathers were exiled and enslaved by the Assyrians they somehow escaped from slavery and arrived in China. Later on they moved to the Chinese-Burmese border and much later on to the neighbouring east India. Most of the residents of Mizoram and Manipur are Christians. Among the Manipur Jews there are some who believe that all the Manipur and Mizoram residents (about 2 million people) are originally from the Menashe tribe. The Manipur Jews believe that the Christian missionaries in the 19th century forced them to abolish their Jewish identity and adopt Christianity.

1951 onwards, after a local chief, named Tchalah revealed to his people that God had told him that his people should return to their original religion and land (Judaism and Israel), there has been a movement to return to Judaism and immigration to Israel. Some of the Israeli rabbis accept their Judaism and others don't see them as original Jews. Many of the immigrating Manipuri Jews to Israel have converted to Judaism through strict Jewish laws.

Jews of India - Community Information

The central communal organisation of Jews in India is the Council of Indian Jewry, which was established in 1978 in Mumbai. It replaced the Central Jewish Board founded during World War II. The Council consists of representatives from the various synagogues and Jewish organizations. There are a variety of other organizations including the Zionist Association, B'nai B'rith, a Jewish Club in Mumbai, Bikur Cholim and two women's associations.

There are three Jewish schools in Mumbai, but over the years the percentage of Jews in their student bodies has dwindled. In the ORT school, for example, less than half the students are Jewish. There are also two small Jewish schools in Kolkata.

Jewish Community

Council of Indian Jewry c/o The Jewish Club, Jerro Bldg., 2nd floor, 137 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Mumbai 400 023 Tel. 91 22 270 461, Fax. 91 22 274 129


3 Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi 110003. Tel. 91 11 3013 238, Fax. 91 11 3014 298 http://hsita.cjb.net/http://hsita.cjb.net/

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