by Vinod Narayanan
“I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted…………..I am proud to tell you that, We have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of Israelites who came to the southern India and took refuge…”
These words of Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of religions held at Chicago on September, 1893 heralded not only the concept of “Vasudaiva Kudumbakam” (Whole world is but a family” a concept propelled in Indian Civilization but the historical importance of Jewish Community with India.
India was and is the home of varied and distinct factions of civilizations and culture. The Jewish community was one of the first foreign religions to arrive in India during the recorded historical time period.
Based on the geographical locations, Chronological period of arrival in India, and myths that spell the ethnic origin, Jews of India are classified into three sects.
Oldest among the Jewish Community was “Cochin Jews” of the erstwhile Cochin Kingdom currently the Ernakulam District of Kerala State. History records the arrival of Jews on the coast of Cochin in the year of 70 A.D after the destruction of the Sacred Temple during the siege of Jerusalem against Romans. They arrived with the Hebrew King Solomon’s merchants. Cochin Jews were the descendants of European-Jewish sect, both Ashkenazi and Shephardi. The “Cheraman Perumal” provided asylum and basic amenities for the Jews. The place were they stayed and the community was called “Anjuvannam” the word which is common to both old colloquial Tamil and Malayalam which means the guild of merchants. In the Mattanchery area of Kochi (Ernakulam), there is a still-functioning synagogue which was built by Paradeshi Jews who were descendants of Sephardias expelled from Spain in 1492. The Jews were called by “Yehuda Mappilla” or “Juda Mappilla” in the local language. They were keen to protect the values and teachings of Judaism but they were also open to blend onto the local way of life without compromising their religion.
“…throughout the island, including all the towns thereof, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent.”
The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela wrote about Malabar Coast in his itinerary.
The majority of Jews in India made Aliyah (Aliyah the Hebrew word means ascent, is the migration of Jews from the diaspora to the holy land of Israel or “The Promised Land”) since the creation of Israel as a modern State. Cochin Jews were domiciled around the agricultural Settlements of Nevatim, Shavar, and Mesilat Zion. There are museums that exhibit the way of life of their ancestors in Cochin, the type of clothes they wear, utensils and other tools used, etc. Most of the old generation Jews who immigrated from Kerala (Cochin) are still well versed in speaking Malayalam.
Next is the “Bene Israeli”, the largest Jewish group in India, domiciled in the Konkan region mainly Maharashtra. Researchers are yet to ascertain their arrival period. A local legend in the Konkan area suggests that they arrived between 1600 and 180p tears back, due to a shipwreck on the Konkan Coast of the Arabian Sea and took refuge in a village called “Nawgaon” close to Mumbai. The myth of origin claims that “Bene Israelis are part of ten lost tribes of Israel.
The legend prescribed a shipwreck for the arrival of Jews in the western coast. The same is coincidental to another legend which speaks about the Chitpavan Brahmins of Maharashtra whom as the legend says arrived at the West coast due to a shipwreck. Bene Israeli sect immigrated to Israel still uses the “Mangal Sutra” at their marriage ceremonies and is well versed in Marathi.
Actress Firoza Beegum was born into a Bene Israeli community as Susan Solomon. Actor David Abraham Cheulkar who starred on the movie “Boot Polish” was also a member of the Bene Israeli Community. Benjamin Abraham Samson a member of the Bene Israeli Community held the topmost position in the Indian Navy as an admiral during 1964-1966.
The third sect of Jews in India are “Baghdadi Jews“, the most recent group of Jews migrated to India. By the mid of 18th and 19th century. The Baghdadi Jews are moved into creating a strong and innovative commercial class on the then Port Cities of Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai), and Rangoon (Yangon).
Though Jewish traders from the Middle East had crossed the Indian Ocean since ancient Rome, sources from the Mughal Empire first mention Jewish merchants from Baghdad trading with India in the 17th century. Beginning under the Mughal Empire in the 18th century, merchant traders from Baghdad and Aleppo established originally Judeo-Arabic speaking Jewish communities in India, then in a trading network across Asia, following Mizrahi Jewish customs. These flourished under the British Empire in the 19th century, growing to be English -speaking and British oriented. There are many sub-classifications for Sects based on their geographical locations in India.
As said earlier the majority of the Jews in India made Aliyah and immigrated to Israel after the formation of the Nation.
Ezekiel I Malekar, the Rabbi of Synagogue Judah Hyam Hall of Delhi the only worship place for Jews in New Delhi, who has been the Secretary and caretaker of the synagogue since 1980 claims that India is the most tolerant country in the world and one of the only place where Jews did not have to experience anti-Semitism.
Centuries-old friendship between Israel and India had been carried over to our generation through the uprising of the I.T industry and trade aspects of Globalisation. There is a lion share presence of Indians and Israelites in leading Tech Titan corporate organizations.
During the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel on 4th of July 2017, Israel’s Primo Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned about the presence of Indians and the Jewish Community at Silicon Valley of California U.S.A the I.T hub of the world, he expressed that the most overheard languages people speak at the valley were Hindi and Hebrew more than the Native English at the I.T Corridor, which also depicts the technical proficiency and passion of both the societies.
India’s foreign policy considers Israel as a valuable diplomatic ally and a friend.
About the Author:
Vinod Narayanan is a Civil Service Aspirant, a former IT Professional, and a law graduate who conducts freelance research in the subject ‘National Movements’. He has received Gujarat Sahithya Academy award ‘Certificate of Appreciation’ for his works.