Everything You Want to Know about the Jewish Community in India

Judaism is India’s oldest foreign religion. India has the fourth largest Jewish community in Asia. Jews have never faced persecution in India, which is why thousands still live in the country while still many more visit India each year.

Delhi is one city where Jews have a thriving existence. The Synagogue Judah Hyam Hall near Khan Market is the only place of worship for Jews in the city.

Ezekiel Malekar is the Rabbi 0f the Synagogue. He has been the head secretary and caretaker of the synagogue since 1980 and never demanded any remuneration. “Israel is in my heart, India is in my blood,” he says. He claims that for the Jews in India, India comes first, then comes their religion. This should come as a lesson for some people of a certain community who openly claim that their religion is above the nation.

He also says that India is the most tolerant country in the world and one of the only places where Jews have not experienced anti-Semitism. This is a tight slap on the faces of those pseudo-secularists who defame India as being intolerant.

Jews have blended with Indian culture magnificently. At present, there are some 6,000 Jews across India. They have made significant contributions to India’s heritage. The Jews have also been demanding minority status in the country.

Professor Nathan Katz has worked on the Indian Jewish community. He makes a fascinating point about the interaction of Indians with outsiders: “The study of Indian Jewish communities demonstrates that in Indian culture, an immigrant group gains status precisely by maintaining its own identity.” He says that this phenomenon is on display even in the case of Zoroastrians, Christians and Tibetan Buddhists.

Jews in India, unlike those across the globe, are divided into three distinct groups – the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israeli and the Baghdadi Jews.

  • The Cochin Jews first arrived in Kerala at around 50 CE. Legend states that they moved to India after the first temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem and were warmly received by Cheraman Perumal, the ruler of the Chera dynasty.
  • The Bene Israeli, that numerically form the largest Jewish group in India, belong to the region in and around Maharashtra and Konkan. It is said that they arrived between 1,600 and 1,800 years back when they were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast. As per legend, only 14 of them survived and they took refuge in a village called Nawgaon, close to Bombay, now Mumbai.
  • The Baghdadi Jews are said to be part of the most recent wave of Jewish entry into India. By the mid-18th and 19th century, the Baghdadi Jews are said to have moved in to British port cities of India like Calcutta, Bombay and Rangoon. Rabbi Malekar spoke about the exchange of culture between the Jews and Indians: “The Bene Israeli who went back to Israel still speak Marathi, they wear the local Maharashtrian dress and tie the Mangal Sutra in weddings.” Coconut oil and camphor are used in synagogues; haldi and henna in weddings. These are few examples of how Jewish culture is influence by Indianness.

Jews have had considerable influence in India, and some have made it big. One such person was Shaikh David Sasoon who arrived in Bombay in 1828. He dominated the import-export trade. He started out with opium, then moved his trade interests to real estate and textiles, gradually becoming the patriarch of one of the wealthiest Jewish empires in the world. The Sasoon empire spread from Bombay to Calcutta to Shanghai, Amsterdam, London and New York.

Another famous Jew who contributed immensely to mother India was JFR Jacob. He is known for his contribution in securing India victory in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. He was born in Calcutta in 1924 and served as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command during the war and was awarded a commendation of merit for his role.

Jews have made an observable difference to India’s socio-economic status. They have mingled with Indians as if they were always a part of the Indian motherland.

Source – http://indianexpress.com/article/research/narendra-modi-in-israel-here-is-everything-you-need-to-know-about-indian-jews/

Vinayak Jain