Who are the Jews of India?
India is the only country in the world where:
- The Jews never experienced persecution and had total religious freedom.
- Hebrew was revived and taught as an official second language in the National Education System, schools, colleges and universities from books written by local Jews.
- A Chair for Hebrew Studies at the University of Bombay was established prior to the creation of the State of Israel.
- Christians (both Protestant & Catholic) were involved in the revival of Judaism, and taught Hebrew to Jewish children.
- Jewish teachers taught in Catholic schools and received Papal Gold Medals for Excellence in Teaching.
- St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, a Catholic college, holds exhibitions on the Holocaust.
- A local Indian language (Marathi) and culture has been internationalised by Jews.
Source: Nissim Moses, Historian & President – Bene Israel & Genealogy Research, Indian Jewish Heritage Center, Nevatim, Israel.
At its height, and before the exodus to Israel, the Jews in India numbered 80,000. Today, they are less than 5,000 and are officially declared a ‘minority’ by the Indian Government.
The Five Jewish Communities
Considered to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Bene Israel arrived in India around the first or second century when their ancestors were shipwrecked off the coast of western India on a trading voyage on King Solomon’s fleet. The Bene Israel believe mystical markings carved in a large rock not far from where they landed were made by Elijah the Prophet.
The Jews of Cochin, also known as ‘Paradesi’ (foreign), arrived in Cochin in the state of Kerala from Spain in the sixteenth century. The history of the Cochin Jews is marked by their close relationship with Indian rulers, codified on a set of copper plates granting the community special privileges. The Maharaja gave Joseph Rabban an entire village and land next to his palace to build a synagogue. The Cochin Magna Carta reads: “So long as the world and moon exist, Anjuvannam shall be his hereditary possession Hall.”
The Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay (Mumbai) dates back to about 1730. They arrived in India from Iraq when Bombay became the center of commerce and industry after the British East India Company moved its headquarters to the harbour city of India’s west coast. Predominantly traders and merchants, some Baghdadi Jews also made fortunes in the textile and opium trades.
Bene Menashe is the name given to the Jews from north-east India in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. The Bene Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the ten tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrians over 2,700 years ago.
The Bene Ephraim are a small Jewish community scattered all over Andhra Pradesh. Also known as ‘Telugu Jews’ because they speak Telugu, the language of the state. The Bene Ephraim trace their observance of Judaism back to ancient times.