Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Indian Jewish communities

In the third of her series on "Exotic Jewish communities," Gabriella Licsko spoke about the Indian Jewish communities, namely the Cochin Jews, the Bnei Israel, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bnei Menashe. Note that all of these groups are quite distinct and have separate histories and origins. Except for the Bnei Menashe, they all shared the characteristics of being very Indian, but also being pro-British, and distinctly middle class.

The Cochin Jews are the oldest group, their origins are supposed to go back to the Temple period about 2,500 years ago. They probably came from the Arabian peninsula to trade, since the area of Cochin is on the west coast of the State of Kerala in south west India. There was never any anti-Semitism in India and yet the number of Cochin Jews has always remained small. An early King gave them a copper scroll that is one of the oldest existing that guarantees them permanent safety in Cochin. There were three distinct groups of Cochin Jews, the earliest were dark skinned and were called the "Black Jews." The second group came later, after the expulsion from Spain via Persia, and were called the "Paradesi" or "White Jews" and the third group was called the "Mechshurarim" or "freed" because they were originally slaves of the Paradesi and many of them converted to Judaism. These three groups were not allowed to inter-marry with each other.

Because of their connections first to the Dutch and then to the British, the Cochin Jews felt that they would lose their economic and political status when India became independent and most of them (ca. 5,000) moved to Israel in the 1950s. Although the Cochin Jews were recognised as Jews by the Rabbinate (except for the Mechshurarim who had to re-convert), they still had a hard time immigrating to Israel. Some of them suffered from the disease of elephantiasis, and it took a while before the health authorities in Israel would agree that it was not contagious and would let them immigrate. Also, over time many of them had apparently converted to a form of early Christianity know as St. Thomas Christianity that was perhaps influenced by their Judaism. Many of the Cochin Jews moved together to moshav Nevatim in the Negev and you can still see their small museum and authentic synagogue (as well as the original one in the Israel museum) and you can have a good Indian meal there. Another Cochin settlement close to Beit Shemesh is called Mesilat Zion.

The Bnei Israel are a group of Jews who largely lived in and around Bombay (today's Mumbai). They were a larger group, consisting of tens of thousands, all of whom were supposed to be descended from 7 Jewish couples who were shipwrecked 2100 years ago. Since they lost all their books, they gradually lost manyJewish customs and became less observant, although they continued to observe kashruth, say the "shema Israel," perform brit milah and kept Shabbat. They were called "the Saturday oil pressers" by the local population. They became very Indian in their dress, the women wore saris, and they spoke the local language, Marathi. But, they were trusted by the British and many of them were drafted into the Indian Army and became officers and there was even a Jewish Mayor of Bombay named Nissim. They were quite westernized and many were Zionistic and when India became independent the same year as Israel, 1948, many left for Israel, although some went to Britain where life was easier for them. Most of the Rabbinut accepted them as Jews, but there was a problem of some extreme Orthodox Rabbis not accepting them, because they were concerned about possible inter-marriage in the past, but the whole problem was settled in 1964. They live mainly in the south, Dimona, Yeroham, and it is quite common to see women dressed in saris walking around in those towns, although the younger women now only wear these clothes on special occasions.

The Baghdadi Jews didn't only come from Baghdad, but more generally they were a class of merchant Jews from Iraq, Syria Aden and Persia, who moved to India for trade starting in 1730. Some of them were very wealthy and became more so in India. Their center was Bombay and the most famous family were the Sasoons, known as the Rothschilds of the East (Vidal was not a member of this family, but Siegfried was). These wealthy Jews supported the synagogues and schools of the community and ran a welfare system, so no Jew went hungry. They spread as far as Hong Kong and Shanghai, but preferred to be considered British, and many of them moved to Britain. Some Baghdadi Jews who went to Israel were treated like the rest of the poor Sephardim, since the Ashkenazi Jews who ran the Israeli system were ignorant of their background, education and standing.

The Bnei Menashe are a very distinct group who live in the tribal areas of NW India in Manipur and Mizoram. They claim to be descended from the tribe of Menashe, one of the lost tribes, which some believe but others doubt. They speak Mizo, a Tibetan-Bumese language and about 100 years ago were probably animist head hunters. They were converted to Christianity, and probably because of a tribal longing to return to their original homeland, the story of the Jews had a special resonance for them. In the 1920-30s they became more fervent and some of their rituals were thought to resemble those of the Jews. In 1951 their spiritual leader had a dream after which he decided that they were really Jews and from then they started to follow Judaism. In the 1980s an Israeli Rabbi named Avihail discovered them and thought they were one of the lost tribes and brought their case to Israel. In the 1990s with the help of Michael Freund of Shavei Israel they began to convert and finally were accepted to come to Israel. There are now several hundred of them mostly in Kiryat Arba who are very committed Jews, and about 8,000 remaining in India waiting for their aliyah. But, because India frowns upon their conversion in India some have had to go to Nepal to be converted. They do bring new meaning to the phrase "a rainbow nation" applied to Israel.


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