Each Jewish community around the world is unique, so it is imperative to preserve and maintain their unique aspects. One particular community that many people do not know exists is the Indian Jewish community of the Bene Israel. Some historians believe that the Bene Israel are the direct descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. For generations, the existence of this unique community of Jews was unknown to the rest of the Jewish world.
According to Joshua Shapurkar, my tour guide on my recent trip to India, and a member of the Bene Israel community, himself, Indian Jewry’s story began 2,000 years ago during the time of the Second Temple, when the Greeks ruled Israel. The Jews were constantly antagonized under Greek rule and many began to migrate to other lands. A large number headed to India because Jews had previously traded spices and precious jewels with Indians under King Solomon’s rule, and knew they would be received well there. During their journey to India, the Jews became shipwrecked, and lost everything. Seven men and seven women were all that survived the shipwreck. They lost everything, including their religious materials (e.g., Torah scrolls). Eventually, they forgot much about Jewish practice, including all prayers except for the Shema. It became difficult to distinguish the Jews in India as they adopted the predominantly Hindu culture. However, locals knew that the Jews were different, as they would not work on Saturdays. Members of the Jewish community were called the “Shaniwar-Teli” (“Saturday oil-pressers”). It wasn’t until the 1700s that a Jew from Cochin heard about this group of people and realized they were Jewish. He then sent rabbis, teachers and materials to their aid. In time, the Bene Israel were able to embrace mainstream Jewish practice and join what later became a thriving and proud Jewish community in Bombay, modern Mumbai.
I had the opportunity to interact and learn about the rich history of the Bene Israel through my recent trip to India this past December with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The organization’s goal is to maintain and aid both secular and rare Jewish communities around the world like the communities in India, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines.
Through my trip with JDC, I was given a taste of Jewish India. I explored the history and culture of the Bene Israel and other Indian Jewish communities by visiting the Jerusalem Gate, the site where Jews first landed in India 2,000 years before. I also visited ancient synagogues and the Bayiti, the Indian Jewish old age home, and engaged with Bene Israel youth.
I was inspired by the Jewish youth of Mumbai. Despite being a small population, they were dedicated to maintaining their Jewish faith and community. Seeing the way they had maintained their customs and how much they had to fight to avoid their community from diminishing made me realize that I had been taking my own Judaism for granted. In Los Angeles, Jews are privileged with a large Jewish community and an abundance of resources to maintain their heritage.
Through the learning sessions created and conducted by the Indian Jewish youth, I quickly realized that we share common values and beliefs. The connections I made with the Indian Jewish peers were what made the trip most important to me. I learned a great deal from my them, including how to properly eat Indian food with my hands and dance to popular Indian songs. They made me realize the importance of preserving the Jewish culture. They strive to keep Judaism alive in India, despite having limited resources. Their perseverance made me realize that the Jewish world is much more committed to its roots than I thought.
I asked some of the Bene Israel youth to share what it means to be an Indian Jew for them, and the connection they feel towards other Jewish communities around the world:
Ronel Jacob: “Being in India, which is the only country where we, the Jews, have never faced anti-Semitism, makes us unique and proud. Being brought up in India, most Indian Jews speak the local languages and most Bene Israel Jews don’t eat beef as our Indian brethren consider the cow to be holy. We are always connected with the global Jewish community through various programs organized by Jewish organizations in India as well as other parts of the world. We play a small role in the global Jewish community, yet are magnificent and vibrant!”
Doron Samuel: “Our traditions are way different from [those of] other Jews around the world. Our prayer style is adopted from our forefathers and there has hardly been any change in the style since then. We are strongly connected to the Indian culture. We have adopted a few things from Indian culture like a henna night a few days prior to a wedding. We have friends from different religions and they are curious to know about Jews and their history. Sharing and spreading the knowledge about Jews makes them aware about us and we bond much better.”
Amiran Divekar: “Even being a small community, we have mingled quite well with other communities and despite being Jews, we celebrate Indian festivals too, like Holi, Diwali and Uttarayan. We even attend the religious ceremonies of our non-Jewish friends and they help us with our occasions, too.”
Revital Moses: “When it comes to being an Indian Jew, people out here in India don’t really recognize us. My friends often ask me if I was Catholic or Parsi! So actually narrating them stories about our forefathers, the Holocaust and also the country named Israel, I sort of unfold my identity to them as a Jew! So even though I’m living in India for 21 years there is still some cultural exchange which goes on. I go over for Diwali to my friend’s place and also I have friends over for Hanukkah. It feels great to meet Jews from all over the world. It’s intriguing to know about different ways of sharing Judaism—by the way we all dress, or Shabbat. But at the end of the day, we are all Jewish. So it’s kind of exciting. It’s like having different dishes which taste similar on the same platter.”
Shamir Galsukar: “Being an Indian Jew is a unique opportunity to explore thousands of years of Indian Jewry filled with ancient stories and spices, ancient authentic synagogues and a unique bunch of people who dream of having a Jewish life and never giving up their traditions.”
Asriel Jhirad: “I’m grateful for being born Jewish in such a diverse and culturally rich country. Our community is so tiny that many Indians don’t know we exist. Though our cultures are so different, over the last two millennia, we have figured out how to coexist and maintain our Jewish identity. If you wish to understand how it is to be Jewish in India, try to imagine what must have happened when the PB&J sandwich was invented. It sounded like a weird combination at first, but when you actually try it, the flavors fit together perfectly!”
Akiv Rohekar: “Shalom! My name is Akiv and I am 24 years old. I am a part of the small and ancient Bene Israel community of India. I say “ancient” because our ancestors came to India more than two thousand years ago and have been living peacefully as a part of the local population ever since. Our family names have a ‘kar’ in it, which signifies the villages our ancestors settled in. For example, my family name is Rohekar, so my forefathers had settled in the village of Roha in Maharashtra. Growing up in Mumbai (Bombay), I went to a private school in the suburbs, where, as far as I knew, I was the only Jew in that school. There are a lot of different religions followed in India, such as Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism,etc.; and all my friends from all these religions were always curious about my religion, since none of them knew what Judaism was!”
When I was younger, my parents, Shabbat, kashrut, the different chagim (Jewish festivals) and my relatives (mostly from Israel) played an integral part in forming my Jewish identity. When I was in middle school, my father and grandfather used to take me to the JCC on Sundays for Gan Katan, which is where I started forming a bond with my Jewish friends. When I was in high school, my family moved closer to the heart of Mumbai, where the JCC and most of the synagogues are located. This turned out to be pretty good, as I made a lot of Jewish friends at the JCC and the synagogues. My Jewish friends and I attend Jewish youth camps together, hang out together, go to the synagogue together. We are inseparable to this day. Jewish youth camps are where the most bonding happens and through shared experiences, friendships are forged for life! Through the JDC, we have the opportunity to meet Jewish youth, who are just like us, from all over the world. This gives all of us a deeper understanding about each other; our similarities (Jewish moms all over the world are exactly the same!) and differences. I also came to realize that living in India, we have been quite lucky, having not faced any anti-Semitism. In fact, our ancestors preferred to live in Muslim localities, due to the similarities in our customs. Most of the synagogues in Mumbai are located in Muslim-majority areas.
Once upon a time, there were more than 75,000 Jews in India. Due to most of the families making aliyah, now there are less than 5,000, mostly in and around Mumbai. A question I get asked a lot is: when do you plan to make aliyah? Having traveled all over the world, I believe that once you’ve lived in Mumbai, you can’t live anywhere else! But that’s just my personal opinion. You should come and check this beautiful country out for yourself. Shalom Namaste!”
While I was in India, I also met Ariela Wallace. She had been working in India for the past five months in Mumbai’s Jewish community through the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellowship. Her role in India was to serve as a Jewish educator in Mumbai’s Jewish Community Center, and help to expand the Jewish educational and social programs. These programs would offer Jewish studies classes to children and adults, and create spaces for Jewish learning and engagement for community members of all age groups. Ariela shared her thoughts on her experience living in India:
“There are few places in India for Jewish people to celebrate Jewish social and cultural functions, learn together, and gather as a community, but I am in awe at the perseverance and loyalty the community demonstrates, even in circumstances where it is certainly not easy to lead a Jewish life. The Indian Jewish community is small in size, with no more than 5,000 people in a country of 1.2 billion, yet it is a community of such strength, spirit, and vibrancy. Indian Jews do not have the luxury of attending Jewish day schools or summer camps as I did in Los Angeles, but they are so grounded in their Jewish traditions, as well as in their Indian cultural identities. It is not uncommon for our non-Jewish Indian peers to be completely unaware of the existence of Jews. In spite of this, I have noticed that most [of the] Bene Israel—a historic tribe of Indian Jews that has existed for the past 2000 years—feel an inspiring sense of pride and responsibility to carry on their Jewish traditions and stories.”
According to Aish HaTorah, in 1948, 30,000 Jews lived in India. Only about 5,000 Jews remain in India today. However, 80,000 Jews of Indian descent keep their unique traditions alive in Israel. Still, the Jewish population in India has dropped by 20 percent in the past five years alone. One youth member I got to know revealed to me one reason why the Jewish Indian community has been shrinking so rapidly and why so many people were leaving India for Israel. Simply put, finding a Jewish significant other is difficult. He explained that he only had the option of ten Jewish Indian girls in his age range to marry. While it would just be easier to maintain a Jewish life if they moved to Israel, the Bene Israel who remain in India know the rarity of their community and do not want to abandon it.
One of the defining moments that made me feel the connection Jews worldwide share was when everyone sang “Hineh Mah Tov,” a well known Jewish song, together. This song originated from a verse in Psalms 133 which meant “Behold, how good and how pleasant is the sitting of brothers [people] in unity.” We had personified the verse as we represented two groups of Jews from different parts of the world, sitting in a room and singing together in unison.
Through this amazing trip, I had the opportunity to gain a new perspective, and receive insight into the Indian Jewish community. As a descendant of Persian Jews, I do not have the opportunity to go back to my parents’ home country to learn and see Iranian Judaism at its core. Thus, I have always been fascinated by visiting countries, besides Iran, and learning about the Jewish communities in those regions. As a first-generation Iranian-American Jew, cultural preservation is very important to me. Having the experience of going to India and interacting with a community that shared my priorities reinforced my belief in the significance of Jewish identity, awareness, and empowerment. Moreover, their efforts have inspired me to take more initiatives to preserve my own community. It is my hope that rare communities of the Diaspora, like the Bene Israel, continue to grow and thrive for generations to come.