2000 years ago, a small community of Jews landed on the western coast of India and integrated with the local society; this is the story of the Bene Israelis.
In the 18th century, during the third Anglo-Mysore war, the ruthless Tipu Sultan captured a group of army officers fighting for the British and ordered their execution. However, when Tipu’s mother discovered which community two of the enemy soldiers belonged to, she requested they be spared. She said that the Quran spoke highly of these people. And the Sultan complied! The two soldiers were brothers named Samuel Ezekiel Divekar and Issac Divekar, who were Bene Israelis.
The Bene Israelis are a community of Jews who are believed to have been shipwrecked at Navgaon, on the Konkan coast near Mumbai about 2,000 years ago. Historians claim they were fleeing religious persecution in Palestine. India was a tolerant land with no history of anti-semitism and hence an attractive option. India became their adopted land, and in their time in the subcontinent, they lived interesting lives.
Often the Jews of India are thought of as one homogeneous community. In reality, Jews came from many lands, at different times, based on different triggers. So, there are many sects of “Indian” Jews! The Malabari Jews of Kerala were probably the first immigrants, and they came for trade. Folklore places their immigration dates around the 9th century BCE, but scholarly estimates talk of 1st century BCE. The Sephardic Jews came to Kochi after the 15th century CE when Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch Jews were fleeing the Inquisition. They are also known as “Pardesi” (foreigner) Jews, because of their fair complexion. The Baghdadi Jews settled in Gujarat about 3 centuries ago, to escape the Islamic persecution in the Arab world. There are other smaller branches of Indian Jews as well. But the largest Indian Jewish sect is the Bene Israelis, and this story is about them.
The term “Bene Israeli” means “sons of God” in Hebrew. These early migrants who settled in India had lost their religious texts and forgotten all their practices except for the four most important ones: they observed Shabbat or Saturday as the holy day and day of rest, they recited Shema, an everyday Jewish prayer, they followed a Kosher diet, – food that conforms to Jewish dietary laws – and finally, they practised circumcision on male children. As they had lost their books, they lived a life as dictated by the Bible.
You may wonder how well they actually blended with their new neighbours. Well, they started by learning and using Marathi as their primary language and adopting Indian food habits, including the delicious Puran Polis which became a major festival dish for them. They also followed the Indian way of dressing. The women wore Nav-vari sarees (the longer nine yard version) which they draped in the style of Brahmin women of Maharashtra. They abstained from consuming beef as they saw most of their Hindu neighbours worshipping the cow. There are many other customs that the Bene Israelis took from the Hindus, including a restriction on widow remarriage and levirate marriage (a Jewish custom that permits the marriage between a widow and her husband’s brother if the man had died childless). Do you know what else they adopted from the Hindus? They also began giving pregnant women ladoos in the hope of begetting a son! From the Muslims, they took the practice of drawing Mehendi designs on their hands for weddings, among other things.
Their life in the new land was uneventful until the arrival of a man by the name David Rahabi, who belonged to the Cochin Jewish community. He arrived in Mumbai somewhere between 1000 and 1400 AD. He had requested the women to prepare a fish meal for him but, as they worked, he noticed something – they avoided the non-kosher fish. He realised that they were in fact Jews! He decided to give them education in Judaism and taught them to read and write in Hebrew. Then, with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 18th century, the Bene Israelis got an English education and soon worked for the British.
They benefited a lot from the British rule in India. They were employed by the British in various jobs, including the army. The British were also the first to document them when they recorded the recruitment of army officers in 1786. But the British also allegedly forced them to take on surnames. The concept was entirely alien to the Bene Israelis. How did they solve this problem? They decided to just add the suffix ‘kar’ to their village names, and use that. So you get names like Cheulkars, Akshikars, Penkars and so on. That is how the two Bene Israeli brothers fought for the British against Tipu Sultan. After their release, Samuel Divekar (Indianised name: Samaji Hasaji Divekar) built the Gate of Mercy Synagogue in Mumbai, as thanksgiving.
When India’s total population was at 350 million, the Bene Israel population was at its peak – about 24,000 to 25,000. This small community has produced some famous Indians. Here is a partial list: Admiral Benjamin Abraham Samson (Indian Navy), Leela Samson (classical dancer), Nissim Ezekiel (Poet), David Abraham Cheulkar (Character actor in Indian cinema), Fleur Ezekiel (former Miss India who was the first Indian to participate in Miss World) However, just after India’s independence, the state of Israel was formed in 1948, and a lot of Bene Israelis chose to migrate back to their ancient homeland. Today there are only about 5,000 of them in India. But they are an important part of India’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
Did you like this story? Read about another Indian Jewish community in this article: The Sassoons: A Jewish Family which helped Build Bombay
1. Tipu Sultan – By Anonymous artist from Mysore, India. – Kate Brittlebank's, Tipu Sultan's Search for Legitimacy, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997. Scanned, reduced, and uploaded by Fowler&fowler«Talk» 11:29, 17 February 2009 (UTC), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24694315
2. Sephardic Jewish synagogue, Kochi india – By jeem from Saint Louis, United States – Interior, Cochin synagogue, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1015597
3. Malabari Jews, c. 1930 – By Jewish Encyclopedia – Jewish Encyclopedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1233098
4. Maghen David Synagogue, Kolkata – By Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21641795
5. The Gate of Mercy synagogue in Mumbai, built by Samuel Divekar – By Nicholas (Nichalp) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4722871
6. A Marathi Bene Israel family, c.1900 – By Jewish Encyclopedia – Jewish Encyclopedia , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2629645
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