In 1919, at a public meeting held to consider the question of Zionism, an Indian Jew, David Erulkar, argued that “to form a Jewish nation from peoples who were widely divergent in their civilizations, ways of thought, and economic conditions…would be to set back the world’s progress by several centuries.” The diversity he felt was threatened is the subject of two books—one anthropological, the other historical—about the Jewish communities of India. Those who are not aware of any Jewish presence amid the warring Hindus and Muslims will be astounded to discover that there were not only quite different groups of Jews in India for hundreds of years but that the differences among them were so great that it frequently required official intervention to bring about a reconciliation among them. It is salutary to be reminded that religion was once so much at odds with history that the two occupied separate spheres—since the common experience of the twentieth century is precisely the opposite, with the remarkable harnessing of religion to history under the banner of nationalism, a term that was once meaningless.
The origin of the Cochin Jews, who settled on the southwest coast of India, and of the Baghdadi Jews—the misleading name for the Jews who came from different parts of the Middle East to Bombay and Calcutta—is within historical memory. That of the Bene Israel is lost in the mists of legend. Some 1,600 years ago, so tradition has it (a tradition curiously like that of the Chitpavan Brahmin Hindus), a ship was wrecked off the Konkan coast of India. There were fourteen survivors—conveniently divided into seven men and seven women—who managed to reach the coastal village of Navgaon, some twenty-six miles south of Bombay. Those of the drowned who were washed ashore were buried by the survivors in unmarked mounds. Their possessions sank. The survivors settled down in villages along the coast where the local people, who were Hindus, accepted them as long as they did not slaughter cows (here the legend resembles that of the arrival of the Parsees). The local crop was sesame seed (til) and the Jews became the traditional oil pressers of the region. Because they did not work their presses on a Saturday, they came to be known as Shanwar-telis (Saturday oilmen). When one David Rahabi, a Jew, visited the Konkan coast in the year AD 1000 (or possibly 1400, or even 1600) he found that the community called itself Bene Israel, Children of Israel, and not only observed the Sabbath but at every ceremony pronounced the Shema, a prayer that consisted of just one verse, Deuteronomy 6:4, before others were added to the temple service; they circumcised their male infants on the eighth day after birth and abstained from eating fish without fins or scales (Leviticus 11:9 and 11:10). Could these be Jews—possibly even descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel?
A welter of theories attempts to account for them. The Bene Israel tradition has it that their ancestors fled from…
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