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 northern Palestine during persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes in 75 BC. Others propose they came from Yemen in the first millenium, or as late as the sixth century, or were part of the dispersal caused by the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. In India’s Bene Israel, Shirley Berry Isenberg goes into the various theories and favors the one that points to an earlier date, asking
Would the influence of these basic Jewish treatises have been entirely erased from Bene Israel memory, even if actual writings had been lost in a shipwreck? Why should the Bene Israel have remembered only precepts from the Torah and no teaching and traditions from post-Biblical times?
There has also been a longstanding rumor that the Bene Israel were descendants of local inhabitants who had been converted by Jewish traders in order to ensure the kosher cooking of their meals, or of marriages between traders and local women. Since there are no documents, inscriptions, or other evidence to support the different theories—the burial mounds at Navgaon have never been excavated—none of them can be substantiated.
Whatever their origin, an early reference was made to them in 1199 by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides: “The Jews of India know nothing of the Torah and of the laws nothing save the Sabbath and Circumcision.” Other reports were made by the Danish missionary Sartorius and the Cochin Jew Ezekiel Rahabi, whose son David visited the Konkan coast as an agent of the Dutch East India Company. David Rahabi is generally credited with having undertaken to teach the Bene Israel the observance of Judaic law as it evolved in post-Biblical interpretations. He taught Hebrew to three young men so that all rituals could be correctly performed and from these three disciples were descended the officiating priests, called Kaji, who performed rites and ceremonies and settled disputes. (The title itself is a Muslim one for a judge—although apart from occasional Muslim traders there was no Muslim presence in the Konkan before the fourteenth century, which leads one to speculate that David Rahabi came from Rahab—Egypt—and spoke Arabic.) In the role of both priest and judge, they traveled from village to village, trying to revive Judaism in a community that was not only scattered and sparse but had merged with the local populace to such a degree that they assumed the local dress—saris for women—and language, Marathi; even their names were Indianized—Issaji for Isaac, Mussaji for Moses, with the name of the village with an appended kar for a surname: Kehimkar, Apteker, etc.
As reported by travelers from Maimonides to the Reverend John Wilson in 1840, the Bene Israel had largely adapted their customs to local ones—at a birth, they followed most of the Hindu customs including the distribution of coconuts and betel leaves to visitors; at weddings, they too painted the hands and feet of the bride with henna, set the bridegroom on a caparisoned horse to ride to the bride’s house where he put a garland on her; after a husband’s death, the widow would remove all her jewelry and not put it on again. Also, they “worshiped” the local goddess of smallpox, Shitla Devi (smallpox being a common epidemic in earlier times) although the Jewish Indian scholar and historian B.J. Israel prefers to think of this form of propitiation as “magic ritual” closer to superstition than religion. In return, Hindus accepted their manner of life and helped the Jews by milking their cows and leaving the milk at the doors on Yom Kippur, which the Jews observed in silence indoors.
Isenberg describes the ritual offering made by the Bene Israel of malida, a tray of fruit, flowers, rice cakes, and sometimes pieces of meat, at various ceremonies, much like the offerings made by Hindus and Muslims at shrines. There were other customs peculiar to them. They put the special emphasis on the prophet Elijah, whose name was invoked at every ceremony and whose death was ceremoniously observed at a place where the footprints of his horse were said to be visible (recalling the alleged footprints of Mohammad’s horse under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem) at an annual fair called the Elijah Hanabicha Urs—urs being the Muslim term for the observation of the death of a saint. The Bene Israel sang the same folk songs as others in the Konkan region but inserted Hebrew names and Biblical allusions. In the seventeenth century there was even a Sufi mystic among them, known as Sarmad the Jew, who went about naked, expounding his philosophy in verse.
Most significantly, they also seem to have absorbed the Hindu concept of caste, particularly its emphasis on color, and they divided their society into groups that were either kala (black) or gora (white), the latter being Jews of pure descent and the former those who had married into the local populace. Like Hindus, they disapproved of marriage between the castes and were anxious to maintain caste purity by avoiding pollution (which meant not eating food cooked by or in pots touched by another caste). Their Hindu neighbors also ascribed a caste to them, that of their principal occupation—oil pressing—which was on a fairly low rung of the village’s social ladder, although not the lowest.
Curiously, the Bene Israel were to experience the same observance of caste at the hands of other Jewish communities such as the Jews of Cochin, a city now in Kerola state on the southwest coast. These were originally merchants from Persia and Iraq who plied the Indian west coast during the Middle Ages—about one thousand of them are known by name from the Cairo Geniza, the storage place in Egypt for letters and documents from throughout the Jewish world that bear the name of God and therefore cannot be destroyed. In AD 1000 the Hindu ruler of Cochin, Cheruman Perumal, presented what is known as the Copper Plate Deeds to one Joseph Rabban, in Cranganore, granting land and special privileges to the Jews of Cranganore in perpetuity. In the eighteenth century, when the Muslim ruler Sultan Hyder Ali was persecuting the Hindus of Cochin, he spared the Jews because they were circumcised and followed Moses and could therefore be considered believers.
The effect of such local protection was that the Jews of Cochin, although a small group, never numbering more than 2,500, remained more strongly Jewish than the Bene Israel. They were not, however, immune to the pressures of caste: they were divided into three groups that did not intermarry—the Malabari Jews who were descendants of the original community at Cranganore and known to the British as Black Jews; the Pardesi (foreign), or White Jews, whose ancestors came from European or Levantine lands; and the Brown Jews, descendants of manumitted slaves who had been converted to Judaism. Caste is usually related to color, but not always. In his book, the Indian anthropologist M.N. Srinivas explains the notion of purity and pollution inherent in the caste system, as known to the Hindus and observed by the Jews:
Pollution may refer to uncleanliness, defilement, impurity short of defilement, and indirectly even to sinfulness, while purity refers to cleanliness, spiritual merit and indirectly to holiness.
The structural distance between various castes is defined in terms of pollution and purity. A higher caste is always “pure” in relation to a lower caste, and in order to retain its higher status it should abstain from certain forms of contact with the lower. It may not ordinarily eat food cooked by them, or marry or have sex relations with them.
Although it was the Cochin Jews who brought about the “revival” of Judaism among the Bene Israel, and even brought them their first Torah (from Yemen, via Aden), they would not marry with them because the “purity” of the Bene Israel was in doubt. Bene Israel Jews went some five hundred miles down the coast to Cochin to study Hebrew; and Cochin Jews visited them to teach and interpret the law. One Shelomo Sharrabi established synagogues in the Konkan region, and served as their Hazan (cantor), Mohel (circumciser) and Shohet (ritual slaughterer). It was such Jews who put the Bene Israel in touch with their Judaic heritage, in this case the Sephardic tradition.