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The Bene Israelis of India
jeshmachand
MARCH 14, 2020

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 their people. The Sultan complied and let the two soldiers go. The two soldiers were a pair of brothers who were Bene Israelis.

Tipu Sultan CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Bene Israelis are a group of Jewish migrants to India, believed to have been shipwrecked at Navgaon, on the Konkan coast near Mumbai about 2,000 years ago. At that time, Jews in Palestine were being persecuted by the local empire. The only viable option seemed to be to settle in India. India became their adopted land, and in their time in the subcontinent, they lived interesting lives.

 

The term “Bene Israeli” means “sons of God” in Hebrew. The story is that the early migrants who settled in Indian had lost their religious texts and were living life by the Bible. But there were four important Jewish practices they did not forget. 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. Apart from those four, the Bene Israelis are said to have 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. They also adopted Indian food such as puran polis- a sweet flatbread that became a major festival dish for them. They followed the Indian the way of dressing. Women wore Nav-vari sarees 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 woman ladoos in the hope of getting a son.

Map showing the concentration of the Jewish communities in India CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

Their life in the new land was quiet, 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 asked the women to prepare a fishmeal for him but, as they worked, he noticed something – they avoided the non-kosher fish. It was then that 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 to solve this problem? They decided to just add the suffix ‘kar’ to the ends of their village names, and use that. So you get names like Cheulkars, Akshikars, Penkars and so on.

 

When India’s total population was at 350 million, the Bene Israel population was at its peak – about 24,000 to 25,000. However, just after Indian’s independence, the state of Israel was formed in 1948, and a lot of Bene Israelis chose to migrate. Today there are only about 5,000 of them in India. But they stay an important reminder of just how diverse India’s population is.

The Gate of Mery synagogue in Mumbai, built by one of the two brothers who were let free by Tipu Sultan CC-BY-SA-3.0

Want to know more about the various communities of Mumbai? Join Storytrails on ‘Eat, Pray, Love Mumbai’ food tour through South Mumbai.

A Bene Israeli family in India CCO

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