Some of the Bene Israel claim descent from the “lost” ten tribes of Israel. According to Biblical history, these ten tribes, which formed the Kingdom of Israel, were exiled from their capital, Samaria, by the Assyrian King Shalmaneser and subsequent kings from the year 722 BCE on. Others among the Bene Israel believe that their ancestors escaped by sea from Israel in the year 175 BCE, during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (prior to the events that led to the festival of Chanukkah).
Tradition recounts that during the voyage from the Kingdom of Israel, the forefathers of the Bene Israel were shipwrecked and washed ashore the Konkan coast, south of Bombay. The survivors - seven men and seven women - buried their dead in a site near the village Nawgaon, which later became the Bene Israel cemetery.
The survivors were offered shelter by the local inhabitants and decided to settle permanently in the Konkan villages. They adopted Hindu names similar to their Biblical first names, but became known by their “-kar” surnames, which indicated the village in which they lived; for example, Nawgaonkar came from the village of Nawgaon, Penkar from the village of Pen and Wakrulkar from the village of Wakrul. More than one hundred village surnames can be found among members of the Bene Israel community today.
The Bene Israel adopted the occupation of oil pressing in the Konkan and became known as “Shanwar Telis”, or “Shabbat-observing oilmen”, because they did not work on the Sabbath. They adopted Marathi, the local language, as their mother tongue and became physically indistinguishable to outsiders from the local population. Within village society, the Bene Israel were clearly differentiated from others because of their adherence to Judaism. Tradition recounts that the holy books were lost in the shipwreck, and the Bene Israel forgot all the Hebrew prayers except the “Shema Yisrael…” (“Hear, O Israel…”). However, they observed the Shabbat, celebrated the major festivals, circumcised their sons and performed most of the prescribed offerings mentioned in the Bible.
It was upon the arrival of David Rahabi that the Bene Israel came into contact with other Jews. Neither his exact origin nor the date of arrival are certain: he may have been a Cochin Jew, who came in the 18th century from South India, although Bene Israel tradition records his arrival as far back as 1000 CE. According to the Bene Israel, Rahabi requested the women to prepare him a fishmeal. When they singled out the fish with fins and scales from the non-kosher fish, Rahabi was convinced of the Bene Israel’s Jewish identity and agreed to instruct them in the tenets of Judaism.
Rahabi allegedly introduced the Bene Israel to the festivals of Shavuot and Sukkoth, which they did not celebrate previously, despite the Biblical references; and to Birdiacha Roja or “Birda-curry fast” on the ninth of the month of Av, the Jewish fast day which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. Rahabi also introduced them to Ramzan (reminiscent of the Moslem Ramadan), a fast held throughout the month of Elul, when Jews repent before the New Year and Day of Atonement; Naviacha Roja, or “New Year Fast”, on the third day of Tishri, which corresponds to the fast of Gedaliah; Elijah Hannabicha Oorus, or “The Feast of Elijah the Prophet”, which took place on the same day as the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”; and to Sabbi Roja, or “Fast of the Fourth Month”, which took place on the 17th of the month of Tamuz, commemorating the siege of Jerusalem. The task of guiding the community in religious matters was taken over by three hereditary leaders selected and trained by Rahabi.
By the 19th century, Cochin Jews became involved in training the Bene Israel religious leadership. Cochin Jews served among the Bene Israel community as teachers, cantors (hazzanim) and ritual slaughterers (shochatim). In addition, the religious revival of the Bene Israel was assisted by the Baghdadi Jews who had transferred their enterprises and communal and religious institutions from Iraq to the commercial centers of Bombay and Calcutta from the end of the 18th century on.
At the same time, Christian missionaries, paradoxically, reinforced the Bene Israel’s Jewish identity by tightening their relations with English speakers all over the world. They established schools for their children, educating them in the English language and translating the Jewish Prayer Book and other religious works from Hebrew into Marathi. This encouraged the Bene Israel in turn to translate their holy books into English and Marathi.
In 1746, the Divekar family moved to Bombay, where religious freedom was ensured by the British. Their five sons enlisted in the East India Company. Samuel Ezekiel Divekar, promoted in 1775 to the rank of Native Commandant, established the first Bene Israel synagogue in Bombay, in 1796. Encouraged by the success of this family, more Bene Israel enlisted with the British forces, some reaching the rank of Subedar Major, the highest military rank the Government of India bestowed on a native. Bene Israel soldiers received distinctions in the Anglo-Mysore, Anglo-Afghan and Anglo-Burmese wars, and as a group, they remained loyal to the British in the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
By the end of the 19th century, when the British changed the process of army recruitment, the Bene Israel began to turn to white-collar work. In Bombay, the men were also employed as skilled workers in factories and workshops, and some of the women were employed as teachers, nurses and secretaries. In the course of time, the Bene Israel community produced renowned doctors, lawyers, writers, architects, professors, social workers and civil servants.
As a result of the opportunities offered to the Bene Israel by the British at the end of the 19th century, Bene Israel families began to emigrate to other centers as far afield as Burma and Aden. By the 20th century, groups of Bene Israel moved to the hill-stations along the railway lines. A large community was settled in Karachi (now Pakistan). In 1921 a Bene Israel Synagogue was established in Poona, and in 1934 another was built in Ahmedabad. In 1956 the Judah Hyam Prayer Hall was opened in New Delhi.
The Bene Israel population steadily increased from 6,000 in the 1830s to 10,000 by the return of the century. At their peak in India in 1948, they numbered 20,000 but by 1961 this number had declined to 16,000 as the result of emigration to Israel. Prior to 1948 the Bene Israel had displayed little interest in Zionism. In 1897, when they were invited to participate in the First Zionist Congress, they declined on the grounds that the resurrection of Israel was a divine decision and not a human concern. However, in 1920 when the first Zionist Organization was established in India, the Bene Israel community passed a resolution expressing full sympathy with the Zionist cause. From the 1930s on, the Jewish Agency sent emissaries to India to encourage Zionist activity.
When the British withdrew from India in 1947, and the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Bene Israel began to emigrate to the Jewish State. The Bene Israel community’s integration into Israeli society was not easy. In 1951 a small number of the Bene Israel claimed discrimination and demanded repatriation; after a series of strikes, they were returned to India. Most of these Jews re-emigrated at a later date. Furthermore, some orthodox Rabbis in Israel did not recognize the Bene Israel as Jews and therefore the Bene Israel faced difficulty marrying other Jews. After 1964, when the religious status of the Bene Israel was finally settled in Israel, emigration increased.
Today (2001), there are less than 5,000 Jews in India - the majority of whom are Bene Israel. The vast majority of Bene Israel moved from India to Israel, but some 2,000 are settled in English-speaking countries, such as Britain, Canada, USA and Australia. Today, more than 60,000 Bene Israel, including children born in Israel to Indian Bene Israel parents, live in Israel.
More than twenty synagogues and prayer halls have been built in India, all of which followed the orthodox tradition, except the Jewish Religious Union (founded in Bombay in 1925 by Dr. Jerusha Jhirad, a Bene Israel gynecologist, who in 1966 received the distinguished Padma Shri award for outstanding services in the field of social welfare). In 2001, only a handful of these are able to maintain a regular service on Saturdays and in the villages outside Bombay several beautiful synagogues remain shut. The Bene Israel themselves never had a rabbi of their own, although individuals versed both in Sephardi and exclusive Bene Israel liturgy acted as hazzanim. In recent years, there have been several visiting Rabbis sent to Bombay, who have served for short spells, as well as representatives of the Lubavitch movement. Kosher fowl is still available in Mumbai.
The Bene Israel adhere to their own traditions and rites. In the marriage ceremony, for example, the bride is dressed in a white sari and goes to meet the groom as he sings the special Bene Israel “groom song” from the podium (bimah) of the synagogue. Elijah the Prophet is invoked on all auspicious occasions, including circumcisions and purification after childbirth.
The most important Jewish festivals for the Bene Israel are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah and Passover. On Rosh Hashanah the whole community appears in its finery in synagogue, and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is customary to visit friends and family. On Yom Kippur the community dresses exclusively in white. The Bene Israel arrive at the synagogue before dawn, On Simchat Torah they celebrate by dancing merrily in the synagogue with the Torah scrolls. On Passover Bene Israel make matzoth, whitewash their houses and tin their copper pots.
In 1875, “The Bene Israel Benevolent Society for Promoting Education” established the “Israelite School”, an English-language primary school which developed into a high school in 1892. In the 1930s the school became known as the Elly Kadoorie School after its benefactor, and taught its pupils, most of whom were Jewish, Hebrew as well as English and Marathi. Today, the school has become a Marathi-language school in which none of the pupils are Jewish. The Israelite School Old Students’ Union, which later became known as the Maccabean Fellowship, was established in 1917 and in its heyday in the 1950s it attracted hundreds to social gatherings.
The Jacob Sassoon Free School was founded at the end of the 19th century as an English school for Baghdad children in Bombay. Although at first a quota for Bene Israel pupils was imposed, by the 1970s nearly all of the Jewish pupils (125 out of 400) were Bene Israel. In 2001, there were hardly any Jewish pupils at the school.
The Bombay ORT school for boys was established in 1962; the school for girls in 1970. In 2001, there were still a small number of Jewish pupils who receive technical and vocational training, many of them later emigrating to Israel with knowledge of Hebrew.
Communal life in India has been characterized by many social and charitable organizations. The Stree Mandel, which was established in 1913 as a women's organization, is still active today. The Home for Destitutes and Orphans, which caters for a handful of elderly people, was established in its present form in 1934. A variety of other sports clubs, Zionist organizations and charitable and credit associations have been in operation over the years.
The Bene Israel in India today represents a small, struggling community, surviving through the efforts of Jewish organizations like AJDC (American Jewish Distribution Committee), which organized the baking of matzoth for the entire Jewish community in India for the Pesach festival 2001. Owing to large-scale emigration, communal activity has declined and Bene Israel newspapers and periodicals, once prolific, are now published infrequently. Notwithstanding, consolidation is taking place between the different Indian Jewish communities, and connections have been forged with different Jewish groups in Israel and in the United States.
The Bene Israel who remain in India can be divided into two sub-groups: those who stay because of their overriding attachment to India, and those who will emigrate to Israel and re-unite with their families and the majority of their community. The former group includes Indian nationalists, non-Zionists and those who are too old to envisage emigration. The latter group includes Zionists who see the eventual future of the Indian Jewish community in Israel - in spite of hundreds of years of harmonic co-existence with the non-Jewish population of India.
Dr. Shalva Weil is an anthropologist and a researcher with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheba, Israel, specializing in Indian Jewry. Dr. Weil is the Founding Chairperson of the Israel-India Cultural Association.