Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez. The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Caste and Religion in South India

Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez. The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Castle and Religion in South India. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 224. ISBN: 9780199929214. (Hardback). $US65.00, 41.99 [pounds sterling].

Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez have produced an absorbing, comprehensive and theoretically-informed, anthropological study of a community which since the late 1980s has emerged out of the Madiga, an untouchable caste in Andhra Pradesh, as the Bene Ephraim, asserting descent from ancient Israelites, and thereby a Jewish identity. At the same time, the authors explore the many, variable forms of Jewish identification that exist today by studying the behaviour and attitudes of members of the Andhra community and comparing them with other emerging Jewish communities such as the Benei Menashe of North East India, with American Black Hebrews, with the experiences of the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, and Russian Jews in Israel.

The specific contributions of each author are explicitly identified throughout the book. Egorova, who has an established reputation as a researcher of Jewish issues, conceived this project following her initial encounter with the Bene Ephraim in 2002, when she was exploring Indian perceptions of Jews. Perwez was engaged as a postdoctoral fellow and carried out extended ethnographic fieldwork, living along with his new wife, for a year among the Bene Ephraim in Kothareddypalem village; observing, and participating-in, their daily lives. Although Egorova also spent time in the field with the Bene Ephraim in India, she was able to provide a broader perspective to the study by visiting the one Ben-Ephraim who has made Aliyah (migration to Israel), individuals and groups in Britain, Israel and the USA who have visited, corresponded with or assisted the Andhra community, and by undertaking a small comparative study of Benei Menashe settlers in Israel.

One family features centrally in the ethnography and in the emergence of the Bene Ephraim, the brothers Shmuel and Sadok Yacobi, who assert that their grandparents had, years earlier, informed them of their Israelite past. Shmuel recalls the first time he heard mention of this when his grandmother suggested that they would soon be returning to Israel, but in the meantime, “we–the Bene Menashe –are chosen for taking sufferings on us. We have to stay back and fulfil the Covenant” (31). (1)

This statement neatly draws together the concept of chosenness of the Israelites from the Torah, ascribing it, and the name of one of the Israelite tribes, to the Madiga, and attributing the suffering endured by this untouchable caste to their (Israelite) Covenantal relationship with God. A further illuminating expose as to how the Yacobis understand their situation, their status as Jews and chosenness is brought out in this telling parable, narrated to the authors by Shmuel in India and in the following terms by his son Yehoshua in Israel:

Imagine a king is organizing a dinner and everyone is invited, but
only a limited number of people are told to prepare the party so
that everyone else could come and enjoy. Jews are those people
who have to work to prepare the party for everyone else to come
and be happy. There is no reason to be angry with them for this.
This is what I tell people when they get upset that only the Jews
are chosen” (137).

While it would seem that the information provided by the grandparents was limited and sketchy and there is no documented evidence that they observed Judaism, Shmuel through his own research came to develop an elaborate theory about the descent of the Madiga from Israelites who brought religion and culture to India and who were subsequently relegated to the status of untouchables on account of their steadfast objection to caste, by the invading “Aryans” who appropriated the Bene Ephraim learning and then blocked their access to that knowledge by preventing the Bene Ephraim from attending schools. Beef eating, working with leather and burying their dead (“in the direction of Jerusalem”), anathema to caste Hindus and indicators of the Madigas’ untouchable status, are transformed into a source of pride and markers of their connection with Jews.

Shmuel, who holds qualifications in theology from a Christian institution, expounded his theory in writing, both in the local Telugu language and in English. The Telugu book served to inform his caste-fellows of their putative origin and to encourage them to join him in Judaism as he understands it. The English work was initially produced in a typescript format and was subsequently turned into an expansive book with the impressive title Cultural Hermeneutics: An Introduction to the Cultural Transactions of the Hebrew Bible among the Ancient Nations of the Thalmudic Telugu Empire of India, published in 2002. This volume is presented to visitors from abroad, serving to validate and win support for the Bene Ephraim from the visitors.

In these publications, Shmuel asserts that there are ten million Bene Ephraim in Andhra Pradesh, roughly equivalent to the population of the two large untouchable castes in the state, the Madiga and the Mala. However, of these apparently only 125 families identify as Bene Ephraim, the rest being unaware of their “true” origin. Shmuel also speculates that all the untouchable groups throughout the subcontinent might likewise descend from the lost tribes of Israel and are collectively described as Bene Ephraim, regardless of their specific tribal origins, since after the death of King Solomon and the partition of his kingdom, the emergent northern kingdom of biblical Israel was often referred to as Ephraim.

The core group of Bene Ephraim, living in the village Kothareddypalem, comprises around 40 families or 120 individuals of Madiga background. Other Madiga may also be convinced of their Israelite antecedents but prefer to hold to the Christian faith, which the coastal Madiga had embraced more than 150 years ago.

While the formal structure, hierarchy and mutual obligations that characterised the caste system in the past have ceased to operate and untouchability has been abolished at law, it clearly continues to function as a marker of identity at the local level in rural Andhra. Establishing a person’s caste background is the first order of business when one meets a stranger. The implications of untouchability feature strongly in the lives of Shmuel’s Bene Ephraim, largely determining how others will respond to them, the work they can expect to receive and where they would be permitted to live–facing discrimination in virtually every aspect of existence.

The notion of untouchability is in effect reinforced under the First Schedule to the Constitution of India, which seeks to redress some of the disadvantages faced by the former untouchables by allocating a quota of positions in government offices and educational institutions reserved for them. However, unless they are formally registered as Hindus or adherents of other indigenous Indian traditions, the former untouchables are not entitled to take advantage of such benefits and they would also lose police protection against discrimination and caste abuse. Consequently, Christian Madiga find it necessary to register themselves as Hindu, and to give their children Telugu-Hindu names for official use. The Bene Ephraim have faced the same problems and have been advised by local officials that it is in their best interest to record themselves as Hindus–rather than as Christians which their neighbours consider them to be, or as Jews, as they themselves declare.

Christianity has not led to emancipation from the stigma of untouchability, and neither has the practice of Judaism, nor the support and sympathy of Jews overseas, enabled the Bene Ephraim to change their status in the local hierarchy. Indeed, the authors argue that rather than Judaism freeing the Bene Ephraim from the shackles of their origins, the Yacobis have only been able to establish Judaism and to build a Synagogue in a prominent location at the entrance to Kothareddypalem village because their parents and grandparents had been able to advance themselves through education. Their father’s role as the teacher in the village school enabled them to move out of the Madiga quarters.

The progress made by their immediate ancestors has enabled Shmuel and Sadok to travel abroad and to achieve goals unimaginable for most of their caste-fellows who remain the poorest of wage labourers. And yet, notwithstanding these advances, Shmuel and Sadok and their families have still been subject to caste discrimination and humiliating treatment.

While many may dream of settling in Israel and integration into the Jewish world, so far only one individual, Shmuel’s son Yehoshua, has succeeded in doing so. Although in theory anyone can formally convert to Judaism and thereby obtain the right to settle in Israel, the authors hold that the obstacles faced by the rest of the Bene Ephraim community are virtually insurmountable on account of their poverty. As daily wage labourers, most cannot afford to observe a proper day of rest, needing to work every day, including Saturday, for basic necessities. It is equally difficult for them to perform other religious requirements that would be expected before a Beth Din (a rabbinical court) could agree to accept a convert. Nor indeed would the ordinary Madiga be able to travel to a recognised synagogue where a conversion might take place.

Shmuel and Sadok have courted support, recognition and assistance from the wider Jewish world, and this is crucial if the Bene Ephraim are to achieve acceptance as Jews. Egorova and Perwez note the help the community has received from Amishav, Kulanu and Shavei Israel, three non-government organisations with an interest in lost tribes and emerging Jewish communities, from Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, formerly the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Japan who retains an interest in Jews across Asia, and Rabbi Gerald Sussman and his wife Bonita who spent three weeks working with the community as emissaries of Kulanu. However, the Bene Ephraim have not yet been noticed or recognised by most Jewish organisations across the world, though this book is bound to increase awareness of their existence.

The Bene Ephraim are clearly frustrated that their assertions of Israelite ancestry are largely met with scepticism and disbelief, both among their neighbours and other communities in Andhra, and by most Jewish authorities. The Yacobis have postulated that by undergoing DNA testing, they would be able to prove their Jewish roots once and for all, and have advocated that testing should proceed. Egorova raised the possibility that testing might produce “negative” results. Sadok did not believe that was possible, saying to her that “If the geneticists came back with a negative result, it would only mean that they had not tested the right people” (169).

In 2004, police uncovered a plot by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a militant Muslim group from Pakistan, to attack Americans in Hyderabad and the Jews of Guntur, the Bene Ephraim. Reporting of this in the media surprised many of their neighbours who had not been conscious of a Jewish presence in Andhra. Becoming the intended victims of an antisemitic attack has created a point of linkage with Jewish groups abroad who could identify with this more easily than the caste discrimination that the Bene Ephraim have always suffered. As the authors note, “Shmuel and his wife Malka once jokingly told us that Lashkar-e-Tayyiba seemed to be one of those (very few) organizations in the world to recognize the Bene Ephraim as Jewish. It is not surprising then that for the Yacobis portraying themselves as victims of international terrorism meant reasserting their Jewishness and establishing a connection with Jews worldwide” (57-58).

The authors highlight differences in approaches to Judaism taken by Shmuel and Sadok. On the basis that the Bene Ephraim are descendants of Israelites who went into exile in the eighth century BCE, Shmuel argues that they should not follow practices that developed in later centuries, such as observing the festival of Hanukkah, or the even more recently developed bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies; nor should they follow Rabbinic/Talmudic practices, which developed in a post-biblical era. Likewise, he argues, they should be able to settle in Israel, without having to undergo formal conversion to Judaism since they assert descent from ancient Israel and Rabbinical conversion had not evolved at the time. However, the authors note that Shmuel is inconsistent in his approach, addressing the congregation on the lessons to be learnt from Hanukkah, while the community as a whole has tended to move gradually closer towards practices which he opposes that are common among rabbinical Jewish communities.

By contrast, Sadok advocates the wholesale adoption of current orthodox Jewish practices, including conversion, conscious since 1994 and an audience with the Israeli ambassador, and a subsequent visit to Israel, that the Bene Ephraim would only be able to settle there if they underwent conversion. At the same time, the brothers have gradually shifted the boundaries regarding whom they are ready to accept as Bene Ephraim: from all untouchables in India to perhaps only those in Andhra Pradesh, to perhaps only the Madiga, to only those within their immediate circle.

In the meantime, other groups of Madiga and Mala caste background, perhaps inspired or at least influenced by the Yacobis’ original claims, have sprung up across Andhra Pradesh, asserting Jewish antecedents and practising their own versions of Judaism. Shmuel and Sadok have been hesitant to accept them, in part possibly on account of the heterodox views they express, but also perhaps because of an apprehension that the Mala, who have a higher status and are generally better off than the Madiga, would come to dominate them.

The authors stress the various ways Jewishness is understood, among the Bene Ephraim and among the other Israelite groups in Andhra Pradesh. While the belief in a “blood” connection to other Jews is widespread, opinions differ as to the extent of the circle of “true Bene Ephraim”. Yehoshua still believes that all Madiga are Israelites, whereas his father Shmuel no longer holds that view and maintains that the Bene Ephraim have, as it were, been accidentally lumped in with the Madiga. A number of followers of the other Judaising groups in Andhra have adopted Jewish beliefs and practices on account of dreams, while curiously, Aaron who believes his ancestors came from Israel, is hesitant to call himself a Jew, asserting “It is only if God brings him to Israel that he will have confirmation of his Jewish descent, he told Shahid. As God has not done it yet, he feels he does not have the right to call himself Jewish” (158).

One episode that I found quite interesting was a situation concerning the Kothareddypalem synagogue, built in 1991, which Sadok and his wife told the researchers was built to replace an older synagogue “which was established in 1909 and was housed in a thatched hut”. Egorova and Perwez expressed an interest in its history, and a few days later, “a new sign appeared on the synagogue’s front wall bearing the date 1909” (77). The authors suggest that incidents such as this “possibly reflect the importance that reconstructions of history are accorded to in modern Jewish thought” (77). Whilst I would agree with this assessment, I also see here a clear example of the influence that the presence of an ethnographer can have on the subject of his/her study.

One feature of the book that I found disappointing was the fact that the in-text references to Endnotes did not always match up with the Endnotes themselves in two Chapters. In Chapter 4, the Endnote number 9 is supposed to refer to the numbers of Benei Menashe who had trained in ORT, and I was interested to see this reference. However, I was disappointed to find that the Endnote marked 9 was in fact something quite different, and the information it should have contained was nowhere to be found. Hopefully, such a minor glitch can be corrected if there is to be a further edition.

In this review I have concentrated on the ethnographic material about the Bene Ephraim, which is extremely captivating, yet this in and of itself is not the ultimate purpose of the book, with the authors looking at this community, its development, its arguments, its various religious adaptations and its responses to outsiders as highlighting the wide range of ways that people today, not simply among the Bene Ephraim, understand what it is to be Jewish–whether on a cultural, genetic, racial or religious basis. For this equally fascinating dimension of the work, I would urge that readers should look to the book itself to explore these implications.

1. This is Shmuel’s statement to Perwez. It is not clear whether these are the words of the grandmother or simply Shmuel’s; in particular it is not clear whether the grandmother used the term “Bene Ephraim”.


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