THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE BENE ISRAELS

Photo: Reuters.
Often torn between their native land and their adopted homeland, the Bene Israels are probably the most Indianized of all Jewish exiles

The seven couples who were washed ashore on the Konkan coast began setting up roots. They were stranded in a new land, but slowly began making friends with the locals. Over successive generations, they and their descendants were spread across 142 villages.

They had lost all their prayer books and scrolls in the shipwreck. They had no synagogues. They did not celebrate Hanukkah, leading many to speculate that their arrival in India “actually pre-dated the destruction of the Second Temple”, according to a piece by rabbi Jonathan Bernis in The Jewish Voice.

Then again, as Nathan Katz says, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, made famous only because it coincides with Christmas. “If you are going to forget a Jewish observance, Hanukkah would be it. It is a 20th century holiday.” A “Hallmark” holiday made famous by the greeting card company.

For 1,500 years, the Bene Israels lived in the bejewelled, beautiful Konkan coast, amid lush paddy fields, coconut and betel nut palms and banana groves dripping with dew.

Over the course of several centuries, they forgot Hebrew and learned Marathi, the local language. They wore saris, ate Indian food and adopted the customs of their neighbours. During weddings, they drew mehndi or henna designs on their hands like the Muslims. When a woman was pregnant, they gave her ladoos to improve the chances of her delivering a son—a Hindu superstition. Brides wore saris and a floral head-dress or sehra, like the locals.

A favourite wedding dish was the modak—sweetened, steamed dumplings, which are part of a game called “steaming of the hands”. A large plate of steaming hot dumplings was placed in the centre with the bride and groom on either side. Whoever could pick up the most number of hot dumplings and move it from the centre plate to their own plate was the winner. The women, with more experience in handling hot food, typically picked up many more of these modaks.

Sometimes, the grooms wanted to prove that they were no slouches. With great enthusiasm, they would pick up the scalding sweet dumplings and end up needing bandages for their fingers. The next part of the game was feeding each other. The weird thing is that I played versions of these games at my wedding. The Bene Israels liberally adopted local Maharashtrian customs and traditions as they settled into their new homeland.

They worked as skilled carpenters, merchants and, most importantly, oil pressers. Yet, they clung on to certain religious practices, passed down orally through successive generations. Male children were circumcised eight days after birth; they recited a single Hebrew prayer, the Shema Yisrael: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God. The Lord is One”; they maintained certain dietary restrictions; and they took the Sabbath off, leading them to be called “Shani vaari telis”, or “oil pressers who take Saturday off”. Hindu oil pressers, in contrast, took Monday off, leading them to be called “Soma vaari telis”.

Centuries passed in this fashion. “But like a Bollywood blockbuster in which two halves of a locket come together in an emotionally charged climax, the lost children of Israel were eventually discovered,” writes Shabnam Minwalla in the book, Bombay Meri Jaan: Musings on Mumbai.

Enter a mysterious stranger named David Rahabi around the year 900. He watched the oil pressers who took Saturday off and had an inkling that they were linked to Judaism in some way. So, he gave the women a test. He spread two types of fish in front of them and asked them which ones they cooked. The women pointed to specific fish with fins and where the scales could be removed by hand without ripping the underlying skin—what the Jews call kosher fish.

That was the moment Rahabi decided that these oil pressers who looked no different from their neighbours were Jews. He taught them Hebrew and rabbinical customs. He initiated three men, or kazis, into Jewish prayer rituals and finally gave them a religious identity that linked them to a land that they had fled two millennia ago.

“Unlike every other Jewish community, the Bene Israels never experienced anti-Semitism for 2,000 years in India,” says Shalva Weil, a Jewish scholar and researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “As a result, they are not as defensive as other Jews. They were quite naturally incorporated into the caste system of India. They were not restricted to a particular profession like in Iran where they were forced to be silversmiths or goldsmiths. The pluralism of India nurtured them.”

“The character of Indian culture—its relative placidity, its acceptance of diversity and its inherent communalism—have given the Jews a sanctuary the likes of which has never been known in any of the countries of the western world,” says a paper, titled The Jewish Community of India, by Daniel J. Elazar on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

After dinner, I asked Yael Jhirad why she had never considered emigrating to Israel like many Indian Jews. “We never felt the need to,” she replied. “My parents are here. Ralphy’s parents are here. They are both well-established families. We are settled here.”

The Bene Israels, while exiled from their native land, made their peace with the tropical lushness of their landing place and the exuberance of the community that adopted them. Indeed, some of them said that they felt the state of exile when they moved to Israel from India.

In India, they were Marathi-speaking, sari-wearing, Bollywood-loving, cricket-crazy folk who looked no different from their neighbours. This state of affairs continued for close to 1,500 years.

In the late 18th century, Jewish merchants from Iraq, Syria and other West Asian countries arrived in what was then British Bombay and quickly established themselves as leading businessmen, opening textile mills and international trading companies.

Only about 200 of these so-called Baghdadi Jews remain in Mumbai, the rest having emigrated to Israel, Britain and the US. But their legacy endures: synagogues, libraries and schools, many of which serve Jews and non-Jews. They also financed the construction of several city landmarks, including the Flora Fountain and the Sassoon docks. “The arrival of the Baghdadi Jews gave Bene Israels a sense of community, but also a sense of inferiority,” says Minwalla.

The fact that the British colonial masters classified Baghdadi Jews as “Europeans” and the Bene Israels as “natives” didn’t help matters much. This didn’t change even after Bene Israeli Jews migrated to Israel after the state was established in 1948.

They faced extensive questions—about their parents, ancestors and family tree. They had to furnish documents, even photographs of the family graves. The Israeli authorities would then cross-check everything with their connections back in Bombay.

Minwalla interviewed a number of Bene Israeli families that made this decision to emigrate. “They felt bad about it. They worried about military service; and the fact that they were not fully accepted as Jews in Israel,” she said. “But the promise of better pay and income was alluring.”

In 1964, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Yitzhak Nissim, who happened to be a Baghdadi Jew, refused to allow the Bene Israels to marry other Jews until they provided proof of Jewishness and the fact that they had not been tainted over several generations.

“This was very insulting to them,” says my dining companion, the social anthropologist Yulia Egorova. “After all, one of the reasons they moved was to be part of a Jewish society. As late as 2005, some individual rabbis would prevent them from marrying other Jewish people.”

Hundreds of Bene Israels protested in Jerusalem because the Israelis were saying that Indian Jews were tainting their blood. Perhaps because of this, the Bene Israels consider themselves Indians first and Jews second. A few years ago, I attended a book reading in Mumbai at which author Robin David said that he felt more at home in Mumbai than in Israel. “I migrated to Israel five times,” said David. “I always came back.”

Religious identity is complicated. Even Sigmund Freud, the king of complicated, said poignantly: “In some place in my soul, in a very hidden corner, I am a fanatical Jew. I am very astonished to discover myself as such in spite of my efforts to be unprejudiced and impartial. What can do I against it at my age?”

It must be tough to belong to a minority religion that you feel you need to uphold no matter what. It must be tough to be torn between two cultures, as immigrants constantly are.

“Israel is in our heart. India is in our blood. Every Indian Jew will say that,” says Nissim Moses.

One custom that is celebrated exclusively by the Bene Israels is called Malida, which is essentially a ritual for giving thanks or to petition (god). The community performs this before an engagement or wedding; after the birth of a child; for a circumcision; or to request a new job or promotion. Most families do this at home.

The ceremony is in honour of the biblical prophet Elijah, who is viewed as a precursor to the messiah. Elijah, according to Bene Israel legend, came down to earth and went back to heaven—twice.

The first time was when he revived the seven couples who swam from the sea to the beach. The second was when he went up to heaven in a chariot of fire from Khandala, a small town near Alibaug, which has since become a pilgrimage site for the Bene Israels. During the Malida, offerings of fruit, flowers and specific dishes are placed on the table; after which there is a specific prayer ritual.

The most important offering is made with pounded rice, or poha. The pounded rice is soaked in water twice. The water is drained. The softened poha is mixed with powdered sugar and a variety of nuts. Rose petals of different colours are sprinkled on top. A bowl of liver and gizzards are also placed as part of the offering.

Moses connects it to the tribe of Levi, who received liver and gizzards as part of their priestly offerings.

The poha dish is somewhat similar to what the Hindus make. Then again, who is to say which religion adopted what dish from whom in the long arm of history?

Non-Indian Jews don’t subscribe to the Malida ceremony, and indeed, find it quaint. “They (the Bene Israels) would take me to this place on the coast and actually show me the chariot marks from where Elijah flew to the sky,” says Weil. “It was very cute.”

Lots of scholars, including Weil, Shirley Isenberg, Nathan Katz and Haim Samuel Kehimkar, have documented the history and customs of the Bene Israels. One provocative question is their early local name: Shani vaari telis—oil pressers who took Saturday off. Why did they choose oil pressing as their profession?

In his book, The History of the Bene Israel of India, Kehimkar theorizes that the Bene Israel probably descended from the Tribe of Levi, since oil pressing in the biblical time was reserved for the priestly class who served the temple.

Triumphantly for him, and other Bene Israels, genetic evidence seems to support this theory. In 2002, British historian Tudor Parfitt administered DNA tests on the Bene Israel community. His results made front-page news.

“Marathi Jews are Moses’ kin, says study,” said a 2002 headline in the Sunday Times of India.

From Reuters: “Extensive DNA testing has found the Bene Israels, clustered in and around the western city of Bombay, are direct descendants of a hereditary Israelite priesthood that can be traced back 3,000 years to Moses’ brother, Aaron.”

“Of the Indian datasets, only the Bene Israel carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype…” said Parfitt in a 2003 paper titled Place, Priestly Status and Purity: The Impact of Genetic Research on an Indian Jewish Community.

“The CMH is common in kohanim, supporting the legend of the Bene Israel that their founding fathers were seven shipwrecked kohanim,” said Chana Ratner in an article in YuTorah Online titled “DNA Evidence for the Bene Israel in India”.

This acknowledgement that they were not just Jews but those belonging to the priestly class was huge for the Bene Israels, particularly since their history, identity and Jewish “purity” had been constantly questioned—which itself is something that I don’t understand. I can understand your wanting your child to marry someone belonging to your faith, but why go to the level of DNA analysis?

Egorova believes that the Bene Israels were probably oil pressers by accident, rather than the presence of a particular genetic marker. “There is no such thing as a Jewish gene,” she says. “All geneticists can say is that the ancestors of the Bene Israels came from the Middle East; from the Levant.” But having this bonafide certification, as she says, made the Bene Israels happy.

This didn’t mean that all was hunky dory among the Bene Israels themselves, at least in the early part of this century. As Isenberg writes in her book, India’s Bene Israel: a comprehensive inquiry and sourcebook, “The Bene Israels divide their community into two groups. ‘Gora’ and ‘Kala’. Gora (meaning white) are majority in the community and their both parents are of Jewish religion. Kala (meaning black) is the smaller group whose father is of Israeli origin but mother is non-Jewish. These two groups use to pray together but the Goras didn’t accept the Kalas as complete Jews and didn’t mingle with them, nor did they marry with them. The Goras also didn’t allow the Kalas to hold the ‘sefer’ (religious book) or to blow the ‘shofar’ (horn).”

I heard the shofar being blown at the Tifereth synagogue, although I could not tell if the young man blowing it was a Kala or a Gora.

The Tifereth Israel synagogue is near Jacob’s Circle. The cab pulls up at the address given by Google Maps. I search for what seems like a synagogue but only see what looks like a movie theatre. I get off and walk around, asking shopkeepers for the Tifereth. Nobody has heard of it. I try using the local name: Yehudi ka mandir (the temple of the Yehudis), I say. Still no reaction.

The tea sellers are busy filling glass tumblers with masala and ginger chai. I walk up and down the street, and discover that what I thought was the movie theatre is, in fact, the synagogue.

This time, I have wizened up. I don’t want to be stopped by any Samson. I wrap my dupatta around my head and boldly walk in. People glance at me but don’t stop me from entering. Women in saris sit on one side and the men dressed in white on the other. A young man blows the shofar. It reminds me of the conch that is blown in Hindu temples. In the Exodus, it is written that the blast of the shofar emanating from the thick clouds of Mount Sinai made the Israelites tremble in awe.

Perhaps it is the blast of this shofar, but it makes me wonder: could there be a connection between Judaism and Hinduism? Is Moses (the historian I interview, not the leader of the Jews) right? These two religions share too many things in common. Did they come from the same source? Where do they go from here?

One possible future is envisaged by Satire Wire, the website with a self-explanatory name. “Hinjew leaders today conceded the merger of Hinduism and Judaism has not worked out as planned,” it said. “Instead of forming a super-religion to fight off the common Islamic enemy, they have instead created a race of 900 million people who, no matter how many times they are reincarnated, can never please their mothers.”

To be fair, as a Hindu woman married to a Hindu man (and I say this with some level of piquancy), Hindu men don’t live to please their mothers and fall short. Most times, it is the opposite.

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