Jews in India

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History in India

India Today, May 19, 2016

Moeena Halim

Jews are said to have first arrived on Indian shores 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Fleeing the northern kingdom of Israel, they were left shipwrecked at Nagaon, a coastal village of Maharashtra, where a memorial still stands today. This community came to be known as the Bene Israeli. The Baghdadi Jews settled in India in the 19th century while the oldest surviving documents of the Cochin Jewish community date to 1000 CE (a merchant's charter) and it's safe to presume the community was present well before then. These were the three recognised Jewish communities in India, until 2005 when the chief rabbi of Israel acknowledged the Bnei Menashe in Mizoram and Manipur as a lost tribe of Jews and allowed their immigration according to Israel's Law of Return. Meanwhile, in Andhra Pradesh, a small community of Telugu-speaking Jews is claiming to be the lost tribe of Bene Ephraim and is hoping for similar recognition. Since Jews consider themselves God's 'chosen people', conversion in India is rare and only encouraged in the case of an inter-faith marriage. Perhaps this exclusion, as in the case of the Parsis, has helped them achieve peace and respect among other local communities. It has also meant that most Indians are unaware of the fundamentals of Judaism. "Many think we worship Jesus. They wish me on Christmas and Easter. The two religions are starkly different and the truth is I feel more connected to Islam than Christianity, and if it came to it I would rather pray in a mosque than a church. I sometimes wish I didn't have to explain my identity and my religion, but I've got used to the question now," says Mumbai-based Nathaniel Jhirad.

It isn't easy to practise Judaism in the country. Most jobs involve working on Sabbath or Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and Jewish festivals like Yom Kippur, Hanukkah or Passover are not official holidays. "But being an Indian Jew has enriched me. If you stay in a country where everyone is Jewish, and everything works according to the Jewish calendar, then how do you make yourself different? Life would be easier, yes, but you would also value it less," believes Jhirad.



India Today, May 19, 2016

Moeena Halim

In Maharashtra, the influential Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family's contributions have been far too valuable to go unnoticed. They built the David Sassoon library, the Sassoon docks, Mesina hospital, Sassoon hospital, a leprosy home in Pune and even set up the Bank of India. Several of the Sassoons, including Sir Jacob and Lady Rachael, are buried at the Eliyahoo synagogue cemetery in Chinchpokli, one of the better maintained. Those buried in the 19th century cemetery in Nagpada weren't as lucky. It's now a public garden with no trace of its former avatar except for a single gravestone from 1824. "Legend has it the person buried under it haunted the municipal workers and wouldn't let them lay cement over his grave," reveals Sharon. The Jewish community's population may be dwindling in India, but Moses insists it is very much "alive". Ben Frank, in his Scattered Tribe: Travelling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond, writes, "I never once asked the question in India that I usually ask in all small, exotic Jewish communities: will there be Jews here in 25 years?" Marrying within the community may no longer be top priority, but it remains an important principle for many Indian Jews. "Of course, I would like to marry a Jewish girl,"says Jhirad. "I see it as a responsibility. How else will we continue the tradition in its purest form? Marrying someone from your religion and faith is not about racism or exclusion, it's about continuing a legacy."

The application for minority status was fuelled by a recommendation made by Maharashtra governor and BJP leader C.V. Rao in November 2014. Six months later, the ministry of minority affairs informed the community that the census showed no sign of a Jewish population in the country. "But that was easy to explain. After all, when people from the census department come to our houses they have no idea who Jews are. Rather than try and explain, we agree to being put down in the list as Christians," says Sopher.

Maharashtra's Jews, Minority status for

The Times of India, Jul 01 2016  Navras Jaat Aafreedi teaches history at Presidency University, Kolkata, and has written Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia. Speaking with Eram Agha, Aafreedi discussed `minority' status for Maharashtra's Jews, Jewish amity with Indian Muslims ­ and `intolerance':

What does `minority' status now mean to Jews in Maharashtra?

It means official recognition of the separate identity of Indian Jews ­ the proportion of Jews in India's total population being a mere 0.0004%. China and India are the only two countries in the world where Jews lived for centuries in peace with non-Jewish neighbours because of the non-proselytising nature of major religions in these countries. Also, these countries never felt threatened by Jews because of Judaism's non-proselytising nature.

But Chinese Jews ceased to exist as a result of complete assimilation ­ Indian Jews, on the other hand, never lost their distinctive identity , helped by India's endogamous nature and its tolerance.

The fact that Indian Jews maintained their identity and, in their small way , prospered, is an impressive example of their tenacity .

Could you tell us about some contributions made by Jews in India?

Interestingly , most of the earliest female stars of Indian cinema were Jewish, like Sulochana, Pramila, Rose, Romila ­ of all the ethnic and religious groups in India, the earliest female film stars came from a minority within India's smallest religious minority! The Baghdadis, one of the three Jewish communities in India, completely anglicised themselves. The only other similar community was the Parsis. But Parsi women were not the first to boldly act in films, braving all the risks involved ­ the initiative was taken by Baghdadi Jewish women.

Baghdadi Jews also played an important role in the development of Mumbai and Kolkata. A Bene Israel Jew, Nissim Ezekiel, is widely acknowledged as the father of India's modern English poetry. Lt Gen J F R Jacob played a crucial role in India's war with Pakistan in 1971 ­ which led to the liberation of Bangladesh.

What are three challenges faced by the Jewish community in India today?

Firstly , continuity of their centuries' old presence in India ­ numbers are dwindling with migration to Israel.Secondly , preservation of cultural heritage and lastly , striking a balance between their eternal yearning for the promised land, Israel, and their love for India ­ their home.

What do Indian Jews think of Palestine's demand for statehood?

Like any other community , Indian Jews are not a monolith ­ members hold different points of view on this.

Meanwhile, Brexit and Donald Trump are tom-tomming terms like `outsiders' in political discourse ­ how does India compare?

India stands out ­ it's always welcomed `others', though the phenomenon involved was swikriti (acceptance) rather than equality , as Amartya Sen points out.

But India was kind enough to open her doors freely to those seeking refuge. In the 1930s, hundreds of German and East European Jews were given refuge in India.

Nehru persuaded the British government for this and made the Indian Medical Council recognise Con tinental medical qualifi cations to enable refugee doctors to practise here.

The grateful refugees introduced new industries to India. During World War II, Polish and other European Jews also escaped Hitler and took shelter here.

Recently , India's grappled with an `intolerance' debate ­ your views.

Such debates only strengthen democracy ­ these should be welcomed.

One of democracy's prerequisites is awareness of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity ­ lest democracy turns into majoritarianism.

We must celebrate plurality ­ this can be done only by promoting minority studies though. I lament the absence of Jewish studies in India. In contrast to India, China ­ that doesn't even have a Jewish community any more ­ has Jewish studies as an academic discipline.

Have other communities influenced Indian Jews?

Well, India's produced beautiful examples of Jewish-Muslim amity ­ not found anywhere else in the world.

Owing to close associations, Bene Israel Jews adopted a number of Islamic terms ­ like the word masjid for synagogue and namaz for prayers.

Most synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in India are looked after by Muslims.Most students in India's two Jewish-run schools are Muslims. The only assistant professor of Hebrew in India is a devout Muslim, Khurshid Imam. The most prominent Hebrew calligrapher of India is aMuslim, Thoufeek Zakriya. The only engraver of Jewish tombstones for Maharashtra is a Muslim, Muhammad Abdul Yassin.

Even the Arab-Israel conflict failed to dent cordial relations of Indian Jews and Muslims.

Tamil Nadu/ Madrasapattinam


This picture accompanies Mr Arbell’s article. The inscription belonged to the Synagogue in Kochangadi in Cochin/ Kochi. Was it shifted to Chennai or is the picture only illustrative.


Mordechai Arbell

The famous Sephardi poet Daniel Levy de Barrios wrote, along with other types of poems, some with historical and geographical meaning. His information was usually most precise and drawing upon him we may receive a panorama of Sephardi life in the seventeenth century. In 1688 he wrote a poem in Amsterdam:

Ya en seis ciudades anglas se publica:

Luz de seis juntas de Israel sagrada.

Tres en Nieves, London, Jamaica,

Quarta y quintana en dos partes de Barbados

Sexta en Madras–Patan se verfica.

In free translation this means: There are in six English cities, six holy Jewish communities — three in Nieves, London, and Jamaica; the fourth and fifth in two parts of Barbados, and the sixth in Madras-Patan. (Indpaedia: Much of Chennai was once called Madrasapattinam.)

This information is quite exact. From 1655 Jews had lived in Port Royal, Jamaica; there was also a Jewish community on the island of Nevis, called Nieves in Spanish. London in 1688 had a small Jewish community. There were two Jewish communities in Barbados — Bridgetown and Speighstown. Another one was in the Indian city of Madras, though not much is known about that community. We are better informed about Jews in other places in India.

Goa, 400 km south of Bombay, a Portuguese colony from 1510 until 1961, did have a presence of Christianized Jews called «New Christians.» We known of the Inquisition trials there against the physician Jeronimo Diaz, burned at the stake in 1560, and against the great scientist Gracia da Orta, condemned by the Inquisition after his death, his remains exhumed, burned, and his ashes thrown into the river (1580).

Cochin and the Malabar Coast had an ancient Jewish community composed of Jews from Persia and Palestine-Syria who were joined in the sixteenth century by Jews from Spain and Portugal. This community prospered under Dutch rule, 1663– 1795, and the benevolent attitude of the local rajas. We know about them in detail from the report by a leader of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community, Moses Pereira de Paiva, who visited Cochin and produced his famous document, «Noticias dos Judeos de Cochin,» in which he also tells about the leading Sephardi families Castiel and Halegua. Jews also had a flourishing trade in Surat, a port north of Bombay, which in the seventeenth century was the main trading center between Europe and Asia. Jews could not settle there until the end of the century, when Pedro Pereira from Amsterdam did do so with a group of Portuguese Jews.

The English East India Company, looking for commercial opportunities in India and the Far East, wanted to break the monopoly held by Portugal in trading with precious stones to and from the Indian subcontinent. Therefore the company decided to build a fort in south India in 1639 which they named Fort St. George; the city of Madras grew up around it. This was the first settlement of the East India Company. The company’s policy was that trading was permitted only to its shareholders or to those who had been given special trading rights.

Those who traded on their own were considered interlopers and met opposition to their doing so. The Jewish traders on the coasts of India were interlopers in the main. With time, their trading acumen, their specialization in diamonds and precious stones, and their relations with the local rulers were seen as beneficial to St. George, and they were gradually accepted as honorable citizens of St. George/Madras.

Jews from Leghorn and the Caribbean exported coral to India together with precious textiles and European ornaments. From India the Jews exported diamonds, precious or semi-precious stones, such as rubies, emeralds, opals, topazes, and pearls.

One of the first Jews who came to Madras with special permission to reside and trade there was Jacques (Jaime) de Paiva (Pavia), originally from Amsterdam. Through his good relations with the rulers, he acquired mines in the kingdom of Gloconda, neighboring Madras. At the same time he managed to convince the English authorities to permit Jews to settle in Madras, and he was the one who organized the Jews into the semblance of a community. On a plot of land in the suburbs he established a Jewish cemetery. During one of his trips to the mines he owned, he fell ill and died in Madras and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. On his tombstone we find that he died «in the month of Tishri 5548–1687.»

Incidentally, his wife, also a Portuguese Jewess, fell in love with the English governor of Madras, Elihu Yale, and went to live with him, causing quite a scandal within Madras’ colonial society. Governor Yale later achieved fame when he gave a large donation to the University of New Haven in Connecticut, which was then named after him — the Yale University. Hieromima de Paiva and the son she had with him died in South Africa.

As far as the mention of mining in Gloconda, two other Jews — Salvador Rodrigues and Antonio do Porto — after being refused to trade in Madras as interlopers, started mining projects in Gloconda. Their excellent relations with the local rulers were so beneficial to the Madras authorities that these gentlemen became widely respected in the city.

Gradually, the attitude towards Jewish traders became more positive. The Amsterdam and London Portuguese Jews who began to settle in Madras were joined by Sephardim coming from Leghorn and the Caribbean islands. Thus the community formed an official body, «Colony of Jewish Traders,» in 1687, whose board included Jaime de Paiva, Pedro Pereira, Antonio do Porto, and Fernando Mendes Henriques. The number of Jews residing in Madras cannot be verified, though their number in the municipality demonstrates their importance.

On 29 September 1688, Governor Elihu Yale founded the Municipality of Madras, composed of a mayor, 12 alderman appointed for life, and a council of 60 citizens. The mayor was elected by the alderman who consisted of three Company employees, one Frenchman, three Jews, two Portuguese, and two local citizens. This shows the proportional weight of Jewish representation.

The first three Jewish alderman were Bartolomeo Rodrigues, Domingo do Porto, and Alvaro da Fonseca who had arrived form Covalao, India, where they supposedly lived as Portuguese. Upon arrival in Madras, they became openly Jewish. At first they were regarded as interlopers, but over the years they came to own the largest trading company in Madras; it dealt with precious stones, coral, amber, sandalwood and its range was all of India and Burma, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines.

Bartolomeo Rodrigues, known also as Jacob de Sequeira was president of the company. An English Jew, he became one of the most prominent citizens of Madras. After his death in 1692, he was replaced by his partner, Alvaro da Fonseca, known also as Jacob Jesurun Alvares. (Some of the Portuguese Jews in Madras used their Portuguese names on their visits to Goa and Saint Tomé that were in Portuguese hands and when the Inquisition was active, and their Jewish names in Madras. Alvaro da Fonseca came from the English Caribbean island of Nevis. Under his management the company became even larger and owned its own ships for transport from Madras to Europe.

The East India Company used Portuguese Jews, based in Madras, in its diplomatic efforts to expand English trading. The most prominent of these Jewish diplomats was Avraham Navarro. He started his career as an interpreter and linguist and took part in a special mission to China that tried to convince the Chinese emperor to open the port of Amoy to international trade. The mission failed and Navarro became a company employee in Madras. When the Mogul Empire became aggressive toward the English traders, Navarro was sent on a mission to the Mogul ruler Aurangzeb, and in very complex negotiations with the emperor himself obtained permission (firman) for the English trade. He died in 1692.

The Jewish trading houses grew larger and continually expanded their international aspect. The trade in precious stones and gems became a science. The greatest specialist in the science of diamond polishing, in stone cutting, and in gem appreciation was Isaac Sardo Abendana (1662–1709). Originally from Holland, an observant Jews who knew Hebrew, he became scientific advisor to most trading companies in Madras and a personal friend of the governor, William Pitt. Curiously enough in his testament, Pitt stipulates that if his widow was to remarry it should be only in a city where there is a synagogue. Madras had no synagogue. His widow married a German Lutheran.

The big Jewish companies in Madras began slowly to move to London, leaving only a family member in Madras. The large trading house of de Castro, founded by Samuel de Castro, moved from Curacao to Madras and then gradually to London, where the company prospered. Another sizable trading house was that of Salomon Franco of Leghorn, who after flourishing in Madras moved the trading house to London. The largest trader in Madras, Alvaro da Fonseca, moved when very prosperous to London where he became one of the specialists in diamond appraisal.

By the mid-eighteenth century there were almost no Portuguese Jews in Madras. The gravestones of the old Jewish cemetery were moved to the Central Park of Madras in 1934 with the gate of the cemetery on which is written Beit ha-Haim in Hebrew letters, the last vestige of Jewish presence in Madras in the seventeenth century.

Fuente: Los Muestros Nº 41

West Bengal


By Moni Basu, CNN, March 29, 2010 </div>

CNN, March 29, 2010

Once a thriving community of 6,000, about 30 Jews are left in Kolkata, India

Jews began arriving in India in the 18th century from Syria, Iran and Iraq

Some 12,000 Jews began leaving when India gained independence in 1947

Story highlights

Kolkata, India (CNN) -- At 65, Ian Zachariah is one of the youngest ones left.

"Can you believe it?" he says, adjusting a borrowed yarmulke in a now-empty synagogue. His eyes scan the glittering stained glass, the blue-domed ceiling and the rows of dark wood and wicker benches, still arranged the way they were when, decades ago on the Sabbath, Maghen David was teeming. His mind races back to his childhood, when he occupied a seat in the back left-hand corner and much to his father's chagrin, gazed upward to the second floor gallery where the girls and women sat.

But a hush has fallen within Maghen David's walls. There have not been prayers said here in a long time, for the lack of 10 able-bodied men needed to form the minyan, the quorum required for a Jewish service. Zachariah's heart feels empty like the synagogue's pews. He knows the end is near for the Jews of Kolkata. Once a thriving community of 6,000, their numbers can be counted on fingers now. Zachariah says fewer than 30 Jews are left in this bustling eastern Indian metropolis.

Many Jews began leaving Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta, after Indian independence in 1947; those who remained are slowly dying off.

Zachariah, a stalwart of the dwindling community, serves on practically every Jewish administrative board. There are simply not enough people left to go around. "Things have to be kept going," he says of the cultural burden weighing heavy on his shoulders. "We're not lying down and waiting for the sunset." He runs his fingers over the cold outdoor oven at Maghen David that once turned out fresh unleavened bread. He peers through a window into the basement where vats of wine were stored.

Things have to be kept going. We're not lying down and waiting for the sunset

--Ian Zachariah, 65, one of about 30 Jews left in Kolkata, India From a wooden box, he picks up a book of prayer, the pages eaten with precision by bookworms. "I always thought someone should take these away. Too late now. They are all in terrible shape."

Zachariah's ancestors arrived in India in the 18th century from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Others came from Iraq and Iran. All of them came to be known as Baghdadi Jews in India.

They came to British India to trade -- in jewels, spices, textiles, tobacco, tea. They made a name as exporters and real-estate dealers and bakers. India, said Judaism scholar Nathan Katz, was one of the few places in the world that was inherently hospitable to its Jews. In Kolkata, Jewish families settled in what was known as "gray town," the central city neighborhoods that separated the whites from the "coloreds." They built graceful buildings that lined Brabourne Road in the heart of what is today Badabazaar, Kolkata's largest wholesale market.

Jewish settlers to Kolkata eventually built five synagogues, at least two schools and a hospital. The schools are still operational, though not one student is Jewish. The Beth El and Maghen David synagogues exist today more as memorials to a former era than as functional Jewish temples. They established a landmark bakery, Nahoum and Sons, in New Market, a favorite among Jews and gentiles alike who craved its fruit cake, cream rolls and lemon tarts. It, too, like every other Jewish institution, faces a perilous future -- the last of the family in Kolkata, David Nahoum, is 84 and frail.

"They were so well integrated into the upper class of Bengali culture," said Katz, a professor of religious studies at Florida International University who has done extensive research on the Jewish communities of India. But then came Indian independence and the birth of Israel the following year. The Jews began their exodus.

"A new social and economic order came to into being and their prospects began to dry up," Katz said. By his estimate, the 12,000 Baghdadi Jews in all of India in 1947 have now dwindled down to less than 100. In a nation of 1.1 billion people, they don't even qualify as a minority group anymore -- barely a blip.

Katz said Jewish communities have died violent and forced deaths in other places. Ironically, in India, where they did not face persecution, they left of their own accord.

That's what makes the tale more poignant. It's not that someone forced the clock on the Maghen David tower to stop -- it just did one day. At 3:30. No one knows the date, though the typewritten notices posted for a board meeting give a clue. The paper is yellow and frayed. "21st May, 1989."

It was probably that way when Rahel Musleah journeyed back to Kolkata in 1997 to cement the shadowy images of a way of life she had heard about. Her father, Ezekiel Musleah, 82, was a rabbi at Maghen David who saw prospects for his family dry up.

"It was very difficult to leave. But what can a rabbi do in a community that was dying?" he asked. He began a new life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1964, determined to carry on the music, the food, the spiritual norms that had taken root from a mix of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions.

Rahel Musleah, a 52-year-old freelance writer who lives in Great Neck, New York, recalled her parents speaking Hindustani at home and celebrating birthdays with rasagollahs, a sugary Bengali confection. Women in the synagogue taught her mother -- who had relied on a cook in Kolkata -- to prepare Ashkenazic dishes including chopped liver, brisket and matzo balls. She also learned to replicate the Baghdadi-Indian specialties that her family craved.

The stories Musleah heard about Kolkata finally drew her back to the house at 11 Bowbazar Street that bore her grandfather's name: I.S. Musleah. Her great-aunt Ramah was the only one left in the house. Musleah wandered around the dark rooms of the ancestral home, filled with heavy rosewood furniture and photographs of generations gone by. There, among the wedding pictures of her grandparents and aunts, she found her own.

Rahel Musleah sipped tea from butter-yellow cups with her aging Aunty Ramah and feasted on deep-fried kachuris and heart-shaped "queen cakes" from Nahoum's. On the Sabbath, she sat in dim morning light at Maghen David, closed her eyes and tried to imagine her grandparents and all the people who had come before her.

She tried to picture what was still vivid in her father's mind. "What sadness for my father to sit and walk where in his bones, in his heart and soul, he felt the closeness of everyone he loved. ... All dead now," she wrote in an article about her trip.

Rahel Musleah returned to Kolkata one other time with her sister several years ago. Two months after that trip, her Aunty Ramah died, severing her last link to that culture. She retrieved the wooden sign from the house bearing her grandfather's name. It now hangs in her home, above her grandparents' portraits.

The Jews who are left in Kolkata can do little but watch a way of life disappear. Zachariah thinks he might devote time to establishing a museum showcasing Jewish history; he wants to ensure that the Archaeological Society preserves standing synagogues.

"I don't think there will be a next generation," he says. Kolkata, he says, was the kind of place that absorbed everyone. Evidence of that tolerance can be found on the same corner as Maghen David, where land is shared by a Christian church, a Hindu shrine and a Muslim mosque. "Time marches on. People come. People go. When it was over here, they left," Zachariah says.

It is 1 p.m. And at that hour, Zachariah's voice gives way to the muezzin's call to prayer.

Nahoum’s Calcutta

By Bachi Karkaria, The Times of India, 2013/03/21

The Times of India

A Jewish biscuit crumbles and, with it, another slice of the ethnic pie

David Nahoum, 87, passed away [in March 2013], reducing the number of Kolkata’s Jews to 24. While, it was difficult to muster the ‘minyan’, the male quorum needed to recite the ‘kadish’ burial prayer, all of the city mourned. He was literally synonymous with the 111-year-old bakery in iconic New Market. Yes, a younger kinsman arrived to perform the last rites. But he lives in Israel, and is unlikely to leave that land of milk and honey to make the milk bread and honeyed cakes on which so many Calcuttans were hooked.

Would it be unkind to say that Nahoum’s was the poor man’s Flury’s? Yes, the latter, as totemic patisserie licked off Park Street’s upper-class icing, and without its Sacher Torte cake, no baba-log birthday was complete. But, Nahoum’s location was more egalitarian, and since everyone went to New Market, it made up in numbers what it lacked in Swiss finesse. When you shopped there, you dropped in here for a quick resuscitator of a brownie or chop. And they let you stand right there and eat it, like the shondesh or shinghara in a mishtir dokaan.

Diehard Flury’s customers, those who were not frequenters of New Market, too bowed to the torah of Nahoum’s, going there to personally pick a skein of ‘chotli paneer’, the seasonal plaited cheese. Or ask David or his brother Solomon when they were next making ‘aloo makkala’ – the signature chicken dish with crisp-fried little potatoes; we called them savoury rosogollas since they dripped oil when you sunk your teeth into their golden crust.

Parsis and Jews. The Armenians who had built the grand mansions. The shady mystique of China Town. And most of all the partying Anglo-Indians; as ‘Uncle Puri’ of Trinca’s would later say, “The day they went ‘back home’ was the day the city’s music died.” Each ‘minuscularity’ proudly serviced its cultural identity without battening down the hatches of a ghetto. Each worked in its unique threads to create a cloth of many colours – till varying developments frayed that tapestry.

Delhi: Judah Hyam Synagogue

Ambika Pandit|Little Israel in Delhi Keeps culture alive| Jul 03 2017 : The Times of India (Delhi)

Little Israel in Delhi keeps culture alive

New Delhi:

Every Friday evening, Judah Hyam Synagogue on Humayun Road, near Khan Market, sees a small congregation come together for the Shabbat services. Apart from the few Jewish families in Delhi, diplomats from Israel and other countries and even nonJewish people gather for the weekly prayer. This is followed by families returning home to a feast to celebrate and the next day is observed as a “rest day“. Ahead of PM Narendra Modi's Isreal tour on July 4--he will be the first Indian prime minister to visit the country--the lone synagogue in Delhi is a beautiful reminder of how a handful of Jewish families have held on to their roots. Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, its honorary secretary , is an example of this.

When TOI visited the synagogue, there were a handful of people there with beautiful chandeliers adding to the moment of faith and unity . The Shabbat (the day of rest after God created heaven and earth) service begins at 7pm.Through this, a small community--there are just seven to eight Jew families in the city-is trying to keep its culture alive. Some have stories that go back, as far as, four generations. The 2001 Census put the number of Jews living in Delhi at 23. In the rows of chairs lined around the prayer podium, there was a lawyer from Israel who was on her first visit to India for a conference but took time out to attend the Shabbat services.

A Russian and a Christian couple also turned up for this holy occasion. All were rea ding the same scriptures and reciting the hymns. Two young doctors from a Delhi hospital too were part of the prayers. In 2007, the synagogue welcomed more than 12,000 visitors for worship or tours from all around the world.

Malekar, a prominent member of the community, was born in Pune but moved to Delhi in 1980. His own story reflects the history of Jews in India. He cites his last name `Malekar' to point out that when Jews arrived in India, they were largely located on the coastal hamlets in Maharashtra. Their surnames still bear the names of villages. “My family surname, Malekar, comes from a village called, Male,“ he said.

Malekar has been to Israel but he has never felt like moving out of India. “To put it simply , Israel is in my heart but India is in my blood,“ Malekar added. His son is a musician, who stays with him in Delhi and his daughter now lives in Australia. The synagogue is the common meeting ground for Jews and others interested in Judaism. It houses an inter-faith study centre, which draws people from different religious backgrounds, making it a place of cultural assimilation. The synagogue has seen Jews marrying into other religious communities as well. Hebrew classes are also conducted here.

On the issue of minority status for Jews in India, Male status for Jews in India, Malekar said, “The Centre, we hope, will consider giving minority status to Jews across the country . It will not only enable our children to get certain benefits, but also reinforce our identity in the country where we have lived in peace and harmony .“ Hannah Judah (39), a teacher, now lives in Mumbai.Recalling her days in Delhi in 2010-2012, she said, “Since the community is really small, Shabbat is our way to stay in touch with our roots. In Delhi, we used to go for a meal at Maharahstra Bhawan to mark the feast. Now, we have WhatsApp to stay connected.“

Presence of Jewish diaspora in Israel

The Times of India, Jan 15 2016

CCMB’s DNA tests prove all three Jewish communities are Diaspora

Mystery of 10 lost tribes of Israel solved?

In what could hold the key to unlocking the mystery behind the fabled 10 lost tribes of Israel, scientists of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), after months of painstaking research, claimed to have firmly established the presence of the Jewish Diaspora in the country . They also asserted that the first Jews arrived on Indian shores about 1,500 years ago. In a study titled `Genetic Affinities of the Jewish Pop ulations of India' published on Tuesday , the scientists said the Diaspora in India was concentrated in three pockets: Cochin (now Kochi), the Bene Israel in Mumbai and the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata. To arrive at the conclusion, CCMB scientists first acquired DNA from individuals thought to have belonged to this Diaspora. Using a technique known as high resolution genetic marking, the DNA was then compared with the DNA of the native Indian populations and then with that of people from other parts of the world. Further, scientists said the analysis of “disease history“ of the Jewish Diaspora suggested remarkable resemblance to Indians. “This means that many of the Jews who travelled to India found domestic spouses, rather than looking for a mate within their own community ,“ he added.

CCMB principal scientist Dr K Thangaraj explained that blood samples from 305 Jews in Cochin, and 302 samples from seven local populations were tested. “When we compared the DNA samples, we found that there were certain similar were certain similarities in the markers that distinguish the Jewish DNA from the rest of the world,“ Thangaraj told TOI. “Due to the lack of proper written records or inscriptions, the origins of Indian Jews remained moot,“ he added.

The study suggests that the Indian Jewish community possesses traces of Middle Eastern ancestry when compared to the contemporary Indian population, he explained.

The study also noted the presence of a fourth group called, `Paradesi Jews', who are supposed to have migrated from Portugal and Spain in the 15th or 16th centuries.

2016: Minority report

India Today, May 19, 2016

Moeena Halim

India's ancient and dwindling Jewish community looks set to receive official minority status.

Only one in every 2,47,269 Indians is of Jewish origin. The community, which makes up only about 0.0004 per cent of the entire population, is minuscule but it doesn't get the benefits that come with the government-issued tag issued to many other minorities. It's something Ezra Moses, honorary secretary of the Indian Jewish Federation and Solomon Sopher, president of the Indian Jewish Congress, are determined to change. In April 2016, the Union Ministry for Minority Affairs announced that the government was considering granting official minority status to the 5,000-member community. The ray of hope comes almost two years after Sopher first wrote to the ministry following a recommendation made by Maharashtra governor C.V. Rao, a prominent BJP leader, in November 2014. The final decision lies with the Union Cabinet and Moses has his hopes pegged on the NDA government.

Matzo, post-mortems and other challenges

Minority status will mean little to the Galsurkars, not just because they hope to eventually emigrate to Israel, but because they aren't sure how much it will affect everyday challenges for Indian Jews. A day before Passover, there is mayhem at their third-floor home in Byculla, once a hostel for Jewish children making their way to Israel. They are expecting 53 guests, both friends and family, for Passover seder, and the meal must be homemade. The menu includes chicken gravy, potatoes and peas curry, and similar Indian kosher delicacies. A goat too has been slaughtered (according to kosher law) so that a shank bone can be plated as a ritual offering. The Israeli consulate has decided against importing the matzo, special unleavened bread, for the community this year. But they have managed to stock up on the Baghdadi-style matzo made at the makeshift tent behind the Magen David synagogue nearby. Meanwhile, the house has been undergoing a spring cleaning of sorts all day long.

Jew/Bene Israel

(From People of India/ National Series Volume VIII. Readers who wish to share additional information/ photographs may please send them as messages to the Facebook community, All information used will be gratefully acknowledged in your name.)

Groups/subgroups: Baghdadi, Bene Israel, Cochin Jew [West Bengal] Black Jew, White Jew [E. Thurston] Gore (fair), Kale (dark) [R.E. Enthoven]

Titles: Cohen, Judah, Levis, Musleha, Nahoum [West Bengal]

See also

Jews in India

Jewish customs and laws: India

Bnei Menashe

Cochin – The Dutch Portuguese and Jewish Influences

Jew: South India

Jewish beauty queens of India

Jews of Bombay

The Religions of the Indian sub-continent

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