Who Are the Jews of India?
Of all the Diaspora communities, the Jews of India are among the least known and most interesting. This readable study, full of vivid details of everyday life, looks in depth at the religious life of the Jewish community in Cochin, the Bene Israel from the remote Konkan coast near Bombay, and the Baghdadi Jews, who migrated to Indian port cities and flourished under the British Raj. "Who Are the Jews of India?" is the first integrated, comprehensive work available on all three of India's Jewish communities. Using an interdisciplinary approach, Nathan Katz brings together methods and insights from religious studies, ritual studies, anthropology, history, linguistics, and folklore, as he discusses the strategies each community developed to maintain its Jewish identity. Based on extensive fieldwork throughout India, as well as close reading of historical documents, this study provides a striking new understanding of the Jewish Diaspora and of Hindu civilization as a whole.
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Who Are the Jews of India?
By Nathan Katz
(Berkeley, Calif.: UC PressReviewed by C J Singh (Berkeley, California)
Not many know that the Jewish diaspora reached India two thousand years ago. Although the size of the Jewish diaspora in India was always small, it invites study because its history of sustained harmony sharply contrasts with their history of periodic horrors inflicted upon them in Europe and elsewhere.
It's fitting that the University of California Press is the publisher of the first comprehensive scholarly study of all three of the Jewish communities in India. It was a UC Berkeley professor of history, Walter J. Fischel, who pioneered the study of the Jews in India in his 1962 article, "Cochin in Jewish History: Prolegomena to a History of the Jews in India," published in The Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research. Inspired by his article, several monographs soon appeared on each of the three Indian Jewish communities. And more recently, Indian Jews as principal characters have appeared in fiction such as Sally Solomon's Hooghly Tales: Stories of Growing Up in Calcutta under the Raj, Gay Courter's Flowers in the Blood, Esther David's The Walled City, and Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay.
In the introduction to this truly engrossing book, Nathan Katz writes: "Indian Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host community. Then, when twentieth century conditions permitted they returned en masse to Israel, which they had always proclaimed to be their true home despite India's hospitality. The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora."
For spiritual reasons and for better economic opportunities, the emigration of Indian Jews to Israel was indeed "en masse." Today, the synagogues in India have stopped holding regular services because they often fail to gather a quorum of ten male Jews. Perhaps a more appropriate title of the book would be: Who Were the Jews of India?
The three Indian Jewish communities have a distinct history: the Cochin Jews arrived as early as the first century; the Bene Israel Jews of greater Bombay arrived, they claim, 1600 years ago; and the Baghdadi Jews of the port cities of Bombay and Calcutta arrived in the middle of the eighteenth century.
The largest section of the book is on the Cochin Jews. The connection between Cochin and the Jews goes back to the time of King Solomon (992-952 B. C.): teak, ivory, spice, and peacocks were exported to Palestine. The Cochin Jews claim their ancestors arrived in Shingly, near Cochin, on the southwest coast of India in 72 A. D., fleeing the destruction of the second temple by the Romans. They were allowed to settle in Cochin by the local maharaja, where many of them prospered as merchants, government officials and soldiers. Katz quotes from Mandelbaum's article in the Jewish Journal of Sociology: As late as 1550 "the Raja of Cochin refused to fight a battle on Saturday because on that day his Jewish soldiers would not fight; and they were the best warriors he had raised." Katz comments: "Probably India is the only country on earth so civilized that in war, out of deference to its esteemed Jewish soldiers, no battles were fought on the Sabbath."
Katz notes that the Cochin Jews soon came to establish separate synagogues for white and brown Jews: "Fair-skinned European converts were sometimes accepted as white Jews despite the obvious fact that they could not have Jewish lineage. Similarly, some dark-skinned Yemeni Jews who had proper lineage were considered blacks and were not accepted into the white synagogue."
The Bene Israeli community, which numbered 50,000 before emigration to Israel, 90 percent are gone to Israel, claims its origin to some sixteen or eighteen hundred years ago, they say, "when their ancestors were shipwrecked on Indian shores.... They came as refugees from