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Indian Jews


    One of the most important Jewish peoples of India are the Bene Israel ("Sons of Israel"), whose main population centers were Bombay, Calcutta, Old Delhi, and Ahmadabad. The native language of the Bene Israel was Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern India spoke Malayalam.

    The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. The Bene Israel resembles the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, which indicate intermarriage between Jews and Indians. However, the Bene Israel maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision, and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.

    The Bene Israel says their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galil and they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century they were "discovered" by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Beni Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is how they were recognized) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    The first Jews in Cochin (southern India) were the so-called "Black Jews", who spoke the Malayalam tongue. The "Sephardic Jews" settled later, coming to India from western European nations such as Holland and Spain. A notable settlement of Spanish and Portuguese Jews starting in the 15th century was Goa, but this settlement eventually disappeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.

    The Jews of Cochin say that they came to Cranganore (southwest coast of India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70ce. They had, in effect, their own principality for many centuries until a chieftainship dispute broke out between two brothers in the 15th century. The dispute led neighboring princes to dispossess them. In 1524, the Moors, backed by the ruler of Calicut (today called Kozhikode) attacked the Jews of Cranganore on the pretext that they were "tampering" with the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin and went under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site for their own town, which later acquired the name "Jew Town".

    Unfortunately for the Jews of Cochin, the Portuguese occupied Cochin in this same period and indulged in persecution of the Jews until the Dutch displaced them in 1660. The Dutch Protestants were tolerant and the Jews prospered. In 1795 Cochin passed into the British sphere of influence. In the 19th century, Cochin Jews lived in the towns of Cochin, Ernakulam, and Parur. Today most of Cochin's Jews have immigrated (principally to Israel).

    Typical is the founder of the Calcutta community, Shalom Aharon Ovadiah HaCohen. He was born in Aleppo in 1762 and left in 1789. He arrived in Surat in 1792 and established himself there. He traded as far as Zanzibar. In 1798 he moved to Calcutta. In 1805 he was joined by his nephew, Moses Simon Duek HaCohen, who married his eldest daughter Lunah. Soon other traders swelled the community and Baghdad's outnumbered those from Aleppo.

    Under British rule, the Jews of India achieved their maximum population and wealth, and the Calcutta community continued to grow and prosper and trade amongst all the cities of the Far East and to the rest of the world. The Indians were very tolerant and the Jews of Calcutta felt completely at home. Their numbers reached a peak of about 5000 during WW-II when refugees fleeing the Japanese advance into Burma swelled them.

    The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but by the 1890s English was the language of choice. After WWII, nationalism fever caught the Indians rather strongly and it became less comfortable for the Jews who came to be identified with the English by the Indians. India's Jewish population declined dramatically starting in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel, England, and the United States. It is in these 3 nations where the most significant settlements of Indian Jews exist today. Today there is just a handful of old people and the once vital community with its 3 synagogues is no more.

    The Baghdadi Jews migrated to British India around the end of the 18th century for purposes of trade, and settled mainly in the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon. They retained their language, Arabic, and a separate cultural identity. Mostly traders and financiers, their contribution to the industrial growth of Bombay is well documented. David Sassoon, a member of this community was a well-known philanthropist. After independence there was a continuous migration of the Baghdadi Jews to Israel. At present the community is almost extinct in India.


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