The Jews in India

Sep 4, 2015 by

[This post was originally published in July 2012]


My previous post discussed African groups claiming Jewish descent; in this post we consider Jewish groups from India, home to five Jewish groups of different antiquity, speaking different languages. Oldest are the Cochin Jews, who arrived at the Indian subcontinent some 2,500 years ago (according to traditional recordings, the date of the first arrival is 562 BCE) and settled down in Cochin, in the southwestern region of Kerala. Another ancient group is the Bene Israel, who arrived in what is now the state of Maharashtra approximately 2,100 years ago. Then there are the Baghdadi Jews, who migrated to the city Mumbai from Iraq (hence their name), Iran, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries about 250 years ago. Another group is the Bnei Menashe, members of the Mizo and Kuki ethnic groups in Manipur and Mizoram who claiming descent—as their name suggests—from the tribe of Menashe. The most recent group is the Bene Ephraim, also called “Telugu Jews” because they speak Telugu, the Dravidian language of Andhra Pradesh, spoken by more than 70 million people; Bene Ephraim’s observance of Judaism dates to 1981.

The Cochin Jews orignated as traders from the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Israel. Later waves of exiles joined them from Palestine (around 70 C.E.), after the Muslim conquest of Persia (7th century C.E.) and after expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492 C.E.; their descendents are also known as Paradesi Jews). Traditionally the Cochin Jews spoke Judeo-Malayalam, which is variably regarded as a separate language or a dialect of Malayalam. From the point of view of mutual intellegibility, Judeo-Malayalam is essentially the same language as standard Malayalam. But many linguists take into account not just purely linguistic factors but also the way the speakers themselves view their language, and when religion is at stake, speakers view their linguistic varieties as different languages. This is particularly true of mixed Jewish languages: just as the Cochin Jews regard Judeo-Malayalam to be a distinct language, so too the Mountain Jews (Juvuros) of the Caucasus consider Judeo-Tat to be a different language from the Muslim variety of Tat. Judeo-Malayalam, like Malayalam proper, is written in the Malayalam script (most languages of India have their own distinct scripts). But Judeo-Malayalam differs from Malayalam proper in several ways. As is typical of a mixed Jewish language, it contains many Hebrew loanwords and is conservative in the sense of containing a number of lexical, phonological and syntactic archaisms, dating back to the days before Malayalam became fully distinguished from Tamil.

The Cochin Jews are scrupulously observant of Judaism in their private and public lives. However, they also emphasize certain beliefs and practices that mirror the traditions of their Hindu neighbors. For example, they circumnavigate the synagogue with the Rabbi carrying the Torah scrolls and the congregation following, much as Hindus walk around temples with offerings for the residing deities. They may even have practiced a form of caste system by limiting social intercourse between dark and fair skinned members of their community. Today, some 8,000 Cochin Jews reside in Israel, whereas only 53 still live in Kerala. Their synagogue in Cochin, built next to a Hindu temple, is a protected heritage site and is a popular tourist destination.

Another ancient Jewish group in India is the Bene Israel, who arrived to Mumbai (Bombay) some 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just south of the city. The Bene Israel traditionally spoke Marathi, an Indo-European language. Their oral history contained stories of having arrived from outside India, but the specific place of origin was not mentioned, and they did not call themselves Jews. Until the 18th century, they were mostly employed in the business of pressing oil, and were known as “Shaniwari Telis” or “Saturday Oil Pressers”—not because they pressed oil on Saturdays but because they fastidiously avoided doing so. Other unique observances that differentiated them from the surrounding communities of Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians (Parsees) included circumcising their boys on the eighth day after birth and calling their prayer “Shema”. These observances were recognized by Christian missionaries and other Jews around the 18th century when the name Bene Israel was bestowed on them. Members of the community claim a lineage to the priestly cohanim, a claim confirmed by a genetic study conducted by Parfitt and Egorova (2005) showing that the Bene Israel carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). Today, Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India, although in the 1950s and 1960s many families emigrated to Israel.

A much more recent Jewish group in India is the so-called Baghdadi Jews. Despite the name, they are not exclusively of Iraqi origin: many came from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. This community goes back some 250 years, when the first Jews from Iraq settled in the cities of Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta and Rangoon (Yangon). Most were traders in merchandize as diverse as carpets, gems, textile, and opium. The most famous Baghdadi Jewish family, the Sassoons of Bombay, made their first big money in India by procuring opium for the British government, which was at that time conducting its notorious opium business in China. Later, the family diversified into real estate and textile mills, accumulating enormous wealth that earned them the name of “Rothschilds of the East”. In 1887, the Sassoon and Rothschild family trees intertwined, when Sir Edward Albert Sassoon married Aline Caroline de Rothschild. Unlike the Cochin Jews and Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews identified themselves with the British Raj rather than with Indian society. They never fully integrated into the Indian mainstream, remaining aloof, and choosing to interact with Indians only for business dealings. Nor did the Baghdadi Jews mix with other Jewish communities; rather they built schools, synagogues, hospitals, and cemeteries to service only members of their own community. Among their synagogues are grand and ornate buildings in Bombay, Calcutta and Pune. After the formation of the State of Israel, most Baghdadi Jews emigrated to the new country.

Another possible Jewish group in India is the 9,000-strong Bnei Menashe from the northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram. Like their neighbors, they have a Southeast Asian appearance and speak a Tibeto-Burman language. They were formerly animists and even headhunters, but in the 19th century most converted to Christianity. However, their legendary ancestor is called Manmasi, widely associated with the Biblical Menashe, one of the Lost Ten Tribes. In the late 20th century, a revival of Judaism swept the area. Many of the Bnei Menashe subsequently immigrated to Israel. Key to this process has been Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based religious organization devoted to assisting “lost Jews” seeking to return to the fold. In addition to the Bnei Menashe, Shavei Israel has worked with the Bnai Anousim (“Marranos”) of Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, and the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the time of the Holocaust. However, Shavei Israel remains a highly controversial organization in Israel, in part because they settle many of those “lost but newly found Jews” in settlements outside the Green Line, with the goal of boosting the Jewish population in the West Bank. Many of the Bnei Menashe settled in such disputed areas, thus landing in a long-standing political controversy.

But the controversy surrounding Bnei Menashe is not only political, but also ideological and scientific, and it rages in both Israel and in India. Just as the first Bnei Menashe were moving to Israel, many Israelis were questioning their Jewish status. After all, their practice of Judaism is recent, and their belonging to the Jewish people seems to be mostly a matter of legend. As a result geneticists were called upon to offer evidence. In 2003, Hillel Halkin initiates a collection of 350 genetic samples from Bnei Menashe which were then tested at Haifa’s Technion—Israel Institute of Technology—under the auspices of Professor Karl Skorecki, the man behind the discovery of the CMH and one of the leading Israeli geneticists. But the results of this study were negative: no evidence was found to indicate a Middle Eastern ancestry for the Bnei Menashe.

Despite Skorecki’s findings, very different results has been claimed by an Indian study conducted in 2004 at Kolkota’s Central Forensic Science Laboratory. According to these researchers, Y-DNA evidence of Middle Eastern genes was found in a sample of Bnei Menashe. But this research remains highly controversial both in scientific and political circles. It has been criticized heavily by Professor Skorecki, who claimed that Kolkota researches “did not do a complete ‘genetic sequencing’ of all the DNA and therefore it is hard to rely on the conclusions derived from a ‘partial sequencing’, and they themselves admit this”. But does the absence of evidence constitute evidence of absence? Skorecki admits that “it is possible that after thousands of years it is difficult to identify the traces of the common genetic origin”. A further study conducted in 2005 by the Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta claimed that “while the masculine side of the tribes bears no links to Israel, the feminine side suggests a genetic profile with Middle Eastern people that may have arisen through intermarriage”. Yet this study has never been properly peer-reviewed or published, so its reliability is questionable. Some pundits accused these studies of being “science in service of politics”. The Russian-born Israeli social scientist Lev Grinberg told the BBC that “right-wing Jewish groups wanted such conversions of distant people to boost the population in areas disputed by the Palestinians”. Others wonder whether such research is risks making genetic testing a prerequisite for Israeli citizenship, a position complicated by conversion into Judaism. After all, the “Jewish club” is open to anybody who wants to join and is willing to make the necessary steps. However, the practice of proselytizing, let alone forced conversions, is foreign to Judaism, making the work of Shavei Israel highly problematic for some people. The current consensus on the Jewish status of Bnei Menashe is that a small group of their ancestors were likely descended from a “lost tribe” (possibly, of Menashe) and transmitted Biblical memories, traditions, and customs to a larger group of people.

Like the Bnei Menashe, Bene Ephraim began to observe Judaism, learn Hebrew, and seek recognition from other Jewish communities around the world quite recently, only since 1981. But they claim to trace their Judaism to ancient times, with conversion to Christianity in the 19th century. The Bene Ephraim form a small community that lives primarily in Kottareddipalem, a village in eastern Andhra Pradesh. Like most other Jews of India, Bene Ephraim speak the language of their non-Jewish neighbors, in their case Telugu, a Dravidian language distantly related to Malayalam, Kannada, and Tamil. Because of the very recent return to Judaism and the use of Hebrew as the liturgical language, there has not yet been a development of a special Judeo‑Telugu dialect. Over the years, the Bene Ephraim have been visited by several groups of rabbis but have not yet received the same recognition as that extended to the Bnei Menashe.




Parfitt, Tudor; Egorova, Yulla (2005) “Genetics, History, and Identity: The Case of the Bene Israel and the Lemba”. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 29 (2): 193-224.


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