There are about 12,000 Jews in India according to the Joshua Project. Most of them live in Bombay, where there are several synagogues and a Jewish community center. Other places with Jewish communities are Pune, 150 miles southeast of Bombay, and Cochin on the Kerala coast. There are also some in Calcutta and New Delhi. There were around 24,000 Jews nationwide in India at the time of independence in 1947.

Jews have been in Kerala since the first century A.D. but most India Jews have migrated to Israel in the last few decades. Some don't speak English but they speak Hebrew. India Jews like to point out that India is the only country in the world where the Jews have never been persecuted.

Some Indian Jews have adopted Hindu concepts about purity and customs such as holding weddings under canopies. The bride receives a ritual bath and is given an Indian-style pendant. “Ascetic” practices conducted during Passover are not that different from those observed by Hindus. Jew have traditionally buried their dead not cremated them.

History of Jews in India

The first group of Indian Jews are said to have migrated from West Asia and to have settled in Cranganore (also the traditional first site where Muslims later arrived in India) on the Malabar Coast of Kerala in the first century A.D. A second group of Jews fled the Arabian Peninsula in the face of Muslim ascendancy in the seventh century. [Source: Library of Congress] *

Trade contacts between the Mediterranean region and the west coast of India probably led to the presence of small Jewish settlements in India as long ago as the early first millennium B.C. In Kerala a community of Jews tracing its origin to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has remained associated with the cities of Cranganore and Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) for at least 1,000 years. The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi, rebuilt in 1568, is in the architectural style of Kerala but preserves the archaic ritual style of the Sephardic rite, with Babylonian and Yemenite influence as well. The Jews of Kochi, concentrated mostly in the old "Jew Town," were completely integrated into local culture, speaking Malayalam and taking local names while preserving their knowledge of Hebrew and contacts with Southwest Asia. *

A separate community of Jews, called the Bene Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad for almost 2,000 years. Unlike the Kochi Jews, they became a village-based society and maintained little contact with other Jewish communities. They always remained within the orthodox Jewish fold, practicing the Sephardic rite without rabbis, with the synagogue as the center of religious and cultural life. A third group of Jews immigrated to India, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, following the trade contacts established by the British Empire. These Baghdad Jews came mostly from the area of modern Iraq and settled in Bombay and Calcutta, where many of them became wealthy and participated in the economic leadership of these growing cities. *

The population of the Kochi Jews, always small, had decreased from 5,000 in 1951 to about fifty in the early 1990s. During the same period, the Bene Israel decreased from about 20,000 to 5,000, while the Baghdad Jews declined from 5,000 to 250. Emigration to Australia, Israel, Britain, and North America accounts for most of this decline. According to the 1981 Indian census, there were 5,618 Jews in India, down from 5,825 in 1971. The 1991 census showed a further decline to 5,271, most of whom lived in Maharashtra and Mizoram. *

Cochin Jews

The Cochin Jews are a small but very ancient Jewish community in Kerala. Also know as the Cochinis, they have traditionally lived in several towns along the Malabar Coast: Attencammanal, Chenotta, Ernakulam, Mallah, Parur, Chenemangalam and Cochin. Like their neighbors they speak Malayalan,a Dravidian language similar to Tamil. Few of them speak Hebrew.

The Cochin Jews are one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world. In 1948 there were 2,500 of them and three synagogues. . In 1953, 2,400 of them emigrated to Israel. Only around 30 remained in Cochin as of the early 1990s. While the Cochin Jews kept mainly to themselves they were well liked by other religious groups.

In Kerala there were 65 Jews as of 2000. Isolated from the mainstream Jewish community, Cochin’s Jews developed some unique customs as a result of their small size. The main synagogue has no rabbi. During marriage ceremonies the rites are read by the groom. They make their own Sabbath wine from local grapes. Their daily prayers are chanted in shingli, a unique version of standard Jewish Prayers.

History of the Cochin Jews

Some believe the Cochin Jews are the descendant of Jewish merchants under King Solomon, who brought back ivory, monkeys and parrots for his temple. Others believe they are descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the 8th century B.C. A more plausible theory is that they arrived in the A.D. 1st century after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This theory is backed up by local South Indian Christian legends.

The first definitive proof of the Cochin Jews’ existence dates to the 1300s: the Cochin Jewish copper plates. Much of what is known about the early Jewish settlement comes from these copper plates, written in Tamil script and once dated to A.D. 345 but now believed to date to around A.D. 1000 or 1300, the year the Chochin Jews were granted 72 privileges, including the right to walk on decorative cloths and light lamps during the day. Some think that many Cochin Jews came from Spain in the late 1400s via Europe and Syria.

The Cochin Jews engaged in petty trading in towns where they lived along the Malabar Coast. For a while Jewish merchants dominated the local spice trade and thrived under the Dutch and a liberal-minded raja. Beginning in the 18th century they had regular contacts with the Jewry in Palestine. In 1948, 17 Cochin Jewish families sold their property and moved to Israel. Others followed, pushed by deteriorating economic conditions and establishment of the state of Israel in 1953

Black Jews and White Cochin Jews

There are two primary communities of Cochin Jews: 1) the Malabar (“Black”) Jews and 2) the Paradesi (“White” or “Foreign”) Jews. The White Jews are mostly descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Iraq who arrived after the 16th century and have rarely intermarried with local people. The Black Jews claim they are descendants of Jews that came to India in the A.D. 1st century. The Black Jews generally have darker skin. It is believed that they intermarried more with local people. [Source: New York Times]

The Black Jews believe they were the original recipients of the copper plates and the descendants of the original Jewish community.. However the plates are in the hands of the White Jews and have traditionally been kept in a White Jew synagogue that Black Jews were not allowed to enter. For their part the Black Jews built synagogues that the White Jews couldn’t enter. This synagogues was shipped to Israel in 1991 and placed in a museum there. It is not clear how the divisions between the Cochin Jews occurred.

The “White” Jews generally enjoyed a higher standard of living, and some became prominent spice merchants, lawyers and doctors. In Israel, there mainly work in agriculture in communities known as moshavim , raising avocados, olives, pecans, cotton, flowers and chickens.

Cochin Jews have traditionally married only Cochin Jews. There hasn’t even been much intermarriage between White and Black Jews. The Black and White are divided into privileged and less privileged. There has hardly been any intermarriage between privileged White Jews and less privileged White Jews or intermarriage between privileged Black Jews and less privileged Black Jews.

Current Cochin Jewish Community

In 2000, their were only 16 Cochin Jews left in India. Most were elderly. There was a functioning 16th century synagogue that contained unique blue-and-white floor tiles, scrolls of the New Testament and Hebrew texts inscribed on copper plates. The synagogue had no rabbi. It was kept going by a community of elders. On most Saturdays the synagogue had difficultly attracting the necessary 10 men needed to conduct prayers. After the Black Jew synagogue was shipped to a museum in Jerusalem, the Black Jews and White began praying together at the Paradesi temple in Cochin, built in 1568 and one of India’s oldest synagogues. [Source: New York Times]

Most of the young Cochin Jews have gone to Israel or the United States in search of mates. The Cochin Jews in Israel live primarily in the agricultural settlements of Nevatom and Mesillat Zion. About 100 Jews remained in Kerala. The community of White Jews is shrinking and in danger of becoming extinct. The Black Jews are doing well. Their numbers in Israel are growing.

The last Black Jew in India, Aaron Abraham, died in February 2000. When a White Jew died a few month earlier one newspaper ran a headline that said: “Jewish population down by 6 percent. One White Jew told the Financial Times, “It’s a great pity the younger generation left. I went to Israel for one month, but it was not home. This is home, and naturally I am an Indian. Soon it will end.”

Bene Israel Jews

The Bene Israel Jews have traditionally lived in Bombay and villages on the Konkan Coast, south of Bombay. Today around, 5,000 of them live in India and 32,000 of so live in Israel. They claim they originated in Israel and were members of a “lost tribe” shipwrecked in the Indian coast in 175 B.C. Their name means “Children of God” in Hebrew.

The Bene Israel speak Marathi, the language of their neighbors. In coastal areas they traditionally worked as oil pressers. In Bombay, they have traditionally lived in tenement buildings and were employed as white color workers, mechanics and skilled laborers in factories and workshops. Some served in the armed forces. A minority were doctors, lawyers and teachers.

The Bene Israel Jew embraced some Hindu beliefs about caste and were incorporated by Hindus into the caste system. They were also divided into White (Gora) and Black (Kala). They married only other Jews and intermarriage between Black Bene Israel and White Bene Israel was very rare. Black Ben Israel are descendants of offspring of mixed marriages with Hindus, maybe Dalits (untouchables). Many Israel Bene marriage customs are in line with Hindu concepts of marriage. They have traditionally preferred cross-cousin marriages, discouraged the marriage of widows, practiced some polygamy and conducted a prewedding henna ceremony.

History of the Bene Israel Jews

According to tradition, the original shipwrecked Bene Israel Jews lost all their prayer books and kept their religion alive by what they knew about in the their heads—namely some prayers and dietary customs. They practiced circumcision, celebrated many Jewish festivals but didn’t have synagogues and had adopted many Hindu customs.

The Bene Israel community was discovered in the 18th century and was brought in to line with mainstream Judaism. They established their first synagogue in Bombay in 1796. Some Cochin Jews assisted them by acting as cantors, ritual slaughterers and teachers. In the 19th century some Jews from Bagdad, including the legendary Sassoon family, joined the Bombay community.

The number of Bene Israel increased from 6,000 in the 1930s to 20,000 in 1948. After Israel became an independent state in 1953 large numbers of Bene Israel began emigrating to Israel. In the 1950s, many rabbis refused to marry Bene Israel with other Israelis due to doubts about their purity and Jewishness, The Ben Israel staged some protest in the early 1960s. In 1964 the Chief Rabbinate declared them “full Jews in every respect.”

Lost Tribes

In India there are a million or so Indians who believe that they descended from the Israelite tribe of Manasseh, which was expelled by the Assyrians 2,700 years ago. About of 5,000 of these follow religious rules listed in the Bible—including animal sacrifices.

Several hundred lost tribe members have come to Israel as immigrants and have been allowed to become Israeli citizens if they converted to Judaism. One Indian tribe member interviewed by the Wall Street Journal was a university graduate with a degree political science who came from Manipur, near the Burmese border. He said he came to Israel so he could follow his religious commandments. After his arrival he got a job working on a farm and spent much is his free time studying Hebrew, Judaism and Jewish customs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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