The forgotten Jews and their significance in India

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New Delhi: The Jewish people were once very important members of the Indian society as prime business owners, government officials, physicians, lawyers and academicians. Today, they form a minuscule part of the population here.

Coming to Delhi, the Jewish community here is very small, that is, around 10 families. Though they have a lot of empathy and pride for the India, still quite a lot of them have a soft corner in their hearts for original country Israel, which was created in 1948.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel later this year, the first by any Indian Prime Minister, has touched a chord with most.

There is a lot written about how and when the Jews came to India. The community is currently divided into three chief groups, the ‘Bene Israel’ group settled mainly in Mumbai and Pune, the ‘Baghdadis or Jews from West Asia’ who came as traders and refugees and settled in Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata and the ‘Cochin Jews’. According to the 1951 census, there were 35,000 Jews in India.

In today’s date, there are around 5,000 of Bene Israel, Baghdadi and Cochin Jews left in India. Around 4,000 of them are in Mumbai, 120 in Pune, 140 in Ahmedabad, 100 in the Konkan areas, 25 to 27 in Cochin and Ernakulam, and 24 in Kolkata, informs Ralphy Jhirad, secretary general of the Federation of Indo-Israel Chamber of Commerce, a resident of Mumbai.

Then there are the Jews of Manipur and Mizoram or those who identify themselves as Bnei Menashe numbering “around 5,000,” according to Simeon, a Manipuri Jew presently preparing for his civil services entrance examination in Delhi. There is also a small group of a few thousand in Andhra Pradesh who call themselves Bene Ephraim Jews.

But while the emigrants haven’t lost touch with their Indian roots, many here are finding it tough to continue the grip on to their traditions or having to modify to keep up with the times.

Union and marriage probably are the biggest challenge for the community with many young Jews having migrated to Israel only to find a suitable life partner.

The Jews in India are a minuscule community, but they do not have minority status. They want recognition more than a privilege.

This time, the community is hoping a lot from the Modi government.

“When you fill a government form, Judaism is not even listed as a religion,” says Simeon while talking to reporters. While giving the demographic divide based on religion in the 2001 census on its website, the department did not include the Jews as a separate category. “I hope Modi’s Israel visit, by turning the focus on Jews will give people a little more idea about the community here,” says 26-year-old Abraham Jacob, a Cochin Jew, working as a doctor in Delhi.

Mumbai- “We are Indians first and Jews second,” says Solomon Sopher, chairman of the Sir Jacob Sassoon Philanthropic Trust, which also administers two of Mumbai’s nine synagogues.

Mumbai has a minor but collective Jewish population of around 5,000. According to records kept by the city’s Chabad House community centre, more than 60 percent are above the age of 40. They try to protect or conserve their culture with weekend activities organised at the synagogues.

“The young generation remains an active part of the community, as their parents. They engage with their elders,” says Ronin, a quality management executive with the Indian Registry of Shipping. “It would be helpful if the prime minister nurtured a good relationship with Israel because it would benefit both countries culturally and economically. For example, they could make it easier for Jewish people and tourists in general to visit both countries.”

The two countries have been friends for years. But now with Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, it will become official. I am very happy. This was long overdue,” says eighty-five-year-old Flower Silliman. Flower is one of 25 members of the Jewish community who are still living in Kolkata.

Kolkata- The Jews, mostly Baghdadi Jews came to Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was then called, during the British rule. Between the late 18th to the mid-20th century, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kolkata. Their number never crossed 4,000, members of the community settled well in Kolkata’s cosmopolitan environment and excelled in business.

The Jews of Kolkata started moving to England, Canada and Australia after the country’s independence when they became unsure of their economic prospects in the newly independent country. By the 1960s, there were only 300 to 400 Jews left.

Cochin- Cochin Jews, also called Malabari Jews, trace their roots to the era of the biblical king, Solomon. After the formation of Israel, all but 100 of Kerala’s 2,800-odd Malabari Jews migrated. With the passage of time, their numbers shrunk further. Despite the dwindling population, the synagogue, believed to be built in 1568, gets a steady stream of visitors.

“During peak season, we get 5,000 visitors a day,” says K J Joy, caretaker of the synagogue for the past 26 years.

Elias Josephai, a resident of Cochin in Jewish area too, was keen to migrate to Israel, but his ailing grandmother held him back. One of his two daughters is settled in Israel and is about to marry a US-based Jew.

As told to Hindustan Times, he says, “We never faced any discrimination here. Some of my best friends are Muslims”. He firmly believes Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel will be a game-changer for the country.

“India has kept its relationship with Israel under wraps. But in the given scenario, Israel is the best country for India to rely on,” he says, adding that they have “pinned much hope on our new prime minister.” (Inputs from Agencies)

  • Zeev Raphael

    This story brought back memories of close to 50 years ago. In December 1967 we – together with my wife and two daughters – were on our way back to Israel, after a prolonged stay in the Far East (South Korea). On 31 December we were in New Delhi, walking in the Laudi Gardens. We met a group of local Jews, having a Chanuka party. They invited us to join them for the kindling of the candles, at their local modest synagogue.
    (Unfortunately, the uploading of a photo of the synagogue failed…)