India is the only country in the world where there has never been
an indigenous anti-Semitism. Jews have flourished in India perhaps
for 2,000 years, although only around 6,000 remain today.
Indian Jews have been Prime Ministers to the Maharajas, the tutor
to the Crown Prince of the Mughals, fabulously wealthy industrialists,
international spice merchants, modern India's greatest war hero, film
moguls and movie stars, celebrated poets, playwrights, Kabbalists
and mystics, an environmentalist zookeeper, medical researchers, a
concert violinist and the Court Jeweler to the Nawab of Oudh.
Indian Judaism developed creatively. Indian Jews have been learned
and pious, leaving a body of religious poetry, folk songs, legal and
mystical treatises, and some of the most striking synagogues in the
There have been three major Jewish communities in India.
The Cochin Jews date themselves from the destruction of the Temple
in 72 CE. From the eleventh century, they lived as an autonomous community
of agriculturalists, spice merchants, shipbuilders and soldiers. The
1568 Cochin Synagogue is not only the most famous in India, it is
the oldest in the British Commonwealth and one of the most beautiful
in the world. Nowhere else has Jewish culture flourished so long in
freedom than here. Their unique tradition blends indigenous Jewish
Malabari with Sephardic, Yemeni and Iraqi elements.
The Bene Israel of Bombay and the Konkan Coast were "lost" Jews who
were recognized as Jews by either the 12th century David Rahabi, merchant
brother of Maimonides, or the 18th century David Ezekiel Rahabi of
Cochin's preeminent merchant house (according to Bene Israel and Cochini
traditions, respectively). Their "religious evolution," from an anonymous
group of rural oil-pressers into an accepted group in world Jewry,
is miraculous and inspiring. They have been prominent in the arts,
professions and government service not only in Bombay, where the great
majority live, but throughout India. They built synagogues in Ahmedabad,
Pune and Delhi, too - all of which we'll visit.
The "Baghdadi" Jews were middle eastern merchants, many Iraqi but
many also Syrian, Turkish and Persian, who came to India about the
same time as did the British. They flourished, and left when the British
left - for the most part. But they left their marks, in Calcutta and
Pune, but most of all in Bombay, where they built schools, hospitals,
libraries, monuments, synagogues, docks and factories. They also left
a sense of romance.
In east India in the States of Manipur and Mizoram exists a community
called the Manipur Jews which sees itself as descendants of the Manasseh
(Menashe) Tribe (one of the 10 lost tribes of Jews).
Manipur Jews there are some who believe that all the Manipur and Mizoram
residents (about 2 million people) are originally from the Menashe
Avichail visited India several times. During one of his visits (in
1979) he named this community Bnei Menashe because the community’s
Mizo ancestor had the name Manmasi, which could possibly be the same
as Menassah son of Joseph. In 2005 Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of
Israel’s two chief rabbis, recognized the Bnei Menashe community as
descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Menashe relate their history of exile from the Northern Kingdom of
Israel in 721 B.C. across the silk route finally ending up in India
and Myanmar. Their oral history, passed down 2,700 years, describes
their escape from slavery in Assyria to Media/Persia. From there they
moved on to Afghanistan, and traveled toward Hindu-Kush on to Tibet,
then to Kaifeng, reaching the Chinese city around 240 B.C.E. The Bnei
Menashe believe that while in China their ancestors were enslaved
yet again. These events caused the Israelites to flee and live in
caves, with different groups going in various directions: Some down
the Mekong River into Vietnam, the Philippines, Siam, Thailand and
Malaysia, while some of the Israelites moved to Burma and, in this
case, some west to east India (Manipur). These people have Chinese
appearance and believe that Christian missionaries in the 19th century
forced them to abolish their Jewish identity and adopt Christianity.
Known as the "Children of Menmasseh", the majority of them
are believed to be Messianic Jews (believers in Jesus Christ -- Yeshua).
Today, some people refer to these people as "Shinlung" the
"cave dwellers." These “Manipur Jews” have established a
number of synagogues and have gained thousands of converts.
See the itinerary for our Judaic Tour of India.
Who Are the Jews of India?, by Nathan Katz (Univ. of California
The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish identity in Hindu India, by
Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1993).
Three Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era,
by Joan G. Roland (Transaction Press, 1998).
The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities, ed. by Orpa
Slapak (The Israel Museum, 1885).
India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Study and Soucebook, by
Shirley Berry Isenberg (Judah L. Magnes Museum & Popular Prakashan,
The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz (Harper San Francisco,