Let's Meet the Jews of India

This week in class we're going to travel to India where we're going to meet several fascinating communities of Indian Jews, and even celebrate a couple of holidays as one might have in the heyday of the Jewish community of Cochin.

Let's meet some of these Indian Jewish communities. I've pasted text from a photography book, Scattered Among the Nations, that is primarily the work of my friend Bryan Schwartz. Several years ago, well before I started teaching music class, I traveled to Africa and wrote some articles about communities of African Jews. I contributed chapters to the book about some of those communities. Bryan was the India adventurer -- he met, photographed and wrote about the communities introduced below. 

The Lost Tribe That Found Elijah:

MAHARASHTRA STATE, INDIA

(Find this introduction to the Bene Israel on ScatteredAmongtheNations.org)

Benjamin Simon Joseph Dandekar (friends call him "Benny"), has served as the Hazzan, or Jewish prayer leader, of Bene Israel ("Children of Israel") communities in and around Bombay, India, for over 25 years. Benny is a celebrity among the approximately 5,000 Jews who live in Bombay and the surrounding towns and villages of India's Maharashtra Province.

Benny teaches all Bene Israel youth the traditional Jewish prayers, but also schools international Jewish tourists in the unique history of the Bene Israel. He says the progenitors of the modern community were exiled from the Land of Israel hundreds of years before the Common Era. They shipwrecked off the palm-bedecked Konkan Coast, south of what is today Bombay, and only seven couples made it ashore alive.

 Thousands of years later, many Bene Israel remain in India ­ though they constitute at best 0.000005% of the country's billion-plus population. Despite the Bene Israel's relatively small numbers, across the centuries, they never fully assimilated, even as they adopted Indian dress and the local Marathi language. The community always remembered its Shema vow of loyalty to one G-d, guarded Kosher laws and rested on Saturdays.

When Jewish traders from Baghdad, Iraq arrived in India in the late 18th Century, they recognized the Bene Israel as coreligionists. The Baghdadis constructed grandiose new synagogues, into which they welcomed the Bene Israel, teaching the Indians contemporary Jewish practices.

After the modern State of Israel's establishment in 1948, nearly all of the Baghdadi Jews (and many Bene Israel) made Aliyah from India to Israel. The Baghdadis' leadership mantle has been largely assumed by the remaining Bene Israel. The former Bene Israel learners, like Benny, are now the instructors.

The Baghdadis' influence did not overwhelm every element of the Bene Israel's hybrid, Jewish-Indian culture. The Bene Israel have maintained what was the cornerstone of their unique heritage: a special reverence for Elijah the Prophet (Eliahu Ha'Navi).

Ever since Bene Israel villagers encountered Elijah incarnate 2000 years ago, touching down his chariot along the Indian coast, the community has celebrated, given thanks and made wishes invoking his name. Their "Malida" ceremony, in particular, consists of offering prayers, songs and bowls of fruits and flowers to the Prophet Elijah.

Though no one is certain exactly where and when the Malida originated, Benny suggests it has roots in antiquity, created to prevent Jews from mixing with the local Hindu population. "The Hindus did their ceremony to their gods, with fruits, singing and flowers," says Benny. "Our kids would go and have a good time mixing with the Hindus. So to compete, we came up with the joyous Malida honoring Eliahu."

Though the Malida and certain other Bene Israel customs may have Indian roots, Benny credits the Bene Israel parents for keeping the community from idol worship. "My father died when I was ten years old ­ but not before he heard me singing the Eliahu Ha'Navi prayer." With Hazzan Dandekar's passionate teaching, the Bene Israel community's future will be secured for generations to come.

**

The Longest Road to Judaism:

MANIPUR STATE, INDIA

(Find this introduction to the Benei Menashe on ScatteredAmongtheNations.org)

Elitsur Haokip was among the first of the Kuki tribesmen in the northeastern Indian province of Manipur to begin exploring his Jewish roots almost 25 years ago. Today, 63 year-old Elitsur remains a leader of the Benei Menashe, or "Children of Menashe," who claim descent from the Biblical Menashe, eldest son of Joseph. The Jewish practitioners among this professed Lost Tribe of Israel number over 5,000. They regularly attend twenty makeshift, mud and bamboo synagogues in the hills on both sides of the India-Myanmar border, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest substantial Jewish community, in Bombay, India.

Tribal warfare, border conflicts and a flourishing drug trade ravage this corridor, so the Indian government severely restricts foreign visits. Only a dozen western Jews have ever visited the Benei Menashe.

Wise Elitsur teaches about the peace he has found in Judaism, even while surrounded by violence. "If you pray three times a day," he explains, smiling and stroking his long, sparse, gray-black beard and thin moustache, "your life will be very happy. If by chance you miss one day, at that time your life will not be happy. It is correct because I myself practice this. I pray three times a day, Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma'ariv," naming the Jewish morning, afternoon and evening services.

Most of the Judaism-practicing Benei Menashe, like Elitsur, were first attracted to the religion by the perceived connection to the Biblical Menashe. They trace the roots of today's Kuki, Chin and Mizo tribes to Menashe, whose descendants were expelled from Israel more than 2500 years ago. The Benei Menashe believe that their ancestors trekked from ancient Israel to Afghanistan, into China, through Tibet and Southeast Asia to Myanmar and northeastern India, where they are today's Kuki, Chin and Mizo.

Across the generations, the Benei Menashe maintained obsolete sacrificial rituals referenced in the Torah and, above all, a deep reverence for their patriarch, Menashe -- called "Manmassi" in the local dialect. Elitsur provides an example: "When someone dies, we list all his ancestors, beginning, "Manmassi Hi-tu, Geled (Gilead) Hi-Tu, Ulam Hi-Tu. Hi-tu means 'grandfather.' Like 'Abraham Hi-tu, Isaac Hi-tu and Jacob Hi-tu. The Bible tells that Geled and Ulam are Menashe's descendants. We only received the Old Testament in 1979, but we always said these ancestors' names."

A vision of making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel) unites the Benei Menashe like nothing else. For some, the dream is already coming true. Since 1992, more than 700 members of the tribe have reached Israel. Since all 5,000-plus Jewish-practicing Benei Menashe cannot immediately go to Israel, the Benei Menashe leadership in India want to build a permanent Jewish educational center in Manipur, to be sure that only genuine and deserving people will be selected for Aliyah.

The serene Elitsur meditates on the Benei Menashe's love of Israel. "We don't know where Jerusalem is," he concludes, "but when we sing of Zion, our tears come out. We are surely Menashe's tribe. We are surely Israel's tribe."