The Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh, India

image: Suriname context map

For the past 18 months, we have been studying the Bene Ephraim Jewish community of Andhra Pradesh, India to gather information for a book we are preparing on the religious and social life of the community. In order to understand the day-to-day life and Jewish practices of this small and emerging Jewish community of 40 nuclear families, Shahid Perwez lived in their village of Kothareddypalem from June 2009 to June 2010. Community members welcomed him into their midst with kindness and hospitality and we anticipate that the relationship forged during this “visit” will be the beginning of a fruitful collaboration.

Kulanu newsletter readers have been fortunate over the years to read about the Bene Ephraim in these pages through articles by Jason Francisco (1995), Tudor Parfitt (2002), Karen Primack (2007), Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman (2007). In this issue, we would like to share with Kulanu supporters some of our preliminary observations about the Jewish traditions and practices of the Bene Ephraim within the context of their lives.

Children of Bene Ephraim Jewish community. Photo by Bonita Sussman.
Children of Bene Ephraim Jewish community. Photo by Bonita Sussman.


Rites, Festivals and Dietary Laws

Like Jewish communities around the world, the Bene Ephraim look to the Sabbath each week to join Jews worldwide in prayer. Every Friday evening after sunset, community members gather in their synagogue to welcome the arrival of the Sabbath. The menorah (candelabra) is lit and a plate of offerings is prepared with flowers and fruits. The synagogue consists of one room, where men sit on one side and women on the other. The service is normally led by Sadok Yacobi. When he is away, his twenty-three year old son Jacob or other family members take this responsibility. In accordance with Jewish tradition, men and boys wear kippot (traditional Jewish skullcaps); women cover their heads with a headscarf or with saris.

According to orthodox Jewish ritual, the onset of the Sabbath signals a cessation from all work from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday evening. Cooking is also prohibited. In Kothareddypalem, however, as most community members are daily wage earners, either agricultural laborers or construction workers, they cannot afford to stop working completely on Saturdays. If they did so, that would mean no income, hence, no food for the day. Those few who can afford not to work do their best to maintain a day of rest. Refraining from cooking is also problematic for most Bene Ephraim families as almost no one has a refrigerator and food must be prepared daily.

Those community members who are able to refrain from work on the Sabbath join the Yacobis for prayers on Saturday around mid-day. The service lasts for about an hour and involves the recitation of verses from the Torah and the Siddur (prayer book), and singing songs in Hebrew and in Telugu, the vernacular language of the Bene Ephraim in Andhra Pradesh. Congregants return in the evening after three stars are visible in the sky and perform the final ritual of the Sabbath, which consists of a short prayer to bid farewell to the day of rest.

In addition to observing the Sabbath, the community celebrates a number of Jewish festivals. Some of these were (re)introduced into the life of the community relatively recently. However, the main holidays of Judaism have been practiced for at least 20 years. In our 2009-2010 fieldwork, Shahid witnessed Sukkoth and Chanukah celebrations, which were carried out with great fervor.

Chanukah 2009 was marked with an additional festive event — the installation of a replica Torah scroll (donated by Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman) in the village synagogue. The celebration involved a large group of community members and invited guests who gathered in the synagogue yard to initiate the rituals of Torah scroll dedication. Amidst drum beating, chanting in Hebrew and Telugu, and dancing, Sadok and his nephew Shmuel Yacobi led worshippers in a march in> the courtyard of the synagogue. Then Sadok called his son Jacob to hold the Torah scroll during its dedication. Community members embraced it, and then Jacob installed it in the prayer hall. The ritual continued with a kosher luncheon organized by the community.

Markings on a Jewish home. Photo by Bonita Sussman.
Markings on a Jewish home. Photo by Bonita Sussman.


Most members of the Bene Ephraim claim to know the laws of kashrut(Jewish dietary laws) and say that they could make any meat kosher though they have not been formally trained yet to do so. At the end of Sabbath, the Yacobis would often collect money from the members to slaughter an animal and distribute its meat equally to all. We sometimes observed Bene Ephraim refusing to eat food containing meat in the houses of other villagers on the grounds that the food prepared there would not be kosher.


The Jewish Life Cycle of the Bene Ephraim

As the community started practicing Judaism in public about 20 years ago, it can now boast a number of young men and women who grew up in the Jewish tradition and have experienced a number of Jewish life cycle rituals. Those (older) Bene Ephraim who missed out on such practices are embracing them now.

Today, when a Bene Ephraim child is born, he or she is given both a Hebrew and a Telugu Hindu name. The former will be used within the family and during community interactions, while the latter will become the ‘official’ name, to be used in interactions with ‘government authorities’ and at schools, colleges, and other state institutions.

Another Jewish ritual practiced by the community is circumcision. In our interactions with the community, every male member reported he had undergone circumcision either during childhood or at a later age. In the absence of a mohel (ritually trained circumciser), circumcision of most Bene Ephraim is performed by a doctor at a local hospital. Some community members have told us that if they have a boy in the future, they will try to make sure that the circumcision is performed on the eighth day after his birth, as it is done by Jews elsewhere.

As for the institution of marriage, although most community members told us they would like their children to marry other Jews, in practice this is often difficult to achieve. As the Bene Ephraim community is very small, numbering around 120 souls, there are not enough eligible brides and bridegrooms to marry. As a result, boys generally marry a girl from a Christian Madiga family in or around the village. We have documented four such marriages, to which we were invited within the last year. These brides gave up their Christian faith and started identifying themselves as members of the Bene Ephraim. Currently, they are learning the religion of their husbands, and attending the synagogue regularly. For girls, it is more difficult. According to Indian custom, girls marrying outside of their faith are expected to take on the religious practices of their husbands. As a result, girls are often lost to the community.

End of life traditions among the Bene Ephraim are marked in a special way. Although we did not observe any funerals in the village during our 18 months in the community, we did visit the local Christian Madiga cemetery, where the tombs of the deceased Bene Ephraim are marked with the same Jewish symbols as their houses — Stars of David, signs symbolizing the menorah (candelabra), the words ‘Zion’ and Shaddai (a word used to signify G-d), written in Hebrew.

On the whole, it appears that the community is doing its best to embrace contemporary Jewish practice. In addition to the difficulties detailed above, the Bene Ephraim are forced to leave their village during the year to look for work elsewhere as seasonal farm work migrants. In these circumstances, keeping kosher becomes impossible. Even in the village, many community members struggle to observe all forms of kashrut. For instance, keeping dairy and meat products separate is hard for community members who often lack basic utensils. Finally, the community was separated from any Jewish historic connection for many generations and are engaged in embracing what for many Bene Ephraim are new practices.

To counteract these disadvantages, Sadok and Shmuel Yacobi are keen to make their community economically more independent and self-sufficient by promoting small business initiatives within the community. The goal is to make the community less dependent on outside work, thereby curtailing the need to travel outside the community for work. If the standard of living is raised and community members develop their own businesses, they will have more control over their religious observance.

Synagogue. Photo by Bonita Sussman.
Synagogue. Photo by Bonita Sussman.


Finally, we were particularly impressed with the degree of devotion demonstrated by the children and young people of the Bene Ephraim. For them, Judaism is a tradition into which they were born and raised and being Jewish is as much a given as it is for children and young people from ‘conventionally’ Jewish households in the West. In early 2010, during the course of a household survey of Bene Ephraim families in the village, we asked a twelve-year old community boy about his ‘Telugu’ name. He was not sure what we were asking as he had already told us his name. Taken aback, he replied that he was Jewish and only knew his Jewish name.


Special thanks to Shmuel, Sadok and Miriam Yacobi, who have been extremely helpful, accommodating and patient with us. The study of the Bene Ephraim was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), and we are grateful for their support.




Progress in 2010

Synagogue. Photo by Bonita Sussman.
Synagogue. Photo by Bonita Sussman.

Last June, Kulanu received a $5,000 grant from the San Francisco/Marin Jewish Community Teen Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund for a chicken project to be started in the Bene Ephraim community. The chickens will enable community families to create a small business in keeping with the desire of community members to gain self-sufficiency and take more control of their religious observance. In addition, Kulanu’s friend and colleague Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, has arranged to pay for the translation of Hebrew books into Telugu, the language of the community, as well as to put together an educational program with the goal of strengthening the community’s Jewish knowledge and practice.