India Journal

(Editor’s note: Rabbis Bonita and Gerald and Bonita Sussman worked with the community of Telugu-speaking Jews in Kothareddipalem, Andhra Pradesh, India, from July 19 to August 7. Sadok Yacobi is the spiritual leader of their congregation, Bnai Ephraim.)

We finally landed in Gunter yesterday at around 3:30. On the way were greeted with flowers by Sadok’s daughters and nephews in Hyderabad when we changed planes. A delegation of people from the community including Sadok’s family met us when we landed in Vijayawada and accompanied us by cab to Guntur, where we are staying in the Hotel Geetha. They were very happy to greet us and also gave us flowers.

It is hot, but not hotter than NY in the hottest part of the summer. Our hotel has marble floors and a good pure-vegetarian restaurant downstairs. Sadok found us transportation in a car to ride the 20 minutes from Guntur to Kothareddipalem. We plan to spend Shabbat with them in the village.

They were very happy to get the chumashim, tapes, and other books and things that we had brought. We brought them a paper Sefer Torah of reasonable size and explained to them that they could use this as a symbol for a Sefer Torah.

Sadok’s daughter Kesia thought we could teach in the evenings for 4-5 hours after people have finished with their work. We planned a course around the holidays and life cycle. We added to the stash a havdalah candle, a seder plate, haggadot, hand-baked matzah shemurah from Israel, and other odds and ends. Now that we have met the community, we have lightened our load of luggage.

Shabbat in the Village

Shabbat in the village was quite an experience. We were greeted with flowers by a delegation and escorted to the synagogue with drums with a big welcome sign on the front gate. The synagogue consists of a one-room concrete building with electricity but no running water. It doubles as the home of Sadok and his family. When Shabbat or anything else occurs, they move their two cots to the side, and various things are put on shelves. Living in the shul involves a tremendous lack of privacy and having to set up and dismantel things frequently.

We slept in the shul while Sadok’s family slept in the courtyard. This experience isn’t for everyone. We and their rats slept in the shul together. We have become quite fond of the lizards too. The outhouse has a toilet that is non-flushable. It is hot and has lots of flies. There is no running water, refrigeration or Western comforts. They cook on one small gas burner.

Around 6 am showed up for Shabbat morning. The place was completely full with everyone sitting on the floor except for us, Sadok, and one of the elders. There was no room for anyone else. Their davening consists mostly of translations of sections of the service in Telegu. The children all read Hebrew and know brachot. The women sit separately from the men during the service and they (including the girls) cover their hair with the saris. The girls make the blessing on the tallit too.

They know that they should not cook on Shabbat, but since there is no refrigeration they do. They also have someone who is a shochet though I doubt that he is aware of all that we consider to be involved in kosher slaughter. Food for us has not been a problem, since we eat at the pure vegetarian places. The food is familiar to us, having patronized the kosher South Indian places in NY over the years.

On Shabbat we went over the Holidays picture book Kulanu members sent with us and I explained Yom Hashoa, Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim and Yom Hazikaron, which they knew nothing about. We also taught them havdallah, which they will now do.

We are teaching children. We bought a wooden aleph bet block set and everyone picks out the letters of their names. The blocks have nekudot too and they find them as well. Also we bought a beautiful children’s book which those who know English translate for the others. They recited the months and days of the week in Hebrew for us.

Sadok told us that there are about 15 children from the community attending school.

Sadok took a loan for his children’s education and is paying 120% interest. The local newspaper says they are beginning to put legislation in place around these moneylending practices.

As soon as we heard the congregation daven, we decided we wanted to record their liturgical music. There are some good singers who could sing for a recording. They do a wow Shema and esa ainai, and yevarechecha. As of now we are not planning professional recording. The most we could do is tape recording. We have a digital camera that also videos small segments, and we will take short videos.

We will also record the songs we taught them so they will have them there. Everyone is eager to learn songs. So far they have learned Shabbat Shalom, Am Yisrael Cha, Shalom Chaverim,i and Eretz Aavat Chalav Udevash. We also sang Hinay Matov.

We bought the best tape recorder we could find, and we set up a recording session, but were rained out. On the next night Sadok brought in the best singers, including his sister, but the lights went out. We went ahead anyway — they sang by candlelight. We recorded their music, some in Telugu. Jewish Telugu songs, imagine that! We feel it is a treasure. There is about 45 minutes of it.

A Year of Holidays

We observed one actual holiday while we were there — Tisha B’Av. It seems to be a new holiday for them. We explained it and told a long version of the story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamsta. We sang im eshkachech yerushalyim and read excerpts from Aichah and Kinot. Quite a few I’m told fasted though I’m not sure if they meant from eating and drinking or just from eating.

We are teaching the holidays in their order, starting with Sukkot. We had the children draw pictures of their succah, which we hope to bring home. They signed their names in Hebrew

When we taught about Channukkah, we made levivot (latkes) for everyone. I bought lots of potatoes and onions; Mrs. Yacobi and daughters peeled, I chopped onions, and we made levivot for about 50 people. The women were given the recipe for next Channukkah.

In addition to Channukkah, we taught about Purim. I bought some magic markers and the kids made masks of Indian Queen Esther and Mordecai.

Sadok’s wife asked to learn matzoh baking. Till now they just used chapatis (flat Indian bread made with oil, flour, and salt), but there is a picture in that above-mentioned holiday book that shows an Indian woman baking matzoh. She is wearing a sari and has a star on her forehead. This picture is captivating to them as well as to me.

Last night was extraordinary. In response to Mrs. Yacobi’s request for a matza recipe I bought the roller and a fork to put holes in it, and she had the flour. (In India they don’t own forks, only spoons). We didn’t have an oven, so we took a flat skillet (like one you could make pancakes on) and put a lid over it so it was enclosed like an oven! The matzas came out looking perfect!. Mrs. Yacobi’s daughters helped too.

We also brought the leftover hand-baked matza shemurah that we had from Pesach. This box came from Israel to the US and then to India! We gave out this matza too. They made a shecheyanu. I must say that this matza baking was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Just to watch this all happen for the first time in the community. Mrs. Yacobi will teach all the women how to do this and they will have real matza this year, not chapati as they were used to.

In addition to our regular curriculum for adults, other issues came up. I don’t feel competent to teach shechita, though they seem to be willing to learn. We did teach about tefillin, which was unknown to them, and we showed a wedding. Jerry went over items in the rabbis’ manual with Sadok and is giving him a copy.

On Monday, Sadok invited us to a channukkat habayit in someone’s newly built home. This man went into the construction supplies business a few months ago and must be doing well, in that he moved out of his one-room clay and thatched house to a four-room brick and concrete one. Jerry was asked to bless the house and be the first to turn on the electricity.

Afterwards two gentlemen came to meet “the grand rabbi who was visiting” and asked what you need to do to become Jewish. They were involved with a “Yeshua” group. One was a Christian and the other of Hindu background originally. The Yeshua stuff led them to look at Judaism and they have been studying on their own. This is a new issue for Sadok to deal with, especially since they seem to be more educated, well off and of a higher caste background. Jerry told them that they should leave it up to Sadok for guidance.


Upon our arrival, Sadok said he thought they all were anxious to get on with the program of formal conversion and ultimately to emigrate to Israel.

It turns out that not all are interested in making aliya. Some do want to make aliya or at least be buried in Israel. There is so much adjusting to do and problems to overcome. I am not sure what kind of Israeli rabbis would convert them since their practice is not mainstream on different levels. Also India doesn’t allow others to come in and convert people, which is another issue in the newspapers these days. The truth is while their lives are very difficult, whose life isn’t on some level? They have family, community and friends, and lifelong connections. Besides, there is the money issue of getting to Israel, which to them seems insurmountable. Also, for now they are not as threatened as one may think. Jews have been protected here for many years and while they are a tiny, tiny minority, most people think they are just another Christian sect, of which there are many. They have a great relationship with the police and do not live in fear at all. Except for one terrorist incident three years ago, they would say there has been no discrimination at all.

Jerry got the impression that they claim to have over the generations observed the Shabbat, circumcised their boys, and slaughtered animals in a special way. One of the elders spoke quite eloquently that they are waiting patiently for being gathered into the land of Israel, as had been prophesied, and that if they were not so privileged, their bones should be brought there, as in the story of the Biblical Joseph.

It is interesting that in the Indian Jewish history book that we read here, it says that the Bene Israel originally did not know Hebrew and kept only the same few mitzvot until they were instructed by the Cochini Jews several hundred years ago.

Not too long after our arrival, I sent the following note to the spiritual leader of the Bene Israel congregation in New Delhi:

Dear Mr. Malekar,
We would like to thank you for your warm welcome in New Delhi and taking the time to meet us. I regret not being able to spend Shabbat with your lovely community.
We had a lovely Shabbat in the village of Kothareddipalem. The group is impoverished yet has a noble and gentle manner and lovely children who can read Hebrew perfectly. I think they would very much benfit from being part of the broader Indian Jewish community.

There are various kinds of homes in the village, from concrete houses that seem quite lovely to a kind of thatched-roofed hut. We soon began visiting the community members in their homes. The first home was brick with electricity. Then a hut. The ambience is like a moshav or camp, with the huts close to each other and sparce, though this one had a black and white television along with a dirt floor and thatched roof. They make living without many possessions look inviting, considering how we live in the US.

Generally, they live in very small homes that could fit into our NY kitchen, which is not all that big. Most have electricity; none have running water. They all have shadai or a mezuzah on their doors or other Jewish symbols like a menorah or Magen David with the word Tzion on it. One had the Shema in Telegu transliteration on a wall.

They are very hospitable and sincere. We are learning many lessons on life from being here.

There is one family that lives about 200 kilometers from the community. They got rich but remain connected. The family has another five families in their region whom they celebrate with, like a chavurah. It reminds us of the Jews in Vermont who travel long distances to get together to celebrate.

Police Encounters

An Islamic terrorist threat from three years ago is still on people’s minds, though they don’t think it is a serious danger. In any case Sadok went on our first day to the chief of police to tell them about us. We are not exactly sure why. Sadok’s nephew told us that they are reluctant to tell people that they are Jews and that most of their fellow villagers think that the Jews are just another of the other Christian sects of the area.

We met with people from the local special section dealing with foreigners

The outcome is that they suspect us of being missionaries on a tourist visa. We went to the district inspector with Sadok. Sadok apparently convinced them that we were not Christian missionaries but tourists who were also visiting other places in India (as we are) and were not holding large public meetings to preach to others but were having quiet conversations within the confines of the group. The matter seems to be straightened out except that something was left unsigned and we and Sadok are to return to the district inspector. In addition, Sadok mentioned that someone from Intelligence called and wants to meet with us tomorrow, but that everything is fine. I don’t know exactly what to make of all of this or if there is any cause for alarm.

In an interesting and somewhat disturbing occurrence, someone claiming to be a reporter for India Today came to the shul on Wednesday. Sadok did not let him stay but arranged that he interview all of us in our Guntur hotel the next day. As the man rambled on it became clear that he was not who he said he was. Sadok checked it out with India Today and they did not recognize his name. Because he seemed to know a fair amount about us and the whereabouts of the community, we went to the police, who said they would look into the matter.

When the “reporter” came on Shabbat with a videographer, as we had arranged, Sadok summoned the police, who were waiting for his call. They took him to the headquarters of the special branch dealing with foreigners to find out who he really is. They also told him to leave Westerners alone because it hurts tourism. We don’t know the end of the story yet.

Economic Development

It is natural to want to help such a poor community. We said we would try to limit items to those that are income-producing. We discussed buying two used bicycles so they can sell vegetables in the marketplace ($100), one sewing machine ($100), and some candle-making equipment for up to $250. This is still being negotiated.

Erev Shabbat, we went shopping with Sadok. We bought two bicycles for $120 and named them Karen and Harriet (after two Kulanu women helping the community). We got them a non-motorized sewing machine that does zigzag and embroidery (two features that they requested) for $150. We went to the candle-making store, and it was an expensive adventure. Everything together will cost about $370. Since we have $230 left of Kulanu’s money we will add the extra $140 to complete the purchase.

In our opinion they do have a realistic game plan to make a go of the bicycles, sewing, and candles. We will see. They plan to sell the candles locally, and possibly through Kulanu. They have the capacity to make Channukkah candles that burn about an hour long in different colors. Sadok will look into an export permit.

Marbeh nechasim, marbeh d’aaga (the more material items, the more worry). New needs develop along with the purchases. The sewing machine and the candle-making need a place, since the place where they are now stored is the one-room shul where Sadok and his wife live. If this project flies, there will really not be enough room. They say they can put up a working shack for $500, plus they need start-up money for the vegetables and baskets to put them in, another $30 which we will give. And in the beginning they are purchasing 50 pounds of wax (about $75), when they really could use 100 pounds. We have put some of this on hold till we have a clearer picture of the finances.

We were thinking they could make challah covers easily with the sewing machine. For havdallah candles, they will need the bigger molds, which we haven’t purchased. To prevent fights, the elders decided who will get the bicycle. They picked a man whose sons had studied the most Torah. The second bike belongs officially to Sadok, but we have requested that he pick someone to share it with so they also can sell vegetables when he is not using it.

Yesterday we picked out the sewing items for the challah covers. Mrs. Yacobi will make two samples and we will see. We think this project is perfect for them since they have the sewing machine.

We ordered a havdallah candle mold (about $35) which we will be picking up shortly. We have called the candle business that will be exported the “Bnai Ephraim of India” candles and those that will be sold here, Ner Tamid, Everlasting Candles. The latter will be sold to Christian groups if things go as planned. Everyone seems satisfied with these names.

We will see how these businesses go. In the beginning they may need a greater outlay of money, but all this is yet to be seen. We go around with Sadok to purchase the odds and ends, baskets, threads, etc., that the projects need to get off the ground. We are hoping to return with some candles and a challah cloth to show Kulanu. We have added a nice sum to the $500 of your allotment, plus we treat everyone to lunch every day. Not that this comes to a lot, but it does add up with car and the gas every day. But we feel we are doing the right thing and tzedakah is tzedakah, especially if you put people into business.

We designed a 12 inch havdallah candle that has swirls and is not tapered. There will be four candles to a mold. We were in luck because the standard candle mold fits the Channukkah menorahs that we had. They bought wax dyes in yellow, pink, green and I think blue. We never discussed Shabbat candles. On our list of to-dos is to make the insert labels for the candles. Our ideas for the labels were either to reproduce one of the children’s drawings or to take a photo with the children holding candles. This seems to be the way we are going.

For the challah cloths, we bought two kinds of fabric — one plain white and the other sari material in kelly green with gold designs. We insisted that we have a sample that has a distinctive Indian look to it. We thought they should have selected material in the blue color line, but they voted on this kelly green. It should be beautiful. We bought some rhinestone-y things and many color threads, and we also bought embroidery patterns for them to choose borders. We think they might come out gorgeous. We suggested that they be sold cheaply at first so they feel successful (like $20-25 a piece). We hope to be coming home with two samples.

At Kulanu’s request, we told Sadok that future funds are dependent on a proper system of administration and accountability. We asked him to meet with the elders and come up with a written plan. We also recommended that they consult with Christian groups in the community who regularly receive overseas funds.

Summing Up

The closing ceremony was somewhat of a love festival. We asked them about their origins. They said that they had a tradition that they came in 722, the fall of Samaria, from Assyria to Persia to Afghanistan to Kashmir and somehow to where they are now. What they said was a little bit confusing because they also said that there was a period where they worshipped idols like Hindus. They made some connection between themselves and the Madiga people, saying that since their ancestors made sacrifices they knew about slaughtering animals, which was the traditional work of the Madiga peoples, who are a branch of the “untouchables.” They said that the Hindus also referred to them as God’s people and asked their advice on butchering animals.

We are coming home with what we feel is a huge responsibility to get the word out about this community. We are thinking about next summer. It will take a while to digest this experience. In any case we think it would be extremely helpful to learn at least some Telugu…