Meet the Telugu Jews of India

(Editor’s note: The author, a documentary photographer, is currently living in Detroit and working on a project covering the American “Rust Belt.”)

When I arrived in the villages of rural Andhra Pradesh, in southeastern India, in the summer of 1994 to begin a year of photographing and researching the lives of working families, most people assumed I was an itinerant Christian priest.

Approximately 70 percent of the untouchable communities in coastal Andhra district is Christian, which is to say 30 percent of the entire population. Although the Bible is widely taught, it took me some time to discover the Telugu word for Jews, yudulu, which was not a commonly used word anyway. Most people, including the Christians I came to know, had never heard of Judaism, and seemed to think it was a Christian sect. I figured I was probably the only Jew in the state.

When a friend informed me after several months that a Jewish family was living nearby, I attributed it to communication difficulties. I was shocked when I was greeted with a hearty “shalom” and found a mezuzah on the door of the family’s house. I was introduced to the world of a tiny Jewish community which makes up in effort and desire what it lacks in certainty about its destiny.

Shmuel Yakobi, currently living in the city of Vijayawada, is one of six children of an “untouchable” family. His father was able to enlist himself in the Indian Army during the Second World War, to acquire an education and after the war to find work as a schoolteacher. For generations his family, like virtually all untouchables, worked as farm laborers, sometimes as bonded laborers.

The family had practiced Christianity for several generations, and when Shmuel Yakobi, the oldest, received an education, he decided to become a Christian preacher, which afforded training in English (the language of the Indian ruling classes), as well as a good salary. As his career progressed, he felt a growing disaffection socially and spiritually with his Christian world. In the early 1980s, while still a preacher, he made a trip to Jerusalem, where he encountered Judaism for the first time. He recognized the Jewish people intuitively as his own, and returned to India intent on leaving Christianity and living as a Jew.

Shmuel Yakobi in time convinced his siblings and approximately 30 families in his home village of Kottareddipalem, near Chebrolu, Guntur District, to join him in living as Jews. His two brothers, Sadok and Aaron, became leaders with him in the community. The brothers studied and taught Torah, and began to teach themselves Hebrew with materials Shmuel Yakobi brought from Israel. In two subsequent trips to Israel, Yakobi acquired a beginning knowledge of Jewish customs and prayer.

For economic reasons Yakobi’s formal break with Christianity was long. His financial connections were critical to the building of the community’s synagogue in Kottareddipalem, The House of the Children of Yakob, which opened in 1992. He also founded an independent open university offering correspondence courses in Torah and Hebraic Studies. Calling the community the Council of Eastern Jewry, Yakobi slowly began to navigate what he calls the lost history of Jews in south India.

He believes that Jews migrated from northern India, perhaps Afghanistan or the North-East Frontier region (Manipur, Mizoram) sometime during the 9th or 10th centuries C.E., and settled around the area of Nandial in what were at that time nascent Telugu-speaking areas. He claims currently to be writing a comparative philological study of Hebrew and Telugu, which argues that Hebrew is the unrecognized source of many words in proto-Telugu, the still-unreconstructed Dravidian language that anteceded Sanskritic influences. Yakobi also claims that Telugu Jews for centuries formed a distinct kulam (birth-marriage-occupation group, or as it is often poorly termed, caste). They maintained, he says, distinct customs, eating habits, occupations, and literacy in Hebrew. In my discussions with him, I must say he was cagey and not forthcoming with evidence for these claims. In fact, he provided me no evidence. He is currently unsuccessfully appealing to the Archeological Survey of India to fund investigation.

To the rest of Hindu society, the Telugu Jews, if they did exist historically, were grouped with outcasts, and associated particularly with the Madiga community of untouchables. Thus the community was assimilated into Christianity when colonial missionaries reached the Telugu areas during the British period. Why the community might have been assimilated precisely then, after so many centuries, remains an important question. One provisional answer might be as follows (according to my own reasoning): Scholars of South Asia have drawn a reasonably clear picture of the intensification of economic pressure on the peasantry during the colonial period, which was often extremely severe and widely produced a feudalization of agrarian relations. Such pressure has in many respects not subsided, and it is clear today that poor rural Indians need material and financial relief wherever they can get it. Well-funded and eager Christian missionary groups happily service desperation across India, building homes and schools in exchange for a pledge of loyalty. It seems possible that sheer economic need broke apart a 19th century Telugu Jewish community, driving many of its members to embrace Christianity, along with millions of other poor Indians. However, this remains to be determined.

Is the community actually the progeny of the Lost Tribe of Ephraim, as Shmuel Yakobi believes? I was shown no Hebrew Torah or distinctively Jewish ritual objects, and am under the impression that these have not survived. Neither was I shown genealogies. Most of the artifactual evidence of the community’s history seems to be in the form of folklore, sometimes scraps of folklore, and perhaps linguistic analysis.

My own opinion is that the importance of the community for world Jewry lies not in its history, which cannot be documented. Rather, its importance lies in the spiritual and ethical practice it has developed, which is, to me, within Jewish tradition. Moreover, by being Jews this community challenges other Jews to honor their own Jewish commitments.

Telugu Jews are unquestionably among the poorest Jews in the world. Like other rural Indian untouchables who depend on farm labor for a living, most of the families survive on less than $300 per year, lack access to the most rudimentary health care, lack housing adequate to the seasons, lack balanced nutrition, are easily driven into debt at interest rates as high as 120 percent, from which they never emerge, and become subject to the harassment of thugs and collectors.

I believe that their spiritual efforts, given these pressures, prove central to their lives. Their Judaism is virtually devoid of Talmudic and rabbinic influences. Rather, it focuses on God’s sheer power and commitment to His people, and on the ethical imperatives of the Prophets. The community cherishes the Biblical account of the Exodus, and identifies deeply, I would say ardently, with its promise of liberation. This promise forms the backbone of the community’s spiritual life; in group and individual prayer these Jews plead to God for it, demand their right to it, thank God for it, and struggle to be patient for it. For them, the living God delivers signs and responses to their prayers daily, in small ways. Sadok Yakobi, the resident leader of the community, whom the community supports with weekly donations, spends his days moving from hut to hut leading prayer and giving support. Though neither a preacher nor a healer, he tells many stories of having witnessed miraculous healing, as well as small, inexplicable changes of fortune, which he and the community attribute to God’s direct intervention. Sadok is convinced that the power of the community’s prayer and the faithfulness of the God committed to them are responsible for their survival under otherwise insufferable conditions.

The community distinguishes itself from its Christian neighbors by keeping the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays, and following Jewish dietary laws. (Keeping the Sabbath is no mean feat: landlords and factory owners continuously threaten to fire Jewish workers for not working a seven-day week). The more learned members of the community are engaged in ongoing, intensive discussions with one another and with their neighbors about why Jesus is not the Messiah, about the meaning of redemption, and about direct communication with God. These discussions appear to have been vital to the community’s development. They continue as lively spiritual investigations.

I spent three Sabbaths with the community. I studied Torah with Sadok and a group of men in sessions lasting all day. Our sessions were provocative and beneficial to all. Abraham and Reuben Koshi, elders of the community, are dedicated students of Hebrew. Sadok’s son, Yakob, knows rudimentary Hebrew well.

The Sabbath services are original, beautiful and moving, much of them dedicated to song. The congregation poignantly and powerfully sings the Hebrew of the Psalms to Telugu folk melodies. The synagogue itself is a spare structure of bricks, a large room with a high ceiling and a single table on which stands a perpetually burning flame. It is the only brick building belonging to the community (all families live in mud and thatch huts), and people are exceedingly proud. Next door to the synagogue lives a Hindu family which donates its electrical connection to the synagogue on the Sabbath, providing everyone with the pleasure of electricity once a week (an irony much appreciated when I explained that many Jews will not turn on an electric switch on the Sabbath).

Most of the members of the community in Kottareddipalem, as well as a small number of related families living near Ongole in Prakasham District, are eager to integrate into world Jewry.

The community faces religious intolerance, particularly from the local Christian clergy, which uses the emergence of the Jewish congregation to tighten Christian solidarity through anti-Semitism, something they are remarkably quick to learn despite their admitted ignorance of Judaism.

Slowly the community’s existence is being recognized by other Jews. In early 1994 three Israeli rabbis visited the synagogue for a day, and this year a group of Israeli tourists visited. Shmuel Yakobi’s son has emigrated to Israel and obtained Israeli citizenship. These positive developments were offset, however, by a series of articles from Israeli sources appearing in Indian newspapers in 1994, claiming that the Council of Eastern Jewry considered all Indian untouchables to be lost Jews, and proposed a mass exodus of millions of untouchables to Israel. Yakobi denies these claims, but such rumors are apparently strong enough in Israel to block even tourist visas to Indians.

I was altogether impressed by this isolated community’s Jewish commitment, sincerity and generosity. My respect and admiration for their effort and initiative increased as I came to know the members personally. Whether they are the Lost Tribe of Ephraim or not, they are a young community of devoted Jews, suffering, surviving, practicing what is perhaps a kind of Jewish liberation theology.