Thane Jews pass the blood test

An article from Bombay’s (Mumbai) Mid-Day newspaper


The news that recent DNA tests have linked India’s Bene Israel Jewish community to the patriarch Moses has delighted the small Jewish community in Thane.

For hundreds of years, the Bene Israel (meaning Children of Israel), now largely concentrated in and around Thane had fought Western prejudice that denied them their claim as descendants of one of Israel’s 12 lost tribes. Now the Jews of Thane, home to 2,000 or 40 per cent of India s Jewry, can hold their head high among the rest of the Jewish community.

“We were not treated like true Jews. We have always fought for that recognition. Now science has proved that we are descendants of the Cohanim or hereditary priests. This will improve our status in the Jewish community,” says Ezra Moses, honorary secretary and trustee of Thane’s Shaar Hashamaim or Gate of Heaven synagogue.

According to Bene Israel folklore, a group of Jews fleeing Jerusalem to escape prosecution by Persians in 175 BC were shipwrecked near Nagaon on the Konkan Coast. However, these claims were treated with scepticism outside India and in Israel, where the majority of the Bene Israel now lives, having migrated there after formation of Israel.

“The fleeing Jews were headed towards India because they had traded with India earlier. The survivors started a new life with help of local Kolis. This was the origin of the Bene Israel. But our claims had been the subject of debate. Now the DNA tests have confirmed our claims,” says Rachel Gadkar, a retired schoolteacher who recently published a book in Marathi called Bharatiya Bene Israel, that traces the origins of her community.

For some time now, Jews of Thane have seen researchers coming from the West to study their origins. The current finding that the Bene Israel carry Moses’s genes is the result of a research project that started seven years ago. The Jews of Thane are planning to write to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies for a copy of the research papers. Sixty-six-year old Phinas Bamnolkar, the hazan or cantor at the Thane synagogue says, “It was always our claim that we are descendants of Moses. Our claim has now been scientifically proved.”

“One of the reasons the Bene Israel had to fight to be recognised as real Jews was the absence of Jewish religious infrastructure in their community,” said Moses. “For instance, we do not have a Yeshiva or a religious school where young Jews can learn to become rabbis (priests). So for centuries when we were cut off from the rest of the Jewish community worldwide, we did not have rabbis. It is only recently that we have rabbis who have trained abroad,” he said.

But despite the absence of trained religious heads, the community has held itself together, relying on religious books translated into Marathi from Hebrew by lay scholars.

In Thane, the dwindling community (every year, five to eight families migrate to Israel) is at its vibrant best. While the other dwindling Jewish communities in India struggle to muster up the minyan or mandatory quorum of 10 adults required for a full prayer on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Thane’s synagogue overflows with the faithful on festival days.

The interior of the synagogue has been recently renovated with funds from the community. A mikvah or a bath for purification rituals has been built in the synagogue and last month, the community got the square outside the synagogue named as Synagogue Chowk.

For the Jews of Thane, the naming of the road junction, a decade-old demand, is one more recognition of their 500-year-old history in Thane. In fact, the suburb is dotted with reminders of the community’s presence. Agiary Lane’s official name is Balaji Musaji (Benjamin Moses) Umerdekar Lane. Umerdekar was Chhatrapati Shivaji’s trusted subedar mukadam.