Jews of India

The Jewish community is composed of three distinct groups: the Bene Israel, the Jews of Malabar, and the Baghdadi Jews.

Jews have been coming to India for more than 2,000 years to trade and escape persecution. These Jews are both fully Indian and fully Jewish. Some of their customs and religious observances emphasize ritual purity and take into account local customs while being faithful to Halakha (Jewish ritual law). More than thirty synagogues have been documented in Mumbai (Bombay) and on the adjacent coast alone. The Paradesi synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the commonwealth.

Jews have long participated in inter-religious exchanges in India. Even today, non-Jewish Indians, including Muslims, come to worship at the tombs of Jewish mystics in Delhi and Cochin as well as Kandala where Elijhah's chariot is said to have alighted. Anti-semitism was never a problem. In the seventeenth century, the Maratha leader Shivaji specifically mentioned the Jews when he wrote of the Mughal emperor Akbar's policy of “Perfect Harmony in relation to all the various sects.”

There is even a copper plate from Quilon dated 849 where a local ruler charges the local Jews to protect the Christians and their church!

History

There is a shrine on the site where the founders of the Bene Israel community were shipwrecked 2,000 years ago. They lived in villages where they were known as the “Shanwar Teli,” oil pressers who did not work on Saturdays. The Bene Israel have been known for hundreds of years for their military skills and produced many important persons including the great poet Nissim Ezekiel and the zoologist Reuben David Dandekar. The Bene Israel began to move to Bombay in the late 18th century and built their first synagogue, Shaare Rahamim (Gates of Mercy), in 1796. The Bene Israel community peaked at 25,000 in 1948.

The history of the Jews of Malabar dates back at least 2,000 years, and they continued to migrate there. The ruler Cheruman Perumal granted certain royal prerogatives to Joseph Rabban, the leader of the Jewish community, in Cranganore and the Jews believe they ruled there for hundreds of years. The famous Paradesi synagogue was built in Cochin in 1568 but was only the third old synagogue built on that street! Jews were always able to worship openly and were favored by the the Maharajas of Cochin.

The so-called Baghdadi Jews came from across the Muslim world, founded vibrant communities in Kolkatta and Mumbai 200 years ago. The most prominent was David Sassoon, who established the Indian house of Sassoon in 1832. The Sassoons were known as the Rothschilds of the east.

The Malida ceremony of the Bene Israel

The Malida is a ceremonial offering in the name of G-d, accompanied by an invocation for the presence and blessings of the prophet Elijah. This ceremony is also known as the Eliyahoo Ha-Navi ceremony.

According to tradition, the prophet resuscitated the comatose ancestors of the Bene Israel community who had been washed up on shore after a shipwreck.

The ceremony included recitation of specific Hebrew verses. The offering usually consists of a mixture of parched rice, grated fresh coconuts, raisins, cardamom, sugar, and five different kinds of fresh fruits. The ceremony is performed before weddings, following circumcisions, at house warmings, in times of illness and crises, and whenever there is reason to express deep gratitude.