Jewish Studies Indian Jews
by
Shalva Weil
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0046

Introduction

Indo-Judaic studies, which range from historical to anthropological treatises, have developed at a rapid pace since the 1990s. Linguistic evidence confirms the possibility of ancient Jewish communities and early commercial connections between India and the Holy Land. The articles brought on King Solomon’s ships and mentioned in the biblical book of Kings, such as kofim (apes) tukim (peacocks), almag (sandalwood = valgum), were of Indian origin. Travelers’ tales in the Talmud mention trade with India, including specific commodities, such as Indian ginger and iron. From the 9th century CE, Jewish merchants known as Radanites traded between east and west, from the Middle East to South Asia and back. Ancient Jewish texts, dating from the eleventh to the 13th centuries, discovered in the Cairo Genizah, include documents describing the trade carried out between Arab-speaking Jews and Hindu partners in spices, pharmaceuticals, textiles, metals, gold, silver, and silks. The Jews of India consisted of three distinct communities: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews, and the “Baghdadis.” Their ranks were temporarily swelled before and during World War II by European Jews who fled from Nazi Europe. Except for a brief period in certain parts of India under Portuguese rule, the Jews never encountered anti-Semitism there. In recent years, different tribal peoples from northeastern India, today known as Bnei Menashe, claim that they are “lost” Israelites and are migrating to Israel. In addition, there are other Indian groups in the process of Judaizing. At their peak in 1947, prior to Indian independence, the total Jewish population of India numbered 28,000. Today, some 4,000 Jews remain in India. Others are scattered in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, and approximately 80,000 Jews of Indian descent live in Israel.

General Overviews

While Indian Jews themselves were prolific in publishing books on their own history from the 19th century on, the scholarly study of Indian Jewry has only developed in the past fifty years, and is attracting more interest recently. Some of the authors, like B. J. Israel (see Israel 1998), are indigenous scholars, while others are non-Indian (see Egorova 2006, Roland 1989, and Katz 2000). Many of the edited volumes (e.g., Slapak 1995, Timberg 1986) deal with all three Jewish communities: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews, and the Baghdadis. Weil 2009 is a collection of essays on different aspects of Indian Jewish life, giving voice to members of all three Indian Jewish communities, including, for the first time, Malabari Cochin Jews.

  • Egorova, Yulia. Jews and India: Perceptions and Image. London: Routledge, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Exploring the image of Jews in India in the 19th and 20th centuries, this book looks at both the Indian attitudes toward the Jewish communities of the subcontinent and at the way Jews and Judaism in general have been represented in Indian discourse. First published in 2006.

  • Israel, Benjamin J. The Jews of India. New Delhi: Mosaic, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book surveys all three Indian Jewish communities and provides brief accounts of their history and social life. It focuses on the Bene Israel community, showing how a miniscule community could live in India in harmony with its fellow Indians.

  • Katz, Nathan. Who Are the Jews of India? Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520213234.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Utilizing an interdisciplinary approach, this book is an integrated, comprehensive work on all three of India’s Jewish communities. It discusses the strategies each community developed to maintain its Jewish identity in India.

  • Roland, Joan G. Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    This comprehensive history focuses on the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews from the 19th century through the 1980s. It examines the relationships between the two groups as well as each community’s connection with the British government, Indian nationalism, and Zionism.

  • Slapak, Ophira, ed. The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    The volume coincided with the opening of an exhibition on the Jews of India at the Israel Museum. Chapters include photographs and text on the festivals, the home, dress, marriage certificates, and more.

  • Timberg, Thomas A., ed. Jews in India. New Delhi: Vikas, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    The volume is a relatively early attempt to bring together scholarly contributions on all three Jewish communities, including one or two reprinted works, as well as other original contemporary contributions.

  • Weil, Shalva, ed. India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle. 3d ed. Mumbai: Marg, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    The volume traces the history, tradition, and culture in order to understand the Jews in their Indian setting. “The Jewish Presence in Bombay,” by Sifra Samuel Lentin, provides a history of the Sassoon family. Other chapters discuss unique rituals and synagogue architecture, as well as the Jewish contribution to India in the arts, literature, and government.

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