Jewish Studies Indian Jews
by
Shalva Weil
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • 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), and 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 ninth 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 thirteenth 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, other Indian groups are in the process of Judaizing. At their peak in 1947, prior to Indian independence, the total Jewish population of India numbered 28,000. To date, some 34,000 Jews remain in India. Others are scattered in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, and more than 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 nineteenth century on, the scholarly study of Indian Jewry has only developed in the past fifty years, and it is attracting more interest recently among Indian Jews themselves. Some of the authors, like B. J. Israel (see Israel 1998), and Eliaz Dadekar (Dandekar 2020) writing in Israel in Hebrew, 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. Interest is developing in relations between Jews and Muslims in India (e.g, Egorova 2018). A more recent volume examines an understudied topic, the Jews of Goa. Weil 2006 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.

  • Dandekar, Eliaz. Jamaat: Inspiring People of the Bene-Israel of India Community. Tel Aviv: Kammodan, 2020.

    The illustrated book aims to inform Israeli readers of the annals of the Bene Israel through the biographies of individual Bene Israel, who have made their mark on history. In Hebrew.

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

    Exploring the image of Jews in India in the nineteenth and twentieth 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.

  • Egorova, Yulia. Jews and Muslims in South Asia: Reflections on Difference, Religion and Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199856237.001.0001

    This book examines the way Jewish and Muslim communities encounter each other in South Asia and interact in ways that do not easily fit conventional Western tropes of Jews-Muslim relations. In doing so, the book explores globalized discourses about how Jewishness and Islam intersect and acquire different dimensions in varying sociopolitical contexts.

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

    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/9780520213234.001.0001

    The author utilizes an interdisciplinary approach in this book, which 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.

    This comprehensive history focuses on the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi Jews from the nineteenth 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, Orpa, ed. The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1995.

    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.

    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 & Life-Cycle. 3d ed. Mumbai: Marg, 2006.

    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.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down