Jews in India


As already stated the Jews in India are not a single community and each community considers the other communities as outsiders. Beyond that in each community there were divisions. There was also tension between the communities especially between the Bene Israels and the Baghdadis. There were many reasons for the tensions between these communities. The Baghdadis came from Arab countries and their culture was Arabic originated. The Bene Israels culture was Indian originated. The Baghdadis strictly followed the Jewish ‘Halachah’ and were very strict on ‘kosher’ laws and ‘levirate’ marriages. The Bene Israels were more secular and didn’t keep at home two complete sets of utensils. One can claim from this that the Bene Israel were secular Jews but the Baghdadis preferred to regard the Bene Israel as impure or non Jews. The Baghdadis didn’t marry the Bene Israel. They also built their own synagogues and cemeteries or a wall in the cemetery separating their section from the Bene Israels. In their synagogues they prevented Bene Israels from holding the holy scrolls or blowing the ‘shofar’. They also didn’t count the Bene Israels as part of the ‘minyan’ (minimum ten required for the prayers). The Baghdadis also rejected the ‘Meyuhassim’ Cochini Jews but they intermingled with the ‘Pardesi’ Jews of Cochin and with European Jews who came to India. It must be noted that some Baghdadis had Indian non-Jewish wives whom they converted to Judaism. The Baghdadis even helped some high class Hindus to convert to Judaism. For these reasons there are some who believe that the real reason the Baghdadis didn’t accept the Bene Israels and Malabari Jews wasn’t because of the Jewish religious laws but for some specific reason.

One theory is that the richer Baghdadi Jews (who were international businessmen and also the leaders of the Baghdadi community) wanted to show the British that they don’t intermingle with ‘Indians’ (then considered by the British as low class) in order to get closer to the British aristocracy. Another reason was maybe the fear of the Baghdadi Jews that another Jewish community (Bene Israel) might take their place as the British ancillary around the world. The Iraqi Jews operated to some extent as ancillary of the British in many countries around the world. Many international deals for the British were done through the help of Iraqi Jews. On the other hand the Bene Israel claim that they also had close relations with the British. They were among the first Indian communities who served the British Empire and fought in many wars for them around the world. Therefore maybe the Iraqi Jews of India decided to neutralize somehow the Bene Israels and attacked their Jewishness causing them to engage in proving their Jewishness instead of engaging in developing close relations with the British.

In the Cochini Jews section, it is mentioned that there were tensions between the ‘Malabari’ and the ‘Pardesi’. According to the ‘Pardesi’ the ‘Malabaris’ weren’t pure Jews. Some claim that the real reasons for these divisions occurred are the same as those in the case of Baghdadi/Bene Israel. But in the case of Cochini Jews the ‘white’ Jews ( the ‘Pardesi’ Jews) wanted to show to the Dutch and the Portuguese (who had strong business holds in India before the British) that they are whites and not Indians, in order to get closer to them. These tensions and the doubt that maybe the ‘Meyuhassim’ aren’t Jews also affected the Bene Israel community and so they preferred cantors of ‘Pardesi’ origin.

Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century the different Jewish communities of India (except for the Manipur Jews) slowly started accepting each other as Jews. They started praying together. There were also a few marriages between the communities. In the synagogues built by the Baghdadi Jews there are now Bene Israel cantors. But not all the tensions that were between the communities are today completely forgotten.

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Aharon Daniel


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