Bene Israel - Legends of the Children of Israel

Are they one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel who came and settled along the west coast of India or are they refugees who fled from persecution as a new faith swept through Northern Arabia in the 7th century CE? The 5000 people strong Bene Israelis or ‘Children of Israel’ are a fascinating albeit fast dwindling community that has clutched on to its history and legends along the coast near Mumbai. The most famous of these legends takes you to a small village called Sagaon in East Raigad District near Alibaug. It is believed that it is from here that Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven. Whether it was from here or from Haifa in Israel, where it is believed that God took him to heave through a whirlwind, as other Israelis believe, what you cannot deny is that legends, myths and history come together to script a fascinating story around this little known community.

Prophet Elijah ascending to heaven
Prophet Elijah ascending to heaven|Wikimedia Commons 

The Jews landed and settled in India in different waves. The Malabar Jews came in approximately in the 11th century BCE, the Baghdadi Jews during the 18th century CE and the Bene Israelis came in approximately between 7-8th century BCE. While this was on the west coast, recent discoveries indicate that early Jews were also present in the east - in Hyderabad and as far in as Mizoram.

Mostly settled along the Western flank - Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and a few in the villages on the Konkan coast, there are various theories about their origin.

Map of Mumbai 
Map of Mumbai |Wikimedia Commons 

While there is no concrete record of their arrival, some suggest that the Bene Israelis were refugees who fled from Islamic persecution of the Jews in Northern Arabia in the 7th century CE. Others believe they are an offshoot of the Jewish colonies in Yemen, or descendants of the Babylonian-Persian diaspora. One theory proposed by Dr Wilson (1804-1875 CE) – a Christian missionary and educator in the Bombay Presidency suggests that they could be one of the ten lost tribes of Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. The Bombay Gazetteer gives an account of the Bene Israel, in which it is stated that that they came to India in the 6th century BCE, either from Aden or from the Persian Gulf.

Dr John Wilson
Dr John Wilson |Wikimedia Commons 

The community has its own take on where they come from. Passed down through oral traditions, is a mix of interesting theories about their origin and early life in India. The community claims that their ancestors reached Indian shores some 2,000 years ago. Haeem Samuel Kehimkar, one of the notable Bene-Israeli Jews, historians and author of the book ‘The History of the Bene Israel’ who wrote extensively on the community, mentions varied theories from different sources about the origin of the Bene Israel. He narrates that the Jews came to India some two thousand years ago from Palestine through Egypt via the Red Sea.

According to legend, the ship that they were travelling on, crashed on the western coast of India, on the Konkan strip around 2,000 years ago. This ship came from Northern Palestine in order to avoid persecution. The ship on which they came, was found wrecked near the Khanderi Islands just off the western coast. Only seven men and seven women survived the shipwreck. They took refuge on the shores of Navgaon, a small village on the coast around 100 km from Mumbai. Many of the bodies of those drowned were washed to the shores of this village where the seven surviving pairs took refuge.

Bene Isreali cemetery at Navgaon
Bene Isreali cemetery at Navgaon| Bathsheva

Though this may feel like an old wives’ tale, the physical evidence from Konkan points towards a strongly Jewish settlement in the coastal villages. Navgaon, one of the villages in the Raigad district boasts of the oldest Bene Israeli cemetery in India probably dating back to the shipwreck, according to the oral legends.

According to Kehimkar and also others after him, the survivors lost everything in the shipwreck and as a consequence were reduced to a miserable state. Desperate for support and livelihood, the community took up the profession of oil pressing and thus came to be known as Shanivar Telis, which means Saturday oil pressers. They were referred to as Shanivar Telis since they observed Saturday (Shabbat) as their holy day and abstained from working on that day.

According to Rachel Gadkar, a teacher, author and editor of a Jewish Marathi magazine, in her Marathi book ‘Bharatvasi Bene Israeli’, the Jews who came to India could have already known the technique of oil pressing since it would have been in practice from where they came. Another theory suggests that the Jews took up oil pressing to fit into the already existing caste system of Hindus. According to this view, this was the best option for the community because they were not allowed to be on par with the upper castes but were also not associated with the lower caste. This meant that would have to be part of the middleVaishya or trader class. But all of these are only theories and there is no concrete evidence that proves any of them.

Shanivar Teli
Shanivar Teli| Leora Pezarkar

According to the community, their ancestors had forgotten all the practices except four, that form the core. First that of Shabbat – the holy day of the Jews and the day of rest; second, ‘Shema’ – a small prayer recited every day; third, following the laws kosher – food practices that conform to Jewish dietary laws and finally the practice of circumcision of the male child.

The history of the Bene Israelis is divided into two phases and religious revivalism marks the watershed.  According to Kehimkar, a 17th century CE Cochin Jew named David Rahabi first identified this ‘Teli’ (oil press) community as Jews and decided to educate them further in Judaism. He taught the community men to read and write in Hebrew. Though there are no clear sources that talk about his existence and coming to the western coast, the Bene Israeli community considers him an important figure in their history.

Haeem Samuel Kehimkar
Haeem Samuel Kehimkar|Wikimedia Commons 

The second phase of revival came with the arrival of Christian missionaries who took the Bene Israeli children into their missionary schools. With access to education, the community members started moving from the villages to Bombay in hope of finding better jobs with the British. Christian missionaries reinforced the Jewish identity by educating them in English and translating their prayer books from Hebrew into Marathi.

This small community blended well with the local communities around and took on various new aspects thus creating a unique culture for them.

The Shanivar Telis or the Bene Israeli as they were later known took on Marathi as a primary language and continue to do so even today. The dress of the community also resembled that of the Hindus. The women were dressed in Nav-vari Sarees which were draped in a manner similar to that worn by Brahmins or other upper-caste women of Maharashtra.

Another area where there are close co-relations between the Bene Israelis and the locals is food. The cuisine of the community takes inspiration from locals along the Konkan coast. Maharashtrian dishes like Puran Polis, which are prepared during the festival of Purim or celebration of Queen Esther and Karanjis which are prepared as an offering to the family ancestors during Yom Kippur, are few among the many dishes prominent to the Bene Israelis.

Though the Bene-Israelis prepare food with with locally available ingredients like rice, coconut, fish, meat, chicken and pulses, they adhere to the kosher dietary laws.

Puran poli
Puran poli|Wikimedia Commons 

The Bene Israelis also celebrate Jewish festivals like that of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashannah, Purim, Pesach and others. Interestingly, the Bene Israelis would earlier not celebrate Hannukkah or the ‘festival of lights’ which usually falls in the month of December, as they were not aware of it. Hannukkah was introduced to them by other foreign Jews who travelled to India and especially the western coast. This also proves the probability that the Bene Israelis came to India before the Second Temple – the holy temple constructed in Jerusalem in 516 BCE and destroyed in 70 CE.

A fully lit Hannukiah
A fully lit Hannukiah|Leora Pazarkar

The first document which talked about the presence of Bene Israel Jews in Bombay is dated August 17, 1786 CE. This document talked about the English recruiting officers to the British army from the native castes.

With the migration of the Bene Israeli community to Bombay and the revival of religion, the first Bene Israeli synagogue was set up in 1796 CE. The majority of Bene Israelis settled around the region of the synagogue and established a Jewish residency by the name of ‘Israeli Mohallah’. Over the years, many more synagogues were built in Bombay as well as various Konkan villages.

In Mumbai, the Bene Israeli settled in the Bazaar area also known as the Masjid Bunder area. In the first half of the 20th century, a lot of the community members moved North of Mumbai, settling in the areas of Kurla and Thane.

The oldest Bene Israeli synagogue Shah Harahamim 
The oldest Bene Israeli synagogue Shah Harahamim |Harsunit 

Interestingly, when the Bene Israelis first moved to Bombay looking for jobs, they were forced to have a surname probably by the British, a concept alien to them. Caught in a quandary they took up their local village names as their surnames with a suffix of ‘kar’ when they moved from the villages. Thus the families which had settled in the villages of Cheul, Akshi, Pen and so on took up the surname of Cheulkar, Akshikar, Penkar and so on. The community also Indianised their names to adapt to the surrounding Hindu communities. The women also took the names of Ambai, Abaibai, Dadibai etc.

The one practice which has remained constant throughout though is the practice of offering of malida and invoking the name of Prophet Elijah (Eliyahoo Hannavi). Prophet Elijah, in the Hebrew Bible, was a prophet and miracle worker who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during the 9th century BC. Most Jews believe that Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven from a site somewhere near present-day Haifa in Israel. The Bene Israelis though, fervently believe that he departed on his chariot from a village called Sagaon in Raigad District. Bene Israelis and even those visiting from Israel, regularly visit the site, where they see the footprint of Elijah’s horses and the mark of the chariot’s wheels.

Women preparing malida
Women preparing malida| Neenah Pezarkar

Today, the community members are involved in diverse professions ranging from doctors to teachers. Many members, over the years, have also migrated to Israel, thus reducing the numbers of the already small community. The migration to Israel takes place under the Israeli Law of Return which gives every Jew the right to stay in Israel and gain Israeli citizenship. In India, the Jewish population steadily increased from 6,000 in the 1830s to 10,000 by the turn of the century. At their peak in India in 1948, they numbered 20,000 but by 1961 this number declined to 16,000 as a result of migration. Today, there are less than 5,000 Jews in India.

A Bene Israeli man kissing the <i>mezuzah</i> while entering the synagogue
A Bene Israeli man kissing the mezuzah while entering the synagogue|Harsunit 

In 2016, the Maharashtra government declared the Jews as a minority thus acknowledging their presence after 70 years of independence.

Bene Israeli contribution is notable in the fields of literature and academics. Nissim Ezekiel was one of the known poets. Esther David is a renowned author, artist and sculptor from Ahmedabad and her father Reuben David was also known as the zoo man of Ahmedabad since he started the Ahmedabad zoo. Dr Elijah Moses was the Mayor of Bombay in 1937-38, thus leaving the community’s mark on the political front.

Today, if one wishes to capture the physical reminders of the community, they can find them in form of different synagogues and cemeteries across Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and the Raigad district.

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