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The Jews of India: An Interview with Hannah Grossman, Former JDC Fellow

Posted on 04/18/2013 @ 03:30 PM

Tags: The Jews of India, An Interview with Hannah Grossman, Former JDC Fellow

During this year on the International Board of BBYO, I have had the privilege to connect with Jewish people from all over the world. Yet I would never have imagined that my outreach to the international Jewish community would span as far as Asia – more specifically, the Bene Israeli Jews of Mumbai, India.

I had the chance to interview Hannah Grossman, a former JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow who served in Mumbai.

Can you provide some basic background of the history, geography and demographics of the Bene Israel community?

There is no concrete historical evidence for the narratives of how the Bene Israeli Jews arrived in India. However, the most commonly accepted narrative is that after the 2nd Temple destruction, Jews fled via ship—a ship holding seven couples landed on the Konkan coast (a little south of Mumbai). While all of their texts were lost in the voyage, they remembered the Shema, kept Shabbat and continued circumcision.

At its peak, I believe the Bene Israeli community numbered around 60,000. In 1948, most of them migrated to Israel, not because of persecution (which there was little to none of), but because of their Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Today, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Jews living in India- most have migrated from the villages along the Konkan coast to Mumbai.

What obstacles has the community faced? What affect did the Holocaust have on the Bene Israel community?

I would say that it has become difficult to follow halachic Judaism in India. Many are traditional Jews and strongly identify with their religion (most people identify strongly with their respective religion in India), but circumstances, like not being able to travel to synagogue and not work on Shabbat, make it difficult.

Because of the high population and competition in the country, many Bene Israeli who do value Jewish education prioritize their formal schooling and work ambitions over Jewish education. It is a matter of fact for many people. (It is hard to make time for formal Jewish education while studying for exams…)

In some ways, the Holocaust and Hitler are far from being understood in India. Many people admire Hitler because he seemed to exemplify a story of someone rising to power. (Mein Kampf is sold in many Indian bookstores and, in recent years, there was a restaurant opened named, ‘Hitler’- through efforts of the Jewish community and Israeli consulate, the restaurant did change its name). While many Bene Israeli Jews connect with this part of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood, many have not been exposed to strong education about the Holocaust. Indian Jews are in many ways very disconnected from the European experience and it is difficult to relate although efforts have been made to bridge the two (i.e. March of the Living and the Israeli Consulate have encouraged Holocaust education).

What is the community's connection to Israel?

Most, if not all, Bene Israeli Jews in India have family in Israel. There is a very strong connection to Israel through these familial connections.

What are the most prominent similarities and differences between the Bene Israel community and the Jewish community you grew up in?

There is no such thing as a denomination (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) in India. This is something that seems to dominate Jewish communities where I grew up (NJ) and the conversations about Jewish life.

The food! There are special Bene Israeli dishes and snacks for Jewish holidays. For example, they don’t have Hamantashen, but eat something called puran poli on Purim. They break fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av with special beans and a unique juice. There are stories that accompany these customs.

There are also unique Bene Israeli Jewish customs. For example, they hold a malida ceremony (kind of a thanksgiving to Elijah) whenever good things happen. Speaking of Elijah, they believe that he ascended off a rock in the Konkan coast and have a very strong connection to him.

Unlike many Jews in my community, the Bene Israeli community does not physically stand out. (They dress in clothing like other Indians, i.e. saaris.)

“Two Jews, three opinions!”

Close family bonds and community relations.

Jewish/Hebrew names.

How does the community interact with the rest of India? Does the fact they are Jewish affect them in any way?

Many of the Bene Israeli Jews are assimilated and spend most of their days with non-Jews (at school and work). Hinduism is very tolerant of other religions and the Bene Israelis have not experienced anti-Semitism making it possible for both groups to get along civilly with each other.

Their Judaism often makes them stand out (i.e Hebrew names) and the simple fact that in a country of over one billion people with only 3,000 - 4,000 Jews, the average person has never met or even heard of Jews.

So, in some cases they go unnoticed because they are such a small group, but when they are noticed their distinctness is evident. Like most Indians who connect strongly to their religion, the Indian Jews are proud and close to their own.

Nick Phillips, 88 Grand Aleph Mazkir
Hannah Grossman was a 2011-2012 JDC JSC Fellow. She is currently studying at the Pardes institute in Jerusalem, Israel.

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