MUMBAI: The visit of the first Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, may have its political ramifications but to the 5000 odd Jewish community living in India, the visit has an added importance — it has given them the hope of ensuring the survival of its lost tribe.
“The visit of Sharon has brought us back into focus, it has helped us to relink with our umbilical cord,” says a member of the Bene Israel tribe, one of the three Jewish communities that found shelter and thrived for centuries in India.
Away from its original roots, most of the Jewish settlers chose to adopt the local idiom, while retaining the religious sanctity of its prayer, service and customs.
This gradual blend of the Israeli tradition, dress, culture and lifestyle, was one of the cultural fiesta that was to be displayed during Sharon’s visit to Mumbai, which was, however, cancelled due to twin blasts in Jerusalem.
“The youngsters were to present a special fashion show displaying the various clothes worn by people of all parts of India and the Israeli adaptation of the same. We were also to present the four classical dances of India, including Bharat Natyam and Kathakali for Sharon,” according to one of the organisers of the cultural show.
The tribe currently is fighting hard, to scale down the exodus of its members, especially the younger ones, to Israel.
Threat also looms large on rituals and traditions, the community had sustained and in turn drawn sustenance from, of being lost forever, with emigration and assimilation into the multi-ethnic culture of the Promised Land.
It is in this scenario that a book, India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art & Life-cycle edited by anthropologist Dr Shalwa Weil, documents the vanishing heritage of the Jewish communities — the Bene Israel of Maharashtra, the Cochin Jews of the Malabar coast and the ‘Baghdadi’ jews, who settled in Bombay and Calcutta.
The contributors to the volume, most of them Indian Jews, have researched different aspects of the community over many years and their articles present new material and insights.
All through the text is apparent, how peacefully the small Jewish communities have existed and flourished in the country in contrast to those in Europe, incredibly maintaining their identity, even through centuries of isolation from other Jewish communities, as was the case with the Bene Israel.
According to the book, the Bene Israel are believed to belong to one of the Ten Lost Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was destroyed by the Greek overlord Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 BC.
This is also suggested by the fact that the Bene Israel never called themselves Jews, as they would have, if they had been descendants of the Kingdom of Judah, it says.
According to popular belief amongst the Bene Israel, their ancestors landed on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, after a ship wreck.
“Some say 175 BC, some say 18th BC, but nobody can prove it, this is purely a legend,” Weil, a senior lecturer in the department of education at Ben Gurion University and senior researcher at the NCJW research institute for innovation in education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Similar is the case with the “Cochinis”. “They don’t really know when they came, some people say they came with King Solomon’s merchants, who were looking for gold and sandalwood, even Bible mentions that these things were brought to Solomon’s temples. Some say they came with St Thomas, the apostle”.
Baghdadi’s were the last to arrive in the 19th century. Prominent among the Baghdadis was the Prince of Exilarch David Sasoon, who fleeing with his family from the persecutions of Daud Pasha of Baghdad, arrived in India in 1832 and set up sasoon docks and mills in Bombay (Mumbai).
The Bene Israel, who enjoyed the liberty to practice their faith in India, were also very much influenced by the communities and surrounding culture “just like the English Jews were influenced by the British culture and the French Jews by the French culture”.
“The Bene Israels have rituals that no other Jewish communities have heard of or seen in their lives, which are basically adaptations of Hindu and Muslim rituals, for example the mehendi ritual night before the wedding and wearing of the mangal sutra”.
But the Bene Israels have a special relationship with Elijah — the Prophet — and seem to believe that he went up to heaven from Khandalla in Konkan, a site revered by both Hindus and Muslims today.
The Bene Israelis, especially the women folk not only followed the local populace, amongst whom they lived, sartorially, but also adopted names that end in kar from the villages they hailed from.
The fact that the Bene Israel, the Cochinis and the Baghdadis could practice their faith in peace and security, can be guaged from the number of synagogues built at several places, like the Paradesi synagogue at Jew Town, Kochi, the Magen David synagogue at Bombay or the Ohel David Synagogue at Pune.
Every synagogue was influenced by the culture the different Jewish communities lived in and so were the synagogues of the three communities, according to Ilana Weil, an architect by profession and daughter of Shalva Weil, who has written a chapter on the Architecture of the Paradesi synagogue .
With no contact with other Jewish communities, over a period of time the laws of the community, were relaxed as a means to survive in their adopted country.
“Conversions in India are very lax, which would never pass muster in Israel. It is not very difficult to convert to Judaism in India”, according to Weil.
Inter marriages, which were earlier unheard of, have become acceptable. “In synagogues also people from other communities married into the Jewish community, are being accepted, more in Bombay but less in smaller places,” according to Esther David, who has written a chapter on Sari-sutra: Bene Israel costumes.
Even after their emigration to Israel, India still has pride of place in their hearts can be guaged from the fact that the community still follows the rituals, especially during marriages, when the females dress in saris in the traditional way.
Despite the peace and security enjoyed in the country, with their exodus to Israel, it is possible that the Bene Israel, one of the lost tribes would be lost to India for ever.
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