The Republic of India, located in south Asia, is the second most populous nation in the world, with over 1.2 billion people. The country has
an historic legacy with three distinct ancient Jewish
groups. Today, the Jewish population of India is approximately 5,000.
- Early History
- Bene Israel Jews
- The Jews of Cochin
- The Jews of Calcutta
- Baghdadi Jews
- Bene Menashe
- Bene Ephraim
a legacy of three distinct ancient Jewish
groups: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews,
also called the Malabar Jews, and the White
Jews from Europe. Each group practiced important
elements of Judaism and
had active synagogues.
The Sephardic rites
predominate among Indian Jews.
More recent Jewish immigration to India includes
the Baghdadi Jews, Bene Menashe, and Bene
Jewish merchants from Europe
traveled to India in the medieval period
for purposes of trade, but it is not clear
whether they formed permanent settlements
in south Asia. Our first reliable evidence
of Jews living in India comes from the early
11th century. It is certain that the first
Jewish settlements were centered along the
western coast. Abraham ibn Daud's 12th century
reference to Jews of India is unfortunately
vague and we do not have further references
to Indian Jews until several centuries later.
Migrations in the 16th and
17th centuries created important settlements
of Jews from Persia, Afghanistan and
Characin (Central Asia) in northern India
and Kashmir. By the late 18th century, Bombay
became the largest Jewish community in India.
Bene Israel Jews lived in Bombay, as did
Iraqi and Persian Jews.
Bene Israel Jews
The Bene Israel ("Sons
of Israel") lived primarily in the cities
of Bombay (now Mumbai), Pune, Karachi (now
in Pakistan), and Ahmadabad. The native language
of the Bene Israel was Judeo-Marathi. They
arrived in India nearly 2,100 years ago after
a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families
from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just
south of Mumbai.
Bene Israel Synagogue
The Bene Israel claim to
be descended from Jews who escaped persecution
in the Galilee in
the 2nd century B.C.E. The
Bene Israel resembled the non-Jewish Maratha
people in appearance and customs, which indicates
intermarriage between Jews and Indians. The
Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices
of Jewish dietary
and observation of Sabbath as
a day of rest.
The Bene Israel say their
ancestors were oil pressers in the Galilee
and earned the nickname "Saturday oil-pressers" because
they abstained from work on Saturday, which
is the Jewish Shabbat, a day of rest. In
the 18th century, they were "discovered" by
traders from Baghdad. At that time, the Bene
Israel were practicing just a few outward
forms of Judaism (which is how they were
recognized), but had no scholars of their
own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin taught
them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th
In 1796 “Shaar Rahamim”,
the first Bene Israel synagogue, was built
in the city. After its establishment, several
other synaogues and Jewish centers emerged
David Sassoon and his followers
fled to Bombay in 1832 following the pogroms
of Daud Pasha in Baghdad. The Sassoon family
became known as the “Rothschilds of
the East” because of the wealth they
accumulated in trade and also because of
their philanthropic donations to the community.
In fact, many well-known landmarks in Mumbai
today can be attributed to the Sassoon family.
In the 1830s, there was
an estimated 6,000 Bene Israeli Jews living
in India, and nearly 10,000 at the turn of
the century. At their peak in 1948, the Bene
Israel numbered 20,000. Since then, most
of the Bene Israel Jews have migrated to
Israel, and under 5,000 remain today.
In 1964, the Rabbinate of
Israel declared that the Bene Israel are "full
Jews in every respect."
The Bene Israel community
claimed to be descendents of the Kohanim,
the ancient Israelite priests, which claims
descent from Aaron,
the brother of Moses.
In 2002, a DNA test confimed that the Bene
Israel share the same heredity as the Kohanim.
The Jews of Cochin
The first Jews to come to
India were the Jews in
Cochin in southern India (today, its the
port city of Kochi) were the so-called "Black
Jews," who traditionally spoke the
Judeo-Malayalam tongue, native to the state
of Kerala. Some say that these "Black
Jews" settled in the Malabar coast during
the times of King
Solomon of Israel, and after the Kingdom
of Israel split into two. The Pardesi
Jews, also called the "White Jews" settled
later, coming to India from western European
nations such as Holland and Spain,
and spoke the ancient Sephardic language
A notable settlement of Spanish and Portuguese Jews
starting in the 15th century was Goa, but
this settlement eventually disappeared. In
the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an
influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle
East, North Africa, and Spain.
The Jews of Cochin traditionally
say that they came to Cranganore (an ancient
port near Cochin in south-west India) after
the destruction of the Temple in
70 C.E. They had, in effect, their own principality
for many centuries until a chieftainship
dispute broke out between two brothers in
the 15th century. The dispute led neighboring
princes to dispossess them. In 1524, the
Moors, backed by the ruler of Calicut (today
called Kozhikode) attacked the Jews of Cranganore
on the pretext that they were tampering with
the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin
and went under the protection of the Hindu
Raja there. He granted them a site for their
own town that later acquired the name "Jew
Town" (by which it is still known).
Unfortunately for the Jews
of Cochin, the Portuguese occupied Cochin
in this same period and indulged in persecution
of the Jews until the Dutch displaced them
in 1660. The Dutch Protestants were tolerant,
and the Jews prospered. In 1795, Cochin passed
into the British sphere of influence. In
the 19th century, Cochin Jews lived in the
towns of Cochin, Ernakulam, Aluva, and North
Most of Cochin's Jews have
emigrated (principally to Israel),
intermarried, or converted, and now there
are believed to be only 13 elderly Indian-born
Jews, from seven families, still living in
Kochi. There are currently 53 practicing
Cochin Jews in Kerala, along with three synagogues.
The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi, built in
1568, is the only one still open and is a
protected heritage site. Many fear that the
Jews of Cochin will soon wither away.
Town Road, Cochin across from Pardesi
Notice the Rabbi
Nachman stickers on the motorbike.
cemetery in Cochin
The Jews of Calcutta
Near the end of the 18th
century, a third group of Indian Jews appeared.
They are the middle-eastern Jews who came
to India through trade. They established
a trading network stretching from Aleppo
to Baghdad to Basra to Surat/Bombay to Calcutta
to Rangoon to Singapore to Hong Kong and
eventually as far as Kobe, Japan. There were
strong family bonds amongst the traders in
all these places.
Typical is the founder
of the Calcutta community, Shalom Aharon
Ovadiah HaCohen. He was born in Aleppo in
1762 and left in 1789. He arrived in Surat
in 1792 and established himself there. He
traded as far as Zanzibar. In 1798 he moved
to Calcutta. In 1805 he was joined by his
nephew, Moses Simon Duek HaCohen, who married
his eldest daughter Lunah. Soon the community
was swelled by other traders and Baghdadis
outnumbered those from Aleppo.
El Synagogue Calcutta
Under British rule, the Jews of India achieved
their maximum population and wealth, and
the Calcutta community continued to grow
and prosper and trade amongst all the cities
of the Far East and to the rest of the world.
The Indians were very tolerant and the Jews
of Calcutta felt completely at home. Their
numbers reached a peak of about 5,000 during
World War II when they were swelled by refugees
fleeing the Japanese advance into Burma.
The first generations of
Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home,
but by the 1890s English was the language
of choice. After WWII,
the rise of Indian nationalism made Jews
feel less comfortable because they were identified
with the English by the Indians. India's
Jewish population declined dramatically starting
in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel, England and
the United States. This is where most Indian
Jews live today.
The Jews of Calcutta now
number about 2,150, of whom 150 are European
and the remainder natives of Asiatic Turkey,
Persia, and southern Arabia.
The Baghdadi Jewish community,
so-called because they are descents of Iraqi
Jewish immigrants who came to that country
during the British Raj, not only includes
Jews from the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad,
but from other areas of Iraq, as well as
Jews from Syrian, Yemenite,
Persian, and Turkish origin. The community
developed as a result of Jews fleeing religious
persecution in Muslim lands to the northwest
of India during the British imperial era.
Unlike other Jewish communities in India
whose oral tradition attest to a presence
in India going back as long as 2000 years,
the Baghdadi communities were established
relatively recently (in the past few centuries).
The Baghdadis have completely
assimilated into Indian society. A contributing
factor for their assimilation was their physical
features and resemblance to the East Indians.
The Baghdadis originally came to India from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran,
so they had dark olive skin and black, dark
brown hair, that gave them that distinct
Middle Eastern appearance and an Indian resemblance.
The Bene Menashe community
consists of approximately 7,000 members of the
Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribe, which lives in the
northeast Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram,
near the border of Myanmar.
Linguistically, they are Tibeto-Burmans.
For generations they kept Jewish traditions,
claiming to be descended from the Tribe
of Manasseh, one of the Ten
Lost Tribes of Israel that were exiled
by the Assyrians in
the eighth century B.C.E. and
have since disappeared.
In the 19th century, the
tribe's members were converted to Christianity,
but in the 1970's, some of the community began
practicing Judaism again
and set themselves apart from the rest of
the tribe, after Pentecostalist called Chalianthanga
or Mela Chala (the name varies) from the
Buallawn village dreamt that God instructed
him to direct his people to return to their
pre-Christian religion, which he determined
to be Judaism, and to return to their original
Flag of Bene Menashe
The group was named Bene
Menashe by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, who heard
about the tribe in 1979 and traveled to their
village in India several times in the 1980s,
because they believe that the legendary Kuki-Mizo
ancestor Manmasi is
one and the same with Menassah,
son of Joseph.
Rabbi Avichail's organization, called Amishav
(Hebrew for "my people return")
dedicated himself to converting the Bene
Menashe in the Orthodox tradition,
and eventually bring them to settle in Israel.
In July 2005, the Bene Menashe community built their first mikvah, or a
Jewish ritual bath, in Mizoram under the
supervision of Israeli rabbis in order to
begin the conversion process. Shortly after,
a similar mikvah was built in Manipur. In
mid-2005, with the help of Shavei Israel,
an organization founded by Avichail's friend,
journalist Michael Fruend, and the local
council of Kiryat Arba, the Bene Menashe
opened its first community center in Israel.
In March 2005, Chief Rabbi Shlomo
Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis,
decided to recognize the members of India's Bene
Menashe community as descendants of
the ancient Israelites due to their exceptional
devotion to Judaism. Nevertheless, those who arrived in Israel were required to go through a conversion process.
Indian religious figures
in the Mizo-Kuki churches in Mizoram, as
well as Indian government officials, later
expressed concern about the plan to convert
the Bene Menashe and bring them to Israel
so the effort was suspended, although
members of Bene Menashe continued to arrive
in Israel in 2006 and 2007. After a five-year period when there was no aliyah, the Israeli government announced in November 2012 that it would resume flights to bring the Bene Menashe to Israel, starting with a planeload of 270 people.
Since the early 1990's,
approximately 2,000 Bene Menashe have immigrated
to Israel; another 5,000 are in the pipeline waiting to immigrate. In October 2013, the Israeli government gave approval for 899 more Bnei Menashe to come.
The Bene Ephraim (in Hebrew, "Sons
are a small group of Jews, sometimes called
the Telugu Jews because they speak Telugu,
a Dravidian national language of India, who
reside in the south-eastern province of Andhra
Pradesh, whose recorded observance of Judaism,
like that of the Bene Menashe, is quite recent,
going back only to 1981. In the 19th century,
the Bene Ephraim were converted to Christianity
by Baptist missionaries.
Since 1981, about fifty
families around Kottareddipalem and Ongole
(capital of the nearby district of Prakasham)
have begun to study and teach Torah, learn
Hebrew, and sought recognition from other
Jewish communities around the world. The
community has been visited over the years
by several groups of rabbis, who have thus
far not seen fit to extend the same recognition
to this community as that recently extended
to the Bene Menashe.
In 1992, the first Bene
Ephraim synagogue opened in Kottareddipalem,
called The House of the Children of Yakob,
founded by former Christian preacher Shmuel
Yakobi, who first encountered Judaism in
the 1980's on a trip to Jerusalem. Yakobi
also founded an independent open university
offering correspondence courses in Torah
and Hebraic Studies, calling the community
the Council of Eastern Jewry.
The Chabad Movement in Mumbai
was established in 2003 and Chabad purchased
the Nariman House building in 2006. The Chabad
house in Mumbai served many Israeli tourists
and Jewish businessmen with lodging, kosher
food and a place of worship.
For three days between November
26 and November 28, 2008 Pakistani Muslim
extremists terrorized the city of Mumbai
and killed many tourists at the Taj Mahal
and Oberoi hotels as well as the Victoria
Terminus train station.
After leaving the hotels,
terrorists invaded the Chabad center at the
Nariman House building, killing all of the
Jews in the building including the Chabad
rabbi and rebetzin. The couple's son was
snuck out of the building during the attack.
Most of the Jews murdered in the Chabad House
were Israeli citizens - either tourists or
employees of Chabad.
Sources: Shamash; Jerusalem
Post, (November 9, 2005)
of the Jews in India";
Francisco, Jason L., "Meet
the Telugu Jews of India" ;
Jewish Encyclopedia, "Calutta
Wax, Emily. "In India, a Jewish Outpost
Slowly Withers." The
Washington Post, August 27, 2007;
Post (November 30, 2008);
JTA, (November 6, 2012);
Haaretz (October 20, 2013);
Calcutta synagogue photo courtesy of HaChayim
HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (Jono
All other photos courtesy of Karen Schapiro