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Jews in India and their Contribution in Nation Building

Updated on July 8, 2018

Jew Community is another micro-minority community of India. Unlike Parsi Community, Jews are not counted in Census of India. So their exact population in India is not known. Their estimated population is about 15000 to 20000. They are concentrated in 5 Indian cities namely Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmadabad, Calicut and Cochin. About 4000 Jews reside at Mumbai city.

Jewish Women of India

Indian Jewish women
Indian Jewish women

Origin of Jews in India

There are 5 sections in Jews of India, namely Cochin Jews, Bene Israel, Baghdadi Jews, Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim. Each section has its own story, own language and own culture.

Cochin Jews

Cochin Jews is the oldest Jewish community in India. It is claimed that they arrived in India at the time of King Solomon, i.e. 950 BCE. Historical evidences show that they first arrived in India in 1st Century of C.E. They settled in the southern West Coast of India, which is known as Kerala. In later period, there were more waves of migrations to this part of India. Cochin Jews have 2 sub-sections, Malbarai Jews and White Jews. Malbari Jews are also known as Black Jews are older settlers. All Cochin Jews mainly speak Malayalam Language.

Bene Israel

The meaning of the word Bene Israel is 'Sons of Israel. According to traditions, they came to India in 2nd Century BCE, and settled on West coast of Maharastra, India, which is known as Konkan region. Genetic studies show that this community has Paternal Jewish Ancestry, but they are more like people of Konkan. This fact shows that the migrants married local women after arrival to this region. They had almost forgotten their Jewish traditions, but in 18th Century David Ezekiel Rahabi, from Cochin taught them about Judaism and trained many young men from the community and made them the religious preceptors of the community. There number is about 6000, and they are concentrated mainly in Mumbai, as well as in Raigad District of Konkan.

Jews in India Map
Jews in India Map | Source

Baghdadi Jews

Baghdadi Jews came to India from Iraq and other neighboring countries in recent centuries, soon after the Portuguese came to India in early 16th Century. Baghdadi Jews came as traders and settled in Gujarat, on the West Coast of India. They were Arabic speaking people. Before their arrival, Persian Jews were settled in India and were well known traders. Some of them had acquired higher posts like advisers, tutors to the Mughal emperors.

Bnei Menashe

Unlike the 3 Jewish groups I have discussed above, who live on West Coast of India, Bnei Menashe Jews are inhabitants of far eastern states of the country. Bnei Menashe Jews claim that they are descendents of one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, founder of Amishav, an organization of Israel which searches lost people of Jewish origin, heard about these people and their claim, came to India in 1980s and visited this tribe people. He investigated the claim and found that the Bnei Menashe people are really descendents of an ancient tribe of Israel. Meanwhile, these people had adopted Christianity. Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail started to reconvert them to Orthodox Judaism.

Today the estimated population of Bnei Menashe Jews about 9000.

Bene Ephraim

Bene Ephraim is a small Jewish community living in Kottareddipalem, a village near Guntur city of Andhra Pradesh, India. They speak Telugu language. Like Bnei Menashe, they too claim that they were descendents of a lost tribe of Israel. It is interesting to know that both the communities live far away from each other, but have same story.

The community was converted to Christianity in 19th Century. But as they found their Jewish origin, they started to study Judaism and Hebrew language. However this community yet has not been recognized as Jewish by the Jewish authorities of Israel.

Synagog at Pune Camp, India Photo by Shalini Pal
Synagog at Pune Camp, India Photo by Shalini Pal | Source

Famous Indian Jews and Their Contribution to India

There are many famous Indian Jews who have contributed in various fields. Here is an introduction to some of the great Jews of India:

Lieutenant General J F R Jacob was Chief of Staff of Eastern command of Indian Army while the Bangladesh Liberation War. He was architect of the quick victory of Indian forces over Pakistani Forces. General Sam Manekshaw had given him 17 days for total victory, J F R Jacob did the job in 13 days. After retirement J F R Jacob was appointed as Governor of Punjab and then of Goa. He lives in New Delhi. Major General Samson was another Jewish who enjoyed the higher post in Indian Army. He received Padma Vibhushan, the 3rd highest civilian award in India. There was a Jewish Chief of Indian Navy, but I was not able to find his name.

In film industry, especially in Bollywood, i.e. Hindi film industry, Indian Jews have contributed a lot. Ruby Myers, known as Sulochana was one of the famous actresses in Indian cinema who appeared in about 70 films, during 1918 to 1981. She was awarded India's highest award for lifetime achievement in Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, in 1973. Nadira was another Jewish actress who appeared in more than 65 Hindi films. David Abraham Cheulkar, famously known as David was a great character actor of Hindi films. Pramila was the first ever winner of the title Miss India, who later appeared in Hindi films. Ranjit Chowdhry is actor of Hindi films, and theater. There are many other Jewish contributors to Hindi movies.

In Indian literature and media, the famous Jews are poet Nissim Ezeickel, cartoonist Abu Abraham and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

 JFR Jacob, Hero of Bangla Desh Liberation War 1971
JFR Jacob, Hero of Bangla Desh Liberation War 1971 | Source

Recent Migrations to Israel

India became independent in 1947. In 1948, Israel, a new nation was founded, which was especially for Jews. The new nation gave an opportunity to Jews world over to settle in Israel. Many Indian Jews migrated to Israel in last 6 decades and settled there.

Bene Israel: Jews of Mumbai

© 2013 Mahaveer Sanglikar

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

    Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 

    4 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

    It is an interesting topic and you have done well. Recently I visited some of the Jew settlement in Kerala, believed to be the oldest one. I have written a hub also on the topic. Thanks for this post.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    5 years ago

    I have learned something new and surprising today: didn't know there was such a big Jewish population in India. Very interesting.

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 

    5 years ago from south Florida

    Was surprised, jainismus, to learn about the size and location of the Jewish population in India. Thanks for this interesting information.

  • point2make profile image

    point2make 

    5 years ago

    Excellent hub Jainismus...very informative. I enjoyed the history lesson and learned some very interesting facts. Thank-you for that. Voted this hub up...well deserved.

  • always exploring profile image

    Ruby Jean Richert 

    5 years ago from Southern Illinois

    This is very interesting to me. I love reading about other cultures. Well written..Thank you..

  • charmike4 profile image

    Michael Kromwyk 

    5 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

    Great hub jainismus. I really hadn't considered that there would be many Jews in India outside of relatively recent converts. Having said this, you hub is very enlightening on this little known subject. Will help me at the next trivia night methinks. Cheers Michael

  • jainismus profile imageAUTHOR

    Mahaveer Sanglikar 

    5 years ago from Pune, India

    Thank you Maria for reading and commenting. I have made the correction.

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 

    5 years ago

    This hub is so interesting. I had no idea that there are Jewish communities in India. Voted up, interesting and awesome.

  • jantamaya profile image

    Maria Janta-Cooper 

    5 years ago from UK

    Jainismus, I've enjoyed reading your exceptionally interesting hub. A few weeks ago, I've seen in the news Indian Jews migrating to Israel. They believed to be the descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. Their history was surprising, and I was thinking that it was interesting too. Through your article I'm better informed now. Thanks. (Please check the last words in your hub :-) 'decades' and 'there?')

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    5 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Very interesting my friend. Wonderful facts that I did not know. This is how cultures come together.

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