The history of the Jews of India is believed to date back thousands of years. Many believe that the first Jewish community arrived in India shortly after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, making Judaism one of the earliest foreign religions to arrive in India in recorded history.
In contrast to other parts of the world, India’s relationship with Judaism remained consistently open and tolerant. Throughout history, Jews have been welcome and accepted. There has been no known anti-Semitism in India nor have Jews ever been viewed in a ways that differ from any of the myriad of cultural or religious minorities that reside in the country. This high level of tolerance and acceptance is, in part, due to the fact that neither Jews nor Hindus proselytize. As a result, the greater Hindu community has never felt threatened by a Jewish presence.
Furthermore, the general nature of India’s pluralistic culture is porous enough to absorb hundreds of different religions and belief systems. In such an environment, Judaism was simply understood as yet another spiritual path in a sea of intertwining faiths and traditions. Thus, India’s Jews have long found a spiritual and cultural sanctuary – the likes of which were rare found in any of the countries that Jews sought refuge.
Over the course of centuries five Jewish groups became established communities in India. The oldest Jewish community is that of the Jews of Cochin. They arrived in India 2,500 years ago, and continue to have a presence on the western coast. The Bene Israel represent the largest community and they claim that their ancestors arrived 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families just south of Mumbai. They were nicknamed the shanivār telī (“Saturday oil-pressers”) by the local population because they abstained from working their oil-presses on the Sabbath. The Baghdadi Jews arrived in the city of Mumbai from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Arab countries about 250 years ago and have found great opportunity in the world of business and trade. Finally, there are the Bnei Menashe and the Bene Ephraim. Each of these groups have newer connections to the Jewish faith.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish community of India numbers approximately 30,000. In 1948, most of India’s Jews migrated to Israel. Today only seven to eight thou-sand Jews remain, most of which are Bene Israel origin.
On Friday night, February 21, join us for a special Sabbath in the tradition of India’s Jewish community. Traditional Indian musical and food will shape an exotic evening as we learn about this unique and richly spiritual aspect of our cultural heritage.