In her aching, confessional Book of Esther, the author Esther David (her original family name was Dandekar) describes attempting to “make aliyah” via the Law of Return, which gives Jewish people from any part of the world the right to migrate to Israel.
She was “running away from India” and her Bene Israeli community, which maintains the tradition that they are descended from 14 Jewish men and women from across the Arabian Sea who were shipwrecked on the Konkan coastline over 2,000 years ago.
That is why David says she “tried to uproot myself from my surrogate motherland, and replant myself in the home of my ancestors”. Her intention was to move “like a pilgrimage. It would wipe out my past. Give me a new life.” She tried to learn Hebrew, sang Israeli folk songs, and learned to dance the Hora (an originally Eastern European practice that has become intrinsic to contemporary Jewish culture0. But the alienation never lifted: “What a heavy price one had to pay to be a Jew!”
At one point, the new migrant was offered an appealing home, where “the courtyard was covered with mosaic tiles in green, blue and white. There was an orange tree in the centre, laden with ripe fruit. I felt I had walked into a house from the Arabian Nights.” There were no strings attached, and her social worker insisted “I take it without a second thought. The finances would be worked out later.” But when she was told the premises originally belonged to Palestinians who “left”, David refused, earning an earful: “You are stupid. Too sentimental. If you want to stay here, get used to the life here.”
David realised, “If I wanted to live like a Jew, I could live anywhere. I did not have to live in Israel to feel more Jewish that I felt in India. For me, Israel was a discoloured mosaic floor, stained by images of violence, fire, blood, ambulances, Israel unnerved me. I was terrified of terrorist attacks, the right to kill for survival, and the constant tension.” She yearned for Ahmedabad, and “felt relieved as I made preparations to return”.
Book of Esther was published in 2002, at the same time as India’s Jewish Heritage: Ritual, Art and Life-Cycle, edited by Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has gone on to produce an entire shelf on the Jewish presence in India, including – in 2019 alone:The Baghdadi Jews in India: Maintaining Communities, Negotiating Identities and Creating Super-Diversity and The Jews of Goa.
Though it was less than two decades ago, there was very little reliable information on Jewish India back then. That’s why Weil’s compilation (an Indian edition was published in 2009 by Marg) was gratefully received for its solid historiography on the subcontinent’s three distinct Jewish communities: Esther David’s Bene Israelis, the “Black” and “White” Cochini of Kerala, and the highly globalised Baghdadis, who rode economic, political and social winds in and out of British India, Singapore and China while transitioning fast from “Orientals to Imagined Britons”.
Considering all three communities made aliyah en bloc in the late 1940s and early 1950s, you might assume the lengthy annals of Jewish Indian history verge on extinguishment. But as Esther David’s new Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews demonstrates, that’s not the case. Three separate chapters dwell on communities that effectively didn’t exist even as recently as 2002, which illuminates an astonishing truth: there are many more Jewish Indians today than any point in the past 50 years, and their numbers are still expanding.
Check the evidence in Bene Appétit, where David surveys (via visits to each location) the relatively familiar cultural landscape of Cochin, Bene Israeli coastal Maharashtra, and Baghdadi Jewish Kolkata, then wings off to visit the “Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh”, the “Bnei Menashe Jews of Manipur” and “Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram”. All these are freshly minted Indian Jewish communities that are in the process of “rediscovering” – under strict rabbinical supervision – an orthodox Jewish identity, complete with intricate Biblical genealogical underpinnings.
Every time another batch pursues the years-long process until fruition, they petition to make aliyah, and an extensive network of agencies helps them move to Israel. In this way, thousands have gone, and many more are in line. By the mytho-historical calculus used to support their case for “Jewish origins” it’s theoretically possible – albeit highly unlikely – the entire Kuki, Mizo and Chin peoples, comprising several million individuals living along India’s border with Burma, could eventually qualify as Jewish Indians, along with another seven million members of the Madiga caste community from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.
Of course, none of this is actually in the altogether pleasant Bene Appétit. Ever since Book of Esther close to 20 years ago, I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of Esther David’s enviably light touch, and eye for detail. Now aged 76, she’s still got it, as in this description of Fort Kochi: “The entire evening had a magical feeling, as seagulls and other birds circled above while the fish got caught in the Chinese nets. Hidden amidst the trees, along the seashore, there were birds like coppersmith barbets and green bee-eaters. We watched in amazement as the vibrant blue of a kingfisher’s wing stood out against the evening sky, amidst the cargo ships anchored along the coastline with the sound of their horns and flickering lights.”
Despite the lovely atmospherics and many excellent recipes (I am rather keen to try her “family favourite” tiljur potatoes), however, another element of David’s book caught me by surprise. She does such a good job explaining the tangled background of her own Bene Israelis: they were first identified as Jewish only in the 18th century, and despite extensive “re-Judaisation” over generations their identity was again denied in Israel (where they had to undergo ritual reconversion). But when it comes to the Bene Ephraim and Bnei Menashe, Bene Appétit gives us zero context. We’re simply told, “the Jewish population of this area continue to practice Judaism, as their ancestors did”.
Can that be the case? Does it make sense? Are we really supposed to believe the ancestors of scattered Kukis, Mizos and Chins, and their newly attested “co-religionists” in and around Andhra Pradesh, ever practised Judaism in any form whatsoever? How is it even remotely plausible that an unknown diaspora from the Levant traversed thousands of miles into the far reaches of the subcontinent, then stayed hidden for further thousands of years until an opportunity occurred to “reclaim” Hebrew and the Hora?
Here, the far better question to ask is, who are we to judge? It cannot be denied that every peoples across the history of the world has told itself “noble lies” that cannot bear up to scientific scrutiny. Examine any modern nation’s polity, and you will find lurking mythopoeic fantasies. These are matters of faith alone, such as – for some obvious examples – the absurd American credo about “the greatest country in the world” or the prevalent belief in both India and China that they’re civilisational states built on coherent, unbroken, age-old cultural strands.
Still, even if we agree that identity, in all its multi-faceted dimensions, is constructed and can always be reconstructed, there are particularly consequential implications when it comes to Jewishness. Part of the reason is Zionism in Israel, which has been explicitly formulated on an encompassing raft of Bible-derived claims that Palestine is the divinely ordained Jewish homeland.
Much more significant, however, is the omnipresent spectre of anti-Semitism, especially the hateful “blood libel” that has pursued all Jewish communities over many centuries of Christian ascendance. Again and again, for close to 2,000 years, they have faced existential and genocidal threats, and been forced to flee to hide in remote parts of the world. It is an unquestionably extraordinary dispersal: just one fascinating case is of the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where DNA testing has proven direct Jewish ancestry.
Does it matter that no such evidence exists for the 21st century Jewish Indians of Manipur, Mizoram and Andhra Pradesh? Israeli law doesn’t care, and has always allowed conversion to Judaism as precursor to citizenship, although it approves only one “halachic process” overseen by ultra-conservative Orthodox rabbis. How does that sit with “traditional” Jewish communities, who faced down generations of oppression while safeguarding their religious identity? What do they think of our burgeoning cohort of Jewish Indians?
To find out more, I reached out to my friend Ben Judah, the brilliant 33-year-old New York-based British journalist and writer, whose moving engagement with his Baghdadi Jewish Indian roots has captivated my interest since we first met in Bangladesh (and then Goa) in 2017.
Judah walked me step by step through the early history of Judaism, when basically anyone could join “the covenant” by following the rules god is said to have communicated to Abraham (who is considered the original patriarch in Islam and Christianity as well). Even after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and the Theodosian Code enshrined harsh rules against conversion to Judaism, the door wasn’t exactly barred.
Starting in the 14th century, an era of traumatic disruptions permanently affected the nature of Jewish identity, as the large communities in Spain and Portugal (aka Sephardim) were targeted by extremist Catholicism-sanctioned violence. Huge numbers (reliable estimates range up to 300,000) were murdered, and hundreds of thousands more coerced into conversion. Those who survived, as well as “crypto-Jewish” Marranos poured out of Iberia to seek refuge across North Africa, the Levant, and more distant points on the compass.
Some made it all the way to India, including the great Garcia da Orta.
In our conversation, Ben Judah traced a direct line from the contemporary “rediscovery” of “lost tribes” back to the agonising Sephardic experience of persecution, flight, constant mortal threat of being exposed, and an existential requirement for motivation to persevere. He used the compelling metaphor of “dream time” to describe the history of rabbis exhorting their flock to keep the faith: “There are more of us. Hang in there. Help is on its way.”
These are powerful messages, with an inherent capacity to ignite the soul. Judah – who speaks Russian, and has written a superb book about Putin described what he called an “epiphenomenon” that has showed up in Russian history, where isolated groups of Christians, perhaps besieged, started to imagine themselves into in the story of the Bible. He urged me to look up the Subbotniks, and there’s no doubt there are several marked similarities between those relatively recent entrants into Judaism and our own 21st century Indian Jewish communities, including the considerable back and forth that took place in Israel about whether they qualify to make aliyah.
As it happens, the most interesting paper written on 21st century Jewish Indians is by Anton Zykov, a Russian linguist (he specialises in Parsi dialects), whose 2018 Bnei Ephraim Community: Judaisation, Social Hierarchy and Caste Reservation is packed with fascinating insights about the interlocked gears of aspiration and identity in India and Israel.
Zykov situates the assiduous Bene (in this usage, the word is synonymous with “Bnei”) Ephraim pursuit of Jewish identity against the backdrop of Ambedkarite neo-Buddhism, by which “conversion to another religion became one of the traditional ways for untouchables in contemporary India to leap out of the confines of the caste discrimination”.
He says the game-changing event occurred in 2005, when the “chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar took a decision to accept the claim of Indian group Bnei Menashe for their Jewish descent, which opened their way to make aliyah to Israel. The Indian government resisted this move and restricted Bnei Menashe’s migration for seven years, but eventually acknowledged their claim for Jewishness and allowed their departure to Israel in 2012. The example of successful claims for Jewishness by Bnei Menashe gave inspiration to Bnei Ephraim, the community of untouchables in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.”
All this has fraught socio-political repercussions, that are further complicated by rapidly advancing ties between India and Israel that are forged upon billions of dollars of weapons purchases. The steadily expanding population of Jewish Indians potentially furnishes yet another level to the bilateral co-operation. Yet, as Zykov notes, “the Indian authorities’ de facto recognition of Bnei Menashe as Jews created a paradox in country’s caste politics, since the Mizo, Kuki and Chin tribal group, as members of the ‘scheduled tribes’ de jure considered as adivasis, continue to be entitled for the reservation, but at the same time acquire a right of immigration to Israel acknowledged by the Indian government with regard to ‘traditional’ Jewish groups in the country”.
It is likely, says the Russian scholar, that the “acknowledgement of Bnei Ephraim, who are covered by reservations as members of the Madiga dalit caste, as Jews, will lead to even larger controversy in the nation’s caste politics, since unlike ‘scheduled tribes’ the ‘scheduled caste’ category’s definition is legally linked to Hinduism, making untouchability a ‘Hindu phenomenon’”.
Impressed by Zykov’s analysis, I hunted for his email address, and managed to schedule a late-night video call to his home in Moscow. The young academic (he’s 33) told me that he believes the Bene Ephraim story – at this point, at least – is much less about Jewishness and Israel, and instead “tells us about social hierarchies in India itself and how different communities quest for change”.
When I asked about the Bene Ephraim’s hunt for Biblical rationale, Zykov reminded me that Zionism originally wasn’t fixated on Palestine, and “Israel’s founders were en masse non-religious Ashkenazi Jews (hence, the famous Uganda project or even the Crimea one”. It is only later, that “the version of the Zionist idea that they eventually accepted has been inevitably based on Biblical claims. This continues to be so today if you look at, for instance, the annexation plan for West Bank (which is equated to the Biblical Judea and Samaria)”.
Even so, said Zykov, “whether Bene Ephraim are Jews on not depends on whose opinion you take, and there are many approaches both religious (from Orthodox to Conservative and Liberal) and secular (by the modern State of Israel, which has changed its criteria several times, or other countries and communities that use their own legal or social definitions).” But in the end, “what matters is their self-definition and how it adjusts to this or that perception of Jewishness. An important role is played here by US and Israeli organisations and individuals who can influence or even shape this self-definition.”
That last point is crucial, because Jewish Indians – not just at home, but also after making aliyah – are confronted by terrific pressures to conform to the reductionist Eurocentric model of Jewishness that is derived nigh-exclusively from Ashkenazi customs, traditions and experiences. It is true now for the Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram – who, despite their openhearted zealotry – nonetheless find themselves slurred in their new homeland as “Bnei Menake” (The word for “cleaner” in Hebrew is Menake; so the Bnei Menashe, children of Menasseh, becomes Bnei Menake, children of a cleaner). And the same thing happened with Bene Israelis two generations earlier.
Indian on the inside
“My family has become outwardly Israeli, but inside they were totally Indian,” said Oshrit Birvadker, yet another 33-year-old, who is an ardent advocate in Israel for the Bene Israeli community (to which she belongs) and an impressive force for better understanding between her two homelands. In 2017, her comments to Narendra Modi’s official delegation to Israel precipitated changes in Overseas Citizenship of India regulations that could allow Israelis (who are required to do military service) to get OCI status.
Birvadker’s contacts were forwarded to me by Solomon Souza, grandson of the great Indian modernist painter FN Souza, who is proudly and simultaneously Jewish, Israeli and Goan (he is now applying for OCI status). On an animated Zoom call, she told me, “For many years I knew I was Indian but the outside has been divided dichotomously, the Mizrahis against the Ashkenazis, immigrants from Europe versus immigrants from Arab and North African countries, the generation of the country’s founders versus a generation of immigrants.”
Initially, says Birvadker, “I felt that my place was among those Mizrahis. As a first-generation migrant to Israel, I felt we shared the same history. But all the way through I felt I haven’t found my place. The government may indeed see us under the same category, but the truth is that we share a different world that is unique to the culture of the subcontinent. That is when I started focusing my attention on my community, and the people directly around me.”
When just out of her teens, Birvadker participated in one of the very first Know India Programmes run out of New Delhi. She says it sparked “a great love story that gets better over the years. In India, I felt at home. The power of having so much in common with one billion people hit me. I came back and I decided India will guide my career.” After returning, she steadily forged herself into an expert on India’s foreign and defence policy, as “this is my way to be an Israeli”.
Despite its small population (roughly 9 million) in territory half the size of Kerala, Israel’s disparate Indian diaspora has never cohered. “The Bene Israel, The Cochin Jews, the Baghdadi Jews, the Bnei Menashe, and Bene Ephraim may be defined as Indians, but the distance between the various communities is large,” Birvadker said. “For many years I was furious at this division. I thought that if we only worked together it would improve our status, but as I grew older I understood it’s impossible to talk about one community just as it is impossible to talk about one India. These are individual choices.”
Thinking hard about Birvadker’s perceptive takes about identity – both Indian and Israeli – inevitably brought Hune Margulies to mind. The 63-year-old philosopher and poet (and founder-director of the Martin Buber Institute for Dialogical Ecology) is a cherished member of the Goa Writers group, to which I also belong. He was born in Argentina to Polish and Romanian refugees, made aliyah as a teenager, then moved to New York in his 20s (his doctorate is from Columbia University) before leaping to my own ancient ancestral homeland: the locality of Malar on the island of Divar in the Mandovi river.
A full ethnic Malarkar writer
As far as Margulies is concerned, he is now “a full ethnic Malarkar writer” where “none of my neighbours see me as an ‘other’.” How and why? “It is so because ethnicity is not primordial, but largely a construction of historical interests and manipulative mythologies,” he said. “I am a human, and as such every human culture is mine by birthright. All ethnicities are a mixture of different cultures forged in history through historic events, some internal, some external. Geography places us all in Malar or Argentina or Poland, but it is our poetic imaginations that define whether we are Malarkars, Argentinians or Polish.”
Margulies elaborated, “As a son of Holocaust survivors, I am committed to the project of Jewish self-determination and Jewish self-defence. However, on a theoretical basis, I do not subscribe to the idea of ethnic or religious or racial nationalisms. As a diasporic people, the Jews that gathered in Israel were as diverse as total strangers. They spoke different languages, they ate different foods, they dressed differently, their accents, their folkloric music and dance, their familial relationships, were all different from each other.”
However, “given the historic facts of anti-Semitism, every practitioner of the Jewish religion experienced a similar historic reality of oppression, discrimination and genocide. Those historic facts maintained the Jewish identity as one, despite the internal contrasting ethnicities. The present day Jewish ethnic identity is a construct that owes its continuity to both religious discrimination and religious choice, and in that sense, Zionism is an historically proper response. The one problem is that Zionism should not have come at the expense of the rights of the Arab population that lived in the land.”
When that happened, said Margulies, “the wars that ensued resulted in refugees and other forms of displacements that were not inevitable. Martin Buber advocated the establishment of a bi-national united democratic and secular republic of Jews and Arabs, not a separate Jewish state. I subscribe to this project.”
Some time ago, when the Indian edition of Shalva Weil’s The Jews of Goa (its cover art is by Solomon Souza) was released, Margulies and I avidly shared a copy. It has several excellent scholarly essays: I particularly appreciated Jews of Goa and the Trading World of the Indian Ocean, 1000-1650 by Pius Malekandathil of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and All Roads Lead to Goa: Messengers, Interpreters, Jewish and New Christian Informants in the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century by the Paris-based Portuguese historian Dejanirah Couto. But Weil’s own, The Enigma of the Jews of Goa was unsettling, and I found it oddly insinuating.
This is because, after tracking the established facts of historical Jewish presence on the west coast of India, Weil makes the startling – and unsupported – claim that “until the 20th century, it appears that concentrations of people who used to be Jews still resided in [Old Goa] bearing Jewish names and with vague memories of Jewish descent”. She says that when she first visited Panjim “there were houses with names of Iberian and Spanish Jewish families like Pereira and Cardozo (which are still there, but have no connection to Judaism because they belong to Goan families who converted to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries)”.
Weil walks through the very same old Latinate neighbourhoods my family has known intimately well from the time they were built, and where I myself stroll constantly, and somehow finds Jewishness: “I spoke to people, who freely admitted they had been conversos, secretly hiding their Jewish religion for generations.” She concludes, “In other former Portuguese colonies, such as Brazil, Macao and Nagasaki, Cape Verde and the Guinea coast, Mozambique, and elsewhere, people are reclaiming their Jewish identity. I envisage that this trend will also occur in Goa in the not-too-distant future.”
Quest for the Holy Land
When I asked Hune Margulies what he thought about this prospect, he said, “Indian communities that identify as Jewish have a full right to do so. Whether they possess a Jewish gene is as relevant as the inexplicable Sephardic rejection of pastrami on rye.” The only problem, as such, is that “the state of Israel provides the Orthodox establishment with the sole authority to define Jewishness, and these communities are required to undergo some form of ritual conversion before being fully accepted as Jews. For those of us who reject Orthodox primacy, these communities’ ascription to themselves of a Jewish identity is a right no one else has the right to deny.”
Those rights go both ways, and in all directions, of course, because just as the 21st century Jewish Indian communities are busily transplanting themselves in what they consider their “Holy Land”, my friend is doing exactly the same in mine. He says (and I love every bit of it), “Malar is my home not only because there is a house in Malar where I live. I am not a part of the Hindu or Portuguese historical experiences. I am not a Christian. I am a student of Zen Buddhism, (which is also a hybrid with Indian roots). Garcia de Orta is, and isn’t, part of my own Goan self-definition. But if I need to dig deeper into my belonging here, let my local lineage be that involuntarily-nomadic and legally precarious communal past. That’s good enough for me, for those attributes are of the essence to any loving definition of Jewish identity.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.
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