In a small village in Guntur, the land of chillies and tobacco, a unique local community set to work at shooting a film. The initial idea was to craft a comedy flick in Telugu; hiring locals as actors. Along the way, the outcome was a story about the actors themselves. For they were all Jewish, members of the small Bene Ephraim community of Andhra Pradesh.
The history of the Jews in India encompasses many migrations. Some arrived in Goa during the Portuguese and Spanish inquisitions, others came here many centuries earlier to Kerala. But one community claims an even older heritage – descent from the ten lost tribes of Israel. The Bnei Menashe, of India’s Northeastern states, claim descent from a Hmar figure named Manmasi, who they believe was none other than Manasseh, the son of Jacob.
Nearly 3,000 kilometres South West from Manipur, the Guntur Jews believe their ancestors left the Assyrian empire around 722 BC. For centuries, they wandered between Iran, Kashmir and Varanasi, before settling in Andhra Pradesh around 1100 AD. When you walk into Guntur, many locals are completely unaware of this community’s existence – believing them to be Madiga Christians.
Speaking to the Madras Courier, Sadok Yacobi, the leader of the Jewish community in Guntur, explains why this came about: “The Telangana people call us Madiga. Why did the government record us as Madiga? Why not write something else? Because someone told us that you eat beef like the Madigas, and because of that we include you in that caste.”
The Madigas are Dalits; traditional crafters of drums, slippers and employed with disposing of the bodies of the dead. The Bnei Ephraim were seen as Christian and sometimes treated as untouchables. But in the post-independence era, Yacob’s father visited Israel – and was struck by the similarities between the Jews there and the customs of his community back at home.
Quietly, and unknowingly, the Bnei Ephraim were followers of many Hebrew customs. Jewish festivals like Pesach and Sukkot were celebrated in their own way, and their local words were often similar to Hebrew.
Now, after thousands of years and the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jewish people had a home again in Israel. Across India, Jewish communities flocked to avail of Aliyah, where Israel granted citizenship to Jewish people regardless of where they came from.
Communities like the Bene Menashe and Bene Ephraim took longer to gain approval from Israel. Genealogical evidence of their ancestry is still unavailable. But Yacob says that most of the community members don’t want to leave India. “The facilities are good here,” he said. “The Israeli people [who have visited] have told us that the facilities are good here and that there is no casteism here. We can be happy here.”
For a while, the community petitioned the government so that they would no longer be recognised as Madigas. But officials were unhelpful, promising that the process would be labyrinthine and require the President’s permission. Instead, Yacob decided to go the route of the other Jewish communities in India – waiting for minority status.
In the last decade, many rabbis from Israel and around the world have visited the small Jewish community in Guntur. To Orthodox Jews, the Bene Ephraim’s practises are not exactly as they should be. But the community has been trying. They no longer work on Saturdays and celebrate many Jewish festivals. Their children study Hebrew and prayers are read out twice – in Hebrew and in Telugu – so the illiterate members of the community can also partake in the message.
It remains a wish for many in the community to see Israel at least once before they die. The journey to the promised land is expensive. And so, Schmuel Yacob set up Eretz Ephraim Pictures. The idea was that a film – particularly a comedy film – would help raise the profits needed to take community members to the promised land. They made a script and started filming. The result was Keekara Kai – an eclectic combination of comedy and documentary. However, they could not find someone to distribute the film. And, for various reasons, the film was ultimately not released. It turned out to be an adventure that left most of the Guntur Jews disappointed, for it was their only hope that promised them an opportunity to see the promised land.
Many of them had no choice but to bite the bullet and continue with their disappointment. Life went on as normal within the village with the realisation that the future of the community, as with all communities, lies with the children. Hebrew-educated, they stand a shot at a future life in Israel. But when Madras Courier asked Sadok Yakob if he wanted to leave India, he said: “Before we die, we want to see Israel. But we will be buried only here…”
When asked if they had their own burial ground, he replied: “No, we will be buried with the Madiga burial ground. But we have a separate side on it. The difference is that we write Hebrew words on our tombstones.
The saga of the Telugu-speaking Jews is far from over. The children of the Bene Ephraim will know fluent Hebrew, giving them a rare insight into the language of Israel and the holy scriptures. For now, the Bene Ephraim are happy in their homeland, where they have been for centuries.
This article first appeared on Madras Courier.