The history of Jews in India is obscure, and often overlooked. The spotty trails of Jewish groups residing in various parts of the sub-continent is preserved mainly through oral history. Yulia Egorova, in her research on Bene Israel community in Andhra Pradesh speaks of their choice to remain in their secluded groups. Often taken to be Muslim, some Jews (the Bene Israel community) in Konkan as well have continued their uncharted lives. I met the Bene Israel community in Konkan by chance. My aim to collect oral narratives took me to Cheul (yes, the celebrated port-site that I talked about here) and I was looking for a dargah to meet a Khadim. And I chanced upon a kind lady in Ambepur (near Cheul). And as we got talking, she shared some interesting stories about the Bene Israel community that thrived between Revdanda, Cheul and Ambepur.
Narrative on the Origin
I carried the little fragments of stories with me all across Konkan on my journeys. The narrative about the flight of the Bene Israel community, and their assimilation with the society in Konkan, was all no less than a feature film script. There were wars, escapades, naval skirmishes, dodging the pirates, sinking of some ships, and finally a total of fourteen members of the Jewish community making it to the shores of Konkan in the pre-Christian era (the lady firmly believed it was 170 BCE). I could not silence the recollection of the legends and stories I had heard about the Koknastha Brahmins. Their origin story as a handful people surviving the shipwreck who were later accepted in the Brahmanical fold by Parshurama in Konkan, resembled the story of Bene Israel community.
In both, the Bene Israel and Koknastha Brahmin versions, the theme of shipwreck was common. Bene Israel version specified 7 men and 7 women, while the Koknastha Brahmin legend mentions just 14 sailors from faraway land. Sahyadri Khanda mentions these 14 sailors as resurrected from the dead (or comatose state) by Parshurama. Following the resurrection, they were given Hindu education, and the 14 main families of Koknastha Brahmins emerged from them. In the Bene Israel version of the story, the 7 men and 7 women made it to the shore and started living wherever they found a home. I was wondering if these fourteen people in the Bene Israel story had a defined relationship, but the respondents in Ambepur did not know for certain. When I reached Ratnagiri, some layers of the Bene Israeli narrative started to emerge.
It was again a chance meeting, that I met Mr. Z (name withheld to protect privacy) in Ratngiri, who holds some property there, but has now migrated to Israel with his family. He, like many Bene Israel community members, chose to opt for Israeli citizenship and moved in early 1980’s. Mr. Z scratched his kippah, and mumbled he didn’t know where to begin. “There’s just so much!”, he began, “But yet, so little.” His version of the story of Bene Israeli community in Konkan starts off during the times of king Solomon, when the ships used to trade with Konkan. One such merchant ship carried the founding fathers and mothers (he doesn’t give a number) to Konkan. They stayed on and their ship (probably) returned. They travelled upto Sindh in the north and also met the Cochin Jews (Jews in Kerala) in the south. Mr. Z wondered if the Cochin Jews reached the subcontinent earlier than the Kokni Bene Israel community. But that hardly matters!
The term “Bene Israel” refers to children of God and they retained the Shema, but the rest of the scriptures (if they originally had carried any), were lost [maybe in the shipwreck?]. The Shema – “Israel the lord of God, our one true god” — continued to be the untenable connection with their faith. And the area of Nawgaon along the Konkan coast has some relic of the Jewish ancestors that Mr. Z recalls of having visited in his childhood. It was the memorial of the Jewish ancestors at Nawgaon, and the Shema, among other things, that assisted the later Jewish communities and Jewish missionaries to associate with the Bene Israel community.
The Lost tribes of Israel
Of the three Jewish communities in the Indian subcontinent – the Cochins (from Kerala), Bagdadi (with Arabian interlude in their history of migration) and the Bene Israel – the Bene Israel claim their ancestry to the ten “lost” tribes of Israel. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser exiled the ten tribes from Israel in 722 BCE. And the sailors who made it to Konkan are believed to be the Bene Israel who escaped during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 BCE [referenced from the exhibition catalog “The Jews of Konkan: The Bene Israel Communities in India”, Tel-Aviv, (Summer) 1981]. And it was for this reason, that the Jews in India have long adopted and assimilated numerous local customs that may confuse a western Jew.
The Bene Israel marriage customs resemble the Konkani Hindu rituals. Except for the mark on the forehead for women, it would have been difficult to distinguish between a Hindu and a Bene Israel woman in the olden times. The Bene Israel food habits and preparation of special dishes for feasts have a close affinity with Konkani food. Mr. Asankar, who ran a kosher meat shop in Mumbai till he migrated to Israel in 1984, maintained a diary of his wife’s recipes. I had a chance to look at some of the photographs of the pages. As I scrolled through the digital archive with Mr. Z, I could see (and smell) the delicate coconut shredding garnished on majority of the dishes – so much a Konkani thing to do!
The Konkanisation (if can call it that) of the Bene Israel community reflects through the family names that they opted. “Kar” suffix to the name of the village would be the preferred family name. A Bene Israel family from Dive (Diveagar), would thus be Dive+kar =Divekar. Personally, the “kar” suffix had always puzzled me. I interpreted it as “to do” (Kar in Marathi is ‘to do’), and a place name + to do did not make much sense to me. Numerous non-Bene Israel community members have their last names with a “kar” suffix, and my question to them as “why?” had always returned with “that is the way it is”. In the Bene Israel context however, the suffix “kar” carried a meaning. Hebrew word for farmer is “kar” or “Fkar”. A farmer (or tiller) of/from a specific village became [the place name]+kar! Numerous disputes lie in this pattern of nomenclature. Maybe a historical linguist will help me navigate through this myriad.
For my study of Konkan, the trove of oral narratives from the Bene Israel community is indispensable for piecing together the history of Konkan. The Bene Israeli community was instrumental in holding down some forts for the Maratha power in Konkan. The association with the rulers at Janjira, and with the later naval powers of Angre and the British crown made the community a formidable power in Konkan. The prominent people from Bene Israel community moved to Mumbai when the British (in 1859) recognised the contribution and employed the Bene Israel members to high posts in the government.
In the medieval period up until the British era, most of the Bene Israel community members were engaged in supporting the society through a task force such as oil-pressers, working in mills, custodian of farmlands and forts and so on. The vocation of oil-pressers attached with the Bene Israel as an identity for the community. The six-day work schedule in accordance with Judaism meant not working in the oil-press one day of the week, Saturday. The name “Shanivarcha Teli” (Saturday oil-man) became synonymous with some Bene Israel families in Konkan. The Bene Israel tradition was always practiced as a private religion, and within the walls of the synagogues. It is for this reason, that the tapestry of such complex history of the Bene Israel community needs to be unearthed further.
David Rahabi, whose history and origins are shrouded in mystery, is credited to have led a revival of Jewish tenets among the Bene Israeli community. The glowing accounts of Rahabi and his management on the Konkani coast to appoint teachers, hazzanim and ritual slaughters for the Bene Israeli community unites the community to this day. Rahabi introduced the Bene Israel to more Jewish customs that had developed in the west since 175 BCE. Fasting for the month of Elul (similar to Ramadan in Islam) and repenting on the New Year’s Day with a fast called “Navaicha Roja” were a few practices introduced by Rahabi and the Cochin Jews. The siege of Jerusalem was commemorated as “Sabbi Roja” – the fast in the seventh month, and so on.
The overlap of some Bene Israel rituals and the local Hindu and Muslim rituals in Konkan etch an image of sustained syncretism. I am sometimes quite suspicious of this word, and its usage even more so, but the Bene Israel case is indeed that of syncretism. Today, many empty synagogues across Konkan are converted into government-run nurseries (balwadi) or Jewish homes lent or sold to non-Jews. The dwindling number of Bene Israel families in Konkan has hastened this transfer of ownership, but the Jewish elements continue to peek through the layers of time. The star of David etched on the lentil of the door, or a plaque with Hebrew letters on the building continue to indicate the original intention of the building. The new occupants embrace the old aesthetic and a syncretic play unfolds.
I continue to comb through narratives and chuckle to myself on reading da Orta (the famous botanist in medieval Goa)’s story of being discovered as a Jew by the Portuguese government AFTER his death. The Bene Israel, the Habshi and the Navayats of Konkan deserve their rightful place in the history of Konkan dominated by a univocal British or Brahmanical narratives.
18 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”
The Jews from the Konkan: The Bene Israel Communities in India, Exhibition Catalog, Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel-Aviv, Summer 1981.