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The Jews of India - Nissim Reuben

by Aron Trauring last modified 2004-03-29 12:40 PM

Nissim Reuben is a member of the Indian- Israeli- American Relations Committee at the American Jewish Committee.

Nissim was a participant in the 11th Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Melbourne, Austrlia (August 2002).

The Jewish community is composed of three distinct groups: The Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews.

Jews have been coming to India for more than 2,000 years both to trade and escape persecution. These Jews are both fully Indian and fully Jewish. Some of their customs and religious observances emphasize ritual purity and take into account local customs while being faithful to halakha (Jewish ritual law). More than thirty synagogues and prayer halls have been documented in Mumbai (Bombay) and on the adjacent coast. The Pardesi Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth.

Jews have long participated in inter-religious exchanges in India. Even today, non-Jewish Indians, including Muslims, come to worship at the tombs of Jewish mystics in Delhi and Cochin as well as Khandala, where Elijah's chariot is said to have alighted. Anti-Semitism was never a problem. In the seventeenth century, the Maratha leader Shivaji specifically mentioned the Jews when he wrote of the Mughal emperor Akbar's policy of "Perfect Harmony in relation to all the various Sects". There is even a copper plate from Quilon dated 849 where a local ruler charges the local Jews to protect the Christians and their church!


There is a shrine on the site where the founders of the Bene Israel community were shipwrecked 2,000 years ago. They lived in villages where they were known as the "Shanwar Teli", oil pressers who did not work on Saturdays.

The community at its peak during India's independence in 1947 numbered at 25,000. After significant aliyot to Israel since 1948, the community today comprises of 6500 individuals. Although miniscule in numbers, our community has made significant contributions in many spheres of Indian society. Among them, the great Indian poet of English language, Nissim Ezekiel, International Zoologist Padmashri Reuben David (Dandekar), General J F R Jacob, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Indian Army (who led the Indian Army during the war or independence for Bangladesh in 1971), Padmashri Esther Solomon (leading national scholar in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit), Dr. Hannan Ezekiel, Director (Retd), International Finance Corp., Washington, D.C., Benjamin Samuel Reuben (Kehimkar), who rose from humble beginnings to lead The Ahmedabad Electricity Co. Ltd., (India's leading private sector power company) as Executive Director, Isaac E Erulkar, Retd Dy Commissioner Of Police and many others.

The Bene Israel began to move to Bombay in the late 18th century and built their First Synagogue, Shaare Rahamim (Gates of Mercy) in 1796. The Bene Israel community peaked at 25,000 in 1948. Today, the majority of Indian Jews live in Israel and the community numbers 60,000. Indian Jews are loved and their talents appreciated are as much appreciated as they were in India. Many have come to occupy senior level positions in the Israeli Army, Government, Military and Defense Industries and in Education. A couple of years ago, the Chief of the Israeli Air Force was Herzl Budinger a native sabra, whose parents came from INDIA.

Nissim Reuben in Israeli army uniform when he volunteered as the Main Local Coordinator of the IDF Field Hospital Mission following the devastating January 26, 2002 earthquake in Gujarat State, India. The photo was taken at the Bhuj Airbase, Gujarat State, India; in the background, the Israeli Air Force's Hercules C-130.

The history of The Jews of Malabar (Cochin Jews) dates back at least 2,000 years. The ruler Cheruman Perumal granted certain royal prerogatives to Joseph Rabban, the leader of the Jewish community, in Cranganore. It is believed that the Jews ruled there for hundreds of years. The famous Pardesi Synagogue was built in Cochin in 1568 but was only the third old synagogue built on that street! Jews were always able to worship openly and were favored by the Maharajas of Cochin. The number of Cochini Jews was approximately 5,000 in the 1940s.

The Baghdadi Jews came mostly from Iraq in the 1900s, and founded vibrant trading communities in Kolkatta and Bombay. The most prominent was David Sassoon, who established the Indian House Of Sassoon in 1832. The Sassoon's were known as the Rothschild's of the East. Baghdadi Jews in Kolkatta & Bombay numbers reached a peak of about 15,000 at the time of India's independence.

Malida Ceremony of the Bene Israel

The Malida is a ceremonial offering in the name of God, accompanied by an invocation for the presence and blessings of the Prophet Elijah. This ceremony is also known as the Eliyahoo Ha-Navi ceremony.

According to tradition, the prophet resuscitated the comatose ancestors of the Bene Israel community who had been washed up on shore after a shipwreck.

The ceremony includes recitation of specific Hebrew verses. The offering usually consists of a mixture of parched rice, grated fresh coconuts, raisins, cardamom, sugar, and five different kinds of fresh fruits. The ceremony is performed before weddings, following circumcisions, at House Warmings, in times of illness and crises, and whenever there is reason to express deep gratitude.

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