The Bene Israeli, translated from the original Hebrew as ‘Sons/Children of Israel’, believe that they are descended from seven men and seven women who survived a shipwreck about two thousand years ago and were washed up on India’s Konkan coast. At the village of Navgaon where they were said to have settled initially, one can find a monument in honour of those who died in the shipwreck in the Jewish cemetery.
Situated in villages near Alibaug, just south of Bombay, they primarily worked as oil-pressers and were locally known as ‘shanivar telis’ or Saturday oil-pressers, as they observed Sabbath and refrained from working on Saturdays. Post a narrative of discovery by a Jew named David Rahabi sometime in the 18th century – about whom little is known, but who perceived in their practices vestigial traces of Judaism, the community was schooled in normative Judaism.
Under colonial rule, the Bene Israeli who were less affected by the racial discriminatory policies legislated by the British rose quickly to prominence, gaining better jobs in governance and the British Army than their non-Jewish counterparts. Migrating to cities such as Mumbai, Alibaug, Pune and Ahmedabad, Vadodara or Surat, where they are most predominantly found today, the Bene Israeli community also became leaders in the early twentieth century of the burgeoning Indian film industry.
A thriving community until the 1950s, many Bene Israelis began to immigrate to the new state of Israel in the years post independence; their further diminishing numbers make them a “mini-microscopic minority community”, as Esther David phrases it, in India today. With their shrinking, many of their old synagogues – spaces central to the establishment and performance of their unique religious identity – are sadly falling into disuse. Though some efforts are being made to help preserve these beautiful structures, bastions of the Jewish faith, there is a general lack of interest in their conservation and a large lacuna in public awareness of their histories, both architectural and religious.
The Jewish community in India lack a visibly different outward identity, having largely adopted Indian garments, jewellery, food habits and languages. Despite this cultural diffusion however, they retain some distinctive characteristics that are a legacy of their Jewish heritage – and thereby, they produce a unique amalgamated identity that is Indian Jewish. The Bene Israeli continue, for instance, to use Biblical first names, and yet their last names are usually indicative of which village on the Konkan coast their families originate from; at weddings, the bride wears a traditional white gown, but also sports mehendi and a mangalsutra.
Specific to the Bene Israeli Jews of India though, is the Malida ceremony or Eliyahu Hanavi – an integral part of their religious belief and practice; considered a core symbol of their ethnic identities by anthropologists, it is unknown to any other Jewish community in the world. A liturgical ritual in which they pray, sing and distribute seven different types of fruit, a sweet flattened-rice mixture (also coincidentally called Malida), flowers and twigs, to everyone in the congregation – it is often theorised as a syncretic rite that may be associated with the Hindu practices of puja and prasad and the Muslim practice of making offerings at the tomb of a pir (saint).
Thus, the Bene Israeli Jews are an excellent case study in the complexities of cultural transactions – on the one hand largely displaying signs of a complete immersive shift externally; publically, while on the other hand consciously producing a singular identity, internal to the community; primarily within the private spaces of their homes and synagogues.
Over a period of three years, Indian author Esther David and photographer Bindi Sheth documented the Bene Israeli Jews of Ahmedabad, attempting to capture the nuances of their cultural assimilation and the almost dual identity produced by their efforts to preserve a unique Jewish identity in India. This photographic series called I am a seed of the tree, forms part of a forthcoming book with the same title, written by Esther David and was made possible by a research grant from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Research Awards, U. S. A, as also the cooperation of the Jewish community and the Magen Abhraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad. These photographs were first exhibited in Ahmedabad in 2013, travelling later to Vadodara, New Delhi and Bangalore.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
Esther David writes novels about the Jewish experience in India and has been translated in French, Gujarati and Marathi. She has received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 for English Literature.
Bindi Sheth has received many awards for photography and participated on the theme of RECOVERY for PIX a Photographic Quarterly, Delhi.
Read Esther David’s first hand account on the particulars of Bene Israeli identities and their experiences; an exclusive extract from her proposed book – I am a Seed of the Tree at the Journal here.