Around 175 BCE, supposedly, a ship sank just south of what is now Mumbai. It bore a small group of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution from the Greeks. The survivors settled in local villages, and their descendants have remained in the area for over two thousand years, still practicing Judaism.
No one knows for sure if this account is true, but it’s a popular origin story for the Bene Israel, a small yet proud Jewish community that has been thriving in India for centuries. Last month, I joined members of this community for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I visited their homes and synagogues and got the chance to see a unique side of Judaism, entirely different from the one I’d grown up with.
Until recently, I didn’t know that Indian Jews existed. I vaguely remembered hearing about them in Hebrew School, but back then I didn’t believe it. How could there be Jews in India? Jews had light skin, big noses, and long, curly beards. Indians had dark skin and dots on their foreheads. I couldn’t reconcile the two images.
Then, years later, I came to India, and Rosh Hashana rolled around. I wanted to celebrate the holiday with other Jews, so I did some research. When Google turned up a number of synagogues in and around Mumbai, I figured they would be full of expatriates. Even after I read further and saw photos of the Indian Jews, I didn’t accept that they were really Indian. My old doubts persisted.
A few weeks later, I boarded a train for the 18-hour journey to Mumbai. I hadn’t done much prior planning and wasn’t sure what to expect. I relied on a few tenuous connections. My supervisor at work had put me in touch with his friend who worked for the American Jewish World Service in Mumbai, and this friend had directed me to Mumbai’s only Jewish guesthouse, located next to Magen David Synagogue. He told me to attend services at the synagogue and ask for guy named Sharon.
On Saturday morning, I entered the synagogue to find a group of about fifteen men in tallit and kippot reciting Hebrew prayers. If I had seen them on the street in secular attire, I wouldn’t have realized they were Jewish. They looked completely Indian.
I didn’t need to ask for Sharon because he noticed me right away. As a confused American, I clearly stuck out. He came over and shook my hand.
“Shabbat shalom,” he said.
“Shabbat shalom,” I replied.
Sharon had a thick beard that looked most definitely Jewish, contrasting with his Indian complexion. He seemed to be in his early 30s, making him one of the youngest people at the synagogue that day. After the service, he invited me to his house for Kiddush. It was only a few blocks away. As we walked there, he told me the history of the Bene Israel.
Although no one’s sure exactly when or how they got to India, they arrived at least 1500 years ago and subsequently lost all contact with the rest of the Jewish world. But they upheld basic Jewish traditions, becoming known as the Saturday Oil-Pressers due to their observance of Shabbat as a day of rest. Centuries later, they were rediscovered. Another group of Jews, the Cochin Jews, had long been settled in Kerala to the south, possibly since before the arrival of the Bene Israel, and they had maintained communication with European Jews. The Bene Israel began sending their sons to study with the Cochin Jews so that they could learn Jewish customs forgotten over centuries of isolation.
In the 17th century, another group of Jews began to arrive in Mumbai, immigrating from Iraq and other Arab countries. They became known as the Baghdadi Jews. One of India’s most famous Jewish residents, the 19th century businessman David Sassoon, came from this group, and several locations around Mumbai still bear his family’s name.
By the mid-20th century, Indian Jews numbered in the tens of thousands, but most of them have since moved to Israel. Currently, there are only a few thousand Jews left in India, most of them Bene Israel. A few communities emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, claiming to be descended from the lost tribes, but most of them have moved to Israel as well.
In Mumbai, the remaining Jews are a mix of Bene Israel and Baghdadi, plus a few expatriates. I spent Rosh Hashana drifting between different congregations, attending a Reform service at a community center as well as Orthodox services at two synagogues built by the Sassoon family. I had several meals with Sharon and his family, who were generous enough to take me in. His wife Sharona had a firm yet caring demeanor that struck me as quintessentially Jewish, and they had three adorable young daughters, Tiferet, Tehilla, and Emunah—probably the only Indians I’ll ever meet with those names. Celebrating a Jewish holiday in India was full of unique cultural crossovers. For instance, it was the only time I’ve ever eaten curry following apples and honey.
For tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into a body of water, I joined a group of Orthodox Jews at one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks, the Gateway of India, which is a stone arch at the waterfront that’s always packed with tourists taking corny photos. It was built to welcome British forces into the country but actually ushered them out—the last British troops departed from there in 1948. Holding the ceremony at the Gateway was basically a publicity stunt, saying to the world, “Hey, look! There are Jews in India, as you can tell from their presence at this distinctive landmark.” And it worked. A photographer showed up from Daily News & Analysis, a third-rate paper found on most Mumbai newsstands. She took a few photos of the people in front, but she must have decided they didn’t look Jewish enough. So she gestured to an American onlooker who was trying his best to seem inconspicuous. He refused, but the rest of the crowd parted, leaving him no choice but to come forward.
And that’s how, the following day, I found a large color photograph of myself on Page 7.
Two thousand years of history have produced a unique and vibrant Jewish community in Mumbai, but when the local paper wants to represent the city’s Jews, it seeks out the nearest white guy with a big nose and a beard. Old stereotypes die hard.