Continuing with my theme of sharing a bit about Jews around the world, this month I will focus on the Jews of India. Throughout the history of India, there have been several different communi- ties of Jews that thrived amongst the Hindu community. I am going to focus on the tribe known as the Bene Israel (Children of Israel), as they were the largest community in India.

There are varying beliefs as to where and how the Bene Israel originated, but the most popular seems to be found in oral tradi- tion. It has been said that the Jews who fled in 175 B.C.E. from the ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (remember him from the Chanukah story?) were ship wrecked on the Konkan Coast, about 30 miles south of Bombay. The survivors included 7 men and 7 women who became the Bene Israel community. As the community grew, the Bene Israel took surnames ending with “kar”, which identi- fied the villages from which they came. For thousands of years the community practiced many Jewish traditions, like observing Shabbat, performing ritual circumcision and Jewish marriage ceremonies. There were many holidays and rituals of which they had no knowledge, since they had little or no contact with other Jewish communities. They in fact, did not call themselves Jewish, but identified themselves on important documents as Bene Israel.

The Bene Israel have a few Jewish customs which are unique to them. The most interesting is called ‘Malida’. Malida is a home ritual in which the men sit around a plate full of roasted rice, fruits, spices and flowers, singing songs praising God. In the main song they also praise the Prophet Elijah as the precursor of the Messiah. Although they have kept many Jewish traditions, they have also assimiliated into Hindu life, following the Hindu custom of not eating beef.

There are several small, active synagogues in and around Mumbai, while others have been maintained as historical sights. One of the most interesting stories is that of the Shaar Harahamim Synagogue, also known as Gate of Mercy Synagogue. The story behind this Synagogue is that until the 18th century, the Bene Israel Jews, located in the western region of the city, did not have a synagogue in which to pray. In 1796, the Late Commandant Samaji Hasaji Divekar (Samuel Ezekiel Divekar) and his brother served as officers in the 6th Battalion of the British East Indian Army. They were captured by Mysore King Tipu Sultan. The Sultan’s wife had sympathy for the Divekars’ caste and eventually their lives were exchanged for a prisoner held by the British. Samuel Divekar resolved to build a synagogue to God if he survived. In gratefulness to God for sparing his life, Samuel Divekar and his brother pioneered the construction of Shaar Harahamim. The synagogue continues to serve approxi- mately 100 members for daily services, as well as weekly Shabbat and High Holiday services. At the height of the Bene Israel’s pres- ence in India in the 1950s there was an estimated 30,000 members. Now most of the Bene Israel have made Aliyah, but there is still a strong community of about 5,000 in and around Mumbai.