“Growing Up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin” edited by Ori Z Soltes

Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi (via Wikimedia Commons) Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi (via Wikimedia Commons)

Scattered throughout India one can find ancient synagogues, sometimes just remnants, that date back almost 3000 years. In Growing Up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin the diverse stories of Indian Jews is showcased through essays, photos, and a memoir of artist Siona Benjamin, perhaps the best known Jewish Indian in the United States. As Ralphy Jhirad, the founder of the Bene Israel Heritage and Genealogical Research Centre, writes in the foreword, Jews from India can be classified in three groups known as the “BBC Jews of India”, or the Bene Israel, Baghdadi, and Cochin Jews.

No one really knows when and how the Bene Israel came to India. As editor Ori Soltes writes, there are several theories: traders who arrived during the time of King Solomon, around 965-930 BCE; members of the 10 lost tribes of Israel around 722 BCE; those that arrived around 175 BCE during the Hasmonean era, or just before the Maccabees came onto the scene (which are responsible for the Hanukah story); those that arrived in the early centuries of the common era perhaps due to a shipwreck; and those from Persia or South Arabia around the 5th or 6th century CE.


In any case, there is virtually no hard evidence to prove any of these theories; each of them is interesting in its own way, and offers intriguing possibilities as to its facticity. Regardless of how they arrived, the Bene Israel became isolated from the Jewish world at large and remained so for a good number of centuries.


There is also the question of how they were re-discovered by the outside world. Some say the Cochin Jews realized there were other Jews in India after the Bene Israel moved from Bombay, while others believe Christian missionaries ‘re-discovered’ them. When missionaries arrived in Bombay after the British colonized India, they of course wanted to convert the Bene Israel. No group was off limits when it came to conversions, but it wasn’t so easy with the Bene Israel. Since they’d been in India for millennia, the Bene Israel were isolated from other Jewish communities and seemed “out dated” compared to mainstream Jews in Europe and the United States.


The attempt of outsiders to disconnect them from their Judaism by re-acquainting them with more of its biblical foundations, rather than affirming for them the fallaciousness of rabbinic mainstream Judaism (as a misdirected form of post-biblical Judaism), provided them with a stronger intellectual and spiritual basis for resisting the conversionary efforts made toward them.


One of these outdated, or in this case, misinterpreted customs came to light thanks to the European Jewish writer Jacob Saphir, who traveled to India in the mid-19th century and found that the Bene Israel locked themselves in their homes on Yom Kippur. The last service of Yom Kippur is indeed called the locking of gates, but it refers to the figurative gates of heaven locking the book of life for the year to come. Some Bene Israel took this meaning literally and stayed the entire day of Yom Kippur locked in their homes.


Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, Ori Z Soltes (ed) (Niyogi, May 2021)
Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, Ori Z Soltes (ed) (Niyogi, May 2021)

The Baghdadi Jews were more mainstream and had come to India during British rule, and families like the Sassoons and Ezras helped build many of the dozens of synagogues in India during the heyday of these Jewish communities, ie, before the 1950s. One that stands out is the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad. It still exists today and is a handsome Art Deco building with scalloped motifs, Stars of David, and seven-candled menorahs on the exterior.

The Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai, this one built by the Sassoon family, is also still standing and is distinctive not just because it’s painted light blue on the outside, but also because it has a “soaring, four-layered clock tower that would be at home atop an English church or town hall.” The Sassoons also built the Ohel David Synagogue in Pune.


This renowned red-brick edifice is the largest synagogue in India; it is arguably the largest in Asia. With its pointed 90-foot high spire (its clock imported from London), tall, attenuated ogive-arched windows, and oculus—and even with the vertically Moghul-style jali-like balustrade surmounting the narthex structure—it could hardly be more reminiscent of neo-Gothic British ecclesiastical architecture.


Those Baghdadi Jews that normally make it into books and articles tend to be extraordinarily wealthy, like the Sassoon, Ezra, and Kadoorie families, but fifty percent of this community in India was poor and depended upon charity for daily living expenses.


As for the Cochin Jews, they lived along the Malabar coast and congregated in eight Jewish communities that left behind eight synagogues when the last of them left for Israel in the 1950s. Seven of these still stand as of 2020 and half are in an area of Kochi called Jewtown. The oldest synagogue in this area can be traced back to 1344, although that one is long gone and only a stone plaque records this history. The architecture of these older synagogues is more basic than the “newer” ones built by Baghdadi Jews.

And although Jews didn’t suffer from antisemitism from other Indians, trouble came with the arrival of the Portuguese at the turn of the 16th century, not just with the latter’s explicitly anti-Jewish policies but also with the many battles for control; the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi was burned down in the 17th century. It was rebuilt and now looks unassuming from the outside with a plain white exterior with barred windows. Inside, however, the blue and white tiled floor, many hanging light fixtures, and gilded bimah, or altar, illuminate the synagogue’s interior.

Siona Benjamin’s chapter gives a personal touch to the narrative of Indian Jews. She was born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel family and has become a well-known painter. Benjamin includes many family photos in her chapter, but her paintings appear more in the chapter that follows, written by Soltes. He writes about Benjamin’s paintings, many of which depict female biblical figures like Lilith and Miriam. She uses a style that sometimes resembles the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, while others resemble Bollywood posters.

Benjamin isn’t the only lasting legacy of the Indian Jewish communities of the past. As Erica Lyons writes in the preface, families like the Sassoons and Kadoories made their way from Baghdad to India to Shanghai and Hong Kong, the latter of which enjoys the longest active Jewish community in Asia, including a synagogue in the Baghdadi style and a cemetery that is still used. Books like Growing Up Jewish in India and In Our Beautiful Bones, reviewed earlier in the Asian Review of Books, play an important role in showing that ancient Jewish communities existed in places beyond the Middle East and Europe.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.