Shirei Hodu

Shirei Hodu

New melodies emerge in Indian Jewish research

On February 6 and 7 in New Delhi, India, there was a very interesting conference on Indian Jews called “Shirei Hodu” or “Songs of India,” subtitled “Hodu and the Jews.” (Hodu here refers to India.)

There were sessions on the oral and written traditions of Jews in India, on community and identity, on relations between Jews and non-Jews in both historical and modern times, on Jews’ migration to and from India, on Jewish art and architecture in India, and on the challenges of preserving the Jewish heritage in India.

What was amazing about this conference is that, as Joan Roland of Pace University, a scholar of the Bene Israel community, noted, it represented a maturing of Indo-Jewish studies. There has been an influx of many new young scholars into the field, bringing with them new interdisciplinary perspectives and more importantly, a careful examination of existing documents and new texts and a close inspection of the historical trail. This moves us away from an uncritical acceptance of legends as history.

Another prominent scholar of Indian Jews, Shalva Weil of Hebrew University, noted that Indian Jews are no longer thought to be exotic, given that there has been several decades of research into the community. Unfortunately, we continue to have popular Jewish magazines in the United States that print and reprint factually incorrect and mythologized accounts of Indian Jews. Hopefully, this new research will act as a corrective to this trend of over-romanticizing the Jewish community in India.

Here are some of the new young scholars who attended the conference, and who have blazed new trails in the field.

From left, an Israeli poster for a Bollywood film, Boot Polish, featuring a Bene Israel actor, David Cheulkar; another featuring a Bollywood star, Sulochana, aka Ruby Myers.
From left, an Israeli poster for a Bollywood film, Boot Polish, featuring a Bene Israel actor, David Cheulkar; another featuring a Bollywood star, Sulochana, aka Ruby Myers.

Navras Jaat Aafreedi has been working on Indian and Muslim attitudes toward Jews for more than a decade and has been tireless in trying to establish the field of Jewish and Holocaust studies in Indian universities. This has not been easy, because of Indian scholars’ historical bias toward the Arab cause and the overt hostility (including Holocaust denial) that many Muslim Indians feel toward Jews and Israelis as a byproduct of the Palestinian issue. In his remarks, Professor Aafreedi noted that when he wrote an article in the Lucknow Tribute in 2012, called “Jews in Lucknow: Moneylender and the Watchmaker,” the editor illustrated it with a classic anti-Semitic depiction of a hook-nosed Jew.

Professor Aafreedi now is assistant professor of history at the prestigious Presidency University in Kolkata, India.

Professor Menashe Anzi of Ben-Gurion University is studying the way Yemeni rabbis in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries acted as a bridge between rabbinic Judaism and Indian Jewish communities, which were somewhat isolated from events in the larger Jewish world. He uses texts and archival documents, written in Arabic, Hebrew, Judeo-Hebrew, and other languages, to throw light on the relationship of the Indian Jewish communities in modern times to the wider Jewish world of the Indian Ocean.

Dr. Margit Franz of Vienna University in Austria, building on Dr. Weil’s work, is looking at new texts that document the entry of German-speaking refugees from Nazism into India. It was amazing to discover that there were more than 5,000 German-speaking refugees in India during the Second World War. While the attitude of the British government and certain sections of Indians made it difficult for more refugees to enter India, nevertheless the existence of such a large Jewish community in India is remarkable and deserves greater examination.

Professor Ophira Gamliel from the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany is taking a fresh look at the history of Kerala Jews by looking at cold evidence, as opposed to legends and myths current in the Jewish community. She focuses on Old Malayalam inscriptions, Judeo-Arabic documents from the Cairo Geniza, references in pre-modern Western travelogues, Jewish and Christian literary compositions, and references in the Synod of Diamper, which was convened in 1599 in Kerala and laid down rules for the unification of the ancient Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala with the Roman Catholic Church.

This is a replica of a genizah in Calcutta. (A genizah is place where sacred books that no longer can be used  are stored before they can be buried.)
This is a replica of a genizah in Calcutta. (A genizah is place where sacred books that no longer can be used
are stored before they can be buried.)

Dr. Shimon Lev, who earned his Ph.D. from Hebrew University last year, and Professor Boaz Huss of Ben-Gurion University also are looking at modern Jewish-Indian history. Dr. Lev has worked on cultural and political encounters between Jews and Indians in the context of their respective national movements. He also has made significant contributions to the study of the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his Jewish followers. Dr. Huss is studying the role of Jews in the context of new age movements in India. At the conference, he made a presentation on Jewish theosophists in India.

There were about 50 people at the conference. By my count, about 30 percent were Jewish. Probably 30 percent of the participants were non-Indians as well — but of course not all the Jews were foreigners. The gathering represented an interesting mix of scholars from all over India and the world.

One of its interesting cultural aspects was the opening ceremony, which included the traditional lamp-lighting. Usually this lamp-lighting involves an image of the goddess Saraswati or another deity, but in deference to Jewish sensibilities, the image was not included. Still, the ceremony provided a very Indian start to the proceedings.

Another Indian touch was a performance of Bene-Israel kirtans on the first evening. Kirtans are musical chanting or singing of legends or poems — usually to praise Hindu deities — with instrumental accompaniment. According to Dr. Weil, 19th century Bene Israel kirtans, written in Marathi with Hebrew words interspersed, featuring Biblical figures and sung to Hindu tunes, were a tool the Bene Israel used to teach children the tenets of Judaism.

There were also presentations by well-known Indian Jewish artists, including Siona Benjamin, a painter now living in the United States who combines Indian aspects of her identity with her Jewish roots; Esther David, an author, art critic, and artist, who is part of the Bene Israel community in Ahmedabad, about 330 miles north of Mumbai; Sarah Manasseh, ethnomusicologist and performer of Iraqi-Jewish music, who was born in Bombay but now lives in London, and Jael Silliman, a writer who had been at the women’s studies department at the University of Iowa but now is working on a monumental project to create a digital archive of the history of Jewish Calcutta.

An Israeli poster about doctors.
An Israeli poster about doctors.

The conference is accompanied by a month-long exhibition focusing on Jewish contributions to various aspects of Indian life and culture, featuring primarily the work of collector and historian Kenneth Robbins. The calligraphy of Thoufeek Zakriya also is included. He is a young Kerala Muslim who taught himself Hebrew calligraphy and spends a lot of time and effort reproducing Hebrew texts from Jewish documents, tombstones, and buildings.

One of the final sessions at the conference involved presentations from MV Bijulal, an activist seeking to prevent the destruction and conversion of Jewish cemeteries and locations into secular spaces in Mala, Kerala; Yael and Ralphy Jhirad of the Mumbai Bene Israel community, who are trying to preserve the Jewish cultural heritage of Maharashtra, and Jael Silliman, who spoke about her successes in building the digital archive of the now minuscule Baghdadi community in Kolkata/Calcutta.

These three perspectives on today’s Indian Jewry represent three different melodies of Shirei Hodu. While they do not always sound pessimistic notes, they make clear that the outlook for the future is not unambiguously positive, either. Nevertheless, even if the outlook for the now 4,000-strong Indian Jewish community of mainly Bene Israelis is not clear, the presence of novel Judaizing movements, such as the Bene Menashe of North East India and the Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh in South India, as well as the newly vibrant research into Indian Jewry, past and present, ensures that we will continue to hear about Jews and Judaism in India for a long time to come.

Meylekh (PV) Viswanath of Teaneck is a professor of finance at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.

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