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    A two thousand year history of the Jews in India

    To amuse myself during the covid-19 lockdown, I have decided to write a history of the Jews in India. Warning: this will be long. I've chosen expository writing because I feel I'm not as good at fiction.

    In about the year 60 AD, the apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas, who had refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he could put his hand into the wound in Jesus's side) landed on the west coast of India near present-day Ernakulam and Kochi. Why did he go there? There were Jews living there and he wanted to tell them that in his opinion the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.

    In 1947, the British Empire had substantially come to an end, of course. As almost everyone now knows, Gandhi had amazingly managed to convince the British using only words and political persuasion that they must leave India. Smaller parts of the Empire, however, lingered on for many more years. One of those parts was Aden, close to the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula and the mouth of the Red Sea.

    In about 1960, the British began to feel that the Jewish residents of Aden were at risk from their Arab neighbours and it would therefore be prudent to relocate them. That was done, with most of them choosing to resettle in Israel. After that, the five or six synagogues of Aden fell into the hands of archaeologists. One synagogue was found to have a closed shaft which the Jewish merchants of Aden had been using to dispose of their confidential business papers for hundreds of years. That treasure trove of documents exposed a previously unknown swathe of history. We all know, of course, about Marco Polo's overland journey from Venice to present-day Beijing. He need not have gone, however. As the documents have shown, there was a thriving maritime trade route. The Jews of Kochi and Ernakulam traded east with China, so that silks and tea from China and spices from India could reach Europe by sea. The goods went first from Kochi to Aden. From Aden, Arab traders took them up to the northern end of the Red Sea. From there, only a short portage overland was needed to get them into the Mediterranean.

    Until their rather recent exodus from India there were three distinct communities of Jews in India. I have spent a lot of time in India and have been married to an Indian for forty--five years. But even I cannot tell an Indian Jew from any other Indian. They are so completely and perfectly enculturated into Indian society as to be quite invisible in the crowd. Their complexions run the usual Indian gamut, as do their English usage and even their hand and head gestures.

    Although I entitled this "A two thousand year history..." Jews have been in India much longer than that. Three distinct Jewish communities existed in India. In keeping with Indian custom, each community married only within itself. Apparently something was added to the Jewish ritual at the time of the Second Temple and one of the Indian communities lacked it. A team of rabbis went out from Israel to determine whether these people were truly Jewish. It concluded that they were.

    India is a very religious country indeed. All religions are not only tolerated but treated with more respect and veneration than in probably any other country. That of course is apart from the occasional outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims that we are almost all aware of. So the Jews of India have existed there for more than two thousand five hundred years and have never suffered any religious or racial discrimination or hatred of any kind.

    But on the establishment of the state of Israel, that began to change. Jews in India began in large numbers to pull up stakes and migrate to Israel. There are now so few Jews remaining in India that they cannot make a minyan anywhere. (A minyan is the quorum of ten males required by the ancient law for collective prayer.) Nor is there sufficient money for the maintenance of the physical structure of the synagogues. Both of these problems are being addressed by religiously observant young Israelis. They go out to India and labour on the bricks and mortar and on the daily upkeep of the synagogues.

    But let us return for a moment to the dark-skinned Indian Jews who have gone to Israel. To the best of my knowledge and belief they, along with their swarthy Sephardic brethren, will there suffer discrimination based on skin colour by the fair-skinned Ashkenazy Jews who constitute the great majority of Israel's population.

    The irony of the situation is quite enormous. The Jews of India have gone from a place where they and their ancestors lived for thousands of years without discrimination to a place where they are suffering and will likely continue to suffer discrimination based purely on skin colour.
    Last edited by probus; 18-Feb-2021 at 20:15. Reason: Typo

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