The Cochin Jews are considered to be the oldest Jews in India. They began arriving in waves from Judea in 562 BC. They were mostly traders who settled on the Malabar coast in the southernmost state of Kerala. It was due to an unfortunate shipwreck near the coast of Maharashtra in the 18th century which led to the settlement of the second distinct community of Jews in the area of Mumbai. They were the Bene Israel community who had lost contact with their people in Israel and had to start living in India. The third distinct Jewish community was the Baghdadi, of which most were refugees who found India as their safe haven and who mostly settled in Mumbai and Calcutta.
The Jews are an example of the welcome diversity in India. Mumbai has the largest community of Jews in India. Today, the city is home to more than 4,000 Bene Israel Jews, a group that is the predominant of the three. In their bid to preserve their culture, they continue to follow their religious practices through three things: Shabbat (religious prayer), Kashrut (religious dietary laws), and Brit Milah (male circumcision ceremony). The Jews have not allowed marriages outside their community. Synagogues, which total eight, were built by the community of the Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews, and it’s where they continue celebrating Shabbat in Mumbai. The Jews speak Hindi and Marathi.
They eat kosher meat that includes chicken, mutton and even beef. Hanna, a Bene Israel Jew, is an art historian tour guide and said, ‘Even if we are Jews, we never eat meat of cow, as it’s considered as holy animal in Hinduism.’ Many of the Jews include ‘Puran Poli,’ a Maharashtrian recipe of sweet flatbread, in their own festivals. These adaptations were an expression of gratitude for the acceptance of their people in the area. The Jews’ values inside the home were very dominant, but outside the home, there was tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. Many actors of Jewish origin were prominent film stars in the black-and-white era of Indian cinema. They also made a great contribution to literature and the arts.
In 1948, after the birth of the State of Israel, more than 20,000 of the existing 30,000 Jewish population in India moved to their holy land. The exodus started as they left behind more than a 2000-year history of freedom and prosperity. Today, Indian Jews constitutes one percent of Israel’s population. New Jewish communities have been established in India under the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to take care of the remaining Jews plus other Jewish travelers to India and whose largest center is the Nariman House, Mumbai.