Jews of India: Highlights from Fordham’s Special Collections

In February 1807, Claudius Buchanan, a Scottish theologian and missionary of the Church Missionary Society, wrote in his letter from Cochin, 

I have been now in Cochin, or its vicinity for upwards of two months, and have got well acquainted with the Jews. They do not live in the city of Cochin, but in a town about a mile distant from it, called the Jews’ Town. It is almost wholly inhabited by the Jews who have two respectable Synagogues. Among them are some very intelligent men, who are not ignorant of the present history of nations. There are also Jews here form remote parts of Asia, so that this is the fountain of intelligence concerning that people in the East; there being constant communication by ships with the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the mounths of the Indus. The resident Jews are divided into tow classes, called the Jerusalem or White Jews; and the Ancient or Black Jews. The White Jews reside at this place. The Black Jews have also a Synagogue here; but the great body of that tribe inhabit towns in the interior of the province. I have now seen most of both classes. My inquiries referred chiefly to their antiquity, their manuscripts, and their sentiments concerning the present state of their nation.[i]

Claudius Buchanan, Christian Researches in Asia: With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages (Boston: Published by Samuel T. Armstrong, Cornhill, 1811), which includes a section about Jews in India on pages 164-206.

The history of Jews in India is long and complex. The Jewish population is diverse, with different groups claiming different roots and histories. There are the Jews of Cochin, some of whom claim millennia long-history, some, known as the Paradesi, can trace their roots to early modern Sephardic Jewish traders. There are Jews of Madras, whose roots go back to Sephardic traders from Livorno, Amsterdam, and other places of Western European Portuguese Jewish diaspora. There are also Bene Israel, whose language and culture until the nineteenth century was largely Marathi, and who settled in Mumbai.

Maḥzor li-yeme ha-seliḥot ṿe-Hatarat nedarim ke minhag kahal kadosh Sepharadim (Bombay: Shelomoh ben Salạm Sharʻabi, 5601 [1840]), SPEC JUDAICA 1840.1

Fordham has several items related to that history. One of them is a Maḥzor according to the Sephardic rite for the High Holidays printed in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1840. This small, 40-page-long book, bound in a repurposed paper wrapper with inscriptions in English and Marathi, belonged in 1870 (or 1872) to a man named Jacob “inhabitant of Bombay.” Fordham is only one of four other libraries in the world holding this item.

Maḥzor li-yeme ha-seliḥot ṿe-Hatarat nedarim ke minhag kahal kadosh Sepharadim (Bombay: Shelomoh ben Salạm Sharʻabi, 5601 [1840]), SPEC JUDAICA 1840.1, owner’s signature and repurposed paper wrappers serving as cover.

The Bene Israel community were introduced to Hebrew by both the Cochin Jewish community and European missionaries. As a result, Bene Israel were gradually encouraged “to align and modify their religious practices to accord with more conventional expressions of Judaism.”[ii] A rare copy of a textbook for Hebrew instruction in Marathi and English is found at Fordham. Written by Ezekiel Mazgaonkar (1875-1951), it was first published in 1910 in Bombay, then republished in several editions. Fordham’s copy is the second edition, published also in Bombay in 1920. There were eight additional editions, the last one in 1966. Only three libraries worldwide have copies of this edition: Fordham, University of Florida at Gainsville, and the National Library of Israel.

Ezekiel Mazgaonkar, Le-lamed bene Yiśraʼel = Hibru vācanapāṭha = the elementary Hebrew reader (Bombay: Printed at The Lebanon Type & Litho Works, 1920), SPEC JUDACIA 1920.1
Ezekiel Mazgaonkar, Le-lamed bene Yiśraʼel = Hibru vācanapāṭha = the elementary Hebrew reader (Bombay: Printed at The Lebanon Type & Litho Works, 1920), SPEC JUDACIA 1920.1
Basant, 1942

The Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, who spoke at Fordham on August 18th, 2020, recalls her childhood in Mumbai, “the oil lamps, the velvet-and-silver-covered Torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah.” Siona Benjamin comes from the Bene Israel in India. As she remarked, discussing her art, “having grown up in a Hindu and Muslim society, educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, raised Jewish in India, and now calling America home, I have always had to reflect on cultural boundary zones.” Her art brims with cross-cultural references to different religions or cultural icons, from American pop art to Bollywood, from Jewish symbols to Christian and Hindu references. Fordham’s Special Collection has a few artifacts from Bollywood, the “Hollywood” of Bombay, among them are press booklets of two films with Pramila, a Bollywood star and film producer, born in Calcutta in 1916 as Esther Victoria Abraham: Basant (1942), the highest grossing film of 1942, in which she played Meena, and Beqasoor (1950), the seventh highest grossing film of Bollywood. (A recent documentary Shalom Bollywood traces the history of Jews in Bollywood, including Jewish actresses like Pramila.)

Besaqoor, 1950
Poster for “Yahudi,” a 1958 Bollywood film by Bimal Roy.

One of the most fascinating films that came out of Bollywood is the 1958 film Yahudi, directed by Bimal Roy and based on a play Agha Hashar Kashmiri, an Urdu poet also known for adaptations of European plays, including by Shakespear, into Urdu. Yahudi is set in the Roman Empire. The play was based on the 19th-century play The Jewess, which inspired the opera La Juive by Jacques-François-Fromental-Élie Halévy that premiered in 1835. The film, the opera, and these nineteenth-century plays draw on the plot developed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play Nathan the Wise. Made in 1958 in India, Yahudi also spoke to the India-Pakistan partition and the impact it had on interreligious relations, especially poignantly since some of the stars were Muslims who remained in India after the partition.


Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin


Siona Benjamin, Finding Home #79, Lilith, 2006.
Siona Benjamin, Finding Home #82, Joseph, 2006.

Below is a video of Siona Benjamin and art historian Ori Z. Soltes discussing her art.

This program was co-presented with Be’chol Lashon’s speakers’ bureau. For 20 years, Be’chol Lashon  has been addressing questions of diversity within the Jewish community. For more information see their website www.globaljews.org


[i] Claudius Buchanan, Christian Researches in Asia: With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages (Boston: Published by Samuel T. Armstrong, Cornhill, and sold by him, by A. Lyman & Co. Portland; H. Whipple, Salem; Thomas & Whipple, and E. Little & Co. Newburyport; S. Butler, Northampton; A. Shearman, Newbedford; H. Brewer, Providence, Hale & Hosmer, Hartford; Beers & Howe, Newhaven; Whiting and Watson and John Tiebout, Newyork; E.F. Backus, Albany; George Weller, Newark; D. Allinson and Co. Burlington; W.W. Woodward, Philadelphia; J. Kingston, F. Lucas, Jr. and P.H. Nicklin, Baltimore, 1811),  171.

[ii] Mitch Numark, “Hebrew School in Nineteenth-Century Bombay: Protestant Missionaries, Cochin Jews, and the Hebraization of India’s Bene Israel Community,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 6 (2012):  1767.

Jews, Race, and the Story of Ethiopian Jews

Famine in Ethiopia of 1983-1985 led to over one million deaths, with hundreds of thousands refugees leaving the country. Among those refugees were Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews, who found their way on foot to Sudan. As neither Muslims nor Christians, they were persecuted in Sudanese refugee camps. In an international operation, later called Operation Moses, thousands of Beta Israel were rescued and brought to Israel between November 21, 1984 and January 5, 1985.

In Israel, state agencies, social workers sought to integrate the refugees into a new life in Israel. Passover of 1985 would be their first Passover in a new home. That year, the Office for Cultural Integration of Ethiopian Jews (Misrad le-kelitah ruḥanit shel yehudei etiopia be-Israel) published a bilingual haggadah in Amharic and Hebrew, Haggadah shel Pesaḥ, edited by Yosef Hadana, Chief Rabbi of Ethiopian Jews, translated by Yona Bugale.

Haggadah shel Pesaḥ, Amharic and Hebrew, edited by Yosef Hadana, Chief Rabbi of Ethiopian Jews, translated by Yona Bugale (Bnei Brak: Misrad le-kelitah ruḥanit shel yehudei etiopia be-Israel, 1985). Fordham, O’Hare Special Collections and Archives, Walsh Family Library.

The process of integration was not easy, Israel’s rabbis questioned the refugees’ Jewishness requiring conversions, while within the Ethiopian Jewish community, traditional values and practices were challenged, including traditional gender roles. Among those refugees was Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen, whose compelling film “400 Miles to Freedom” combines a deeply personal story with broader questions of trauma, race, gender, and identity. Mekonen’s deeply personal story also raises questions that were a driving force for early Jewish historians, even those focused on mostly European Jewish history: how Jews survived for thousands of years and maintained their Jewish identity as a tiny minority settled among other peoples. But the film also raises broader questions about what it means to be Jewish and how the Jewish community accepts its own diversity.

On August 6th, Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen discussed his film and family story with scholars of Beta Israel, Steven B. Kaplan, a professor emeritus of African studies and comparative religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he also served a Dean of the Humanities, and the author of many books and articles on the history of Ethiopian Jews, including The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, and Kay Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and the author of Music, Ritual, and Falasha History (1986), A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey (1991); and Ethiopian Christian Chant: An Anthology (3 vols., 1993-97), among others.

The conversation can be viewed on our YouTube chanell

And you can watch “400 Miles to Freedom” on Vimeo:

Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen’s compelling film “400 Miles to Freedom” from from Seventh Art Releasing

This program was co-presented with Be’chol Lashon’s speakers’ bureau. For 20 years, Be’chol Lashon  has been dealing with diversity in the Jewish community. The organization also supported the creation of Avishai’s movie. For more information see their website www.globaljews.org

COVID-19 Series: Moshe Krakowski Interviews Rabbi Eli Steinberg

Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ (the center of Yeshivish haredi life in America). Alongside writing about Jewish communal issues, he has also written on broader aspects of American politics and policy. I know Rabbi Steinberg through my research on haredi education and culture, having spent many years looking at how haredi communities navigate secular and religious knowledge and culture in schools, and how haredim develop an epistemology and world view through a close school/community relationship. 

In my research, I observe classes, and talk to teachers and students, as well as to members of the broader haredi community. In that capacity I have often used the insight and perspective of a number of haredi insiders who are deeply connected to the pulse of their respective communities. Rabbi Steinberg is one of those insiders—someone who is involved in haredi communal affairs and is able to articulate his perspective using modes of discourse more common to the secular world. In a way this is the inverse of my position. As an academic working at a research institution, I am entrenched in nonharedi society, but I am able to engage with haredim using the language and discourse of haredi life. I believe that this partnership has allowed me to characterize insider perspectives with a great deal of fidelity, to understand the experiences of haredim, as well as the underlying dynamics of haredi world-view development.

Because COVID-19 has so significantly impacted the haredi community, and because of the attention haredim have received in the popular press, I wanted to speak to Rabbi Steinberg to understand how the Yeshivish haredi community in Lakewood has experienced the virus. Prior to our interview he sent me a short written piece describing his perspective on this issue. 

Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. Photo the Lakewood Shopper.

In this piece he discussed the explosion of cases (and deaths) in Lakewood following Purim celebrations in March that led to a tremendous viral spread. He wrote about how the communal rabbinic leadership shut down synagogues and schools, despite the centrality of Torah study to this community’s sense of self. He further described the sense of confusion that permeated the community, as updates on the virus came via “cholim lists,” which list the Hebrew names of the ill so that community members could pray for them. Finally, he focused on the degree of antisemitism community members faced, as Orthodox Jews as a whole were held responsible for the actions of a few scofflaws, and Jews once again found themselves accused of bringing the plague to their gentile neighbors.

One of the central concerns I had in the interview was to understand how information moved through the community, and how community leaders and members made decisions in response to the virus. This, in particular, helps us understand how haredim are navigating the desire to open up with the desire for public safety, something that many outsiders have questioned. Are they opening up schools and shuls too soon? Are small businesses violating orders? In response, many haredim wonder why they have been singled out. Why, for example, are police officers so quick to shut them down, while leaving others alone? They feel that they have been treated with a double standard. These concerns provide a subtext to our conversation below, as Rabbi Steinberg both describes and defends his community as an insider who has deep connections to the outside world of politics and policy. Acutely aware of the sometimes-negative perception of haredi communities in many circles, Rabbi Steinberg took pains to point out that his community responded much like any other community: with confusion, fear, and the desire to protect themselves from the virus. These desires, however, were expressed in a decidedly haredi register.

COVID-19 Series: Watching “Unorthodox” during COVID-19

The Beginnings and the Endings: Watching Unorthodox during COVID-19

By Jessica Lang, Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY

The Netflix four-part miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman by the same name, debuted on March 26, 2020, the same week that millions of Americans were impacted by stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. Numerous media outlets reported that within the first weeks after its release, Unorthodox was among the platform’s most-viewed content. The word “quaranstreaming” was coined to capture viewer bingeing. Watching shows during a pandemic, especially newly released ones, emphasizes one of many practices that have become our new normal: a communal activity done in isolation from one another. We all watch together while we are apart.

Anika Molnar/Netflix

Unlike the book on which it is based, which unfolds in chronological order, the editing of Unorthodox holds viewers in a present, a recent past, and a more distant past, all of which are interwoven together, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. Told this way, Unorthodox is a fractured story with multiple beginnings and endings, “befores” and “afters,” a feature that resonates even more when watching it in a COVID-19 landscape. Viewers move around not only in time but also in our relationship to the different representations of the main protagonist, Esty, with each beginning magnified because of its nonchronologic position.

We first see Esty as a married woman, who, childless, remains apart from other married women in her ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg. We see her next as a stranger in a strange city, Berlin. We then see her in an earlier period, as a girl who is, as she describes herself to the young man soon to become her husband, “different.” Raised by her grandparents with a mother who had, according to family lore, run away, and father who is a charpeh, a disgrace, Esty offers viewers glimpses of other beginnings that demarcate other pasts and fall outside the framing of the series.

The interplay between time, setting, and perspective is deliberately irregular and unpredictable, asking that viewers collect and connect the fragments they are given and create a narrative out of them. A delicate thread, created through music, holds these fragments together. In the first episode, as Esty seats herself on the steps outside her mother’s apartment building in Berlin, the opening strains of Schubert’s “An die Musik” are heard. The setting abruptly switches to an unmarried Esty setting the Shabbes table at her grandmother’s house, when a soprano’s voice starts singing what is perhaps Schubert’s best-known lied:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden, Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,         Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,    Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,     In eine beßre Welt entrückt!       O blessed art, how often in dark hours, When the savage ring of life tightens round me, Have you kindled warm love in my heart,
Have transported me to a better world! Transported to a better world

The song reappears towards the end of the last episode, only this time the singer is Esty, who, having applied for a scholarship to a music school in Berlin, chooses to audition with the song she heard in her grandmother’s home, the one her great-grandfather, with his own fine voice, loved to listen to in Hungary, before the war when “so viel vorloren,” so many were lost. The melody of the song is simple and clear, as is the meaning of its words: music, the champion of art, ignites warmth and light in times that are wretched, offering an alternative, however fleeting, to the darker world around us.

After they hear “An die Musik,” the judging panel asks Esty to sing another song, one better suited to her tonal range—“something different,” as one judge frames it, recalling the sense of difference that has long set Esty apart. Esty squares her shoulders, closes her eyes, and, with no formal practice, launches into another song heard earlier in the series. A number of male wedding guests sing “Mi Bon Siach” as Esty walks towards the chuppah at her wedding. In a reversal of that scene, as Esty begins the song in her audition, her abandoned husband enters the auditorium and hears her voice.

The One who knows the speech of a rose among thorns The love of a bride and the joy of lovers He will bless the groom And the bride.Mi bon siach shoshan chochim, Ahavas kallah, misos dodim,        Hu yevarech es hechassan V’es hakallah.    מי בן שיח שושן חוחים אהבת כלה, משוש דודים הוא יברך את החתן ואת הכלה

It’s possible for us to understand Esty’s singing of these two songs in the final episode as sacrilegious—that music for her is salvational as faith never could be. Moreover, Esty’s two solos at the end of Unorthodox can—and maybe should—be understood as a declaration of selfhood. As she takes the stage to sing she makes a vocal public pronouncement, one that is declarative and deliberate, and one that by her community’s estimation violates strictly enforced standards of modesty for women.

And yet the invocation of the elte zayde by Esty’s bubbe as the two listen to a soprano singing Schubert’s 1817 work, and Esty’s tribute to her grandmother—and moments later her husband—as she explains why she chose the song for her audition, connects generations, places, eras, and traditions. It weaves together the varied beginnings and endings, including Esty’s grandmother’s death and the birth of her child, and suggests that Esty’s rendition draws her in some ways closer to her past even as she launches herself into a new way of living.

Esty gives us a sense of what lies ahead—a mix of multiple pasts, presents, and possibilities, and the unequivocal need for the transformative capacity of art to create new understandings about ourselves in a world that in some ways will be permanently changed.


Jessica Lang is Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY