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.

Passover 2020 and The Iconography of the Plagues

The Golden Haggadah, second quarter of the 14th century, Spain, British Library MS Additional 27210, 12v. Four plagues: frogs, lice, “arov” (wild beasts), and murrain.

As we endure the pandemic of COVID-19, the plagues from the story of Exodus and the Haggadah acquire a different meaning. The iconographic representation of the plagues can already be found in medieval illuminated Haggadot, like the 14th-century Spanish haggadot: Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah,” now at the British Library. Both begin with a sequence of magnificent illuminations depicting the story of Exodus.

The “Brother Haggadah”, third quarter of the 14th century, Spain. British Library, MS Oriental 1404, fol. 5r. Plagues of boils (top) and hail (bottom)

The “Brother Haggadah” has depicts eight of the ten plagues, skipping the first (blood) and the last (the killing of the first born). Both the Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah” were were commissioned by affluent Spanish Jews. These are two of several surviving illuminated haggadot from Spain. Among the other known Spanish haggadot are the so-called Sarajevo haggadah and the Rylands haggadah from the the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.526, fol. 14r

Christian illuminated bibles, especially the so called moralized bibles, also included illustrations of the plagues. Here is a late 14th century French bible, now at the Morgan Library, Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400 (MS M.526). Folios 12r-14v depict the scenes from Exodus relating the ten plagues. Here is the plague of locust. On top right Moses speaks with Pharaoh, depicted as a king, and at the bottom right Moses speaks to God, who is depicted as Christ.

The iconography found in many modern haggadot does not draw from these medieval examples, but rather from the iconography developed in the printed haggadot of the early modern era. This is the case for the 1946 Haggadah from Cairo. Below are images of the first five plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (wild beasts/swarms), and murrain.

Below are images from a haggadah issued for the first Passover after the end of World War II. It was published in a Displaced Persons Camp in Fernwald in 1946. The Haggadah’s wine stains show it was used for a Passover seder (below). The pages below illustrate the dependence of modern haggadot on premodern iconography. The bottom image, marked by wine stains, shows the section shefokh ha-matkha (“Pour forth thy wrath”) section of the Passover Haggadah, which must have been particularly meaningful in 1946.

The break away from that “traditional” imagery came only from the more artistic modern haggadot, such as the 1969 El Al Haggadah.

Haggadah shel Pesah (Hagada for Passover) edited by Shaham Lewenson, Printed for El Al 1969. Fordham University, SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1969 1

To see more –though not all– examples of Haggadot from the Fordham collection, see the catalogue of the exhibition “Haggadah and History,” which was on view in 2019.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Day 2020

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.

Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”

Saul Raskin, Haggadah shel Pesah (New York, 1941). Fordham University, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2
Saul Raskin Haggadah for Passover (New York, 1941), Fordham O’Hare Special Collections: + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2

In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:

No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”

The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder:

A New Exhibit at O’Hare Special Collections: Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate

by Magda Teter, The Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

Technological advances can lead to positive social change. Technological innovations have helped create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. In medieval Europe, the introduction of paper lowered the costs of manuscript production and record keeping. The invention of movable type and the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century made books more easily accessible. The innovations in the production of paper in the nineteenth century, and in printing methods made newspapers, postcards, and color books possible. Photography, radio, and films facilitated new forms communication of news and entertainment. In our lives the Internet has provided new ways to communicate and learn. But along positive change, technological advances have often also been harnessed to less laudable goals, allowing for access to and dissemination of not only “useful” or “respectable” knowledge, but also of hateful stories, derogatory images and stereotypes.

In June 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide.” Twenty-first century media technology has been shown to facilitate dissemination of hate–bullying on social media; chat groups that allow for racist and antisemitic individuals to find like-minded communities; bots amplifying hateful messages. But while the media technology we live with is new, the phenomenon of harnessing new technology for hateful purposes is not. Anytime communications technology advanced, hatred spread as well. The exhibition explores how different technological breakthroughs facilitated the propagation of hate: in Europe—anti-Jewish and antisemitic images and tales, in America—antisemitism and racism.

Bible moralisée/Bible de Saint Louis (Facsimile edition, M. Moleiro, 2000-2004; original, 13th century, between 1226 and 1234, now at Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, in Toledo)+ SPEC COLL LEACH 2000 2 V.1

Derogatory anti-Jewish iconography emerged at the end of the 12th century not to channel anti-Jewish sentiments but rather to amplify Christian piety. With time this anti-Jewish imagery gained more explicit hateful meaning. Still in the Middle Ages its reach was relatively limited— church art seen only locally, or precious manuscripts seen by few, such as here the splendidly illuminated Bible moralisée—the medieval picture bible—made for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234, on display here. 

The breakthrough came with the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which resulted in the first mass produced commodity—the printed book. Along came also cheaper pamphlets and broadsides. While the printing press allowed for the diffusion of knowledge, laws, and devotional texts, the new technology was also employed to disseminate anti-Jewish images and texts. These previously localized, or obscure, images or tales now had a broader reach. Books, even those that only tangentially discussed Jews, helped spread ideas and images—often false and spurious—about Jews and Judaism to a much wider audience. On display is the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, which included, among thousands of other stories, some eleven stories about post-biblical Jews, all of them spurious and derogatory. While there were books specifically focused on anti-Jewish content, sometimes books not meant to convey explicitly derogatory ideas captured the state of current knowledge, effectively replicating biased epistemological models, the works of Johannes Buxtorf or Bernard Picart in Fordham’s collection can serve as examples.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, originally published in Nuremberg in 1493 in both Latin and German, republished in German in a full size facsimile edition in 1933.
19th-century technology made publishing daily newspapers, postcards, posters, leaflets, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera, possible. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes.

But until the nineteenth century book production was still quite expensive: paper was made through a protracted process from rags, text had to be set from individual types, and any illustrations had to be either carved in wood to make woodcuts, or engraved on copper plates. But in the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper, lithography, rotary press, and offset printing made printing cheaper and more widely available. This facilitated the development of daily newspapers, with front-page color images, as well as postcards, posters, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes much more widely through news and entertainment.

Irene Harand, Azoy? Oder Azoy? Der Emes vegen anti-Semitism [This? Or That? The Truth concerning anti-Semitism.] (Vienna: Karl Popelka, 1933). First published in German as “So? oder so? Wahrheit über den Antisemitismus” (This? or that? The Truth about Antisemitism). The title of the publication “This? Or That?” is tied to the cover design, presenting a choice between “this,” represented as a swastika or “that,” represented by the scales of justice. It was also issued in Yiddish (on display) and in Polish. A recent acquisition.

But these hateful challenges did not go unanswered. Jews, as well as non-Jews, often became allies in the fight against hatred, turning to religious values for moral support, celebrating festivals together, and organizing for a better future.

The Common Road to Freedom Passover Haggadah (Prepared for the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985). First edition, prepared the Shabbat Hagadol Social Action Sabbath in 1985. In English with some Hebrew. It is an example of a joint response to racism and antisemitism. A recent acquisition.

The exhibition “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” is on view until May 31st, 2020 at the O’Hare Special Collections at the Walsh Family Library at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.

*

The exhibition was co-curated by Sally Brander FCRH ‘20, Clare McCabe FCRH ‘20, and Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies, with contributions from students in Professor Teter’s seminar on antisemitism (HIST 4308) from Fall 2018 and 2019, and assistance and support from Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library and Vivian (Wei) Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.

*

The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr. Eugene Shvidler, whose gift to Fordham’s Jewish Studies program helped start Fordham’s Judaica collection.