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.