LEARNING ABOUT THE INDIAN JEWISH COMMUNTIES, APRIL 3, 2011

Before the lecture, we gathered for a delicious Kosher Indian vegetarian lunch.

Our guest lecturer was Rabbi Romiel Daniel,who has been a leader of the Bene Israel community for 25 years. First as President and religious leader of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad, India and then, after emigrating to the US in 1994, as religious leader and President of The Indian Jewish Congregation of USA.

Rabbi Daniel stated that the Indian Jewish communities are divided into five separate groups: 1) The Cochin Jews who settled in Southwest India in 2nd century BCE and were traders in pepper and indigo. Later,during the Spanish Iniquistion of the 13-15 centuries, Sephardi Jews joined the community. 2) The Bene Israel who arrived in India in the same century as the Cochin Jews and settled in villages in Maharashtra (near present day Mumbai) and were called Shenwar Teli )Saturday oil pressers) by their Indian neighborhoods in recognition that this community never worked on Saturday. A Dutch missionary, in the 18th century CE, gave community the name Bene Israel. At the same time, the Bene Israel developed contacts with the Cochin Jewish community. 3) The Bagdadi Jews who emigrated from Iraq and Persia in the 17th century because of Muslim persecution in Persia and Iraq. They settled in present day Mumbai and Kolkata, and were major merchants in the trade with India. The Sasson family belongs to this community. During the colonial period the Bagdadis identified with the British and hence most emigrated after India's independence. 4) The Bnei Menashe were discovered living far Northest India in 1960s by the outside Jewish world. The community claims descent from the tribe of Menashe and have been undergone formal Orthodox conversion to Judaism since in the 19th century Christian missionaries pressured the community to become Christian. 5) The Bnei Ephraim, who live in Southeastern India (Andra Pradesh) and were discovered in the late 1990s by the world Jewish community. Their connection to Judiasm is similar to that of the Bnai Menashe, in that they also claim descent from a lost tribe (tribe of Ephraim) and Christian missionaries pressured them become Christian in the 19th century.

Afterwards Rabbi Daniel spoke about the unique Bene Israel customs: Everyone has a name which indicates which of 142 villages in which the community settled. Before every auspicious occasion there the performance of the Elihahu HaNavi ceremony which involves the singing of songs praising Elijah and a plate of parched grain and new fruit. The Yonativi, a song which bridegroom must serenade his bride during the Wedding Ceremony. He mentioned that if the bridegroom's performance of Yonativi does not satisfy the bride, the Wedding will be cancelled. Rabbi Daniel sang for us the Yonativi. The video included pictures of Bene Israel wedding preparations where turmeric powder is applied to the faces of both the bride and the bridegroom and henna is applied to bride's hands.


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