Sunday, 4 November 2018


Navras Jaat Aafreedi, a professor at Presidency University in Kolkata, is a scholar-activist who constantly champions Jewish Studies in India. He is indefatigable: he organized a multi-site Holocaust film festival, serves as advisor to a student theater group, and travels and speaks widely on several continents. And yes, he also does good scholarship. 

His new, small book is notable for its innovative breadth. This work begins with a brief chapter on the well-known and much-studied Kochi (Cochin) Jews, the Bene Israel, and the Baghdadis. It is a reliable summary of work that serves as a fine introduction to the study of Indian Jews. 

The second chapter is about Judaizing movements, the relatively remote groups who claim Jewish identity. Aafreedi discusses the B’nei Menashe, tribals along the Indo-Burmese border who about 50 years ago began asserting their claim to Jewishness and have learned Judaism and Hebrew, have synagogues and miqva’ot, and are in the process of making aliyah. He also looks at the B’nei Ephraim, much less well-known than the B’nei Menashe, who live in very humble circumstances in a number of villages and towns in Andhra Pradesh. They try to use Hebrew in daily life as they begin to study about Judaism. And there are also the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu who, like the other two Judaizing movements, came to Judaism via Christianity, and unlike the other two, do not claim Israelite origin. Their movement began in 2011 when about 1,500 congregants of the Zion Gospel Church abandoned Christianity for Judaism under the leadership of a charismatic leader.  

Much of the second chapter will be news to many readers, but it is in the third chapter that Aafreedi truly breaks new ground. Here, he explores the theme of non-Jewish groups who claim Israelite descent as well, but have no interest in being considered Jewish. Many of them are Muslim and include the Pathans, about whom Jewish identity has been claimed for more than 100 years, and Kashmiri people who were first identified as Jews in a 9th-century travelogue. Fortunately, Aafreedi reads Urdu and has access to writings unknown outside a few interested people in India. As Aafreedi is himself a Muslim, he also has personal access to the groups he studies. This is the greatest contribution in this work. 

India also has Christians who claim Israelite ancestry. Kerala is home to many, most notably the Nazaranis (very much akin to the Mar Thoma, or St. Thomas Christians). These groups claim a 2,000-year history in India, some tracing their origin to the missionary visit of St. Thomas in the first century.  

Chapter 7, “Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia,” is fascinating. Again, Aafreedi has marvelous access to his sources. 

The chapters on “Synagogues in India,” “Jews in Indian Cinema,” and “Jews in Indian Literature” are interesting. While this material will be new to many readers, to those more knowledgeable will find little new material. The final chapter, “Indian Jewry in Israel,” mostly surveys work by Joan G. Roland and Joseph Hodes, but makes a fine capstone for the book.

Author's bio:  Nathan Katz is Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Florida International University, where he was Director of Jewish Studies, the Bhagwan Mahavir Professor of Jain Studies, Kaufmann Professor of Entrepreneurship, Founding Director of the Program in the Study of Spirituality, and Founding Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Currently, he serves part-time as Academic Dean of the Chaim Yakov Shlomo College of Jewish Studies, an Orthodox rabbinical school in Surfside, FL, and serves on the faculties of Sivananda Yoga Ashram Resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas, and Hindu University of America in Orlando, FL.

- Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, No. 16, 2018, p. 80.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018


Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia, Pragati Publications, New Delhi, 2016 (xvii+124 pages) (ISBN 978-81-7307-158-6)

Book Review by Dr. Jael Silliman
 The Social Ion (ISSN 2319-358), Vol. 6, No. 2, July-December 2017, pp. 54-59

The title of the book, Jews, Judaizing Movements and the traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia is a misnomer, as the book is really a wide-ranging group of essays about the Jews of the Indian subcontinent – mostly India but with a few references to Pakistan.  The essays underline the physical, material and cultural presence of the Jews in this region and the way in which Judaism has been part of the cultural imagination for centuries.  The three well established Jewish communities of India are discussed, as are those communities that see an affinity of descent or culture with the Jewish people.  It is clear that from Kashmir to Kerala and from Mumbai to Kolkata, the Jewish presence is embedded in the subcontinent’s cultural and mythical heritage.  Aafreedi, himself, clearly delights in India’s Jewish heritage.  Where relevant he draws attention to the close affinity that did exist between Muslims and Jews in the region.

The book opens with a useful, if eclectic, chronology of Jewish engagement with India from 721 BCE to 2005 underlining their continuing presence across India’s varied geography.  The first essay provides a brief overview of the origin stories of the Bene Israel, Cochini and Bagdadi Jews.  Two essays, Judaizing movements in India and traditions of Israeli descent among South Asians provide a brief overview of the three Judaizing movements in India – the B’nei Menashe of Manipur, the Bnei Ephraim in Andhra Pradesh and the Chhetiars in Tamilnadu.  Three essays deal with the various synagogues in India, Jewish contributions to Indian cinema and literature. The Israelite traditions among certain Muslim groups in the subcontinent that has existed over the centuries makes an interesting addition to our understanding of how the Jewish presence was manifested among several communities across India. The final essay extends the scholarship beyond South Asia to analyze the ways in which the Jews of India have resettled in Israel.

Two of the three Judaizing movements he describes are based on claims of descent from the lost Israelites.   A twenty-first century movement in Tamilnadu is premised on the belief that Judaism is the true religion.  All three of these movements have emerged among Christian communities.  The Bnei Menashe dates back to 1936 when the revivalist Saichunga declared Mizos were one of the lost tribes of Israel.  Through their interactions with Rabbi Avinchail, who was dedicated to the search for the lost tribes of Israel, the “return” of the Bene Menashe to Israel was made possible. 125 families of the Madiga of the Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, identify as Israelite.  Their interest stemmed from their leader, a Christian preacher attending a Conference of Evangelical Christians in Jerusalem.  It stirred his interested in Judaism and he introduced elements of his religion to his community who also see themselves as part of a Lost Tribe.  However they represent themselves as a scheduled caste, a Hindu category.  Finally he introduces the Chettiar community of Erode in Tamil Nadu, where 1500 congregants of the Zion Gospel Church abandoned Christianity for Judaism in 2011 under the leadership of their pastor.

Continuing with the Judaizing theme, Aafreedi describes the scholarly interest in the older tradition of claiming Israelite descent primarily among Muslim groups but also among the Kenanya, belonging to the Syrian Orthodox Christian Church.  The Muslim groups include the Kidwai/Qidwai and the Bani Israel trace their descent from Jews and Pashtuns and some Kashmiris claim descent from the lost tribes of Israel.  However, like the previous essay while Aafreedi covers a great deal of ground in terms of scholarship, he does not offer new analysis nor does he seek to theorize these movements.

The next three essays deal with the synagogues in India, Jews in India cinema and their contributions to literature.  The short article on synagogues covers the synagogues of the Bene Israel, the Cochinis and the Bagdadis in one essay and includes information on the styles of the various synagogues as well as a listing and description of the synagogues of each community.  In the spirit of inclusion and in embrace of India’s Jewish past, Aafreedi calls for the importance of their preservation.  In his essay on Jews in India cinema he highlights the stars from both the Baghdadi and Bene Israel community and includes Pearl Padamsee, though he does not provide much information on her Jewish past.  He also pays tribute to the film journalists, film-makers and historians, who were Jewish including Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a European Jew, as India’s only academy Award winning screen writer.  In his essay on Jews in literature he chronicles the writers that are mostly from the Bene Israeli community and includes Sheela Rohekar the only Indian Jewish writer who writes in Hindi.  In this essay both the writers and some of their works are discussed.

In his concluding essays he discussed Jewish-Muslim relations and notes that there has always been a degree of antipathy towards Jews among the Muslims in the region though “ never acquired the proportions so as to emerge as the menace of anti-Semitism, until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.” Yet he writes of how anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have intertwined among South Asian Muslims in some violent ways such as the attacks on Jews in Karachi in 1948, 1956 and 1967 and the murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002, the Pakistani attack on Beit Chabad in Mumbai in 2008 and the explosion of an Israeli diplomat’s wife’s car in Delhi in 2012 by Iranians.  These attacks have occurred, he laments, despite South Asia having produced some of the best examples of Jewish-Muslim amity that he narrates.  Some of the original sources he uses for this essay include two articles denying the Holocaust that appeared in the Urdu language daily newspapers Roznama Rashtriya Sahara and Aag. He also referred to the writings of Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Founding Chairman, Trustees of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Rector Darul Uloom, Nadwatul Ulama, Lucknow and Maryam Jameelah, one of the greatest ideologues of Jam'at-i-Islami. 

In his final essay he discusses the various forces that led Jews to migrate to Israel that differed considerably across the three main Jewish communities of India and the challenges of acceptance they faced when they emigrated.

The book provides an unusual set of perspectives to view the Jews of India and those who claim affinity with Israel or the Jewish faith.  Aafreedi’s essays clearly make the case that though the Jews were few in number they have always been embedded in the material and cultural imagination of the subcontinent. 

Professor Jael Silliman was a tenured Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa.  She was also a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, New York, for Reproductive Rights and Justice and subsequently the Women’s Rights Portfolio.  She is the author of several books, scholarly papers and popular articles on gender, development, race, social justice and women’s rights issues.  She also writes about her community, the Bagdadi Jewish community. She is the author of Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope, a novel The Man With Many Hats and most recently The Teak Almirah.  She is the curator of .  She is now an independent scholar and writer and spends much of her time in Kolkata. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Navras Aafreedi's Fight Against Holocaust Ignorance & Denial in India

Since the first decade of the 21st century, a young Indian scholar of Muslim origin, Navras Jaat Aafreedi of Gautam Buddha University [now employed with Presidency University, Kolkata], has been fighting against Holocaust ignorance and denial in India. For example, in 2009, he organized the screening of dozens of movies about the Holocaust on the campuses of the two largest universities of Lucknow, a city notorious for its anti-Israel demonstrations and Muslim anti-Semitic discourse. Prominent Indian figures and intellectuals, many of them Muslims, came to address an audience of over 4,000 people and spoke out against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. 

- Shalom Salomon Wald and Arielle Kandel, India, Israel and the Jewish People: Looking Ahead, Looking Back 25 Years after Normalization, The Jewish People Policy Institute, Jerusalem, 2017, p. 138. 

For a long time, the only course taught about Israel at an Indian institute of higher education was that of Professor Kumaraswamy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. More recently, Navras Jaat Aafreedi, the Indian Holocaust scholar mentioned above, has also begun to promote Jewish and Israeli studies."

Ibid., p. 144.

Thursday, 15 February 2018


Navras Jaat Aafreedi. 2016. Jews, Judaizing Movements and Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia. New Delhi: Pragati Publications, Pp xxiv, 124. ISBN  978-81-7307-158-6 (Hardback). US $26.95

This book is based upon the doctoral dissertation of Navras Jaat Aafreedi, a historian who has distinguished himself by seeking to make Indians and Pakistanis, especially those of Muslim heritage, more aware of, and sympathetic to, the history of Jews in India, the Holocaust, Jewish practices and perspectives. In a country where “Hitler” is today often given as a name to children, and where the dictator is admired as someone who could instil order and discipline, Aafreedi’s efforts to bring to Indians an understanding of the Nazis’ attempt to implement a “final solution” to the so-called “Jewish problem” are imporant. Ironically, these attitudes subsist in a population generally not ill-disposed to Jews, but are rather for the most part unfamiliar with Jews and their sensitivities. In this context, Aafreedi’s sympathy for Jewish concerns is greatly appreciated.

India’s vast population has included no less than three minuscule Jewish communities, and in recent years it has also seen the rise of new Judaising movements, groups who have come to adopt some form of Judaism, either out of a belief that they have Jewish or Israelite origins, or a conviction that Judaism is the “true” religion. In addition, as Aafreedi shows, there are also a number of communities in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have traditions of Israelite descent, among them his own Afridi Pathan patrilineal clan. Whereas there have been many studies concerning the Jewish communities in India, and in recent years the Judaisers, there have, to the best of my knowledge, not been any other works that have included communities with traditions of Israelite descent alongside the other two categories. Here, Aafreedi has essentially broken new ground, drawing attention to these groups, for people with an interest in the Jews of India. 

Aafreedi devotes a chapter to each of these categories. Chapter 1 covers the three historical Jewish communities in India: the Bene Israel from coastal Maharashtran villages south of Bombay (Mumbai), the Jews of Cochin (Kochi) in Kerala, and the Baghdadi Jews who were settled predominantly in Bombay and Calcutta (Kolkata).

The origins of the Bene Israel and Cochinis are shrouded in mystery, both communities having been settled in India for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Bene Israel were historically scattered in villages of the Konkan coastal region, where they had a caste-like occupation as producers of sesame oil, the main cooking medium in western India. The fact that they did not work on Saturdays earned them the name “Shanwar Telis”, Saturday Oilmen (p. 5). Although they had very little Jewish knowledge, they knew enough to maintain kosher dietary restrictions, and they practised group endogamy, in keeping with Jewish traditions and the Indian caste system. 

From the eighteenth century, Bene Israel began to settle in Bombay, where they were eager to learn more about Judaism through contact with Baghdadi and Cochini Jews, and ironically through western Christian missionaries, who translated the Bible into the Bene Israel’s Marathi language and taught Hebrew. The Bene Israel were grateful for what the missionaries had taught them, but very few of them adopted Christianity.

Aafreedi devotes almost four pages (pp. 2-5) to the issue of recent genetic testing of Bene-Israel, whose Jewish ancestry had long been called into question, but their claims now seem to have been vindicated, through studies (quoting Waldman) “which demonstrate that the community is genetically more similar to other Jewish communities than are all the Indian and Pakistani communities”. Many Bene Israel apparently display the “Cohen modal haplotype”, common among Jewish Cohanim. Aafreedi quotes the researcher Tudor Parfitt, that this “leaves just a billion to one chance of a mistake in identifying who the Bene Israel really are” (p.4).

Whereas the Bene Israel had only vestigial knowledge of Judaism until modern times, the Jews of Cochin were always able to maintain connections with the rest of the Jewish world and maintained orthodox practices. They have had a distinguished past, with one King Parkaran Iravi Vanmar having bestowed upon a certain Joseph Rabban the village (or city) of Anjuvanam (also known as Cranganore) in perpetuity, along with various hereditary privileges, enumerated on copper plates, inscribed in three languages (see page 8 for an English translation). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Portuguese harassed the Jews, on account of their religion, and as rivals in the pepper trade. In 1564, the Portuguese attacked Cranganore, which by then had been in a deteriorated state. The Jews who fled were welcomed and given shelter by the Raja of Cochin, who allocated to them land adjacent to his palace to build the Pardesi Synagogue (p.11), which celebrated its 400 hundredth anniversary in 1968 (p.41).

The “Baghdadi” Jews, hailing from Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, began to establish themselves in India late in the eighteenth century. A mercantile community, they prospered under British rule, and many sought to emulate the British. Over time, the language of the community shifted from Arabic to English, as Baghdadis sent their children to English language schools. Aafreedi observes “Hardly any attempt was made to master any Indian language, though most Baghdadis became acquainted with Hindustani of a simple sort” (p.14). Seeking acceptance from the British rulers, they sought to distance themselves from “native” Indian Jews, especially the Bene Israel.

Aafreedi’s next chapter looks at the Judaising movements of the “B’nei Menashe”, a group from North East India who have adopted Judaism out of a belief that they were descendants of the biblical tribe of Manasseh, the “Bene Ephraim” from Andhra Pradesh who assert descent from the tribe of Ephraim, and members of “the Chettiar community of Erode in Tamil Nadu” (p.21). 

The B’nei Menashe have been practising Judaism since the 1970s and many have come to be accepted as orthodox Jews after undergoing conversion in Israel, thanks to the support initially of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail and his Amishav organisation, and later by Michael Freund and the organisation called Shavei Israel. Several thousand have settled in Israel since 1989 (p.17). In 2005, attempts to formally convert B’nei Menashe to Judaism in India created a diplomatic incident between India and Israel (p.17).

The Bene Ephraim are a more recently emerged group of 125 families, who come from a Harijan/Dalit caste background (p.21). Subjected to harsh discrimination from caste Hindus, the assertion of an Israelite past is hopefully a means to a more respectable status. This group takes its lead from the college-educated members of the Yacobi family. However, because of the poverty and lack of education of their followers, most have very limited Jewish knowledge.

The Chettiars only embraced Judaism in 2011, “when 1500 congregants of the Zion Gospel Church abandoned Christianity for Judaism under the leadership of their pastor Samuel Devasahayam and renamed the church Zion Torah Centre” (pp.21-22), and they have a dream of settling in Israel to help “make the desert bloom”. An urban community without experience in agriculture, they have purchased farmland growing coconut trees, to practise farming and so to prepare them for their prophetic dream (p.22).

These 3 Judaising groups, as diverse as they are, had all been practising Christians before adopting Judaism. By contrast, the communities with a long tradition of Israelite origins are predominantly Muslim and do not show signs of wishing to revert to their putative ancestral religion. Indeed, we learn that “they are so strongly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and also greatly prejudiced against Jews” that they are not interested in migrating to Israel (p. 25). Apart from the tradition of Israelite origin of the Pathans and similar claims about Kashmiris (pp. 29-31), there are assertions that the kings of Afghanistan were descendants of King Saul in the Bible (pp. 25-26). Several Muslim groups who are known as “Bani Israil” – children of Israel, are said to descend from a Jewish-born companion of the Prophet Muhammad, while the Qidwais, believe their progenitor, a Sufi mystic of the twelfth century called Qazi Qidwa had been a Jew (p.24).

One group with a postulated Jewish ancestry who are not Muslims are the Kananya or Thomasite Christians, an ancient, Syrian-Orthodox community in Kerala, close to the Jews of Cochin, apparently around 200,000 in number. They are reputedly endogamous, use Aramaic in their liturgy, and have customs and songs which resemble those of the Jews in the area (pp.36-38).

From Chapter 4 onwards, the book looks only at the Jews of India, with no further exploration of the Judaisers or communities with claims of Israelite descent. Aafreedi focuses on the history of synagogues in India, Jews in Indian cinema and literature, Jewish-Muslim relations, and Indian Jewry in Israel. These are essentially distinct essays, interesting in themselves, but not woven together to create a consistent narrative.

Aafreedi is clearly passionate about the cinema and provides a fascinating expose of the role that Jews, particularly Baghdadi women, played in the early years of Indian film, and in beauty pageants. In part this may have been due to their generally lighter complexion than true Indian women, but after the end of the silent movie era, those who could not deliver lines in an Indian language lost their appeal.

Aafreedi sees the Baghdadi women as “the first to be bold enough to act in films, braving all the risks involved to their reputation and otherwise when even the prostitutes shied away from acting in films (pp.53-54).” “Highly Westernised in their lifestyle and outlook”

… they did not have the reservations that women from other communities in India, including the other Jewish communities, the Bene Israel and the Cochini (resident in India for a much longer time than the Baghdadis), had when it came to indulgence in performing arts. By doing so they paved the way for women from respectable families from other communities to follow suit (p.54).

As impressive and heroic as this may seem to be, it is noteworthy that in effect these heroines of the silver screen had thereby cut themselves off from their native communities, breaking the Jewish taboo of marrying out of the faith, most of them taking Muslim husbands. As liberated as these women may have been, it would seem that either their Baghdadi communities were not in tune with them, or that having shed the inhibition of putting oneself in the public view, other restrictions no longer mattered to them. 

            I enjoyed the chapter on Jews in Indian literature, with the culturally informed analysis that Aafreedi is able to offer. Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry is powerful and reveals the Jewish cultural heritage that he carries as a Bene Israel. Short story writer Sophie Judah’s reflections on the way that reading the Diary of Anne Frank when she was 10 or 11 sparked a keen interest in searching for books on Judaism struck a chord with me, coming as I do from a Jewish community not in the mainstream in Western society. As she recalled:

All the books I found were written about the Jews of Eastern Europe or America. There was nothing about us.
On the library shelf, there were some books about the Bene Israel, but it was all anthropology. They’re looking at you through a microscope: “Are you Jewish, aren’t you Jewish: this tradition, that tradition.” And then the history. But there was no humanity, the human touch was missing (p.73).

I was delighted to see a reference to “a short-story writer named Moses Aaron who is based in Australia” as apart from Jael Stillman, the only writer to have emerged from the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta (p.74), but disappointed that Aafreedi did not specifically mention or analyse any of his works. I was also irritated, I must admit, with the attention that Ruth Prawar Jhabwala received in two chapters of the book, with much the same information appearing in the chapter on cinema and the chapter on literature. As impressive as she is in both media, and taking account that she did not have an Indian heritage, it would have been preferable if her work could have been discussed in the one place.

            I found the chapter on relations between Jews and Muslims in South Asia uncomfortable reading, as more than half the chapter concerns Jews who converted to Islam, notably the seventeenth century Sufi poet Sarmad, along with several Mediaeval figures, and Leopold Weiss who took on the name Muhammad Asad after his conversion to Islam - a brilliant scholar and Pakistani diplomat. I do not see this as relations between Jews and Muslims, except to the extent that we might learn how these men, as Muslims, view their former coreligionists. While there have been instances of mutual respect and cordial relations, and it is heartening to learn of Khurshid Imam who teaches Hebrew at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a Muslim, Thoufeek Zakriya who practises Hebrew calligraphy, Aafreedi also highlights increasing hostility to Jews, based on opposition to the existence of the State of Israel, and ostensibly religious grounds.

            Most of the Jews of India have left the country, even though they retain a deep love for it, and many travel back to visit. The final chapter treats the situation of Indian Jews in Israel, where most of the Cochini Jews and the Bene Israel have now settled. The chapter is well written and deals sympathetically with its subject, particularly with an extensive examination of the fight that the Bene Israel endured to be recognised as equal to all other Jews in the Jewish homeland. 

The Cochinis are presented as having had a more pleasant adjustment to life in Israel, “having integrated completely in an alien environment” (p.98). Although they had been an urban community, in Israel they were placed on agricultural settlements, where, Aafreedi quotes Shalva Weil, “they became rich” (p.89). This contrasts starkly with the assessment of Ginoo Zacharia Oommen, an anti-colonial Christian from Kerala, in the book Ethnicity, Marginality & Identity: the Jews of Cochin in Israel (New Delhi: Manak Publications, 2011). Oommen sees the Cochinis as a marginalised, isolated group, subject to racial prejudice in Israel. It would be interesting to see which of these perspectives is a more accurate representation of the reality.

While today there are an estimated 5,000 Jews in India, around 80,000 Indian Jews live in Israel (pp. xiv, 85). Over time, as the migrant generation passes, it will be interesting to see the extent to which their descendants maintain their Indian languages and distinctive traditions, as also the extent that new Jews – the Judaising communities - will bring a new lease of life for Judaism in India.

Myer Samra

Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume XXIX, 2015 - 2016, pp. 187-193.