Once, I calculated that the chance of randomly meeting a Jew who was born in India was minute – less than 0.0005%. So, writing about the Jews of India is to describe a microscopic proportion of the country’s vast population. That proportion is diminishing. This is not because Jews have ever suffered persecution in India.
While flicking through a street atlas for Bangalore, I noticed that the city has a “Jewish Grave Yard”. I have visited it several times. It contains less than sixty graves, but together they open a window that provides an overview of the Jewish people who have lived in India. The story of India’s Jewry has been described in detail elsewhere (for example: “India’s Jewish Heritage” edited by Shalva Weil and “Shalom India” by Monique Zetlaoui).
This article reveals what examination of the gravestones tells us about the presence of Jews in the whole of India.
Jews have lived in what is now Kerala since time immemorial. They dwelled on the Malabar Coast in, for example, Kranganore and Cochin, where there is still a fine synagogue. It is said that St Thomas came to India to convert them into Christians. He failed, converting, instead, the other people, mainly Hindus, who he found living there. Today, there areonly one or two elderly Jews still living in Kerala. A grave in the cemetery commemorates Elias Isaac, who came from Cochin to Bangalore to act as the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to the Moses family. Jews in India ate ‘Indian cuisine’, but modified so that it did not contravene Jewish dietary laws.
The oldest graves in the cemetery mark the resting places of Subedar Samuel Nagavkar (1816-1904) and Benjamin Nagavkar (1877-1910). Samuel served the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who donated the land for the cemetery in 1904. The Nagavkars were members of the Beni Israel community, whose origins are obscure. According to HS Kehimkar, they claimed to have come from “the North” to India in about 175 BC (BCE). Many of their community still live in and around Maharastra State.
There are several other graves of Beni Israel Jews. Their stories and those of the others buried in the cemetery reveal something of the range of activities in which Jews were involved in India. Sion E Nissim (1900-58) was a horse-trainer; one of his horses, Commoner, won the Indian Derby. Mrs Abigail Jhirad, daughter of the Subedar (a military role); and Joshua Moses Benjamin Bhonkar (1920-2005) was both a writer (“The Mystery of Israel’s Ten Lost Tribes and the Legend of Jesus in India”) and a Chief Minister in the Government of India.
Whereas the origins of the Malabar and Beni Israel Jews are obscure, this is not the case with the Iraqi Jews, who came to India from the Middle East beginning in the eighteenth century. Many of them settled in Bombay and Calcutta, where they were involved with commerce and trade. The most famous of them being the Sassoon family.
The Bangalore cemetery contains graves for the following families from Calcutta: Ezra, Elias, Earl, and Moses. Edward Earl (1910-1953) was the proprietor of the once well-known Earl’s Pickles company.
Calcutta had a large Jewish community, including the Moses family, who are buried in Bangalore and originated in Iraq. Ruben Moses (1871-1936) left Iraq to join the California gold rush. He left California for India in 1906, following the San Francisco earthquake. He headed for the Kolar gold fields, but ended up in Bangalore, where he founded a shoe store in Commercial Street. The store, which is now occupied by Woody’s veg fast-food outlet, was once the largest shoe retailer in southern Asia. His home, now long since demolished, contained a prayer hall where the city’s few local Jews and Jewish visitors from all over the world came to worship along with the Moses family.
What else did the Jews do in Bangalore? Poor Moses Ashkenazy(1957-1982) was a student, who died of an overdose of drugs. Sassoon Saul Moses (d. 1975) was a ‘hawker’. The widow Rebecca Elias (1927-1992) lost her husband early, and then worked in a needle factory in Bangalore. GE Moses and Isaac Cohen, neither of whom are buried in the cemetery, were, respectively, a clothes retailer and an auctioneer. The grave of RE Reuben (1877-1939) records that he was “Malarial [sic] Supervisor of the C&M Station Municipality”. He might have met the Nobel laureate Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932), the pioneer of the fight against malaria, who visited the C&M Station.
Anti-Semitism in Europe and the outbreak of the Second World War (‘WW2’) led to other Jews entering the Indian Judaic scene – refugees and soldiers. They are well represented in the Bangalore cemetery. But, before describing them, let me describe the Russian-born Saida Abramovka Isako, who died in 1932. She was the wife of FY Isako, who was proprietor of the ‘Russian Circus’. Her coffin was carried on a bier drawn by white circus horses. I imagine that the burials of the German refugees Siegfried Appel (1906-1939) from Bonn, Gunther and his mother Mrs Rahmer from Gleiwitz, and Dr Weinzweig, were less memorable. Carl Weinzweig (1890-1966) and Gunther Rahmer were both dentists practising in Bangalore.
Amongst the military personnel that passed through Bangalore during WW2, was the future President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who was stationed at an RAF base in the city. His name appears in the Moses family guestbook. The cemetery records the casualties of war, who died in the city. These include Yusuf Guetta (1921-1943), evacuated from Ben-Ghazi in Libya by the British in 1941, and Private Morris Minster (1918-1942). Morris served in the South Wales Borderers Regiment and was initially buried in the grave yard. His stone stands, but his remains have been moved to a Commonwealth War Cemetery in Madras.
The “Jewish Grave Yard” in Bangalore encapsulates the story of the larger of the Jewish ‘groupings’ that have lived in India. The cemetery is so unknown that even a few of the Jews who have lived in the city have been unaware of it. I have met the heirs of the Jewish refugee from Germany, Mr Jacoby, who introduced popcorn and machines (for making it) to India and settled in Bangalore. Their nearest and dearest are resting in peace in Christian cemeteries, of which there is no shortage in Bangalore.
I mentioned that India’s Jewish population is diminishing. Over the years many Jews left India. My wife, who went to school in Calcutta, remembers that the city had many thriving synagogues and that there were several Jewish girls in her class. When we visited Calcutta four or five years ago, we saw three synagogues. Two of them were well-maintained, by Moslem caretakers, as is Bangalore’s Jewish cemetery. The third that we saw appeared to be about to crumble.
India can be proud to remember that, unlike so many other countries, it was not anti-Semitism that caused Jews to migrate. Just as so many other Indians have left the country to better their economic prospects, so did the Jews.