Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies

The Jewish Community of India

Daniel J. Elazar


The Jewish community of India is the fourth largest Asian Jewish community after Israel, Asian Russia, and Iran. In 1948, at the time of the founding of the State of Israel, India had a Jewish population of approximately 30,000. Since then some 20,000 have migrated to Israel and several thousand elsewhere, leaving a community of seven to eight thousand, according to the official estimates, most of Bene' Israel origin. No one knows for sure, but the lower figure is perhaps more correct. The number has been stable for several years now, since the burst of aliyah following the Six Day War ceased. It does not diminish because the birth rate replenishes the losses due to emigration. The overwhelming majority of the Jews are still concentrated in Bombay in much the same situation as they were before. In addition, there are communities in Calcutta, Delhi, Cochin, Poona and a few villages in Maharashton State. There is absoulutely no pressure from within India itself for the exodus of the Jews.

India is almost unique among countires of the world in its attitude towards its Jews. There is no known anti-Semititism in India nor are Jews looked upon as in any significant way different from the many Indian minority religions. The character of Indian culture -- its relative placidity, its acceptance of diversity, and its inherent communalism -- have given the Jews a sanctuary the likes of which has never been known in any of the countries of the western world. At the same time Indian Jewry has, perforce, acquired the characteristics of the Indian population in general. Their social patterns, psychological characteristics, and culture all bear the marks of the civilization within which they have been located for hundreds if not thousands of years.

In terms of the organization of the Jewish community, most of its institutions other than the synagogue introduced into community by migrants from the West during the past century and a half -- many more recently of them have survived in a very non-Western society only by virtue of a handful of leaders. As the result, the communities can barely support the institutions that exist and in all likelihood, will be even less able to do so in the future.

The Central Jewish Board is the roof organization that gives the community an address. It was founded during World War II by Victor Sassoon and others for that purpose. While it claims jurisdiction over all the Jews of India, it is actually confined to Bombay and environs because that is where the Jews are. The other communities are too far away although they ocassionally sent someone for a meeting.

19-21 January - Calcutta

On 19 January, when we arrived in Calcutta, we discovered that the USIS information service had found a Jewish confectioner who kept kosher and who provided us with a package dinner of chicken and trimmings (but later discovered that 25% of the Jewish families observe kashrut. The only kosher slaughtering is of chickens.). The confectioner's name is Nahoum and his family owns a shop in the New Market. Through him, we learned where a synagogue was located, which we visited the next morning (20 January). The non-Jewish USIS employee who found the synagogue for us was told by the people in the vicinity that it is "the place of the Zionists". (He, an East Bengali, has never had any knowing contact with Jews before so the terms simply confused him.)

Magen David, the synagogue we visited, is the largest in Calcutta. It is located in the Old Market, along with the Portuguese and Armenian Churches. According to the plaques on the outside, it was built in 1884 on the site of Neveh Israel, a synagogue built in 1831. Its major benefactors were the Elias family. The synagogue itself is large and quite grand, in the Sephardic style. Its Ark is a large room behind the bimah in which are located 18 sifrei torah and three scrolls of the neviim, all magnificent work, mostly in silver casings of the Perisan style. On most were tags indicating the name of the donor. The 18 sefrei torah are all that remain of a full room -- most have been sent to Israel or London. The congregational records remain in the building. The siddurim are a mixed bag, acquired from here and there. One was in Minhag Polin.

The synagogue consists of a great hall with seating in alcoves, in the following manner:

On the back wall hangs a framed copy of the congregational constitution. It is written in Rashi script but in a mixture of Hebrew and some other language, perhaps Judeo-Persian. The service times were posted as 5:30 P.M. There is a daily minyan.

Since I had to lecture in the afternoon, my wife, Harriet, went back at 4:30 to meet the people. As a result of her meeting, Mr. Hyam appeared the next morning at breakfast to talk with us and Mr. Moses, the Hazzan of the congregation appeared in the evening, when Mr. Hyam also returned.

Mr. Hyam brought us a gift -- a worm eaten copy of the booklet issued by the World Zionist Organization in 1947 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress -- framed and the story of his life. He was born in Darjeeling where his father had settled in the mid-nineteenth century. His father was born in Yemen in 1837 and came to Bombay via Aden to escape conditions there. Opportunity beckoned and brought him to Darjeeling where he earned a living selling wild animals (snow leopards, Tibetan tiger, rare deer, etc.) from Tibet to zoos and circuses in the Western world. He also led the Jewish community in Darjeeling and was known as Mori Natan. He was an all-purpose functionary (voluntary, it seems) - shochet, mohel, hazzan, etc. Services were held in hs house and, at its peak, some 100 people would gather for Yom Kippur. Hyam's father died in 1934 at age 97. The Jewish community faded away and Hyam later moved to Calcutta but he still has two brothers in Darjeeling. He has two sons in Israel, working in the Timna mines and two marries daughters in Calcutta. If the latter, who are contemplating aliyah, move to Israel, he will go with them. He has a minimal Jewish education -- whatever he learned from his father (who, to him, was a scholar) but he blows shofar on the High Holy Days with a Yemenite shofar that was his father's. One of the ways he eakes out a living is by selling Jewish "antiquities". We bought a "Menorah" of kabbalistic symbols, which apparently hung in a synagogue and which he claimed was bought by his father from Yemen. Many similar "menorot" were hanging on the walls of the synagogue we visited.

Mr. Moses is the Hazzan of the Magen David Synagogue and has been for 11 years. He is originally from Rangoon, from a Bagdadi family. He came to Calcutta in 1942, to escape from the Japanese, just before his bar mitzvah, and has been there ever since. The rest of his family is scattered. One brother is in Los Angeles, another is a Hazzan in London. His wife is a nurse but has been an invalid, unable to work, for the past three years. He is not well-educated Jewishly but at least has the basics. When he needs help he writes to Rabbi Ezekiel Musliah, rabbi of the Sephardic congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, who is originally from Calcutta. Elias Musliah, the rabbi's uncle, is the Secretary (or chief officer) of Magen David today.

The community has approximately 160 Jews, all told. (One estimate was as low as 130 and Hyam estimated 250.) At one time it had 6000. Calcutta itself was founded and developed by the British and the Jews came -- principally from the Arabian Sea littoral -- to participate in the commerce of the British Empire. Those who are left are mostly minor clerks or unemployed. There are five synagogues. Magen David is the largest. Attached to it is Neveh Israel (the original congregation on the site). There are two others (including Beth El) nearby and a fifth in Chinatown. Three maintain daily minyanim, all participants of which are paid! Magen David pays best -- over 200 rupees a month (or about IL200), a substantial sum in India's economy. A few extra people come on shabbat but even on Yom Kippur only about three minyanim appear at Magen David. Funds for maintaining the synagogues and minyanim come from rentals of the stores located on synagogue-owned properties. It was unclear whether these brought in a substantial sum or not. Moses said no but Hyam indicated that they did. It was also unclear whether or not there were trusts in addition to this income. Hyam said yes and Moses said no but both were vague and may not have understood my question. In any case, the synagogues continue to survive by paying people to participate, without paying them great sums. They will not merge, either -- the old story in Jewish communal life.

There is no overarching organization in Calculatta. Each synagogue is independent. There are, in addition, certain common organziations. They include:

1) The Jewish burial board: Moses is the secretary, a paid position. He earns his livelihood as the Jewish functionary in town.
2) Jewish boys and girls school. The boys school has five students and the girls school, six. In both cases, the teachers are Bengalis. No Jewish subjects are taught. The boys know no Hebrew but they learn some prayers by rote.
3) The Jewish hospital: It has been taken over by the government but with the proviso that four beds are reserved for the Jews (two male, two female). The hospital is run down due to what the Jews suggest is mismanagement. They have a low opinion of the Indians, especially after the British.

Fifteen years ago there was a Zionist organization led by a Polish Jewish dentist who lectured at the university. When he went to Geneva, the organization collapsed.

Apparently the community tries to take care of its poor and none are as poor as one can be in Calcutta. However, they do not seem prosperous in the least. Their major outside Jewish contact is the Jewish Agency shaliah in Bombay who visits them every so often. He and the Israeli consul there handle aliyah matters.

According to Bombay sources, in the 1950's there was a Zionist Organization in Calcutta, led by a Polish-Jewish Dentist who lectured at the University of West Bengal. When he moved to Geneva, the organization collapsed.

22-24 January - Madras:

All that is left of Jewish life in Madras is the remembered site of an old Jewish cemetery (now a schoolyard) in the original site and one Bene Israel girl from Bombay married to a local Hindu. Twice there have been Jewish communities in that southern Indian city: the first time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Portuguese Marranos and their descendants and later Ashkenazim from London, joined the British East India Company in their commercial institution.

That community disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century. After World War I, some Jewish refugees from Europe found their way to Madras. They even maintained a Jewish life of sorts, meeting for services at the home of an Austrian Jew named Wolf who functioned as the convenor of the "community". When he died (apparently in the 1950's), the community disappeared as an entity. There were twenty Jews living in Madras in 1968 but they have since migrated elsewhere. These "Hebrew merchants" were particularly active in the diamond trade and were officially represented in the Madras city government by Jewish aldermen.

25-28 January - Bombay:

The Bombay Jewish community seems to have changed very little since my visit five years ago. Emigration to Israel has virtually stopped, though a trickle continues. There is no mass movement, however, and no one is talking about the community closing its doors or disappearing as was the case in 1970.

Hersch Cynowitz remains the head of the community. Mr. Cynowitz is a most unique man in Bombay. He comes from near Bialystock, was trained as a lawyer and worked in the Vilna court system. He came to India in 1943 as a refugee and has been there ever since. Since he was known to the Jewish Agency, he has been an active and dominant figure in the community for many years. He is a true example of a between-the-wars Polish-Jewish politician, a "professional" even if he does not get paid for waht he does. He really enjoys the politics of Jewish communal life and its public affairs aspects. He is really part of the same "establishment" that has dominated Israel: and world Jewish politics until very recently: same background, same values, came outlook, same interests. For this community, he is a "find". Apparently, a majority of the community think so too since they reelect him despite ocassional opposition and the existence of a clique that opposes him directly in every way.

In a way, Cynowitz is a Jewish political "boss". He does favors for people (as he puts it, "I am never too busy and when I say I will do something, I deliver"). He knows everyone and makes it a point to know everyone. He circulates among people, building up contacts wuth the authorities, on one hand, and his "constitutents", on the other. He maintains his contacts throughout the Jewish world. He even does "case work" for his constituents in India and Israel, insofar as the opportunities present themselves.

In 1970, I watched Cynowitz in action when we visited the local Jewish school. He is a perfect politican, saying hello to people, asking their names, shaking hands, patting them on the back; all the ingredients that go into a political man who is always campaigning. He would ask them if they were related to so-and-so, where they were from, all the standard gambits. In fact, however, Cynowitz did not run any programs of an institutional kind. He collected money through the U.I.A., he maintained an organizational front through the Bombay Zionist Association, and he did case work and protected Jewish rights through the Central Board, but he was not cconnected with or responsible for the running fo schools, hospitals, welfare programs, or anything like that. That was just not his job and, if it was anybody's it belonged to the independent institutional committees.

Cynowitz ran political errands of a higher nature. According to his own account, he got a street named for his former parton, Mr. Moses who was also mayor of Bombay. (Mayor of Bombay, like being mayor of London or Dublin, it is an honorary position rotated every year) This took a lot of effort. On another level, after the El Aksa Mosque fire he immediately went to the authorities when he saw the Muslims beginning to demonstrate and convinced them that they should be on an alert because the Muslims and the Jews live very close together and he did not want any pogroms to occur. He had to disturb the authorities after hours but he was successful in doing so and they did go into alert. Apparently this is the kind of thing for which he maintains contacts. Also, when two older Jewish women returned from Israel to India, they did not have proper papers and were detained on a Sunday at the airport. He rousted out the appropriate officials all the way up to the higher civil service level and got the women cleared through by sheer persistence. He kept telling them "How can you eat when there are women held in a pen at the airport?' and it apparently worked. Of course, as president of the Central Board he was at all functions and greeted all sorts of people. But his political work was apparently the biggest aspect of his activity.

Mr. Cynowitz's position in India comes from the fact that he filled a vacuum in the 1940's. Until then, the community was led by the Iraqi "first families" -- the Sassoons, Moses, Kadouries, etc. Most of them, however, were cool or cold toward Indian independence and, as the independence movement began to succeed, they moved out of India and out of communal leadership. Moses, who was an Indian, brought Cynowitz into the picture. Unlike the overwhelming majority of the Europeans in India at the time, Cynowitz became an Indian. He took an Indian passport and to turned down a British one to become one of the first Europeans to become and Indian citizen. This made him especially meritorious in the eyes of the new government na dhe has never lost the strength it gave him. At the same time, he also cultivated the Bene Israel and became their leader. He could organize and e he could deliver. He has never lost their support either. To these two pillars, he added a third; his connections with that part of the world Jewish community that "counted", namely the World Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress, and the Israeli Government.

Mr. Cynowitz became the contact between Indian Jewry and the rest of world Jewry. More than that, he created the contacts and then channeled them through himself. He organized the first Indian delegation to a World Zionist Congress in 1946, and several as the delegate. He represented Jewish Agency then and was responsible for allocating immigration certificates to Palestine. ( The Bombay Zionist Organization was founded in 1920 but was only active in fits and starts. It had 40 members in the 1940's when Cynowitz arrived. He built it up to 300 members. He is an old Weitzman supporter aligned with Moshe Kol in the Progressive (now Independent Liberal) Party. Thus he is "out" politically in the Zionist movement.

I had a very hard time finding Mr. Cynowitz. He had been bery sick and had been in Israel for an extended period for treatment. Nevertheless when his health improved, he chose to go back to India, but he had given up his apartment and was moving around. People seemed to be very secretive about where he was but we left word at a number of places which he was known to frequent, including the hotel which was his last known address. He received our messages and he called us, after which I met with him and we resumed our discussions where they were left off several years ago. He has now been admitted to the Bar in India on the basis of his European training. He claims to be the only person to have achieved that distinction and is working as a practicing lawyer.

Once again, Cynowitz talked of giving up the presidency of the community. His Indian constituents are begging him not to and it seems as if he will give in. He says there is no other leadership that could possibly handle the job he goes. For example, during the 1960's and early 1970's, the Zionist Association published the community's only periodical. It's official editor was only a figurehead. Cynowitz employed a young man to really handle the work and he does some of the checking himself. Once he could no longer keep the Review going, it was closed down. Cynowitz still likes the Indians. He says they are a nice gentle people, very passive, by which he means unable to take initiatives.

Our non-Jewish driver, knowing of our Jewish interest, took us to one of the neighborhood synagogues at the time of Minha. It was shabby, the people in it were shabby, but there was a minyan and there is twice a day, every day, probably paid an in Calcutta from the looks of the people involved. That, too, is no different from the way it was in 1970. The siddurim were printed in Morocco by the Joint Distribution Committee, originally for use there, it seems.

Organized Jewish life in Bombay continues despite the aliyah of most of Indian Jewry. Finally, no organizations have gone out of existence. All the synagogues continue to function. There are more and in some respects, better organizations than before. Still, the Jewish organizations of Bombay are generally limited in scope and intensity. The synagogues remain the most important continuing institutions. They include: Gate of Mercy Synagogue, the oldest synagogue founded in the 1790's. It is a corporation with its own governing committee. It owns properties that provide it with an income, so that membership fees are nominal. Hebrew classes are held on its premises, taught by local teachers trained in Israel and working under the supervision of the Jewish Agency shaliach. It has a Gemiluth Hassidim society and is legally the trustee of the local Jeish orphanage. The synagogue calls itself Conservative but is really no different from an Orthodox congregation in its ritual. The conservative "leader" is Emanuel Moses, and officer of the Indian Customs Service. His father was mayor of Bombay and president of the Central Jewish Board. His father brought Cynowitz into the Board.

The Jewish Religious Union was founded by Claude Montefiore as a reform synagogue 50 years ago. Their president, M.A. Moses, is the chairman of the Central Jewish Board. The members include notables of the community, most of whom are in the professions. There are two synagogues supported by Sassoon family trust funds. They have no membership or governing committees. Jews just come to pray. As such, those synagogue cannot be members of the Central Jewish Board.

In addition to the synagogues, there are a number of other organizations. Most tend to be weaker but there is always one which functions as a catalyst of communal life. In 1976, it was the Jewish Youth Association of Bombay which includes young adults 18-30 years of age. They do such fundraising work as is done in the community, whether Maot Hittim for established residents, United Israel Appeal for Israel, or aid for new migrants onto Bombay from the surrounding villages. They organized themselves after the Six Day War, as a result of its impact.

India has no rabbis and no Bet Din. Nor have they ever had, except for Rabbi Ezekiel Muslead, a Calcutta a native educated at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York who served in his native city for a few years in the 1950's and an occasional "stray" who wandered in for awhile. The community has tried to get a rabbis to come out from time to time but they cannot pay much so none are willing to come and perform a service like that.

All three world synagogue movements are represented in India, as a result of the efforts of visitors from the U.S.A. who have capitalized on Indian Jewish poverty and dependency to generate nominal affiliations with "worldwide" movements. The Conservative Movement in India was characterized by one local authority as "all bluff". The affiliated congregations are all orthodox in practice. The United Synagogue of India originally consisted of some village synagogues to whom the Conservative Movement in the U.S. sent $500-$1,000 annually in a lump sum. Under village conditions this was enough money to lead to conflict over its distribution, thus increasing disunity rather than unity. Cynowitz put it in the following terms: " I told them, if you wanted to help us why didn't you send us a Rabbi? To Haifa you have to send a Rabbi, there aren't enough Rabbis in Haifa? Why can't you send one to Bombay if you're serious?" Now it has Bombay afflicted as well. There is one Reform congregation which is really reform, even "orthodox" in its maintenance of Reform practices. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was organized in response to the United Synagogue but it does not mean much either.

They also provide Hebrew lessons for interested members. Its members are the activists in the community, to the extent that there are any. They are strong supporters of Jewish education and serve on the boards of the local Jewish schools.

Prior to the emergence of this group, which was undertaken by Hersch, Cynowitz, he also ran the United Israel Appeal. In the 1970's, it raised 20 to 50 thousand rupees annually with great difficulty. The money can be raised openly but there are problems about transferring it to Israel in convertable currency since rupees cannot be converted abroad. They have worked out a way to do so involving the Israel Consulate. Apparently through some kind of nominal commercial transaction which allowed them to send the money out of the country in dollars.

The Bombay Zionist Association in 1967 was larger than ever before but most of its members were nominally affiliated only. There have been two Zionist youth movements in Bombay. Bnei Akiva is still active as a youth movement locally. Habonim, on the other hand, existed at least until 1965, but is no more.

As long as Hersch Cynowitz was alive, Indian Jewry had strong representation in the World Zionist Organization because of his role and connections. Since his death, no one has taken his place. Mr. Cynowitz was put on the Zionist General Council Actions Committee primarily because he is the one man the WZO leadership can depend upon from South Asia or the Far East. He was the only delegate from India, not because India is too small, but because he was not affiliated with Mapai. He was a follower of Moshe Kol, that is to say a Progressive or Independent Liberal, and as such, at a disadvantage. He did not allow the kind of representation given to the Jews of Iran which, while simply a paper organization registered in Jeruslaem with four or five people in Iran, received four or five votes because the parties in Jerusalem decided to divide these votes equally among themselves.

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