Dr. Maina Singh and the Indian Jews of Israel


c 2009 Me! I took this picture :)

Every time I find out about another ethnic Jewish minority, it blows my mind.  How many permutations of us are there? Of course you have your garden variety North American Jews, then you have us Russian Jews who are apprently invading everything, and then there are the Ethiopians, the cool kids of the 1990s.  But Indian Jews?  Really?

A couple weeks ago, at American University, Dr. Maina Chawla Singh delivered a lecture on Being Indian, Being Israeli. Dr. Singh  is originally from the University of Delhi but relocated to Israel for three years beginning in 2005 when her husband, Arun Singh, was the Ambassador to Israel.  She began her research on Jews who had made aliyah to Israel from India.

In India, Dr. Singh said, there were three main areas of Jewish settlement: Maharashtra, where the Bene Israel lived (the Indian Jews the West is most familiar with through Sadia Shepard’s book and movie), the Cochinese Jews in Kerala who speak not Hindi but Malayalam, and the “Baghdadi” Jews of Calcutta who are more Bengali in culture and come from an amalgamation of places such as Singapore and Shanghai.


These groups mostly didn’t intermingle in Israel and mostly kept to the culture of their area as opposed to marrying “Jewish” across the country.  They were all also relatively wealthy and cultured  in relation to their neighbors.  This all made it all the more surprising when the first wave of them left in 1949, 70,000 people, to Israel.  What is most interesting is that Dr. Singh emphasized that the Jews made aliyah for antionalist reasons-Zionism.  The Jews in India have never been persecuted and therefore did not form the shtetl and protectionist mentality that Eastern European Jews had.

What was ist like for them to leave one young country (with thousands of years of culture) and move to another young country with its identity yet to be established?  What was it like to leave behind solid economic foundations and move to the frontier desert towns of Dimona and Kiryat Shmona in the North?  What was it like to be marginalized by both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and fall into a third category of “Other?”

In her book and subsequently the lecutre, Dr. Singh lays out case studies of hundreds of interviews that she had conducted from Eilat to Metula, with Indian Jewish communities in Israel.  Here are a few of the points I found most fascinating

  • Indian Jews, unlike American Jews, had to give up dual citizenship when they left for Israel, leaving them to continuously grapple with their identity
  • Since the women of Indian households had never worked before, it was frustrating and awakward for them to work side-by-side with Moroccan women and others on kibbutzim, doing work outside the home
  • Indian Jews born in Israel, sabras, still heavily maintain Indian culture.  At one point, Dr. Singh showed a clip of Israeli girls that have been through the army, may not even speak their native language (Hindi, Malayalam, and Marathi) anymore, but still vigorously perform dances to Bollywood music
  • Many Indians she talked to told her, “India is my motherland, and Israel is my fatherland.”

To end with, here’s a trailer for Sof HaOlam Smola (Left at the End of the World) that portrays the immigration of such a family to Israel. It’s only in Hebrew (sorry,) but you can see the gist of the culture of Indians in Israel in the 1950s-1960s.




19 thoughts on “Dr. Maina Singh and the Indian Jews of Israel

  1. Interesting! One of my friends in Highland Park where I live is from Bene Israel. Her mother and most of her brothers still live in India.
    “Since the women of Indian households had never worked before” – not true of my friend! She works very hard at a job in NYC and then cooks delicious meals for Shabbat – we enjoyed a lovely vegan meal at her house recently. I didn’t hear complaints from my boys about the lack of meat.

    Our rabbi, Rabbi David Bassous of Cong. Etz Ahaim, was born in India. He left for Britain when he was 2. His family is of the Baghdadi Jews.

    There’s a movie called in Search of Bene Israel (in English) that we saw recently: http://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=339&Itemid=287

    1. The way Dr. Singh put it, I think she was talking about the women who immigrated in the early 50s, etc. Maybe some of them had jobs, but she swept over it in generalizing. Your friend sounds awesome and it’s interesting that she keeps vegan-is that out of Indian Hindu tradition or kashrut?

      I didn’t realize there were so many Indian Jews in the NY area!

      Also, that movie is by Sadia Sheperd, who I referred to above and had the chance to see at a talk. She is very, very cool.

  2. Vicki: Interesting read. I have friends who belong to 8 or 9 religions and the only kind I did not meet in India was Jewish! And now I have Jewish friends who are French, Canadian (via Russia, South Africa and other countries) and American (in your case, via Russia; others I am not so sure). :-) Religious communities in India’s various states are very “odd” from a purist point of view. They retain some of their religious customs, take on some local state’s traditions and practices and add on some typically Indian things. In school, for instance, some of my Christian friends used to observe a Monday fast to get handsome husbands (otherwise a Hindu ritual for some). I shall try to find this book in India – much better ROI on books 😉

    1. Shefaly,
      Thanks for your perspective on religion in India, as always. It surprises me because I always thought that at least Indian Hindus, Muslims, and Christians that seriously practiced were more “pure” in their practices. I’m particularly thinking of Indian Christians that have traditional English names so as to not take Hindi ones. Regarding the book-good luck and I hope you find it-it doesn’t seem to be common around as an academic book.

  3. Very interesting stuff! I found the skin tone & general looks of the actors in your film clip curious; I have no idea if they used Indian Jews for the movie, but, if so, I’d be very interested in finding out how much intermarriage occurred with the “local” Indians. I suspect it’s a similar story as with the Parsis in India.

    In the last year, I came across this article on the very diminished community of Jews in Calcutta – in a way, it’s very sad so see a unique group die out, but change is the way of the world…

    1. I think I lost your link in the comment color change so if you could repost it that would be awesome. How did you find them to be curious-in that they seemed off to you?

      I think Dr. Singh said that there wasn’t any intermarriage at all; that the communities were pretty tightly knit, but again that might have been in the past because this article indicates that intermarriage has become prevalent in the community: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/indians.html

      1. Thanks for taking the time to change the styling of comments! 😀 Here’s the article I was speaking of above.

        As far as what I meant by “curious” – well, they just look very light-skinned for most Indians, but more Indian than I think most Jewish people look. (Altho I know I haven’t seen all variations of the Jewish people…)

        I would be very surprised if there were no intermarriage between the Jewish communities and Indians. Yes, both groups are historically pretty good at avoiding marriage outside of a specific set of accepted people… but I think most genetic research on the groups in general suggests a significant, if small amount of marriage outside of the norms. I should see if I can pull up the relevant articles from Gene Expression.

  4. One serious quibble, and perhaps this is just about the way the professor phrased it, but to say “Since the women of Indian households had never worked before,” is sexist and demeaning, unless they really lived lives of complete luxury. The truth is most likely that they had never worked FOR PAY OUTSIDE THE HOME before, right?

    Sorry, I’m just tired of people dismissing the huge amount of unpaid labor done by women that props up entire economies.

    1. It’s interesting that you should point this out (probably as much my fault as the author’s), but Hadassa just had a post about this at her blog which generated lots of discussion: http://hadassahsabo.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/oh-you-don%E2%80%99t-work/

      I don’t know if I want to jump into this debate seeing as to how I’m not a full-time SAHM or stay at home wife, but I think those of us who work full-time jobs in addition to cleaning the house, cooking, etc, view staying at home as “easier” than doing constant double-duty even though I know that’s not always the case, especially when you have kids and really need a break. Maybe the topic for another post?

      1. I’m a work-out-of-home mom, and the point is not WOHM or SAHM, it’s that ALL domestic labor that is unpaid is not thought of as “work,” even though it is.

        Also – SAH moms ARE doing “double-duty” – have you ever tried to get anything productive done with a toddler in tow? Not so easy, my friend.

      2. And the thing that really pisses me off about it is that consistently, it’s WOMEN doing the unpaid labor, whether in addition to child rearing or not. So it’s essentially our way of dismissing women’s labor as not really work, unless it resembles male labor.

  5. It’s funny that you ended your post with the trailer for Sof HaOlam Smola (Left at the End of the World). The local AZM affiliate is hosting an Israeli movie night next week, and we’re watching this film!

  6. My Grandmother was born in India of Russian Jewish roots. She married a Christian, having been convent educated. I suspect that the community was more integrated than is suggested.

    On the subject of never having worked before, she really hadn’t. This is fact and not sexism or devaluing of women’s work. From what I can make out she never did anything at all for herself at all until she moved country and suddenly had no help whatsoever. It must have been quite a culture shock.

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