Page 11 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

Basic HTML Version

THE L I T E R A R Y A C T I V I T I E S OF
THE “ B E N E - I S R A E L ” I N I N D I A
By
W
alter
J.
F
i s c h e l
I
n t r y i n g t o
understand the literary productivity of the “Rem-
nants of Israel” in remote lands, we turn in this survey to that
group of Jews in India known as the “Bene-Israel,” who are mainly
though not exclusively concentrated in Bombay and its vicinity.
It is assumed that the “Bene-Israel” lived for many centuries in
the villages of the Konkan region, about 20 miles south of Bom-
bay, exposed to the external influences of their Hindu and Muslim
environment, unknown to and unnoticed by the outside Jewish
world. Their neighbors called them “Shanwar Telis,” the Sabbath-
observing oilmen, indicating their occupation and their religious
observance; in the English Bombay records of the 19th century
they were referred to as the “Native Jew Caste.” Their mother
tongue was Marathi, the vernacular of the region of the Konkan
and Bombay. Though unacquainted with the Hebrew language
and their Jewish heritage, they clung to some fundamentals of the
Jewish tradition, observed circumcision, dietary laws, some festi-
vals and the Sabbath, and professed their faith with the words,
“Shema Israel”
No authentic written records or documents are
available to shed light on their origin and history.
The “Bene-Israel” entered the arena of history in the second
part of the 18th century, around 1765, when some of them decided
to end their long isolation in the villages of the Konkan region,
and moved to Bombay, attracted by the new opportunities British
Bombay could offer them. There they entered the civil service and
the British Native Regiments and achieved high recognition for
their faithful and efficient services as soldiers and officers for the
British cause in many theaters of war during the 19th century.
While these services in the military of British India have been
attested by glorious tributes from their commanding officers, their
literary and cultural contributions remain obscure. Actually, it
could have hardly been expected that a group so assimilated to
the Marathi language and culture, so isolated from other Jewish
groups and so alien to the sources of Hebrew and Judaism, should
become bearers or creators of Jewish literary and religious values.
Yet, when their centuries-long era of darkness and ignorance,
their “jahiliya,” terminated with their settlement in Bombay, a
5