Jews of Cochin:

Calcutta: Nahoums and Sons
New Market
Bertram St, Kolkata, West Bengal, India


Chabad of Mumbai

O.R.T. India
68, Worli Hill Road
Phone: (22)24962357, 24968423

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A History of the Jews of India

The Jews of Calcutta

The first Jew to settle in Calcutta was Shalome Cohen, a Syrian businessman who left his native Aleppo in 1790 at the age of 26 and sailed to India on an exploratory journey. He decided to settle in Calcutta, a center of trade and the capital of British India, and did so in 1798. He prospered and eventually became court jeweler to the nawab, the nobleman of Lucknow, a city to the north, in 1816.

As news of Cohen's success spread, other Jews from the Middle East followed his footsteps. They came largely for business, trading in silk, indigo and opium. Religious persecutions in Baghdad and Basra between 1825 and 1835 caused a wave of immigration from Iraq and gave the community its Baghdadi complexion. At its peak in the 1940s, the Calcutta community grew to 5,000 Jews who built three large synagogues (and two small ones), two Jewish schools, a Jewish hospital and other Jewish institutions.

The Jewish community began to disperse after two near-simultaneous events: Indian independence in 1947, and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. About 2,000 Jews made aliyah and about another 2,000, fearing their economic circumstances would decline after the British left India, scattered to other English-speaking countries—England, Australia, the U.S. and Canada.

The Jews of Bombay

Bombay occupies a proud chapter in Jewish history that echoes with lost tribes, shipwrecks and remote villages. At its peak by 1950, Bombay supported a Jewish community of about 35,000, made up of the indigenous Bene Israel overlaid with Jews from Baghdad. Though the community has dwindled to 3,500, it does its best to celebrate Jewish events with vibrancy and joy.

No conclusive evidence exists, but tradition claims the Bene Israel descended from Galilee oil-pressers shipwrecked 2,000 years ago off the Konkan coast—the mainland across the creek from Bombay. The seven couples said to have survived settled around the village of Navgaon and became farmers and coconut-oil pressers—shanwar telli (literally, "Saturday oil men" because they did not work on Shabbat).

Since they had lost everything, the Bene Israel had no written guidelines for practicing Judaism. They lived peacefully in the villages that dotted the coast and kept the rituals they remembered: certain laws of kashrut, circumcision, Shabbat and reciting the Shema, which became an all-purpose prayer. With the advent of educational and employment opportunities introduced when the British began to develop Bombay in the eighteenth century, many Bene Israel moved to the city. They found employment in government service and distinguished themselves in the armed forces. In 1796 the first synagogue, Sha'ar Harahamim, was built by Samuel Ezekiel Divekar, who vowed to erect a house of worship if he survived as a prisoner-of-war of the Muslim sultan of Mysore.

Baghdadi Jews began settling in Bombay in 1730, but did not become a presence until the arrival of David Sassoon, son of a wealthy Jewish family. As the Baghdadi community's unofficial spokesman during Daud Pasha's reign of terror between 1825 and 1835, he was arrested but released on condition that he leave the city. In 1832, Sassoon settled in Bombay and began a commercial and philanthropic dynasty that drew Jews from throughout the Ottoman Empire. At its peak, the Baghdadi community numbered about 10,000.

The emergence of two new states—India in 1947 and Israel in 1948--spelled the dramatic decline of Bombay's Jewish community. Infused with Zionist zeal and anticipating an economic downturn under Indian rule, most made aliya while others dispersed to English-speaking countries.

The Bene Israel initially relied on Torah scribes, teachers and cantors from Cochin to the south, or Baghdad, Yemen and Syria. A religious revival in the nineteenth century resulted in the building of most of its 20 synagogues, eight of which still function. Most of the community serve in administrative and clerical jobs, but about 25 percent have become professionals. India's Jews are served by over 40 organizations, yet most meet too irregularly to sustain a lasting impact.

Nourishing Jewish life in Bombay has become the province of ORT-India, established in 1960, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. ORT provides a kosher bakery; makes kosher wine, halla and chicken available, and oversees the mikve at the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue; Offices are at 68 Worli Hill Road (telephone: 91-22-496-2350; E-mail: ortbbay@ The JDC provides assistance to the poor and services for the elderly. Hadassah Mumbai offices are c/o AJDC, 3 Rodef Shalom, 23 Dadoji Kindev Road ( or they can be reached through the new JDC community center in the Mahim section of the city (431-4734;

The Jews of Cochin

Cochin is one of the oldest living Jewish communities in the world. One tradition claims that Jews arrived in Cochin in the time of King Solomon, traders in gold, ivory and peacock feathers. According to another tradition, the first Jews arrived in the nearby port city of Cranganore in the first century CE, after the destruction of the second Temple. The earliest documentary evidence of the settlement is a set of copper plates that scholars date from the eleventh century CE. It details the gifts made by the maharajah, the local ruler, to Joseph Rabban, the leader of the Jewish community. The privileges included riding on an elephant, carrying a parasol and being accompanied by drums and trumpets.

A flood in Cranganore, a war and internal community strife caused the Jews to emigrate to Cochin. They built the first synagogue there in 1344. In the 16th century, Jews fleeing the Inquisition from as far as Spain and Portugal reached Cochin, where they found protection under its benevolent maharajah. The newcomers were called Paradesis, which means "foreigner" in the local Malayalam dialect. They were later joined by immigrants from the Middle East.

The maharajah granted the Jews a large piece of land adjoining his palace; the Paradesi synagogue was built just 30 yards from his private temple. The Jews became so numerous that one Portuguese historian called the maharajah of Cochin the "King of the Jews." The Jews became a highly respected minority amongst the half-million native Indians who lived in the state of Cochin.

At its height, the Cochin community consisted of 2,000 Jews worshiping in eight synagogues. One resident recalls Cochin as a "little Jerusalem." But the birth of Israel inspired the Jews to make aliyah almost en masse. Today, only about six families remain. A museum to Cochin's Jewish heritage in Moshav Nevatim, just south of Beer Sheva, in Israel, chronicles the rich culture of the community.