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Who Are the Jews of India?

by Nathan Katz

220 pages
published by University of California Press


This book is meant to satisfy the curiosity of all people who have an interest in the history and culture of the Jews of India. It includes in-depth discussion of the religious life of the Jewish community in Cochin, the Bene Israel from the remote Konkan coast near Bombay, and the Baghdadi Jews, who migrated to Indian port cities and flourished under the British Raj. Who Are the Jews of India? is the first book to offer an integrated as well as comprehensive narrative on not just one but all three of these Jewish communities of India.

Nathan Katz presents information from multiple disciplines -- including methods and insights from religious studies, ritual studies, anthropology, history, linguistics, and folklore -- as he explains how the three communities developed strategies to preserve their Jewish identity. The book is informed both by historical documents and modern fieldwork within India.

Reviews:

"The last decade or so has seen a surprising amount of new publications on the Indian Jews. The awareness that the communities are disappearing has prompted memoirs by its elders as well as scholarly studies. Who Are the Jews of India? is the first book to present a readable, interesting, integrated treatment of the three distinct Indian Jewish communities that have evolved -- the Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel, and the Baghdadis. It also brings together material on the Baghdadi communities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Southeast Asia in a way that I have never seen before. Its presence is most welcome; its scholarship is superior."
         - Daniel Gold, author of Comprehending the Guru: Toward a Grammar of Religious Perception

"Jews migrated to India following the routes of the spice trades in the year 70 when the temples were destroyed by Rome. The population grew and gained acclaim in society. Jews got jobs as governors, prime ministers, commanders in the armed forces and business leaders. In 1950, as many as 35,000 Jews lived in India. Now, only 5,000 remain. Much of the Jewish population has migrated to Israel. Jews in India are mostly Orthodox or Sephardic in their worship and lifestyle. They keep kosher households. At temple, women sit in the balcony separately from men. The Torah is read before the women instead of among the men, as in most Orthodox synagogues. Indian Jews have adapted some traditions as a matter of local cultural influence... Katz conducted the research for his book during three trips to India between 1983 and 1998... Goldberg took the photographs for [this book]... Like Jews in America, Katz said he found that Jews in India are proud of their cultural roots and homeland."
         - D. Aileen Dodd, in Miami Herald (October 22, 2000)

"Based on extensive fieldwork in India and a close reading of historical documents, this study provides a new understanding of the Jewish diaspora as well as insights into the Hindu society it is located in... Again and again, the book comes up against the incontrovertable fact... [that in] India's uniquely tolerant environment the Jewish community was given room to breathe and develop as it may, a welcome change for a community that has come to see religious persecution as virtually inescapable in an inhospitable world."
         - Jeet Thavil, in India Abroad (December 15, 2000), page 51

"In this enthralling book Katz explores the problems related to the understanding of identity of the Jews of India, certainly a tiny minority in the vast and variegated population of India. At the root of his examination of the marginality of the Jews in India lies the reality that the Jews are the smallest minority group in India and simultaneously, in India reside the smallest of the Jewish diaspora in the world. To Nathan Katz therefore goes the credit of bringing this tiny minority group in limelight and situating it in the perspective of the plural society of India. The significant point is the book not only presents many unknown facets of the socio-cultural life of the Jews in India, but the story of their accommodation into Indian society offers a refreshing understanding of the host society itself, i.e. India. By illuminating the little known chapter of the Jewish diasporic history, the author ably demonstrates that Jewish history is not merely European, but richly Asian too... The excellence of the book lies in its rich detaila of the rites and rituals of three Jewish communities, the lively accounts of the synagogues in Cochin, Bombay, Pune and Calcutta, and lovely black and white photographs, many of them being taken by Ellen S. Goldberg, Professor Katz's wife. The outstanding feature of the book is the author's fine tuning of empirical presentation with a flowing readability; Professor Katz has never lost sight of the human face of his subject... Nathan Katz's book drives home the point that the process of acculturation and not assimilation of minority communities is the crucial factor in the maintenance of the essential fabric of the plural socio-cultural milieu of India, and any attempt at reversing this process will only be calamitous for India and its hallowed civilization."
         - Ranabir Chakravarti, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, in Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies Volume 4 (2001)

"Katz brings perspectives from the fields of religious studies, anthropology, history, linguistics and folklore to this well-written and accessible work. He tries to understand how Jewish identity is expressed as Indian and Judaic civilizations 'interact within the very being of India's Jews,' and explains that an important difference between India and the rest of the Diaspora is that in India, 'acculturation is not paid for in the currency of assimilation.'"
         - New York Jewish Week (February 9, 2001)

"Katz... has written an intelligent and engaging portrait of the Jews of India, judiciously drawing on older studies as well as a recent spate of research. He ably treats all three communities (Cochin Jews, Bene Israel, and Baghdadis) in their historical contexts and interactions, while considering the complex interplay between sovereignty and sanctity. Katz demonstrates how these Jews used narratives and rituals to construct a past and negotiate a present place in the social order, establishing their status in relation to both priestly and ruling classes. Indian Jews adhered to and yet adapted Jewish law, reflecting local customs as well as broader patterns of Indian cultures (not only Hindu but Muslim, Christian, and Parsi); particularly illuminating is the consideration of caste. Thus Katz's treatment is not only highly informative but highly instructive, using differences between Jews in India and elsewhere, and also effectively employing the differences between these very communities to discuss the formation of identity. This volume makes fascinating reading and will be welcomed not only by readers in Jewish and Indic studies, but by anyone interested in Diasporic studies and the dynamics of acculturation."
         - Gregory Spinner, Central Michigan University, in Choice 38:8 (April 2001)

"In Who Are the Jews of India?, Nathan Katz discusses the history, identity and religious and social practices of each of these [Cochini, Bene Israel and Baghdadi] communities. The book offers a trio of comprehensive and beautifully written portraits. Katz draws on the surprisingly voluminous literature on India's Jews and on his own extensive fieldwork done with Ellen Goldberg, his wife... The book opens with a plea not to consider these tiny communities as exotic curiosities but, on the contrary, to see how an understanding of their endurance and vitality might transform how we think about both Judaism and Indian religious life. Katz develps a... general model, in which, within the incredible social diversity of Indian society, each grouping of the Jews in India acculturates through an alliance with one or more particular high-caste 'reference groups' locally... It is not known whether the Bene Israel were a group of 'lost Jews' rediscovered or (less likely) low-status Hindus who became Jews; whatever their origins, Katz writes attentively and compellingly of their religious practice. Like the Bene Israel, most Baghdadi Jews have left India, many for Israel and Britain, but those who remain, Katz points out, declare a strong Indian national identity and speak of the particular value of Hindu tolerance."
         - Lawrence Cohen, University of California Berkeley, in Persimmon: Asian Literature, Arts, and Culture (Summer 2001): pages 106-108

"This is an admirable survey of the known facts and the self-justifying legends of an ancient Jewish community that today has all but vanished. Katz calls the 'Indian chapter one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora.' At any rate, in the sense that Jews in the subcontinent rarely encountered hostility, there is much truth in that. Katz is most intimately acquainted with the least studied Indian Jewish community, that of the Malabar coast, who included both 'black' Jews, whose origins are shrouded in antiquity, and 'white' Jews, who may be partly descended from Spanish traders. He shows how the Jews of Cochin and other towns of the region gradually adopted Hindu practices, without, however, abandoning Judaism. He calls their language 'a sort of Malabar Yiddish', in which Hebrew, Tamil, Spanish, Dutch, and English elements were injected into Malayalam. Written sources on these communities are scanty, but Katz's anthropological approach builds a credible picture of the Cochin Jews' historical self-understanding, their relations with their neighbours and their syncretistic customs. While generally written with great sympathy, the book occasionally slips into moralizing - as in Katz's evident indignation at the Cochin Jews' development of their own miniature caste system.... Today, for all purposes except tourism, the Cochin community is dead. Katz reports that in 1987 it could not even muster a minyan (the prayer quorum of ten men). The two other Indian Jewish communities, the B'nai Israel of Bombay and the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, have also declined into near atrophy."
         - Bernard Wasserstein, in The Times Literary Supplement, London (November 9, 2001): pages 4-5

"Nathan Katz... has written the first comprehensive scholarly study of all three of the Jewish communities of India... [and] this [is a] truly engrossing book... Katz has written a heart-warming, scholarly book on the Jewish diaspora in India. It is a fascinating historical episode that is fast drawing to a close because of the emigration of Indian Jews to Israel. Today, the synagogues in India have stopped holding regular services because they often fail to gather a quorum of ten male Jews. Perhaps a more appropriate title of the book would be: Who Were the Jews of India?"
         - C. J. S. Wallia, in IndiaStar Review of Books (May 2002)

"Katz treats an impressive range of literature and makes full use of historical sources, folklore, art, ritual, an theoretical categories to 'understand both Judaic and Indic civilizations, and the nature of communal continuity.' He has produced an engaging introduction to the history and religious life of the Jews of India."
         - Gregory White, in Conservative Judaism Quarterly (2002): pages 92-94

"Jews of India have only recently captured the attention of the outside world... [Their story] has proved to be fascinating and highly significant for the rest of the world... One of the greatest beauties of the book is the black and white photographs by Ellen Goldberg. All of Goldberg's photographs are splendid... they give the impression of timelessness. They not only enhance the quality of the book, they raise it to a whole new dimension of worth, beauty and significance."
         - Savithri de Tourreil, in Journal of Religion and Culture 14 (2000/2001): pages 195-200

"If there is a contemporary 'dean' of Indo-Judaic studies, it is Nathan Katz, professor and chair of religious studies at Florida International University. He is helping revive a field of study inaugurated by Walter Fischel, who died in 1973. ... His purpose here is to explain generally how these Jews, who never suffered discrimination at the hands of the Indian majority, maintained their identities and the commitment to Halakhah while acculturating to Indian and English ways. ... This impressive book shows that a new generation of scholars and memorialists, inspired by the relatively happy history of the Jews of India and led by Nathan Katz, is writing excellent books about them today."
         - Brian Weinstein, Howard University, in AJS Review: the Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies 27:1 (April 2003): pages 126-128

Finalist for the 2000 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Studies

Winner of the 2004 Vak Devi Saraswati Saman Award from India

About the Author:

Nathan Katz is a professor at the Florida International University in Miami and an adjunct professor at Hindu University of America in Orlando and serves as academic director at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. He has also served as a faculty member at Naropa University, Williams College, and the University of South Florida. Katz lived in Cochin for a year, giving him first-hand knowledge of the Jewish community there. In addition to his written works, he has also given public lectures on the subject.


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Books of related interest:
Jewish Communities in Exotic Places
The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities
Studies of Indian Jewish Identity
Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century: A View from the Margin
Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers
Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures - A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl