Over the past two decades or so, they have been marked indelibly by a newly rejuvenated faith in their religion. From circumcision—Yacobi underwent one when he was 29—to keeping their meals kosher. From not working during Sabbath on Saturdays—a tough call since many of the adherents are daily- wage labourers—to praying regularly at the local synagogue. They are more at home in Israel’s Ramat Gan than in Guntur’s Chebrole, and equally at ease using the Hebrew greeting ‘Shalom’ as the Telugu equivalent ‘Vandanalu’.
The community, with its Jewish credentials and claims, is now the focus of a book ‘The Jews of Andhra Pradesh—Contesting Caste and Religion in South India’, authored by two UK-based scholars Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez (published by Oxford University Press in May in New York, it will be released in India later this year).
So what explains this Jewish connection amongst a people who have been practising Christians for at least over a century? Ask Yacobi and he will tell you that he always saw elements of Judaism at home, whether it was the celebration of Jewish festivals like Pesach and Sukkot or the use of Hebrew words in prayers. “I was always brought up as a Bene Ephraim. That is what my grandparents and parents told me,” he says. “It’s only to the outsiders that we were Christians.” This inexplicit link was further strengthened when his father Yacob visited Israel during World War II, a first for any of these people, as a soldier of the Madras Engineers group of the Indian Army. His curiosity aroused, Yacobi joined the Andhra Christian Theological College in Hyderabad in 1972 to study Hebrew. “That’s when I became serious and started the congregation in 1986,” he adds.
This resurgence, explains Perwez, who’s with the University of Bath, has also come “with the desire to escape the Hindu caste system and the growing realisation that Christianity did not benefit them either.” He adds that “other than moving them up socially and financially, they also think that in following Judaism they are spiritually supreme because of its belief in one god”. According to Perwez, who spent over a year with the Bene Ephraim to study their claims and practices, Shmuel Yacobi may have been influenced by some of the people from the Northeast he met while running Hebrew Open University in Vijayawada in the mid-1980s (it offered theological courses through correspondence). Some of them may have been members of or associated with a similar group, the Bnei Menashe. These Jews from the Northeast were granted recognition by an Israeli rabbi in ’05 and many of them have since settled in Israel.
Despite its contestable claims, the community has begun drawing attention from members of the international Jewry, especially the Shavei Israel, the organisation based in Israel that helped the Bnei Menashe with recognition as Jews and their subsequent return to Israel. “The Bnei Ephraim have had a remarkable if brief history and demonstrate a true passion for Judaism. While their roots remain unclear, Shavei Israel is assisting the community with fulfilling its heartfelt desire to deepen their knowledge of Jewish belief and practice,” says its website. Jews from the US, Israel and even Mumbai have travelled to the local villages to mainstream them. It is because of this, and in keeping with orthodox Jewish beliefs, that the second and newer synagogue near Vijayawada has a curtain to separate the men from the women. That said, official recognition is still some distance away. The Israel embassy spokesman in New Delhi, David Golfarb, e-mailed Outlook to say, “We are not aware of any Jewish community in Andhra Pradesh”. Little known they may be for the government or Israel but not for terror outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba, who, having figured out that there were Jews in Andhra Pradesh, supposedly hatched a plan to attack them back in 2004. This is from reports in the local newspapers.
Yarmulke days Shmuel Yacobi during a US visit
That they may not be officially recognised as Jews (or as an Israelite, the term he prefers) and, therefore, possibly not be allowed to emigrate to Israel doesn’t bother Yacobi. “I am not fighting for it. I just remember and wait, for I know god will take us...he has promised me...not the government of Israel or anybody else,” says Yacobi, who has nevertheless been to the Promised Land five times. Others too claim that it is not something that drives their faith. “We will practise our faith wherever god takes us. If required, we will follow it here,” says 35-year-old Yehoshuva Korahi. Also known as Ratnagiri Kortepati, he has had to strike a compromise between his faith and material needs. The school in Peddapuram where he works as a computer teacher insists he come to work on Saturdays. “In fact, there is more work on the weekend. It bothers me but there is no other option.”
However, Perwez and Egorova point out how Shmuel Yacobi and his brother Sadok (also considered one of their leaders) have gotten around to the idea after their trips to Israel that the smaller their group is, the better their chances are of making an ‘aliyah’ (the term for a Jew’s return to Israel). As a result, those who pray in the new synagogue near Vijayawada are called ‘Friends of Bene Ephraim’, unlike those in the older synagogue in Chebrole. “This hasn’t gone down well with some people, who have started copycat groups such as the Bene Israel and the Bene Abraham. And many other similar groups will emerge if the Bene Ephraim are recognised by Israel,” says Perwez. The authors also write about how some of the Bene Ephraim responded by identifying themselves as Christians, something the Yacobis are quick to interrupt and correct. But Shmuel Yacobi, who acknowledges this tension, adds, “I will really have no problems if others are recognised and get to go before me. It would lessen my burden of searching for the children of Ephraim.”
Back home in India, marriage does pose a problem for the community who are striving to keep the flock as “pure” as possible by marrying other Jews. The problem is, like the other purity aficionados, the Parsis, there simply aren’t many of their kind around. Yet, Shmuel, always diligent and perseverant, managed to rustle up a match for a local Bene Ephraim girl from a Bene Israeli Jew in Mumbai. It didn’t work. “I tried several times but her parents were too scared to send her to Mumbai, which is a 24-hour train journey from here,” he says. He was wiser not to even attempt an alliance with the more distant Bnei Menashe who are three days away by train in Manipur and Mizoram. Meanwhile, they make do with anybody who is willing to be accepted into the fold.
To those who attribute financial motives to the group’s switch—an allegation levelled often enough—Shmuel Yacobi says he has so far received only $500, that too from an American to help build the synagogue, and promise of help in setting up a poultry farm from Shavei Israel. All other assistance has been to learn more about Judaism and Hebrew. The add-ons don’t matter for him. He could be living in Israel, the US or Ethiopia—a place he himself suggests instead of the politically volatile West Bank—or just in Chebrole. All he clamours for is recognition as an Israelite. “Being a Bene Ephraim, that’s all I want to be.”
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
God belief ( and organised religion ) is pure madness
For some, however, it is a means of ensuring good money, thanks to its international links
One would've thought that if someone had to travel from Iran to India, one would prefer overland routes along the Makran coast of Balochestan into fertile plains of Sindh and from thereon into peninsular India - rather than choosing the almost suicidal route of crossing the Karakoram and Pir Panjal ranges separating present-day Afghanistan/NW Pakistan and Kashmir. Even the ferocious Alexandar's army, and a millennium later, the Mongols, couldn't manage that feat. In fact why use land routes at all, if one can easily hitch a ride on numerous boats plying regularly between the Arab trading posts and the western sea-board of India along well-documented spice-trade routes of antiquity far surpassing the Assyrian period.
This claim has the word BOGUS (in Kannada) written all over it!
You are right
One look at the pictures, and anyone ( excluding journalists ) can figure out, that not one of these people have a single gene from the middle east.
But then, that is what religion ( like feminism ) is all about, is nt it - myths and lies ( using the media )
I agree the comments may be true in most cases, but not perhaps in this case...
there are jews scattered all over the world, and have been the victims to several tragedies and yet have survived... Rememeber.. Judaism is the oldest practising religion in the world. Greeks, romans all vanished but not hebrews. And a jew is a jew by birth. External features dont make one a jew.
See that they are only aspiring to be identified in the world as 'Jews' whether or not they get to live in Israel.
This is so true a characteristic of Jews to assert their religion and practice...
There is a Jewish group in North Eastern India which looks distinctly Mongolian and there are several Jews of African orgin. You also have Persian, Egyptian, Armenian and Cochin Jews. So saying that the Jews form a distinct ethnic group is not accurate. However, unless a DNA check is carried out, it will be difficult to establish the claims of Bene Ephraim.
BTW, Chebrole is nearly a thousand kilometres from Karnataka so the script in which BOGUS is written cannot be Kannada.
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