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« What Next - The Blulitzer? | Main | Saturn & SAT - It's All About Water »

March 09, 2006


Katz's book sounds very thorough. I'm familiar with the basic anthropological and historical schema of these three populations, but many of these details are new to me, and quite interesting. A fourth, recently emerging group of Indian Jews are the Bnei Menashe, in the Northeast state of Manipur. See, "Rabbi Backs India's 'Lost Jews.'" .

The lack of prejudice and assimilation found that these Jewish groups enjoyed in India reminds me of the experience of Jews in China (both the Kaifeng Jews and the Shanghai Baghdadi Jews), which you mention in passing. It suggests some possible common sources for toleration:

1. Both China and India are enormous countries in which large numbers of localized cultural identies, languages, etc. may have prevented the groups already in India from forming a sense of a common "us" in aliance against "them."

2. Both India and China contain a multitude of religons. Of course, this was true of the Middle East, as well, until very recently. What is more important, I think, is that both India and China have a majority population that is not monotheistic-- once you get into "I the Lord your God am a jealous God" territory, toleration becomes more of a philosophical backbend (tangent: Judeo-Christianity seems to try to compensate for this through a Biblical leitmotif of our obligations toward the "stranger").

3. A more sinister possibility, in India at least, is that some lighter skinned and literate Jews (I'm presuming they were literate because historically, Jews have been disproportionately so, due to the religious commandment to read the Torah) coming from the Middle East benefited from racial and professional caste prejudices already present in Indian society. This is pure, unsupported conjecture, however, and I would be happy to be contradicted.

The question of the ways in which I do and don't feel a connection to these communities as a Jew is too large to tackle in a "comment." The larger problem, of course, is the difficulty of describing the ways in which-- or more accurately, circumstances under which--I do and don't feel like a Jew. Perhaps I'll try to write a post on this issue, as part of a long delayed review of Lebanese Catholic French author Amin Maalouf’s excellent “On Identities.”

I consider the destruction, largely in the past seventy-five years, of the enormous number of diverse and ancient Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish communities-- in India, Baghdad, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Greece, Bukharia (see for a snapshot of the fate of that community)-- one of the great tragedies to come out of the creation of the state of Israel. The case of India's Jewish communities shows the complicated push-pull involved. In some cases, as in Baghdad, and elsewhere in the Arab world, the anti-Semitism of the host community drove emigration to Israel. In India, almost certainly a combination of enticement by Zionists (I shouldn't have to remind anyone of this, but not all Jews are Zionists) and economic opportunity in Israel, supported in part by US aid, played a leading role. I have no opinion as to if and how this result could have been avoided, that is, the fate of these cultures if the state of Israel had not been created. I suspect that the Indian Jewish communities would have remained in India (since they had for so many centuries), but that Jews in more hostile places, particularly in the Arab world, would have emigrated to America, or to the European countries who colonized their countries of origin, as North African Jews have to France. Moreover, it's too broad a topic to tackle here the ways in which, while discrimination and different periods of immigration have maintained some distinctions among Jewish groups, the trend is toward their blurring. When I think of these trends, my main reaction is a vague sense of tragedy that we are moving from a world containing an enormous variety of culturally rich and quite different communities, loosely connected by a common religion, into a world of two main communities, in America and Israel (with France trailing as a distant and problematic third), with an extremely thin sense of cultural heritage, bound almost exclusively by religion, and by the fact that none of us has any other homeland to return to.

The book is indeed densely researched and full of meticulous details. The photos are excellent too.

I am aware of the Manipuri Jews - the story broke all over the Indian media a few years back. It seems that Israelis are quite busy searching for subgroups such as this all over India. The political and demographic implications are clear. Quite interesting is also another theory - that the entire Kashmiri population (Muslims and Hindus) may have been of Jewish extraction. This view has some currency among Kashmiris themselves. I once saw a website of an Israeli scholar where he listed all the Kashmiri Brahmin surnames along with their probable Hebrew roots.

You are very right about the size of China and India. The presence of miniscule (and even sizable ones) minorities was of no threat to these societies. Also, absent Abrahamic roots of the dominant faiths, Narcissism of minor differences did not play a role.

India's polytheistic mode of worship definitely made it easier for other "gods" to coexist with Hindu ones. In fact it is not at all uncommon to this day, to find Buddha and Jesus Christ in the shrine of a Hindu household - more the merrier being the motto here.

The same comfort level with alien belief systems which allowed other religions to flourish in India, even those adhered to by small groups (Parsees being another example) probably is also why it was very hard to convert Hindus. They just did not feel threatened by other "gods". During 700 years under Muslim rule and 200 under the British, facing aggressive attempts at conversion and punitive taxation, majority of Indians remained Hindus. Which is quite a big puzzle given that the neighboring country of Iran, another thriving ancient civilization with an ancient and proud (and similarly snobbish) religion, converted to Islam almost en masse - except for the handful of Zoroastrians who escaped to, where else? India.

Will wait to see your book review "On Identities" whenever you get around to it. Thanks for your (always interesting) comment.

Ms. Paul:

"...another theory... the entire Kashmiri population (Muslims and Hindus) may have been of Jewish extraction. This view has some currency among Kashmiris themselves. I once saw a website of an Israeli scholar where he listed all the Kashmiri Brahmin surnames along with their probable Hebrew roots."

Yes, this 'theory' has floated around quite some time, but it's a theory in only the loosest sense--the purported 'resemblances' are quite weak. The Kashmiri history of this dates to the colonial era--another reason to be skeptical.

Btw, Kashmir is full of crackpot 'history'. My 'favorite' is that Jesus was not crucifed in Jerusalem, but ended up in Kashmir. And, really, who can blame him? ;)


The story about Jesus's tomb in Srinagar's Roza Bal district is a pretty widely held belief in certain parts of the world - in India, the Muslim middle east and among some Jews. That Jesus escaped (with the help of his followers) from the cross and found refuge in far away India, is a plausible earthly explanation for the miraculous resurrection and the empty tomb in Jerusalem. This fascinating legend still has a powerful hold on people's imagination - especially non-Christians. See a story here:

Ms. Paul:

Interesting, that. I'd heard this story from my (skeptical) grandfather and assumed its provenance was limited to our Kashmiri environs. However, I'm not sure that its popularity can be attributed to a desire to render the 'miraculous' mundane. After all, India and the Middle East are full of fabulists. (Which is not to say that some of those fabulists may have hit on a few fundamental truths).


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