Frequently Asked Questions on Soc.Culture.Jewish
Part 7: Jews as a Nation
[Last Change: $Date: 1995/10/19 15:24:09 $ $Revision: 1.3 $]
[Last Post: Thu Mar 4 11:07:08 US/Pacific 2004]
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer
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used to refer to the movements of Judaism. Outside of North American,
Reform is Progressive or Liberal Judaism; Conservative is Masorti or
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are differences in practice, position, and ritual between US/Canada
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conservative/Masorti movement elsewhere. Where appropriate, these
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This portion of the FAQ contains answers to the following questions:
Section 13. Jews as a Nation
1. What are the different racial and cultural groups of Jews?
2. What are the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim?
3. Where did the Beita Yisrael (Falashas) come from?
4. Who were the Khazars? Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from the
5. Who are Crypto-Jews (also known as "marranos")?
6. How does the Sephardi/Ashkenazi differences differ from the
7. I've heard of a group called the "Black Hebrews". Who are
8. What about the black jews in South Africa?
9. Who Are The Jews of India, And What Are Their Origins?
10. Are Jews a Nation or a Religion?
11. Who are the Edot Mizraxi?
12. What About Yeminite Jews?
13. Who was Donna Gracia?
Subject: Question 13.1: What are the different racial and cultural groups of
The Jewish religion is practiced by people of diverse racial and
ethnic backgrounds, as a result of the continual process of conversion
to Judaism. Thus, Jews today are a mixture of descendants of converts
as well as direct descendants of ancient Israelite Jews. You cannot
determine who is a Jew based solely on name, racial characteristics,
or any other physical characteristics (including circumcision, for
much of the male general population undergos this procedure).
Among North American Jews, individuals of Eastern European Ashkenazi
heritage are predominant, although before the late 1800's, individuals
of Sephardi origin (i.e. Jews who settled around the Mediterranean
basin at the time of the diaspora) were more common.
Other groups of Jews include the Arab and Yemeni Jews. In fact, there
was a Jewish kingdom in Yemen in the early Middle Ages under the rule
of Dhu Nuwas. There are also Jews of Persian origin. The larger groups
of non-Caucasian Jews include the Jews from Ethiopia.
Other Jewish communities include the Kaifeng Jews of China (now mostly
assimilated). Until 1960, there was a community of cave-dwelling Jews
in southern Libya. A community in Burma claimed to be Jews, and rumors
and legends abound about African, Native American, and other tribes
claiming Jewish ancestry. There are also Jewish communities in India.
A 20th-century convert community, the Abayudaya Jews, exists in
Jews may be white or black. No one knows the skin color of the
patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We do know that there was some
mixing between the Jewish and the Hamatic nations. Some biblical
scholars believe that Abraham was half-Chaldean; there is some
evidence that the Chaldeans were black. The point of this: to
reiterate what was said at the beginning of this answer: You cannot
determine who is a Jew based solely on name, racial characteristics,
or any other physical characteristics (including circumcision, for
much of the male general population undergos this procedure).
Subject: Question 13.2: What are the differences between Sephardim and
They came from different cultures, and so particular customs developed
differently, such as details of the prayer service and permitted foods
on Pesach. The Shulchan Aruch by R' Joseph Karo is the definitive
Sephardic work on halacha, and R' Moshe Isserles later added glosses
to describe Ashkenazi practice. Other works describe the customs and
practices of particular communities.
Many of the customs (minhagim) are derived from the communities in
which these groups arose. The customs of Ashkenazi Jews often resemble
those of the Slavs and Germans, because the Ashkenazi Jews were
concentrated in that region. Additional information may be found in
Paul Wexler's book The Ashkenazic Jews by Slavica Publishers.
Subject: Question 13.3: Where did the Beita Yisrael (Falashas) come from?
First off, know that "Falasha" (Amharic for "stranger") is considered
very derogatory. Just say "Ethiopian Jew" if you can't remember "Beita
Yisrael." Older reference books will probably list them under
"Falasha," i.e. the 1972 article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
Their own legends date them back to Shlomo ha-melech [King Solomon],
and ascribe their origin to the tribe of Dan. See the book The Lost
Jews by Rappoport.
Researchers also think some of the defeated Yemenite Jews from the Abu
Duwas Jewish Kingdom came to Ethiopia, and that some Elephantine Jews
migrated south from Egypt. Another Ethiopian legend has one of Moses'
sons migrating South and establishing a Hebrew community before King
You can learn more about Ethiopian Jewry and their rich history and
culture on the Ethiopian Jewry WWW Homepage at
Subject: Question 13.4: Who were the Khazars? Are Ashkenazi Jews descended
from the Khazars?
The Khazars were a Turkic tribe that migrated to the steppes of what
is today southern Russia and eastern Ukraine by the 5th century. They
established a powerful kingdom that existed from the mid-7th century
until the early-11th century. The Khazars had a two-king system,
consisting of a military king (bek) and a sacral king (khaqan). The
Khazar army, which took orders from the bek and the military commander
(tarkhan), included tens of thousands of professional soldiers.
The Khazars were a potent military force in eastern Europe till about
the middle of the 11th century, their last power base being the
Crimean peninsula. In the 7th and 8th centuries, they defeated the
Eastern Caliphate in several key battles, thus halting the spread of
Islam north of the Caucasus mountain range, much the same as what the
Carolingian rulers did to the Western Caliphate at the Pyrenees.
(Ironically, these Jewish converts made Eastern Europe safe for
Christianity.) The Khazars gained control over major waterways such as
the Caspian Sea, the Volga River, and the Dnieper River. The Khazar
kings collected tribute from many of the East Slavic tribes as well as
from traders traversing their country. Large garrisons were stationed
at hill-forts located at strategic points throughout the kingdom
(e.g., Kiev by the Dnieper, Sarkel by the Don, Samandar by the
Caspian) to guard against enemy invaders such as the Rus.
The king of the Khazars learned the Torah with the assistance of the
Jewish preacher Isaac Sangari, whose existence has recently been
verified (by the discovery of poems authored by Sangari in the
Firkovitch collection of manuscripts). In the 9th century, the
Khazarian kings and nobles officially converted to Judaism. Surrounded
by the Islamic Eastern Caliphate of Persia and the Christian Byzantine
Empire, the Khazars may have chosen Judaism as their state religion to
avoid being religiously (and hence politically) dominated by either
empire, so that they could avoid being labelled as heathens while at
the same time remaining independent of their powerful neighbors. By
the start of the 10th century, Judaism gained a stronghold among the
common Khazar people, and the Hebrew script came into use in Khazaria.
However, most of the soldiers in the Khazar army were Muslims, and the
non-Khazar ethnic groups within the Khazar Empire (such as the Slavs,
Bulgars, and Goths) did not adopt Judaism but rather remained pagans,
Muslims, and Christians.
Arab travelogues provide useful contemporary details about the life of
the Khazars. Armenian, Slavic, and Hebrew sources also form the core
of our knowledge about the Khazar people. Important Hebrew primary
1. The Khazar Correspondence between Khaqan Joseph and Hasdai ibn
Shaprut of Spain, now known to be authentic.
2. The Schechter Letter, found in the Cairo Genizah, an account of
the conversion of Khazars to Judaism, the migration of Jews to
Khazaria, and the military victories of the Khazars.
3. The Kievan Letter, found in the Cairo Genizah, written by the
Khazar Jews of Kiev in the early 10th century.
Within the past few decades, archaeological excavations in Russia and
Ukraine have unearthed Khazar jewelry, pottery, gravesites, and
tombstones containing engraved menorahs and Turkic tribe symbols. One
of the most famous sites was Sarkel, which in 1952 was flooded for a
dam by the Soviet government and is not available for further
research. Other major Khazarian archaeological sites include Verkhneye
Chiryurt (Balanjar, in Daghestan), Verkhneye Saltovo and Mayaki
hill-fort (near the Don and Donets rivers), and Kerch and Sudak (on
the Crimea). For several years, archaeologists have been trying to
locate the precise site of the Khazar capital of Itil; some believe
the wall which surrounded Itil has been found underwater, while others
associate Itil with a hill in the Volga delta region called Samosdelka
(south of Astrakhan).
Secondary sources include:
* The Kuzari by Yehuda HaLevi, a 12th century religious work using
the story of the Khazars as justification for Judaism in the face
of intense missionary pressure especially in Spain. The Kuzari was
originally written in Arabic, but many excellent Hebrew and
English translations have been published.
* "The History of the Jewish Khazars" by Douglas M. Dunlop (New
York: Schocken Books, 1967).
* "The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage" by
Arthur Koestler (New York: Random House, 1976).
* "Khazar Studies: An Historico-Philological Inquiry into the
Origins of the Khazars" by Peter Golden (Budapest: Akademiai
* "Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century" by Omeljan
Pritsak (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982).
* "The Jews of Khazaria" by Kevin A. Brook (Northvale, NJ: Jason
Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars? Some believe that they
are, at least to a certain extent. An important Khazar community
remained in Kiev, and family oral traditions indicate the persistence
of Khazar Jewish communities in Hungary, Transylvania, Lithuania, and
central Ukraine. Some Jews have features that might be considered
almost Mongolian or Oriental. However, there is no remnant of Khazar
custom among Ashkenazi Jews, and there are only a few Ashkenazi
surnames (e.g., Balaban) that derive from Turkic. It is sometimes
suggested that the surname Kogan derives from Khaqan, but the more
likely derivation is from Kohen (meaning "Israelite priest"); the
Ukrainians and Belarusians use the letter h, but in Russian h becomes
g, as may be seen in such examples as Grodno-Hrodna and Girsch-Hirsch.
It seems that after the fall of their kingdom, the Khazars adopted the
Cyrillic script in place of Hebrew and began to speak East Slavic
(sometimes called "Canaanic" because Benjamin of Tudela called Kievan
Rus the "Land of Canaan"). These Slavic-speaking Jews are documented
to have lived in Kievan Rus during the 11th-13th centuries. However,
Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from the west (especially Germany,
Bohemia, and other areas of Central Europe) soon began to flood into
Eastern Europe, and it is believed that these newer immigrants
eventually outnumbered the Khazars. Thus, Eastern European Jews
predominantly have ancestors who came from Central Europe rather than
from the Khazar kingdom. The two groups (eastern and western Jews)
intermarried over the centuries.
The Ashkenazi Jews are also the direct descendants of the Israelites.
Genetic tests seem to indicate some ancestry from the regions known
today as Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq. Mediterranean
Fever, for example, is found among some Ashkenazi Jews as well as
Armenians and Anatolian Turks. It is now asserted that many Ashkenazi
men who belong to the priestly caste (Kohenim) possess a "Kohen"
marker on the Y-chromosome. However, note that this provides no
evidence of Khazar ancestry. Common genetic markers in people from
these regions is expected for the following reasons, which alone could
account for the common markers occurring in some Jews as well as
non-Jews in Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq:
1. Archaeological evidence suggests that the some of the earliest
ancestors of the ancient Levantine and Mesopotamian civilzations
originated in the region of Armenia and moved southwards.
2. The Tanach records extensive evidence of intermarriage between
Jews and ancient peoples who originated in eastern Anatolia, viz.
the Hittites and Hurrians (including the Jebusites of Jerusalem).
The Edomites who were of mixed Hebrew and Hurrian ancestry were
also absorbed into the Jewish people.
3. The Armenians and Kurds are the descendants of people who remained
in Eastern Anatolia / Armenia / Kurdistan and intermarried with
the Turks and neighbouring peoples.
Some descendants of the Khazars may still live in the north Caucasus
among the Kumuks and the Balkars. These descendents include Crimean
Jews called Krymchaks and Mountain Jews (a mix of Khazars and Iranian
Caucasian Jews). Many Muslim Khazars settled in Azerbaijan and
Kazakhstan and may have intermarried with Oghuz and Kipchak Turks.
If you are interested in the subject of Khazar Jews, you can visit the
Khazaria Information Center at <http://www.khazaria.com>.
Subject: Question 13.5: Who are Crypto-Jews (also known as "marranos")?
At the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain in
1492, Jews were offered conversion or expulsion. Many chose to leave
Spain (quite a few found safety in the Muslim Ottoman Empire), but
others stayed behind.
"Marranos" actually started appearing with the first riots in the
Juderias of Spain. Many were forced to convert to save their lives.
These were naturally not faithful Catholics. The laws in 14th and 15th
century Spain became increasingly oppressive towards practicing Jews,
while providing an easy escape by conversion. Large numbers of middle
class Jews outwardly took on Christianity to avoid the laws, while
secretly practicing Judaism. [The term Marrano appears to be derived
from the color of the robes of a Roman Catholic Bishop; Jews who
converted were placed under the direct tutelage of that bishop. One
source indicates that the term "marrano" means pig literally in
Spanish, and notes that the converted Jews were called that because
one of the ideals of the Spanish society in the times of the Catholic
Kings was purity of blood--hence, if a person couldn't prove to be
totally "clean" of blood (i.e., that they were a descendant of
Christian Spaniards), they were called a marrano.]
Most of the remaining Marranic practice in Spain and Portugal today is
from those religious Jews who escaped from Spain to Portugal in 1492,
only to be trapped there later when the expulsion was instituted there
as well. The most active Marranism in the Iberian peninsula is in the
mountainous border areas between Spain and Portugal, in towns such as
Belmonte'. Jewish outreach in these areas is achieving success in
bringing them forward and restoring full Judaic practice, but many
still fear burning or other persecution if they go public.
Some faithful Catholic converts were won by the efforts of famous
apostates like Pablo de Santa Maria who went around disputing the
rabbis and ordinary Jews, winning some converts. In the most famous
disputation, with Nachmanides, he was soundly defeated, but the
Franciscans published false reports of the disputation to win more
converts. Nachmanides, who had been protected from heresy laws during
the disputations, was forced to publish his refutations in public. He
was forced into exile rather than be burned as a heretic. In any case,
the faithfulness of these converts is doubtful, since the Order of
Expulsion was primarily due to the recidivism of Conversos once they
had to live next door to practicing Jews again. It was felt that
expelling all open Jews was the only way to keep the Conversos
Among those who stayed behind were Jews who pretended to convert to
Roman Catholicism, but who secretly maintained a practice of Judaism.
The term "Marrano" was at one time used to describe them, as the term
refers to the swine which they'd publicly eat to demonstrate their
outward conversion. It isn't clear if the "Old Christians" or the
practicing Jews called them "marrano".
In Majorca the community was converted in the 1430's and are called
Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly keep pork lard boiling
in cauldrons on their porches. They themselves still call themselves
Israelitas in private, and ask forgiveness from el Grande Dio for
worshipping in front of statues of a man. They typically sacrified (in
a figurative, not literal, sense) their first born sons to the
Catholic priesthood as a means of getting protection from Church
persecution, so, ironically, many of the priests across the Baleiric
Islands are from Marrano families.
Crypto-Jew is the correct term, as it also refers to Jews forced to
adopt other religions and political philosophies while maintaining
Jewish practices. Crypto-Judaism pre-dates the Inquisition, as Jews
were forced by the Al-Mohavid invasions of Spain to become Muslims,
creating Crypto-Jews who gradually fled to Christian districts for
protection from the Muslims (see Roth's History of the Jews). In
modern times outwardly Muslim Crypto-Jews are known to be in Meshed,
Iran, and in Turkey.
A number of Crypto-Jewish communities survive today, especially in
former Spanish-influenced regions, such as the southwestern U.S.A.
They still maintain extensive secrecy after centuries. Other
communities were lost to assimilation, but maintained residual Jewish
practices such as lighting candles Friday night. Cohen's The Marranos
and Prinz's The Secret Jews claim that the following are examples of
such communities, although such claims have not been verified and are
disputed by some:
* The Antiqueñas of Colombia.
* Much of Northern Mexico's middle and upper classes (Nuevo Leon is
the "New Lion of Judah"). Note: Some note that Neuvo Leon mean was
named after the old Leon in Spain. However, whatever the origin of
the name, many of the families of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, have
managed to keep in their memory, after more than 400 years, their
* The Naucalpan and Vallejo districts of Mexico City. (Technically,
Naucalpan is not in the Distrito Federal, but in the greater
* The Chuetas of Majorca. A look at Chueta last names shows many
surnames which have became quite famous in the Hispanic world.
They include Mir, Miro, and Marti. Of course Joan Miro was
Mallorcan. Any marranism in Fidel Castro's family would be through
his mother, as his father's family was Gallego, and very few Jews
ever lived in Galicia (of course plenty lived in the Austrian
Galicia, I'm refering to northwestern Spain ). Interesting about
the mountains on the Spanish-Portuguese border being a hotbed of
marranism, particularly those on the Extremadura-Andalucia border.
This area is directly inland from some of the areas which
contained the earliest Jewish communities on the Iberian peninsula
- for example Huelva and Gibraltar. Malaga and Almunecar - which
also had early communities - are also in Andalucia. According to
Timothy Mitchell's book Flamenco: Deep Song and other sources, the
inquisition in western Andalucia was slightly more lenient than
elsewhere because of the need for labour related for the new world
trade and mining. The connections are quite interesting.
Famous Hispanics who have acknowledged Marrano ancestry include Rita
Moreno and Fidel Castro. Jews have played an important role in the
history of Monterrey, Mexico. Frida Kahlo's father, Guillermo Kahlo, a
somewhat reknowned photographer in his own right, was a Hungarian Jew.
Subject: Question 13.6: How does the Sephardi/Ashkenazi differences differ
from the O/C/R differences?
Traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews agree that the oral and
written Torah are from G-d, and that the sages may rule on halachic
matters. The differences in practice are mostly in culture and
customs. Traditional and liberal Jews disagree on the Divine origin of
the oral and written Torah, and on the ability of present-day sages
and secular scholars to overrule earlier halachic decisors.
Also, Sephardic Jews tend not to separate along "denominational"
lines, but rather "observant" and "non-observant."
Subject: Question 13.7: I've heard of a group called the "Black Hebrews". Who
The answer depends on where you are talking about. First, note that
the term "Black Hebrews" is not appreciated (although used) by most
individuals in such communiites. The term is used only because they
were branded with the name by the predominantly White media some
decades ago. The problems with the term is that it normalizes the
"Whiteness" of the Jewish/Hebrew people. The groups actually refer to
themselves as "Hebrews", "Israelites" and in many cases,
* In Israel:
First, note that there are many "black" Jews in Israel that are
properly affiliated with Judaism--in all movements--including
Orthodoxy. Many were converted generations ago and their
descendants deserve the same credibility given to any child born
of a Jewish mother-converted or otherwise. Others have come from
African communities who have practiced Judaism for ages. In the
eyes of Judaism, it is whether you are a Jew, and not your skin
color, that matters.
However, in Israel, there are groups calling themselves "Black
Hebrews" that are African Americans, not Ethiopian Jews, who moved
to Israel in late 60's-early-70's. There is a wide variety of
"Black Hebrew" practices in Israel. Some are Torah Israelites,
some ascribe to "the whole bible", and some claim they are Torah
based. Some of the misunderstandings about the nature of these
groups arises from the particularity of African-American religious
sensibilities, which themselves arise out of fundamentally
different experiences than those of any other American group.
Thus, the categorical boundaries that apply to Euro-Americans
(i.e., Christian or Jew, Muslim or Christian) cannot be so easily
applied to the African-American religious traditions. This
partially explains why these groups identify with ancient culture
and not the religion of Judaism.
Some groups called "Black Hebrew" Israel (but which are really
not) practice a fundamentalist form of Christianity, but do not
consider themselves Christians or Jews, but Hebrews, "true"
decendants of the "Hebrew race". For example, they fast on
Shabbat, and are strict vegetarians, to name a couple of examples.
They have a large community in Dimona in the Negev, and they often
hold jazz concerts throughout the country. They recently received
permanent residency status, and official citizenship is soon to
Many African American Hebrews practice Kashruth, circumcise their
male children, observe Shabbat, as well as many other customs.
These customs were passed down from their grandparents, although
they may not be understood as Jewish at the time. Some in this
group grew up practicing all forms of Christianity, some have
given such practices up completely, others have mixed Christian
practices with Jewish custom. Such African American Hebrew
Israelites identify with ancient culture and not the religion of
* In the United States:
Note that according to the Council of Jewish Federations, 2.2% of
America's 5.5 million Jews identify themselves as black. There are
many observant Black Jews living within American communities in
all movements--including Orthodoxy. Many African-Americans were
converted generations ago and their descendants deserve the same
credibility given to any child born of a Jewish mother-converted
or otherwise. In the eyes of Judaism, it is whether you are a Jew,
and not your skin color, that matters.
In the United States, some groups of Black Jews use the term
"black hebrews". The name is an artifact of the times when white
synagogues refused to accept them as Jews.
Subject: Question 13.8: What about the black jews in South Africa?
This group lives in a region in the north of S.A. known as Venda.
Apparently early Jewish traders in S.A. found that certain Africans in
Venda practised kashrut and other Jewish practises, and historical
records of the Boer republics mention black Jews.
There are supposedly 300,000 such Jews in S.A.; they claim to be
descendants of a group of Yemenite Jews who migrated south and
intermarried with the locals. Supposedly, there are similar groups all
along the east coast of Africa. Of particular interest are 40000
members of the black Lemba people. Like the Abayudaya, these people
are keen to learn more about Jewish laws and practices. These claims
of the Lemba are documented at
On the other hand, there is a book about this group (called the
Lembe') called Voyage to the Invisible City. The author, Tudor Parfitt
lives with them, studies them and sifts through the early records of
the area, and concludes (over their objections of course) that their
"jewish" traits come from Islam, not Judaism. They appear to him to be
a mixture of locals, Hindus from India (they have lots of ancestor
worship mixed in too) and Islam (they circumcise at 13 not in the
first few weeks). He originally concluded that there is little
likelihood that they have any real Jewish ancestry.
Recently, Kohen Madol Haplotype testing has been performed among the
Lemba; these tests have proven the Lemba to have the highest
concentration of the gene marker than any known halakhic Jewish group.
This is reported in an article titled "Decoding the Priesthood" by
Peter Hirshberg and Jane Logan, in Jerusalem Report (May 10, 1999
issue). According to this article, the Lemba have the same proportion
of the gene as "Western" Jews and a remarkably high frequency among
their Buba clan, a senior clan parallel to our Cohens.
Subject: Question 13.9: Who Are The Jews of India, And What Are Their
India has a legacy of four distinct Jewish groups: the Bene Israel,
the Cochin Jews, the Sephardic Jews from Europe, and the "Baghdadis"
from Iraq. Each group practiced important elements of Judaism and had
active synagogues. The Sephardic rites predominate among Indian Jews.
One of the most important Jewish peoples of India are the Bene Israel
("Sons of Israel"), whose main population centers were Bombay,
Calcutta, Old Delhi, and Ahmadabad. The native language of the Bene
Israel was Marathi, while the Cochin Jews of southern India spoke
The Bene Israel claim to be descended from Jews who escaped
persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. The Bene Israel
resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs,
which indicates intermarriage between Jews and Indians. However, the
Bene Israel maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws,
circumcision, and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
The Bene Israel say their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galil and
they are descended from survivors of a shipwreck. In the 18th Century
they were "discovered" by traders from Baghdad. At that time the Bnei
Israel were practicing just a few outward forms of Judaism (which is
how they were recognised) but had no scholars of their own. Teachers
from Baghdad and Cochin taught them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and
Jewish merchants from Europe travelled to India in the medieval period
for purposes of trade, but it is not clear whether they formed
permanent settlements in south Asia. Our first reliable evidence of
Jews living in India comes from the early 11th century. It is certain
that the first Jewish settlements were centered along the western
coast. Abraham ibn Daud's 12th century reference to Jews of India is
unfortunately vague, and we do not have further references to Indian
Jews until several centuries later.
The first Jews in Cochin (southern India) were the so-called "Black
Jews", who spoke the Malayalam tongue. The "Sephardic Jews" settled
later, coming to India from western European nations such as Holland
and Spain. A notable settlement of Spanish and Portuguese Jews
starting in the 15th century was Goa, but this settlement eventually
disappeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an influx of
Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.
The Jews of Cochin say that they came to Cranganore (south-west coast
of India) after the destruction of the Temple in 70ce. They had, in
effect, their own principality for many centuries until a chieftanship
dispute broke out between two brothers in the 15th century. The
dispute led neighbouring princes to dispossess them. In 1524, the
Moors, backed by the ruler of Calicut (today called Kozhikode)
attacked the Jews of Cranganore on the pretext that they were
"tampering" with the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin and went
under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site
for their own town which later acquired the name "Jew Town" (by which
it is still known).
Unfortunately for the Jews of Cochin, the Portuguese occupied Cochin
in this same period and indulged in persecution of the Jews until the
Dutch displaced them in 1660. The Dutch protestants were tolerant and
the Jews prospered. In 1795 Cochin passed into the British sphere of
influence. In the 19th century, Cochin Jews lived in the towns of
Cochin, Ernakulam, and Parur. Today most of Cochin's Jews have
emigrated (principally to Israel).
16th and 17th century migrations created important settlements of Jews
from Persia, Afghanistan, and Khorasan (Central Asia) in northern
India and Kashmir. By the late 18th century, Bombay became the largest
Jewish community in India. In Bombay were Bene Israel Jews as well as
Iraqi and Persian Jews.
Near the end of the 18th century, a third group of Indian Jews
appears. They are the middle-eastern Jews who came to India through
trade. They established a trading network stretching from Aleppo to
Baghdad to Basra to Surat/Bombay to Calcutta to Rangoon to Singapore
to Hong Kong and eventually as fare as Kobe in Japan. There were
strong family bonds amongst the traders in all these places.
Typical is the founder of the Calcutta community, Shalom Aharon
Ovadiah HaCohen. He was born in Aleppo in 1762 and left in 1789. He
arrived in Surat in 1792 and established himself there. He traded as
far as Zanzibar. In 1798 he moved to Calcutta. In 1805 he was joined
by his nephew, Moses Simon Duek HaCohen, who married his eldest
daughter Lunah. Soon the community was swelled by other traders and
Baghdadis outnumbered those from Aleppo.
Under British rule, the Jews of India achieved their maximum
population and wealth, and the Calcutta community continued to grow
and prosper and trade amongst all the cities of the far east and to
the rest of the world. The Indians were very tolerant and the Jews of
Calcutta felt completely at home. Their numbers reached a peak of
about 5000 during WW-II when they were swelled by refugees fleeing the
Japanese advance into Burma.
The first generations of Calcutta Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but
by the 1890s English was the language of choice. After WWII,
nationalism fever caught the Indians rather strongly and it became
less comfortable for the Jews who came to be identified with the
English by the Indians. India's Jewish population declined
dramatically starting in the 1940s with heavy immigration to Israel,
England, and the United States. It is in these 3 nations where the
most significant settlements of Indian Jews exist today. Today there
is just a handful of old people and the once vital community with its
3 synagogues is no more.
For more details, visit the Jews of Chocin Website
Lastly, note that there were a number of European Jews who lived, or
settled in India. Some examples: Lady Mountbatten, and Haffkine, after
whom the famous Haffkine Institute in Bombay (Mumbai) has been named.
The mother of one of India's most glamorous film actresses, Zeenat
Aman is said to be Jewish.
Many Indian Jews have reached great prominence. For example, the
Sassons after whom the Sasson docks, the Sasson hospital, and two of
Mumbais well known sites- the Jacob Circle, and Flora Fountain have
been named. In the past years, there has been a Jewish mayor of Bombay
(Dr. E. Moses), and a Jewish Chief of the Navy. In the Indian Army,
Jews have reached very high posts. A General Jacobs, now the Governor
of Goa, supervised the surrender of the Pakistani Army in the
Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Maj. Gen. Samson who was awarded the
Padma Bhushan, and a few other Jews reached prominence in the Indian
Army. Two of India's leading literary personalities, poet Nissim
Ezeickel, and cartoonist Abu Abraham are Jewish. Also the late famous
Hindi film actor David, and the late "Sulochana" the Queen of Indian
Silent Films, and the actress/dancer Helen. A Dr. Erulkar was the
personal physician/friend of Mahatma Gandhi. His father, also a Dr.
Abraham Erulkar, donated land for the synagogue in Ahmedabad, Gujrat.
Dr. Erulkar's daughter is currently the 1st lady of Cyprus, married to
the President of Cyprus. Another prominent Indian Jew is Dr. Jerusha
Jhirad, who was given the title of Padma Shri by the Government of
A good book on this subject is Nathan Katz's Who Are the Jews of
India?. University of California Press, November 2000. Hardcover.
[Buy at Amazon:
Subject: Question 13.10: Are Jews a Nation or a Religion?
Judaism can be thought of as being simultaneously a religion, a
nationality and a culture.
Throughout the middle ages and into the 20th century, most of the
European world agreed that Jews constituted a distinct nation. This
concept of nation does not require that a nation have either a
territory nor a government, but rather, it identifies, as a nation any
distinct group of people with a common language and culture. Only in
the 19th century did it become common to assume that each nation
should have its own distinct government; this is the political
philosophy of nationalism. In fact, Jews had a remarkable degree of
self-government until the 19th century. So long as Jews lived in their
ghettos, they were allowed to collect their own taxes, run their own
courts, and otherwise behave as citizens of a landless and distinctly
second-class Jewish nation.
Of course, Judaism is a religion, and it is this religion that forms
the central element of the Jewish culture that binds Jews together as
a nation. It is the religion that defines foods as being kosher and
non-kosher, and this underlies Jewish cuisine. It is the religion that
sets the calendar of Jewish feast and fast days, and it is the
religion that has preserved the Hebrew language.
If Judaism an ethnicity? In short, not any more. Although Judaism
arose out of a single ethnicity in the Middle East, there have always
been conversions into and out of the religion. Thus, there are those
who may have been ethnically part of the original group who are no
longer part of Judaism, and those of other ethnic groups who have
converted into Judaism.
If you are referring to a nation in the sense of race, Judaism is not
a nation. People are free to convert into Judaism; once converted,
they are considered the same as if they were born Jewish. This is not
true for a race.
Subject: Question 13.11: Who are the Edot Mizraxi?
There were two communities in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The first are communities that were there since the fall of the
Temple. In the case of Iraq's Babylonian Jewery, since the fall of the
First Temple. These are the people who maintained the institutions
that gave us the Talmud. For example, the acadamy of Sura, in which
half the debates of the Talmud occured (along with
Pupedisa/Naharda'ah, the other half) was founded in the Hasmonian
period and was closed in 1958 CE!
The other community are the exiles from Spain in 1492, who were
largely absorbed into the older communities.
Technically, Edot haMizrach refer to the former, Sepharadi -- the
latter. Of course, the communities pretty well blended. Still, we see
customs particular to these communities that originated in the local
traditions rather than the Spanish ones. Including pronunciation,
diferences in prayer texts, etc... There are far more than one or two
differences in pronunciation, cantillation and services.
The Ben Ish Hai, and later R' Ovadia Yosef, has done much to unify
Sefaradi and Edot haMizrach practice to some fusion of Sepharadi and
Subject: Question 13.12: What About Yeminite Jews?
Yemenite Jewery didn't have the same level of communiation or mixing
with the other communities. Until the 19th and early 20th century,
they had a pretty uniform, Rambam-based custom. Trade with Syria
brought with it the Kabbalistic ideas from Sefad, causing a battle
much like the one seen in Ashkenaz when Chassidus started. When they
came to Israel they were in two basic camps (with different flavors
based on city of origin): Baladi (national) custom and Shaami (Syrian;
i.e. the kabbalistically influenced import from Sepharad, Safed, and
Subject: Question 13.13: Who was Donna Gracia?
Donna Gracia Mendes Nassi (1510-1569) was a Portuguese aristocrat of
the 15th century, who lost nearly all her relatives to the Spanish
Inquisition. They were burned at the stake simply for being Jews. As a
result, Gracia left Portugul and wandered through Europe with her
daughter and nephew. While seeking a refuge where they could freely be
Jews, Gracia managed her family's banking interest and became adept at
navigating the twin worlds of finance and politics. Eventually
Gracia's family landed in Constantinople, the capital of the Turkish
Empire. There they were embraced by the Sultan Suleiman the
Magnificent, who allowed them to maintain their Jewish traditions. As
their position at court became known, Jews throughout the land flocked
to the family in times of need. One of the people she supported was
Samuel Medina (The Maharashdam) and his yeshiva in Greece.
Gracia was born a converso but at home continued to adhere to her
Jewish heritage. After leaving Portugal with her entire entourage, she
went to London and later moved to Antverp where she continued to live
as a Catholic but kept a Jewish home. As the Kings needed her for
their financial interests she was left alone, but eventually she also
had to leave after quite a number of years and travelled via Italy to
Istanbul. During this trip, she decided to return openly to Judaism.
She began to study the Torah and the Talmud with a Rabbi. When she
eventually arrived in Istanbul after travelling throught the Balkans
she was not accepted by the Jewish community there as she was
considered still a converso. At a later stage she travelled to
Palestine studying in Safed and Tiberias where she had also synagogues
built which still exist in her name. She spent some time studying
Talmud in Safed. She valued Jewish education, financed it, and saved
many Jewish refugees from persecution in Portugal and Spain.
Subject: How do I obtain copies of the FAQ?
There are a number of different ways to obtain copies of the FAQ:
* WWW. If you are reading this on Usenet, and would like to see an
online, hyperlinked version, go visit http://www.scjfaq.org/.
This is the "web" version of the FAQ; the version posted to Usenet
is generated from the web version. Note that the www.scjfaq.org
version is a copy of the actual master version; if you want to
access the master, visit http://master.scjfaq.org/.
* Email. Scjfaq.org also provides an autoretriever that allows one
to obtain a copy of the FAQ by return Email. To use the
autoretriever, you send a retrieval request to
email@example.com with the request in the body of the
message. A more reliable way to retrieve these files is through
the FAQ autoretriever
(http://www.mljewish.org/bin/autoresp.cgi). For the FAQ, the
request has the form:
send faq partname
For the reading list, the request has the form:
send rl partname
"Partname" is replaced by the name of the part, as shown in the
general index. The following is a short summary of the mapping to
partnames for the FAQ:
+ 01-FAQ-intro: Section 1: Network and Newsgroup
+ 02-Who-We-Are: Section 2: Who We Are
+ 03-Torah-Halacha: Sections 3, 4: Torah; Halachic
+ 04-Observance: Sections 5, 6, 7, 8:
Jewish Holidays; Jewish Dietary Law and Kashrut; Sabbath and
Holiday Observance; Woman and Marriage
+ 05-Worship: Sections 9, 10, 11: Jewish
Worship; Conversion, Intermarriage, and "Who is a Jew?";
Miscellaneous Practice Questions
+ 06-Jewish-Thought: Section 12: Jewish Thought
+ 07-Jews-As-Nation: Section 13: Jews as a Nation
+ 08-Israel: Section 14: Jews and Israel
+ 09-Antisemitism: Sections 15, 16, 17: Churban
Europa (The Holocaust); Antisemitism and Rumors about Jews;
+ 10-Reform: Section 18: Reform/Progressive Judaism
+ 11-Miscellaneous: Sections 19, 20: Miscellaneous;
References and Getting Connected
+ 12-Kids: Section 21: Jewish Childrearing Related
+ mail-order: Mail Order Judaica
The following is a short summary of the mapping of partnames for
the Reading Lists:
+ general: Introduction and General. Includes book sources,
starting points for beginners, starting points for non-Jewish
readers, General Judaism, General Jewish Thought, General
Jewish History, Contemporary Judaism, Noachide Laws, Torah
and Torah Commentary, Talmud and Talmudic Commentary,
Mishnah, Midrash, Halachic Codes, Becoming An Observant Jew,
Women and Judaism, and Science and Judaism.
+ traditional: Traditional Liturgy, Practice, Lifestyle,
Holidays. Includes Traditional Liturgy; Traditional
Philosophy and Ethics; Prayer; Traditional Practice; The
Household; Life, Death, and In-Between; and The Cycle Of
+ mysticism: Kabbalah, Mysticism, and Messianism. Includes
Academic and Religious treatments of Kabbalah, Sprituality,
and the Jewish notion of the Messiah.
+ reform: Reform/Progressive Judaism
+ conservative: Conservative Judaism
+ reconstructionist: Reconstructionist Judaism
+ humanistic: Humanistic Judaism (Society for Humanistic
+ chasidism: Chassidism. Includes general information on
historical chassidism, as well as specific information on
Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Breslaw (Breslov), and other
+ zionism: Zionism. Includes Zionism and The Development Of
Israel, The Founders, Zionistic Movements, and Judaism in
+ antisemitism: Antisemitism. Includes sections on
Antisemitism, What Led to The Holocaust, Medieval Oppression,
Antisemitism Today (Including Dealing with Hate Groups),
Judaism and Christianity, and Judaism, Freemasonry and other
+ intermarriage: Intermarriage. Includes sections on "So
You're Considering Intermarriage?", The Traditional
Viewpoint, Conversion, and Coping With Life As An
+ childrens: Books for Jewish Children. Includes sections
on Birth and Naming, Raising a Child, Family Guidebooks,
Upsheren, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, Holiday Books for
Children, Liturgy for Children, Bible and Torah for Children,
Jewish History for Children, Jewish Theology for Children,
Israel, Learning Hebrew, and Jewish Stories.
Alternatively, you may send a message to
firstname.lastname@example.org with the following line in the body
of the message:
Where (portionname) is replaced by the appropriate subdirectory
and filenames; for example, to get the first part of the reading
list, one would say:
* Anonymous FTP: All portions of the FAQ and of the reading lists
are archived on rtfm.mit.edu and are available for anonymous
FTP from the pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/FAQ directory (URL
Similarly, the parts of the reading lists are stored in the
pub/usenet/news.answers/judaism/reading-lists directory (URL:
ts). Note that the archived versions of the FAQ and reading lists
are the posted versions; that is, they are each one large ASCII
Subject: Who Wrote the FAQ?
The original version of the Frequently Asked Questions was developed
by a committee consisting of Mike Allen, Jerry Altzman, Rabbi Charles
Arian, Jacob Baltuch (Past Chair), Joseph Berry, Warren Burstein,
Stewart Clamen, Daniel Faigin, Avi Feldblum, Rabbi Yaakov Feldman,
Itzhak "Jeff" Finger, Gedaliah Friedenberg, Yechezkal Gutfreund, Art
Kamlet, Joe Kansun, CAPT Kaye David, Alan Lustiger, Hillel Markowitz,
Len Moskowitz, Colin Naturman, Aliza Panitz, Eliot Shimoff, Mark
Steinberger, Steven Weintraub, Matthew Wiener, and headed by Robert
Levene. The organization and structuring of the lists for posting
purposes was done by Daniel Faigin, who is currently maintaining
the lists. Other contributors include Aaron Biterman, A. Engler
Anderson, Ken Arromdee, Seymour Axelrod, Jonathan Baker, Josh Backon,
Micha Berger, Steven M. Bergson, Eli Birnbaum, Shoshana L. Boublil,
Kevin Brook, J. Burton, Harvey Cohen, Todd J.Dicker, Michael Dinowitz,
Rabbi Jim Egolf, Sean Engelson, Mike Fessler, Menachem Glickman,
Amitai Halevi, Walter Hellman, Per Hollander, Miriam Jerris, Robert D.
Kaiser, Yosef Kazen, Rabbi Jay Lapidus, Mier Lehrer, Heather Luntz,
David Maddison, Arnaldo Mandel, Ilana Manspeizer, Seth Ness, Chris
Newport, Daniel Nomy, Jennifer Paquette, Andrew Poe, Alan Pfeffer,
Jason Pyeron, Adam Reed, Seth Rosenthall, JudithSeid@aol.com, David
Sheen, Rabbi John Sherwood, Michael Sidlofsky, Michael Slifkin, Frank
Smith, Michael Snider, Rabbi Arnold Steibel, Andy Tannenbaum,
email@example.com, Meredith Warshaw, Bill Wadlinger, Arel Weisberg,
Dorothy Werner, and Art Werschulz, and the
soc.culture.jewish.parenting board. Some material has been derived
from other sources on the Internet, such as
http://www.jewishwebsite.com/, http://www.jewfaq.org/, and
http://www.menorah.org/. Comments and corrections are welcome;
please address them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A special thank you... Special thanks for her patience and
understanding go to my wife, Karen, who put up with me hiding at the
computer for the two months it took to complete the July/August 2000
remodel of the entire soc.culture.jewish FAQ and Reading Lists. If you
think the effort was worth it, drop her a note c/o
Please mail additions or corrections to me at email@example.com.
End of SCJ FAQ Part 7 (Jewish as a Nation) Digest
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Last Update March 27 2014 @ 02:11 PM