About ten years ago, an American Jewish acquaintance, who had just completed a tour of southern India, complained that he had seen no end of Hindu temples and Christian churches, but only one synagogue. Well, I was not surprised. Once in Venice (Italy), a religious Jew on learning that I am Jewish asked whether my wife (a gentile), an Indian, is Jewish. That got me thinking. I calculated that randomly meeting a Jew born in India was extremely improbable – it is less than 0.0005%. So, to write about the Jews of India is to describe a minute proportion of the country’s vast population. And as I write, that proportion is only likely to diminish.
While idly flicking through the Eicher street atlas for Bangalore, I noticed, quite by chance, that the city has a “Jewish Grave Yard”. I have visited this cemetery several times. It contains less than sixty graves, but together they open a window that provides a good overview of the Jewish people who have lived in India. The story of India’s Jewry has been described in detail elsewhere (for example: “India’s Jewish Heritage” edited by Shalva Weil and “Shalom India” by Monique Zetlaoui). I will present their tales as viewed through a south Indian lens.
Jews have lived in what is now Kerala since time immemorial. They lived on the Malabar Coast in, for example, Kranganore and Cochin. It is said that St Thomas came to India to convert them into Christians. He failed miserably, converting, instead, the other people who he found living there. A grave in the cemetery commemorates Elias Isaac, who came from Cochin to Bangalore to act as the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to the Moses family. Today, there are one or two elderly Jews still living in Kerala.
The oldest graves in the cemetery mark the resting places of Subedar Samuel Nagavkar (1816-1904) and Benjamin Nagavkar (1877-1910). Samuel might have served the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who donated the land for the cemetery in 1904. The Nagavkars were members of the Beni Israel community, whose origins are obscure. According to the historian HS Kehimkar, they claimed to have come from “the North” to India in about 175 BC (BCE). Many of their community still live in and around Maharastra State.
There are several other graves bearing names of Beni Israel Jews. Tor example: the horse trainer Sion E Nissim (1900-58), one of whose horses, Commoner, won the Indian Derby; Mrs Abigail Jhirad, daughter of the Subedar; and Joshua Moses Benjamin Bhonkar (1920-2005). The latter (aka ‘Joshua Benjamin’) was both a writer (“The Mystery of Israel's Ten Lost Tribes and the Legend of Jesus in India”) and a Chief Minister in the Government of India.
Whereas the origins of the Malabar and Beni Israel Jews are obscure, this is not the case with the Iraqi Jews, who came to India from the Middle East beginning in the 18th century. Many of them settled in Bombay and Calcutta. The most famous of them being the Sassoon family.
The Bangalore cemetery contains graves for the following families from Calcutta: Ezra, Elias, Earl, and Moses. Edward Earl (1910-1953) was the proprietor of the once well-known Earl’s Pickles company. Calcutta used to have a large Jewish community, including the Moses family, who are buried in Bangalore and originated in Iraq.
Ruben Moses (1871-1936) left Iraq to join the California gold rush. He left California for India in 1906, following the disastrous San Francisco earthquake. He headed for the Kolar gold fields, but ended up in Bangalore, where he founded a shoe store in the city’s Commercial Street. The store, which is now occupied by Woody’s veg fast-food outlet, was once the largest shoe retailer in southern Asia. His home, now long since demolished, contained a prayer hall where the city’s few local Jews and Jewish visitors from all over the world came to wordship along with the Moses family.
What did the Jews do in Bangalore apart from what I have mentioned above? Poor Moses Ashkenazy(1957-1982) was a student, who died of an overdose of drugs. Sassoon Saul Moses (d. 1975) was a ‘hawker’, as were many of my Lithuanian Jewish ancestors who arrived in South Africa in the 1890s. The widow Rebecca Elias (1927-1992) lost her husband early, and then worked in a needle factory in Bangalore. GE Moses and Isaac Cohen, neither of whom are buried in the cemetery, were, respectively, a clothes retailer and an auctioneer. The grave of RE Reuben (1877-1939) records that he was “Malarial Supervisor of the C&M Station Municipality”. I wonder whether he ever met the Nobel laureate Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932), the pioneer of the fight against malaria. Reuben’s place of work is mentioned in Ross’s papers.
Troubles with anti-Semitism in Europe and, later, the outbreak of the Second World War (‘WW2’) led to other Jews entering the Indian Judaic scene – refugees and soldiers. They are well represented in the Bangalore cemetery. But, before describing some of them, let me not forget the Russian-born Saida Abramovka Isako, who died in 1932. She was the wife of FY Isako, who was proprietor of the ‘Russian Circus’. Her coffin was carried on a bier drawn by white circus horses. I imagine that the burials of the German refugees Siegfried Appel (1906-1939) from Bonn, Gunther and his mother Mrs Rahmer from Gleiwitz, and Dr Weinzweig, were less memorable. Carl Weinzweig (1890-1966) was a dentist (his surgery was in MG Road), as was Gunther Rahmer.
Amongst the military personnel that passed through Bangalore during WW2, was the future President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who was stationed at an RAF base in the city. His name appears in the Moses family guestbook. Sadly, the cemetery records the casualties of war, who died in the city. These include Yusuf Guetta (1921-1943), who was evacuated from Ben-Ghazi in Libya by the British in 1941, and Private Morris Minster (1918-1942). Minster served in the South Wales Borderers Regiment and was initially buried in the grave yard. His stone remains, but he has been moved to a large Commonwealth war cemetery in Madras.
The “Jewish Grave Yard” in Bangalore encapsulates the story of the larger of the Jewish ‘groupings’ that have lived in India. The cemetery is so unknown that even a few of the Jews who have lived in the city have been unaware of it. I have met the heirs of the Jewish refugee from Germany, Mr Jacoby, who introduced popcorn and machines for making it to India and settled in Bangalore. Their nearest and dearest are resting in peace in Christian cemeteries, of which there is no shortage in Bangalore.
At the beginning, I mentioned that India’s Jewish population is diminishing. Over the years many Jews left India. My wife, who went to school in Calcutta, remembers that the city had many thriving synagogues and that there were several Jewish girls in her class. When we visited Calcutta four or five years ago, we saw three synagogues. Two of them were well-maintained, by Moslem caretakers, as is Bangalore’s Jewish cemetery. The third that we saw appeared to be about to crumble.
India can be proud to remember that, unlike so many other countries, it was not anti-Semitism that caused Jews to migrate. Just as so many other Indians have left the country to better their economic prospects, so did the Jews.
An album containing annotated photographs of all of the graves in Bangalore's 'Jewish Grave Yard' may be purchased as an e-book (or a paperback) by clicking HERE