Bombay, India (Jun. 26)
One of the most interesting Jewish communities I have ever seen is the community of “B’nei Israel.” This community is interesting from a point of view both of good and of bad. However, the most interesting thing is how these Jews try to adapt themselves to Hindu life, which in its essence is so foreign to the Jewish spirit.
Most of the “B’nei Israel” are not Orthodox in the East European sense of the word; that is to say, they do not so strictly observe the Jewish traditions, although they are very religious. They observe the Sabbath very strictly, they light no fire, do not cook, do not light candles, do not carry money, do not write, but they travel on Saturday in cars and trains. Only few among them light candles Friday evening, but all of them eat fish and meat in honor of the Sabbath. On week-days they generally live on vegetarian food, though they are not strict vegetarians.
With regard to kosher dietary laws, they are much stricter than European Jews. From this point of view they approach more closely the Abyssinian Jews-the “Falashas.” The “B’nei Israel” maintain “Shochtim” for slaughtering cattle, while among the Abyssinian Jews it is only the rabbis who do the slaughtering. However, the Abyssinian Jews and the “B’nei Israel” do not eat food cooked by Christians or Mohammedans.
I mention the Abyssinian Jews here particularly by way of example because it might be imagined that the strict observance of kosher dietary laws originates perhaps from Brahmanic ritual prescriptions, which forbid the Hindus to eat anything from the followers of other religions. However, the truth of the matter is that the fact that Abyssinian Jews (who have been removed from the Palestinian and European Jews practically for as long a time as the “B’nei Israel,” and who up to thirty years ago had been unaware entirely that there were still other Jews in the world besides themselves observe the same laws of kosher dietetics, proves that they have a common genuine Jewish origin.
The “B’nei Israel” maintain a fine family life, and though they allow marriage to more than one wife, as in the case with other Jews who live in non-Christian countries, this very seldom actually occurs. They avail themselves of this privilege chiefly in a case of sterility, as happens with Spanish Jews. Divorce proceedings are in strict accordance with the real Jewlish law, though cases of divorce are very rare. (The same is true with the Hindus, but Moslems divorce often.) They carry on their family life according to the Hindu example of the “united family.” In the house of
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the head of the family, there live under the same roof the children and their families, the grandchildren, the brothers, sisters and nephews. The whole family represents an economic unit which takes care of the poor, the sick and the old, according to its financial condition. The family, for instance, decides which one of the children should study, how much money should be spent for living, etc. From a certain point of view, this family system is much better and more successful than the narrow, egoistic life of the European family.
The “B’nei Israel” are prolific. The average number is four to six children in a family.
It is difficult to find professionals among the “B’nei Israel.” With the exception of a few mechanics or officials, persons holding high positions, such as doctors, engineers or lawyers, cannot be found. They have not their own rabbi, and whenever they have need of one or need a cantor, they have to invite him from among the “white Jews” of Cochin or Bagdad.
The majority of the community is made up of poor people who are artisans, wood carvers, carpenters, cabinet makers or floor builders, who earn on an average from 5 to 6 marks a day.
Most of them do not save from their earnings so as to be able later on to become an independent contractor or a merchant. It is true that some of them put money in the bank, but the only dream of such who do is to buy a plot of ground with the money saved up and become a real estate owner. However, this remains nothing but a dream. Their greatest pleasure is to give donations to the synagogue, which is their second home and which they hold in great esteem. Poor or rich, every Jew feels happy and proud if he is able when called to the Torah to give a fine donation, and it is to the generosity of these Jews that the fact that the community of the “B’nei Israel” has comparatively large incomes is due.
It is only since the World War that interest in Zionism has been created among a part of the “B’nei Israel.” This interest derives its vital force from religious feelings rather than from other sentiments. To make a donation to the Jewish National Fund or to the Keren Hayessad is considered by them as the fulfillment of a religious prescription-to redeem the soil of Palestine for the Jews. However, this conception is strongly combated by a certain group within the community, which is of the opinion that the “B’nei Israel” are merely Hindus and should not worry about Palestine or about the Jews in general. They explain this not by political reasons but by declaring that the “B’nei Israel” are cast off and despised by the Arabian as well as by the European Jews.
A great part of the “B’nei Israel” are embittered against the Zionist Organization, which has recourse to them only for money, sends them pamphlets and pictures for propaganda among the school-youth, but does not think of transferring any part of them to Palestine.
“They want only our money, but do not want us,” I was once told by the president of the community, Mr. Shlomo Moses, in the presence of all the members of the committee and I was under the impression that all agreed with him. This is the reason why Zionism is so little known to the “B’nei Israel” and why they do not feel for the moment any attachment to the Jews in general.