Special to the JTA the Sound of Ancient Melodies
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Special to the JTA the Sound of Ancient Melodies

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Members of Congregation Bina, the Bene Israel Jews of India affiliate here, shared their 2,000-year-old melodies and traditions with an attentive and enthusiastic audience at the third annual Jewish Arts Festival of Long Island last weekend.

Led by Elijah Jhirad, president of the Congregation Bina, the Indian representatives conducted Hebrew prayers interwoven with the ancient seven-note melody line identified with Indian music. But the one-hour presentation could not capture the entire vibrant history of the Bene Israel community that remained isolated from the rest of the world until the middle of the 18th century.

Jhirad, one of the founding members of ORT-India, and who was the representative of the Indian Jewish Congress to the World Jewish Congress, said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency,” We have called ourselves Bene Israel because when we founded our home in India 2,000 years ago, the term Jew hadn’t come into existence, so we retained the Biblical Bene Israel — Children of Israel.” This, he noted, “had a marvelous effect on the Moslems who came to India because they seemed to honor the term Bene Israel and not the term Jew.”


Scholars still dispute the origins of the group. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia quotes the compiler of the Imperial Gazeteer of India: “In the second century a Roman merchant fleet of 100 sails steered regularly from Myos Hormus in the Red Sea to Arabia, Ceylon and Malabar. It found an ancient Jewish colony, the remnants of which still remain to this day as the Bene Israel upon the Bombay coast.”

It is probable, the Encyclopedia added, that the Jewish settlements in India date as early as the first century. Bene Israel legend has it that they are descendants of Asher and Zebulun, the two seafaring tribes, who were shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean fleeing the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes in 175-163 BCE.

Jhirad said, “According to tradition, our people had gone by sea and the ship was wrecked with only a few couples landing on shore. They had lost everything, and the only thing they remembered was the Shema and whatever the occasion — death, marriage, birth — they would say the Shema.”

The couples, seven men and seven women, who supposedly landed at Navgaon on the Konkan coast of India — south of Bombay — also retained Jewish customs of observing the Sabbath, Biblical holidays, the dietary laws of kashrut and rituals of circumcision, all of which they passed on to future generations.

“Although we were so different from our neighbors in every respect — we bury our dead, they cremate their dead — we lived with a people who were really tolerant,” remarked Jhirad.

According to him, the group of Indian Jews settled down on the farms, eventually producing and selling oil and earned the name of “Shanvar Telis,” or “Saturday oilpresser,” alluding to their former occupation and the fact that they kept the Sabbath.

Coupled with a desire to uphold the basic tenants of Judaism, the Indian Jews were eager to learn the Bible. “There’s one factor people try to suppress,” observed Jhirad, “and that is, although we had the Cochin Jews and the Bagdhadi Jews who came to India, it was not they so much who were responsible for giving us the knowledge of Hebrew. Surprisingly enough, it was the Christian missionaries.” Continuing, he said:

“The American and Scottish missions came to Bombay and said ‘Oh, look! These people are ripe for conversion and what we ought to do is set up schools to teach Hebrew’.”But there were few conversions and Jhirad praised the Christians because “to their credit they didn’t hold it against us and they continued this kind of education and, not only that, they were responsible for us enjoying Hebrew and Judaic studies.”

It was also the Christians who translated the Bible to Marathi, the group’s language, “and that was the greatest boost to us because then the Bible came to everybody — every man, woman, and child,” Jhirad said.

The learned Cochin Jews, located on the southern tip of India, traveled north, meeting the Bene Israel Jews and helped them link their strands of Jewish tradition and understanding together. In 1796, they helped establish Bene Israel’s first synagogue, Gate of Mercy, in Bombay.


By 1947, the Bene Israel in India consisted of between 35,000-40,000 Jews, but some 40 years later, the community has dwindled to about 5,000. Jhirad, who was the Judge Advocate-General of the Indian Navy from 1946-1964, pointed to the development of the State of Israel as the reason for the depleted population in India.

Currently, about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews from Bene Israel of some 40,000 worldwide live in Israel. Jhirad, who in 1967 left India for Israel where he served as advisor to the government on maritime transport and trade, hopes they will integrate. “The whole purpose of our going to Israel is to integrate into the mainstream,” he asserted. “For me, I am a Jew, and my identity as a Jew is far more important than my individual identity in Bene Israel.”

But Jhirad also believes in upholding their songs and customs. This prompted him to become active in the four-year-old B’nai Bina Congregation that serves 35-40 families in the N.Y.-N.J.-Conn, tri-state area. “One of the reasons for the congregation was to try and make a record of our traditons, our music, our culture, and our history, “declared Jhirad. “We are trying to preserve particularly the old songs that were never written down and that are so different from the Sephardic and Ashkenazic melodies.”

Jhirad and his co-performers at the Long Island festival introduced many American Jews to these unique melodies and to the “kirtan,” poetic paraphrases of Biblical stories. The performance by Congregation Bina was only one of the arts presentations at the festival, the largest celebration of the Jewish arts in the U.S. and which is sponsored by the United Jewish Ys of Long Island.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 people were treated to a Labor Day weekend of klezmer music, Israeli song and dance, and Jewish humor and theater.

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