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Republic in southern Asia. In 1998, India’s 5,000 Jews fell into three distinct groups: the Bene Israel (Sons of Israel), Jews of Cochin, and a series of loosely organized communities from Persia and the west. The Bene Israel, largest of the groups, speak Maharati, wear Indian dress, and are divided into caste-like groups of “black” and “white” Jews who have separate synagogues and do not intermarry. They believe they settled in the Bombay District in about 175 B.C.E. around the Maccabean uprising in Palestine. When first discovered by the West about 200 years ago, they knew no Hebrew and owned no prayer books. Shema Yisrael, one of the few prayers they remembered, was recited at all their religious ceremonies. Several thousand of them have emigrated to Israel.

Indian Jews of Iraqi origin, the second largest group, live predominantly in Bombay and Calcutta and engage mainly in commerce. They are descendants of Jews who followed their leader David Sassoon from Iraq to India in 1832 where he founded the house of Sassoon, known for its great wealth and generous contributions to Jewish charitable causes.

Cochin Jews, the third largest group, who live in Cochin and other cities on the Malabar Coast, came from Persia and Arab countries during the early Middle Ages. They spoke Malayalam, the language of the Dravidians, India’s original inhabitants. Hebrew, however, was known and used in their strictly Orthodox religious ritual. The first written record of Cochin Jews is a copper inscription dated 1020 C.E., in which the maharajah of the district grants privileges of nobility to the head of the community. The “white,” “black,” and “brown” Jews of Cochin all believe they stem from exiles who left Palestine in 70 C.E. after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is more probable that the “black” Jews arrived in India after the Moslem conquest of Persia in the 7th century, and that the “whites” came after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The smallest group is of European origin, consisting of refugees who emigrated to India to escape Hitler’s persecutions in Germany in 1933.

Jews of India live in comparative freedom and security. Many of them have risen to high ranks in the armed services; others have prospered in business and the professions.

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