MAHARASHTRA STATE, INDIA
The Lost Tribe That Found Elijah
Benjamin Simon Joseph Dandekar (friends call him "Benny"), has served as the Hazzan, or Jewish prayer leader, of Bene Israel ("Children of Israel") communities in and around Bombay, India, for over 25 years. Benny is a celebrity among the approximately 5,000 Jews who live in Bombay and the surrounding towns and villages of India's Maharashtra Province.
Benny teaches all Bene Israel youth the traditional Jewish prayers, but also schools international Jewish tourists in the unique history of the Bene Israel. He says the progenitors of the modern community were exiled from the Land of Israel hundreds of years before the Common Era. They shipwrecked off the palm-bedecked Konkan Coast, south of what is today Bombay, and only seven couples made it ashore alive.
Thousands of years later, many Bene Israel remain in India though they constitute at best 0.000005% of the country's billion-plus population. Despite the Bene Israel's relatively small numbers, across the centuries, they never fully assimilated, even as they adopted Indian dress and the local Marathi language. The community always remembered its Shema vow of loyalty to one G-d, guarded Kosher laws and rested on Saturdays.
When Jewish traders from Baghdad, Iraq arrived in India in the late 18th Century, they recognized the Bene Israel as coreligionists. The Baghdadis constructed grandiose new synagogues, into which they welcomed the Bene Israel, teaching the Indians contemporary Jewish practices.
After the modern State of Israel's establishment in 1948, nearly all of the Baghdadi Jews (and many Bene Israel) made Aliyah from India to Israel. The Baghdadis' leadership mantle has been largely assumed by the remaining Bene Israel. The former Bene Israel learners, like Benny, are now the instructors.
The Baghdadis' influence did not overwhelm every element of the Bene Israel's hybrid, Jewish-Indian culture. The Bene Israel have maintained what was the cornerstone of their unique heritage: a special reverence for Elijah the Prophet (Eliahu Ha'Navi).
Ever since Bene Israel villagers encountered Elijah incarnate 2000 years ago, touching down his chariot along the Indian coast, the community has celebrated, given thanks and made wishes invoking his name. Their "Malida" ceremony, in particular, consists of offering prayers, songs and bowls of fruits and flowers to the Prophet Elijah.
Though no one is certain exactly where and when the Malida originated, Benny suggests it has roots in antiquity, created to prevent Jews from mixing with the local Hindu population. "The Hindus did their ceremony to their gods, with fruits, singing and flowers," says Benny. "Our kids would go and have a good time mixing with the Hindus. So to compete, we came up with the joyous Malida honoring Eliahu."
Though the Malida and certain other Bene Israel customs may have Indian roots, Benny credits the Bene Israel parents for keeping the community from idol worship. "My father died when I was ten years old but not before he heard me singing the Eliahu Ha'Navi prayer." With Hazzan Dandekar's passionate teaching, the Bene Israel community's future will be secured for generations to come.
Bryan Schwartz and Sandy Carter visited the Bene Israel community of India's Maharashtra Province in 2000 and will present its members in vivid text and photographs in their book with Jay Sand, Scattered Among the Nations.