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.


Bombay bustles past the gate of the 140 year-old Mogen David Synagogue, the largest of the city’s six remaining synagogues, tucked in a courtyard off a major thoroughfare. Several times a week, exactly ten, poor, elderly men – nine of them Bene Israel – enter this Mogen David gate to constitute Bombay’s only weekday morning minyan. In return for keeping the minyan active, the Bombay community gives the men breakfast, and for Shabbat, a kosher chicken killed by Bombay’s only kosher ritual slaughterer (shochet) in Mogen David’s gravelly yard.

Bombay bustles past the gate of the 140 year-old Mogen David Synagogue, the largest of the city’s six remaining synagogues, tucked in a courtyard off a major thoroughfare. Several times a week, exactly ten, poor, elderly men – nine of them Bene Israel – enter this Mogen David gate to constitute Bombay’s only weekday morning minyan. In return for keeping the minyan active, the Bombay community gives the men breakfast, and for Shabbat, a kosher chicken killed by Bombay’s only kosher ritual slaughterer (shochet) in Mogen David’s gravelly yard.

The Jewish community watches as two young Bene Israel siblings marry arranged Bene Israel partners on the same day at Thane’s Magen Hassidim Synagogue, India’s largest congregation. Chazzan Benny Dandekar made both matches. As children, the brides and grooms studied Hebrew prayers with Benny, and he remained close to their families. “Many people used to do the job of matchmaking,” Benny recalls. He considers himself blessed to be one of the few left in this role: “The chosen man from the chosen people!” Benny is fond of saying.

The Jewish community watches as two young Bene Israel siblings marry arranged Bene Israel partners on the same day at Thane’s Magen Hassidim Synagogue, India’s largest congregation. Chazzan Benny Dandekar made both matches. As children, the brides and grooms studied Hebrew prayers with Benny, and he remained close to their families. “Many people used to do the job of matchmaking,” Benny recalls. He considers himself blessed to be one of the few left in this role: “The chosen man from the chosen people!” Benny is fond of saying.

Though the pictured Alibag synagogue dates from 1848, some say that for at least 800 years, the Bene Israel have prayed to the Jewish G-d in this village, three hours south of Bombay on the palm-bedecked Konkan Coast. The benches creak and the air hangs heavy in the mildewed Magen Aboth sanctuary. Nonetheless, each day, the old community members gather for prayers, and on Shabbat collect a minyan from the 8-10 Jewish families left in town.

Though the pictured Alibag synagogue dates from 1848, some say that for at least 800 years, the Bene Israel have prayed to the Jewish G-d in this village, three hours south of Bombay on the palm-bedecked Konkan Coast. The benches creak and the air hangs heavy in the mildewed Magen Aboth sanctuary. Nonetheless, each day, the old community members gather for prayers, and on Shabbat collect a minyan from the 8-10 Jewish families left in town.

Ben Zion Gosalkar, the Bene Israel caretaker (Shamash) of massive Knesseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Bombay, prays during the afternoon service (Mincha). The 19th century temple once housed India’s wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community, but today the prayer leader (Chazzan) and most congregants are Bene Israel. Ben Zion has tears in his eyes before the service remembering his synagogue 50 years ago, before the vast majority of India’s Jews emigrated to Israel. “There were 15,000 Jews in Bombay – people would sleep next door to walk to synagogue on holidays. We needed extra services in the Sassoon Library across the street because there wasn’t room for everyone.” Scanning nostalgically from the rows of empty benches to the unused women’s gallery, he sighs, “Today, even on Yom Kippur there are only 25 people.”

Ben Zion Gosalkar, the Bene Israel caretaker (Shamash) of massive Knesseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Bombay, prays during the afternoon service (Mincha). The 19th century temple once housed India’s wealthy Baghdadi Jewish community, but today the prayer leader (Chazzan) and most congregants are Bene Israel. Ben Zion has tears in his eyes before the service remembering his synagogue 50 years ago, before the vast majority of India’s Jews emigrated to Israel. “There were 15,000 Jews in Bombay – people would sleep next door to walk to synagogue on holidays. We needed extra services in the Sassoon Library across the street because there wasn’t room for everyone.” Scanning nostalgically from the rows of empty benches to the unused women’s gallery, he sighs, “Today, even on Yom Kippur there are only 25 people.”

Dayan Samson Penkar stands at the doorway to Beth Ha Elohim, the 130 year-old synagogue in Pen, a village two hours southeast of Bombay. Bene Israel historians tell that when seven, exiled Jewish couples first shipwrecked on the Konkan Coast nearly 2000 years ago, they believed they would not stay long. As they scattered to villages, they took their father’s (or, if married women, their husband’s) names as second names (e.g., in Dayan’s case, Samson). They assigned surnames (e.g, Penkar) with the name of their village (in this case, Pen) and the suffix “-kar,” meaning in the local language, "a sojourner." Centuries later, nearly all of the Bene Israel – like most of their non-Jewish, Maharashtrian neighbors, have surnames ending in ‘-kar.’ Today, fewer than 10 Bene Israel families live in Pen, most with the last name “Penkar.”

Dayan Samson Penkar stands at the doorway to Beth Ha Elohim, the 130 year-old synagogue in Pen, a village two hours southeast of Bombay. Bene Israel historians tell that when seven, exiled Jewish couples first shipwrecked on the Konkan Coast nearly 2000 years ago, they believed they would not stay long. As they scattered to villages, they took their father’s (or, if married women, their husband’s) names as second names (e.g., in Dayan’s case, Samson). They assigned surnames (e.g, Penkar) with the name of their village (in this case, Pen) and the suffix “-kar,” meaning in the local language, "a sojourner." Centuries later, nearly all of the Bene Israel – like most of their non-Jewish, Maharashtrian neighbors, have surnames ending in ‘-kar.’ Today, fewer than 10 Bene Israel families live in Pen, most with the last name “Penkar.”