An online interview with Dr. Nathan Katz, Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University, who has been studying the Indian-Jewish community for the past 20 years and has written a host of books on the subject. He was a member of the eight-person delegation of scholars and rabbis who met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet about Jewish survival in exile. He has received statewide and national acclaim and awards for classroom excellence and has lectured at major universities and institutes around the world.
Q1. What are the differences in the visual cultures and lifestyles of the three diverse Jewish communities in India, namely, the Bene-Israel, the Baghdadi and the Malabari Jews?
Ans: I do not know what you mean by ‘visual cultures’. Generally speaking and as I discussed at length in my book, Who are the Jews of India?, in India, the Jewish communities adapted to certain ‘reference groups’ in which they lived. In Calcutta, at first it was the Armenian Christians, later British and Bengali mercantile castes. In Mumbai, it was the Parsis for the Baghdadi community, and in Cochin, mostly, the nears and later Anglo-Indians.
Q2. The Jewish community in Cochin is on the verge of extinction. Why aren’t therer steps being taken to preserve the culture of the oldest Jewish community in India?
Ans: It is being preserved in Israel, albeit in a new form.
Q3. While Judaism has grown and prospered in the US and even in the post war Europe…why is it disappearing from India?
Ans: Economics, mostly. America offers better opportunities, and so does Israel. Nowadays a number of Indian Jews in Israel are doing joint ventures in India in gems, IT, and agriculture.
Q4. Is their reason behind the fact that though the Jewish people in India have a relatively peaceful history, mostly sheltered from the immediate effects of II nd WW, they still don’t choose to fight for recognition like other minorities in India?
Ans: At first they felt they ought not because they were a privileged minority. Later, there were just too few of them to be granted such recognition.
Q5. Why aren’t Indians more exposed to Jewish traditions, like their marriage ceremonies or the concept of Bar-Mitzvah, the way they are to Christian or Parsi traditions? Why aren’t Jews subjected to that curiosity?
Ans: I thought they were. Jews are portrayed in Indian films (most recently in “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”). There are many, many more Christians in India than Jews. What most Indian knows of Judaism, unfortunately, is what they learned from anti-Semitic sources – such as Marxism and Shakespeare! Even in the Hindu renaissance, the perception of Jews was at best mixed. Nowadays though, I find a great deal of interest in and respect for Israel.
Q6. In the course of my travel to various Jewish settlements in India, i experienced a host of reactions; while I was welcomed warmly in Ahmadabad, the response at Bombay bordered on the lines of open hostility. Is there a specific reason behind the extreme difference in the mindset of these two groups?
Ans: I cannot interpret this. It might just be the people whom you happened to meet.
Q7. To what extent has acculturation happened in the Indian Jewish diaspora?
Ans: This is discusses at length in my book mentioned above. Be sure to distinguish between acculturation and assimilation.
Q8. What is the current status-quo of the Bnei Menashe Jews, the tribal of Mizoram claiming to be one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, from the perspective of the Israeli government? What are the Judaic practices followed by this community?
Ans: They follow mainstream Sephardic practices. As you know, the chief Sephardi rabbi recognized them as “seed of Jacob” or of jewfish ancestry. But in Israel the question is much politicized. For the most part, their supporters are on the right wing politically, so the liberals do not want them to come to Israel.