The Bene Israel constitute one of three Jewish communities in India. Numbering 20,000 at its peak in the early 1950s, the majority of the Bene Israel have since left India, with most going to Israel. Never having experienced antisemitism in India, Bene Israel have a deep attachment to their native land. Women were the producers and preservers of Bene Israel culture in India, and many were highly influential leaders in their communities, academia, and religious life. Bene Israel were among the first women to enter the nursing and teaching fields in India, with several becoming principals of well-known girls’ schools. In the twentieth century, Bene Israel women worked in government, medicine, and law, created Jewish organizations, and were influential in the progressive and Reform Jewish movements in India.
History and Women’s Roles
Of the three Jewish communities in India—the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews, and the Iraqis or Baghdadis—that of the Bene Israel of Maharashtra in western India was by far the largest. Numbering perhaps 20,000 at its peak in the early 1950s, the majority of the Bene Israel have since left their homeland—most going to Israel—so that only about 5000 remain in India. By the end of the twentieth century there were over 50,000 individuals of Bene Israel origin in Israel, with the community there extending into the fourth generation. Never having experienced antisemitism in India, Bene Israel the world over have fond memories of and a deep attachment to their native land.
In India, the women were the producers and preservers of Bene Israel culture which, except for the observance of Jewish practices, rituals, festivals, and dietary laws, was similar to that of their Hindu, Muslim, and Christian neighbors. Widow remarriage was rare until the mid-twentieth century and divorce rates were and are low compared to those of western countries, although they have risen among Bene Israel in Israel. Polygyny, practiced occasionally but never truly accepted by the community in the nineteenth century and early twentieth, has virtually disappeared. Bene Israel women, with their strong religious beliefs, were considered to have the power to hold the family together. A number of them were very influential, playing important roles not only in their extended families but also in the villages, helping people in need from all communities and settling disputes. They often had close relationships with their Hindu and Muslim neighbors, attending each other’s weddings, birth celebrations, and other events, both happy and unhappy.
Although lower-class women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century often left school early, and some families feared that a highly educated girl would have difficulty finding a husband, many girls from middle- and upper-middle-class families were educated, from the late nineteenth century on, at Huzurpaga High School for Indian Girls, a famous boarding school in Pune where Marathi was the language of instruction. Three Bene Israel women—Rachel Varulkar, Abigail Moses, and Mozelle Isaac—served as principals of this school. By the mid-twentieth century, most girls from these families, like those from the Hindu upper castes, switched to English-language schools, which their brothers had been attending earlier. After completing university in India, especially talented Bene Israel women, like their male counterparts, continued their education in England.
Bene Israel were among the first women to enter the nursing and teaching fields and had a particularly strong impact in Bombay in the latter arena. Preferring to teach in girls’, rather than co-educational, schools, they taught not only academic subjects but also music, handicrafts, and gym. Several became principals. Later, a number of Bene Israel women worked in government service and others became physicians and lawyers. In Israel, they have gone into science, medicine, law, psychology, education, social work, business, clerical work and hairdressing, and other fields.
Although they preferred not to marry out of the community, Bene Israel women sometimes did—and still do—especially if a highly educated woman could not find a suitable mate within the community. They also had the option of remaining single and supporting themselves through their own careers before this became acceptable for middle-class Hindu women. There are still efforts to arrange marriages, or at least to introduce young people, both in India and Israel. In Israel, in their homes and women’s organizations, the women are also the main preservers of Indian Jewish culture. Although they normally wear western clothes, they will don saris or other Indian-style dress for weddings, henna ceremonies, and other events.
Notable Bene Israel Women
Although many individual Bene Israel women have made important contributions to their community and country, the achievements of only a few, from India and Israel, can be singled out. Space prohibits the inclusion of Bene Israel women who have settled in the west.
Dr. Jerusha Jhirad (1890–1984), the first female Indian Jewish physician, was a distinguished gynecologist in Bombay. She was the first woman to be awarded the Government of India scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, where she earned an M.D. in Obstetrics and Gynecology from the University of London. She expanded and improved the Cama and Albless Hospitals for Women and Children in Bombay during her tenure as their Superintendent from 1928 to l949 and served as president of the Gynaecological and Obstetrics Society. For these achievements and her efforts to improve medical education in India and advance the cause of woman doctors, she was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) (Civil) by the British and, in l966, the coveted title Padma Shri by the government of India. Dr. Jhirad was also highly appreciated by her community for founding the Stree Mandal (Women’s Association) in l913, providing a place where women could meet and exchange their ideas. It also offered classes in Marathi (the local language), cooking, needlework and dressmaking to girls who had not completed their education, and promoted the study of Bible and religion. In l925, Dr. Jhirad founded the Jewish Religious Union, which was linked with the World Union of Progressive Judaism and provided the only Reform, English-speaking alternative to the Orthodox synagogues in Bombay. As such, it attracted the upper middle class of Bene Israel. In l975, Dr. Jhirad wrote a short autobiography.
Rebecca Reuben (1889–1957), a well-known educator, was a revered figure in the community whose activities in many spheres enriched the lives of the Bene Israel. Although Reuben’s Jewishness was very important to her, she was an outstanding example of the phenomenon that among the Bene Israel, it was secular, rather than religious leadership that conferred status. In 1905, Reuben, who came from a highly educated family, became the first woman to rank first in the matriculation examination for Bombay University, where she specialized in history and Hebrew. She went on to earn a teaching diploma from the University of London and continued studying Hebrew with Dr. Israel Abrahams at Cambridge University. Appointed the Lady Superintendent of the Government Teachers’ Training College at Baroda in l917, Reuben gave up a promising career in the broader educational arena in order to serve the Bene Israel community by becoming the principal of its school, the co-educational Sir Elly Kadoorie School in Bombay, a post she held from l922 to l950. She was the author of the Ashok readers, a series of English readers widely used in non-English medium schools in Maharashtra, and other instructional materials, and published a monthly magazine for Jewish children, Nofeh. Reuben also wrote articles about the Bene Israel and edited the Bene Israel Annual and Year Books from l917 to l920. She organized activities for the Bene Israel Stree Mandal (Women’s Association) and the progressive Jewish Religious Union. She also made significant contributions in the field of education in western India, serving on many government boards. In l947 she represented Indian Jewry at the First World Conference for Jewish Education, held in Jerusalem.
Another important Bene Israel educator, Flora Samuel, née Manik Ashtamkar (l924–1998), was principal of the Sir Elly Kadoorie School from 1955 to l964, having previously taught in a number of other schools. She took pride in being known as a strict disciplinarian, a trait that was necessary in a co-educational school in India. She was devoted to her community in both India and in Israel, where she settled in l964. Fluent in Sanskrit (in which, somewhat unusually for an Indian Jew, she had majored in college), Marathi, English, and Hebrew, Samuel taught Sanskrit for a short time at Hebrew University. In Israel, she continued her work as a teacher, having talked her way out of taking the refresher courses in English, psychology, and educational methods required for a permanent teacher’s license by citing her master’s degree in education and her years of experience as a principal. Flora Samuel continually fought against the lack of respect for Indian degrees that she felt was manifested in Israel. At the suggestion of Na’amat, the women’s branch of the Histadrut, she organized an Indian Women’s Organization with branches in several cities, with the idea of instilling confidence among Bene Israel women, getting them to come out of their homes and participate in community activities, educating them in Israeli ways of child-rearing, and helping them with their problems. Devoting themselves to preserving and demonstrating the culture and customs of the community, of which Samuel was very proud, the clubs worked with Israeli museums on exhibitions about Indian Jews. Samuel, who was recognized internationally for her excellent Marathi style, edited Mai Boli, a quarterly publication which reached Bene Israel in both India and Israel. She revived the kirtans, early Bene Israel music dramas based on Biblical figures; they were performed in Marathi by the Women’s Organization of Lydda, which she headed. Samuel was active with the World Marathi Union and was instrumental in the selection of Israel as the venue for its biennial conference in l996. Many Indian Marathi writers from all over the world were introduced to Israel as a result. That same year, Flora Samuel published a memoir in Marathi entitled Sanskrutisangam (Confluence of Cultures), about her experiences in both India and Israel.
Meera Jacob Mahadevan (1930–1979), originally from Karachi, made a significant contribution to the socio-economic well-being of India’s children by originating and implementing the idea of a network of mobile creches. These establishments, at first large tents with basic equipment and later simple brick units, provided educational and health services for the neglected children of poor, migrant construction workers. The first one opened in l969. Eventually these facilities, funded domestically and internationally but also relying heavily on volunteer workers, were set up for city slum-dwellers, especially in Delhi and Bombay. At night the creches were used for adult literacy and health education classes. Mahadevan also wrote short stories and novella in Hindi as well as a novel entitled Apnar Ghar (A Home of One’s Own), translated into English under the title Shulamith (1980). The novel dealt with members of a Bene Israel family who emigrated to Israel in the l950s and their relationships with those who remained in India.
Other Bene Israel women who remained in India and made a mark can be mentioned only briefly. Esther David (b. 1945) is a sculptor, art critic, and lecturer on art history at the School of Architecture, School of Interior Design and National Institute of Fashion Technology in Ahmedabad. Chairperson of the Gujarat State Lalit Kala Akademi, she has published three books: The Walled City (1997) an autobiographical novel about growing up Jewish in Ahmedabad; By the Sabarmati (1999) a collection of stories about women; and the Book of Esther (2002). Esther Solomon (b. 1927), also of Ahmedabad, a Sanskrit scholar and professor at Gujarat University, was awarded a Presidential Certificate of Honor in l983 for outstanding contributions to Sanskrit and a Padma Shri in l992. She also wrote a short history of the Bene Israel of Gujarat in the Gujarati language which was published by the University of Baroda. Sarah Israel (b. 1926) is a physician who worked for UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Nina Haeems (b. 1941), a retired professor of sociology at Wilson College in Bombay, edited a book about her aunt, Rebecca Reuben (1889–1957), as well as the occasional series “On Being Jewish, Indian and Women.” Others, such as Elizabeth Reuben (b. 1937), a professor of literature and Rachel Reuben (b. 1934) an entomologist and naturalist, had scholarly careers. Rachel Gadkar (b. 1930) is the editor of Shayali, a popular periodical by and about Bene Israel women read in both India and Israel. Rivka Israel (b. 1960) is an editor at Marg, a leading Indian publisher. Joyce Shankaran (b. 1949) is a highly ranked officer with the Indian Administrative Service in Maharashtra. For future contributions of Bene Israel women we will most likely have to look mainly to Israel and to western countries where they have settled.
David, Esther. The Walled City. Chennai, India: l997.
An autobiographical account of growing up Jewish in Ahmedabad in the mid-twentieth century.
Haeems, Nina (compiler and editor). Rebecca Reuben: Scholar, Educationist, Community Leader, 1889–1957. Mumbai [Bombay]: 2000.
An interesting compilation of writings by and about Rebecca Reuben, including her letters from her trip to Israel.
Isenberg, Shirley B. India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Survey and Sourcebook. Bombay and Berkeley: l988.
Many sections in this book, written by an anthropologist, deal with the traditional customs and practices of Bene Israel women, particularly as they related to religious ritual and life cycle occasions.
Jhirad, Abigail. A Dream Realised: Biography of Dr. Jerusha J. Jhirad. Bombay: l990.
Kehimkar, Haeem Samuel, History of the Bene-Israel of India. 1887. Tel Aviv: l937.
This standard history of the Bene Israel, written at the end of the nineteenth century (although published forty years later) by a leading member of the community, refers throughout the book to the roles and practices of Bene Israel women in that period.
Mahadevan, Meera Jacob. Shulamit. New Delhi: 1975.
A novel about a Bene Israel family, some of whose members emigrated to Israel in the l950s.
Roland, Joan. The Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era. New Brunswick, NJ: l998.
Contains more details on the Stree Mandal (Women’s Association), the Sir Elly Kadoorie School, and the Jewish Religious Union.
Samuel, Flora (Manik Ashtamkar). Sanskrutisangam (Marathi). Mumbai [Bombay]: l996.
This book, whose title in English means “Confluence of Cultures,” is an autobiographical memoir of her life in India and Israel. The political situation in Israel is dealt with, although she does not give her own views on these issues.
Strizower, Schifra. The Bene Israel of Bombay: A Study of a Jewish Community. New York and London: 1971.
Chapter seven contains a detailed discussion of marriage and the family, including issues around arranged marriages, divorce and widow re-marriage, joint household, and polygyny as they existed in the mid-twentieth century.
Haeems, Nina and Sonal Shukla, On Being Jewish, Indian and Women: An Occasional Communication. Mumbai (Bombay): 1997–2000.
This quarterly periodical was published for a short time with the aim of collecting stories, folklore, songs, and pieces written by and about Bene Israel, Baghdadi, and Cochin Jewish women.
Samuel, Flora. “The Bene Israel Cradle Ceremony: An Indian Jewish Ritual for the Birth of a Girl.” Bridges 7/1 (1997–98): 43–44.
Weil, Shalva. “Bene Israel Indian Jews in Lod, Israel: A Study of the persistence of Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Sussex, l977.
Many chapters in this dissertation discuss the lives of Bene Israel women who immigrated to Israel between l950 and l975.