Celebrating the Season with the Bene Israel

Dec/15/2020 / by Jordana Weiss

India has been home to Jewish groups facing persecution for centuries. One of them is the Bene Israel, which boasts a legacy lasting more than 2,000 years.

Of course, India has been open to a variety of faiths. It is the home or birthplace of at least three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism – and Sikhism and a refuge for many others.

Among those who came over were St. Thomas of Biblical fame, the Zoroastrians fleeing persecution in Iran, and the Bnei Menashe (one of the lost tribes of Israel that found their home in northeast India). India still remains the largest religiously pluralistic and multi-ethnic democracy in the world. That is perhaps why a Jewish group like the Bene Israel could thrive there for centuries.

The Bene Israel are a small sect of Jews that have lived in India, primarily along the Konkan coast, for the last 2,100 years. The group’s history is murky, and has been shrouded by legend and myth in an attempt to explain how ancient Jewish traditions from the Middle East made their way to the western coast of India.

One story claims that the founders of the Bene Israel were seven men and seven women who survived a shipwreck, while others believe that their ancestors were one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who came to India after being persecuted by Assyrians.

Whatever their origin, the Bene Israel people have thrived in India over the last millennia. They adopted Indian surnames, which traditionally ended with ‘-kar’, and primarily worked as oil pressers – a job that served them well when they began to celebrate Hannukah.

A traditional Indian Hanukkiah, with space for oil lamps to fit in front of the Star of David 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Hannukah 

The majority of Jews around the world have always celebrated Hannukah. This holiday celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, after it was recaptured from Greek control by a group of Jewish warriors known as the Maccabees.

To reconsecrate the temple, a special lamp was lit, but there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and nights, which inspired the eight-day-long celebration we know today.

Celebrating Hannukah

Around the world, Jews celebrate this miracle by lighting a special candle holder known as a menorah, or a hanukkiah, which has eight branches along with one taller branch, to hold the candle known as a shamash. The shamash is used to light eight separate candles, starting with one on the first day, and increasing to eight on the last day of the holiday. Jews also celebrate by eating oil-rich foods like latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (deep-fried jelly doughnuts).

One of the most unique aspects of the Bene Israel tradition is that they did not celebrate Hannukah before they made contact with other Jews. Some historians believe this is a sign that their arrival in India predates the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the holiday gradually caught on, and now the Bene Israel light oil lamps on Hannukah and share festive food with family and friends.

Festive Food for Hannukah 

Malida is one of the most beloved foods in the Bene Israel tradition. This sweet dish is made with pohe (flattened rice) that’s mixed with religious and culturally significant ingredients like figs, pomegranate seeds, dates, nuts, and other fruit. Laced with jaggery, it tastes deliciously sweet.

Biblically significant fruit 

While latkes remain popular in Israel and across the Jewish diaspora, Indian Jews like the Bene Israel prefer celebrating Hannukah with deep-fried treats like onion pakoras, vada pav, or aloo makala. Aloo makala is particularly easy to whip up since it’s made from a large piece of potato, which is boiled then deep-fried in oil until golden brown and crisp.

Latkes are made from shredded potato and sometimes onion, then deep-fried until golden brown and shatteringly crisp

Whether you celebrate with latkes or aloo makala, halwa or sufganiyot, there’s no wrong way to ring in the joyous season of Hannukah.