How Well Do You Know Jewish India?
Updated: May 2
There are over 85,000 Indian Jews that live in Israel, you might have a few questions - like, how did Jews get to India? What special traditions do Indian Jews have? Do Indian Jews have Indian weddings? Where can I get some Indian food?
I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with a bit of background:
How did Jews reach India?
The Jewish diaspora started after the destruction of the First Temple (built by King Solomon). Among the Jews that were already part of the diaspora were seven families who went on a trading trip and were shipwrecked in India. After they were rescued they were asked to convert but refused, insisting that they wanted to remain Jewish. The king asked his advisors what to do and they assured him that Jews are loyal (Jewish tradition is that you accept and respect the leader of the country you reside in) so he let them live (phew!). They became involved in the oil industry and became oil pressers. Since they refused to work on Shabbat, they were called Saturday oil pressers. Although they lost everything in the shipwreck (including any books about Judaism) they were so well-versed in the Torah that they were able to write it down again and have passed it down through the generations for 2,000 years.
Jews have lived in India peacefully since then, only returning to Israel once it became a state in 1948. Between the amount of Indian Jews that have moved to Israel and the Israeli backpackers that travel annually to India, many aspects of Indian culture have woven themselves into Israel.
So, what about Indian weddings?
Jewish weddings in India are seven days long (per the local custom), but in Israel, they usually compact the celebrations into two days. It might be shorter, but it's still an amazing party!
It starts with the Korton, literally translated as sweet mouth, where the families formally meet and the groom asks the parents to marry their daughter. Once they do this they can announce their engagement and start the celebrations with an official engagement party.
Then there is the Sangeet (songs) but in the Jewish community, it’s called a Haldi (turmeric). It’s called a Haldi because they also mix turmeric with milk and paint it on the bride and groom’s face to give them a glow for the wedding. The best part is when the bride and groom’s families choreograph and perform Bollywood style dances for them.
Hen comes from a ceremony that you are probably most familiar with, the Henna! It’s basically an epic party, with singing, dancing, dressing up and of course, food. Middle Eastern Jews also have a henna party, but each community party a little differently.
The bride is adorned with a gorgeous henna design, but for the rest of the crew, they put some in the palm of their hands. Indian and Jewish men aren't allowed to dress up like the women, and henna is considered feminine, so they just put a small ball of henna on their fingers.
The actual wedding ceremony and huppah take place in a synagogue. The idea is to get married in front of God. The bride's family sings outside the synagogue, but when they open the doors it's the groom's turn to serenade his bride to be with a special song about finding soulmates and the connection between the Jewish people and God. After each paragraph, she takes a few steps towards him and at the end, he approaches her, covers her with a veil and they walk to the chuppah together.
Where can I get Indian food in Israel?
Every culture brings something new to the table and Indian food is especially beloved in Israel. Due to the influx of Indian Jews to Israel (and Israelis to India), many specialty food stores have started carrying spices, rice, and other snacks that you can only get in India. Hindus don't eat meat, so a lot of Indian food is also vegetarian and vegan friendly, which is great for Israel - 'The vegan capital of the world'.
Let’s talk about Indian Chai (tea)!
If you’ve ever backpacked or visited India, you know how amazing their chai tea is. There is nothing quite like a fresh cup of boiled India chai with milk and sugar and Indian Jews did not leave that behind when they came here.
Some people drink coffee, but most still start their day with a fresh cup of chai. The secret to great chai is to boil the loose ground tea in milk and spices in a pot and then strain it. You can add cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, star anise, or fennel to give it an extra kick, but the original is also extremely flavorful.