By Paul Lungen, CJN
TORONTO — As tribes go, the Bene Ephraim are hardly noticeable in the vastness of India – perhaps 150 souls if everyone from nearby villages was counted together. But, if their traditions are accurate, they lay claim to an ancient lineage as one of the legendary 10 lost tribes of Israel.
The door of a Bene Ephraim home decorated with Jewish symbols.
A dirt-poor collection of mostly farm labourers who reside in the southeastern Indian village of Kotha Reddy Palem in the province of Andhra Pradesh, the Bene Ephraim believe they were exiled by the Assyrian Empire after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.
They have been so obscure that the established Jewish community in Mumbai only learned of them in recent years, when Indian security forces uncovered an plot by Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamic terrorists to murder them as part of a wider attack that included an assault on a Hindu temple and the bombing of an airport.
The Bene Ephraim’s remarkable story will be told on Oct. 24 at Congregation Darchei Noam by Rabbi Gerald Sussman, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Staten Island, N.Y., and his wife, Rabbi Bonita Sussman. The two spent three weeks with the Bene Ephraim in the summer of 2007, instructing them on Jewish practices. Their visit was co-ordinated by Kulanu, an organization that helps “emerging or returning Jewish populations,” Rabbi Bonita said.
The Bene Ephraim circumcise their children; celebrate all Jewish holidays, including Purim and Chanukah, which postdate their exile from Israel; keep mezuzot in their homes; teach their children Hebrew and give them Hebrew names, she said.
They’re landless farmers who work for others but who keep Shabbat as a day of rest. “That cuts into their incomes,” which average only $1.40 per day, she said. They live in clay-walled houses with thatched roofs and no running water, though there is intermittent electrical service.
Despite their adherence to Jewish life-cycle events, they are willing to undergo conversion to assure their link to the wider Jewish world, although that is problematic in India, which has laws against missionaries, she said.
Rabbi Gerald acknowledges reconstructing the Bene Ephraim’s history is fraught with uncertainty, but according to their traditions, they were exiled from ancient Israel and made their way to India through Assyria, Persia and the area that is now Afghanistan. Skeptics point out that as recently as the 19th century, they were practising Christians.
As the Bene Ephraim’s spokesman, Sadok Yacobi explained it to them, their community’s conversion to Christianity was “a mistake” prompted by social pressures and by famine, as Christians were giving out food at the time, Rabbi Gerald said.
While they had maintained several Jewish practices over those years, including resting on Sabbath and eating kosher food, in the 1970s they reclaimed their Jewish heritage. The Bene Ephraim had been among the Madiga sub-caste of the Untouchables, the lowest rung on the highly stratified Hindu culture, he said.
Historically they worked with leather, which made them impure by Hindu standards, “so, many say that they wanted out of the Hindu caste system that put them at the bottom.”
Asked whether they might be motivated to assume a Jewish identity in the hopes of immigrating to Israel, Rabbi Gerald said, “No one saw going to Israel as a realistic possibility. They’re very poor agricultural labourers, and the kind of life in modern Israel is very far from them. I did not hear a big desire to go to Israel.”
Some Jewish organizations have taken their story to heart and are trying to improve their conditions. Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, N.Y., who served as rabbi in Tokyo for a time and became an expert on Asian Jews, has raised funds to allow the Bene Ephraim to purchase a couple of water buffalo, whose milk is sold to supplement their incomes. A Jewish group in California provided funds to allow the purchase of chickens, while Kulanu contributed $500, which the Sussmans supplemented with their own funds, to provide one family with three bicycles, a sewing machine and a candle-making machine, Gerald said.
After spending time with them, Rabbi Gerald’s impression is quite positive:?“I?like them. There’s something about them that’s appealing.?They’re very steadfast… After the Lashkar incident, they debated whether to go low key. They decided not to, and they even felt [our] arrival justified their decision to be connected to the wider Jewish world.”