Lost Tribe, Found Tribe: The Trials of the Telugu Jews

Originally published in The India Magazine, Vol. 17 (December), pp. 46-51, 1997.

Several months after I moved to Nandigama, a small town on National Highway 9 in Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh, a friend told me of a Jewish family living in my neighborhood.  My response was diffident.  A Jew in Nandigama?  Unlikely.  A misunderstanding, I thought--probably a family belonging to a Christian sect with “Israel” or “Zion” in its name.  Jews, after all, are not well understood in rural Andhra.  The Jews of Bombay, Ahmedabad, Cochin and Calcutta are virtually unknown.  For many in the Telugu countryside, if they have ever heard of Jews at all, Jews are the imputed Jesus-killers of the Old Testament, or the people murdered by Hitler, or citizens of modern Israel.  A Kamma whose son lived in San Francisco had perhaps the most incisive idea.  “My son has described them to me very well,” he told me confidently, “the Jews are high-caste Americans.”

I followed the friend to the house, where to my amazement I discovered a mezuza fixed to the door--the parchment inscribed with the Jewish watchword, “Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad,” “Listen oh Israel, the eternal is your god, the source of life is one.”  The family greeted me with a hearty “shalom!”  The Ten Commandments, boldly calligraphed in Hebrew, hung prominently in the parlor.  With a strange mixture of joy and confusion, I entered the world of a tiny Jewish community which makes up in effort and desire what it lacks in certainty about its origin and destiny.

This family was among the thirty or so who in March, 1991, in the village of Kottareddipalem near Chebrolu in Guntur District, dedicated the Synagogue of the Children of Yacob and publicly committed themselves to follow the Torah and to live as religious Jews.  For the occasion, no rabbi was present.  With the exception of one man, none of the self-styled Jews had ever met a Jew or been inside a synagogue.  Indeed there were no synagogues in Kottareddipalem, or in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh.  In short:  these families turned themselves into Jews in utter isolation, choosing fundamentally to alter their identity based not on knowledge of Judaism, but on a primal, in many ways nascent, but nonetheless wholly trusted urge to be Jewish.

It is perhaps difficult for non-Jews to appreciate what an extraordinary event this was.  Consider the Jews:  for centuries a people alternately despised and feared in Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East, a people driven to the economic margins, periodically confined to ghettos, perenially subjected to exile and slaughter.  The Jews:  a people become expert in the art of social survival, in morphing their given role as Western civilization’s unassimilable other into that of Western civilization’s moral conscience.  Who would willingly join such a people?  Who would willingly take on the obligations of Jewish history, not to mention Jewish religion?  And more to the point:  who in rural Andhra, where there are no Jews, would do such a thing?  Why?

The origins of this Jewish community, or at any rate the most secure origins, are found in the intensive Christian missionary activity that has persisted for several decades in the Andhra countryside.  The majority of the newly Christianized population are Madiga and Mala Harijans.  Christian missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, have won conversions partly through material incentives, including housing, education and medical care, and partly through creation of an ideological alternative to Brahmanic Hinduism and untouchability--emphasizing universal salvation regardless of birth.

In the early 1980s, a Christian preacher from Kottareddipalem, the son of a converted Madiga agricultural laborer, began out of his own curiosity to study the Old Testament, the Christian presentation of the Torah, the Jewish scriptures.  Who were the Jewish people of the Old Testament?  Why did they not accept Jesus?  Why did Jesus so severely castigate them?  Why was Paul so interested to abrogate Jewish law and the redemption given to the Jews at Mt. Sinai?  What was the Jewish relationship with God?  The preacher arranged a short trip to Jerusalem on his way back to India from the United States, where he had attended a conference of evangelical Christians.  In Israel he encountered living Judaism.  The intense solidarity he saw in the Jewish people, combined with their relative material prosperity, seemed to him fulfillments of the promises of the God of Jewish scripture, and proof of the truth and efficacy of worshipping the God of Israel. 

Back in Kottareddipalem, the experience led the preacher, together with his two brothers, to undertake committed study of Old Testament in Telugu translation.  The brothers began to develop what could be called a Jewish liberation theology.  They applied their understanding of the Jewish history presented in the Bible to their own socio-economic situation.  The brothers and their neighbors, as Madiga Christians, owned no land and depended for their livelihood on farm and menial labor--the lowest paid, lowest status work in the Indian countryside.  Most survived on less than $300 per year, suffered chronic debt, and lacked access to the most rudimentary health care, to housing adequate to the seasons and to balanced nutrition.  Like most of the rural poor, they lacked the autonomous political organization to assert their interests, and were forced to seek the protection of contending groups of political and social elites--whose protection was, as often as not, fickle and shrewd. 

In Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, left wing Roman Catholic theologians developed “liberation theology” to meet a similar crisis among the rural poor, emphasizing Jesus as defender and redeemer of the poor and the outcast.  In the view of Sadok Yakobi, one of the brothers who developed Judaism in the Telugu community, “it is not Jesus but God--the God who heard the cries of the ancient Jews enslaved in Egypt and freed them, as the Exodus story tells--who will hear the cries of suffering Jews even in Andhra Pradesh, where there are no other Jews.”  Like Abraham, these former untouchables turned to God not from prior instruction but from the depths of their humanity.  Many members of the community reiterated that in a Jewish perspective, their lives were not a misfortune, but an injustice.  In contrast to the Christian path, which urged them to make peace with the inertia of their suffering--however blessed--they decided to challenge themselves and God.  They decided unilaterally to live as Jews.

Becoming Jewish meant formidable changes in their lives.  As Jews they became commanded by God to act on their own behalf, concretely, in the world.  They embraced the commandment to observe shabbat, a weekly day of rest--in contrast the lives of most unskilled laborers, the surplus of whom landlords and factory owners routinely exploit by demanding a seven day work week.  Further, as Jews they became required to observe holidays and life cycle events commemorating covenant, freedom, survival and atonement.  In becoming Jewish they did not merely call themselves by a new name, but found a sanction to act for themselves materially and spiritually, under the wings of a compassionate universal justice.

The brothers’ reading of the Bible and their actions proved highly controversial in the village.  Local Christian clergy reproached them for defending the Jews, whom Jesus abominates in Christian writings.  The resistance deepened their resolve.  But becoming Jewish involved a complex breaking-away from Christianity.  The preacher, who renamed himself Shmuel Yakobi, and his brothers Sadok and Aharon Yakobi, maintained their Christian affiliation outwardly, using their meager foreign Christian financial connections secretly to fund a synagogue, which after four years of construction was dedicated in 1992.  The community was born.

In a simple twist of fate, it was the community’s effort to join world Jewry that introduced into it a fracture line that persists even to the present day.  None of the Telugu Jews counted on having to negotiate the politics--much less on becoming a litmus test--of a thorny issue in contemporary Judaism both in Israel and the United States.  As noble as the Abrahamic idea of self-conversion is, established Judaism holds it in suspicion.  Indeed, Jewish tradition has gone to great lengths to stress the collective practice of Jewish religion to encourage solidarity and to mitigate the sectarian breaks.  Self-conversion is simply not honored in much of the Jewish world, particularly by the orthodox.  Even liberal-minded Jews affirm that individuals become Jewish--and most convesions are individual--by joining an existing Jewish group.  

The Telugu community, which had converted itself into Jews with such passion and commitment, did not expect to be told by other Jews that their Jewish status was questionable.  The community began to divide over the issue.  Sadok Yakobi urged that the community should simply go through a normative Jewish conversion.  Shmuel Yakobi found another answer.  Other Jews would consider the Telugu self-conversion legitimate, or virtually legitimate, if the Telugu Jews were already Jews--if, that is, they were genealogically Jews who had lost their heritage. 

Thus began Shmuel Yakobi’s invention of what he calls the lost history of Jews in India.  In fact Jews do have a long and imperfectly recorded history in the subcontinent, from the two thousand year old community founded by merchants on the Malabar coast, to Iraqi Jews in Maharashtra and Calcutta, to the ancient Shinlung community in Manipur.  Yakobi’s project is something else entirely.  He asserts that Jews from the Lost Tribe of Ephraim--one of the ten Jewish tribes driven into exile after the collapse of the northern kingdom of Israel in 586 B.C.E.--migrated from Afghanistan into northern India, becoming teachers in the Ashokan capital of Magadha--which is, for him, the etymological root of “Madiga.”  Further, the Buddhists who converted Ashoka were actually Jews, and Buddhism is an Indianized version of Jewish wisdom.  Sometime during the 9th or 10th centuries C.E., the story goes, these north Indian Buddho-Jews migrated south, ostensibly with Torah scrolls and other artifacts that Yakobi is unsuccessfully appealing to the Archaeological Survey of India to research, settling around the area of Nandial in what were at that time nascent Telugu speaking areas.  Yakobi claims currently to be writing a comparative philological study of Hebrew and Telugu proving that Hebrew is the unrecognized source of many words in proto-Telugu.  Yakobi is convinced that the Telugu Jews for centuries formed a distinct kulam (jati), marrying only among themselves and maintaining distinct customs, eating habits, occupations, and literacy in Hebrew, but converted to Christianity during the colonial period.  Why the British, of all people, should have been able to break their iron wills remains an open question.  But all of this obfuscates the point.  What really motivates Shmuel Yakobi’s desire to be a remnant of a Lost Tribe is that he might thereby qualify to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

To say that the community is divided between the two brothers’ perspectives would be misleading.  Most believe something of both--and even the two brothers, in moments of fatigue, affirm something of the other’s perspective.  Many members have expressed a general interest in emigrating to Israel--which has spawned a handful of spurious articles in the Israeli press warning of the descent of millions of Indian untouchables on Israel.  But others focus their energies on leading Jewish lives in India.  It remains to be seen whether they will sustain their Jewish social activism, or--barring substantial material improvement--come to understand their faith as the solace that comes in trusting God.  Likewise it continues to be debated whether the community will continue to innovate and practice the Judaism of its own vision, or seek conversion, probably by the  Orthodox, who are intent on being for the young community the arbiters Jewish belonging.

At this point it is still enough to appreciate the sheer existence of the Telugu Jewish community.  For a community to have reached Judaism in striving to be just to itself in its own, uniquely Indian circumstances, is by all accounts extraordinary.  For other Jews it is even exemplary.  Will the Telugu Jews’ initiative challenge other Jews to honor their own Jewish commitments?  Will other Jews admit the lives of the Telugu Jews into the stories of the Jewish people?  Can Jews around the world accept Judaism as a liberation theology?  After all, this is a community of isolated, devoted Jews, suffering and surviving with their God--not so different from other Jewish communities throughout history.  Perhaps enough Jews around the world remember the drawn-out urgency of having to live partly by wits and partly by faith that the wonder of Jews in the middle of rural India is not so unbelievable.