Rethinking "Sephardic": Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Observances among the Jews of Bombay

By Needel, Yale M. | Shofar, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Rethinking "Sephardic": Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Observances among the Jews of Bombay


Needel, Yale M., Shofar


This study explores the ritual enactments of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jewish communities in Bombay, India during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By comparing and contrasting the ritual enactments of the two communities against each other, the Sephardic norm, and various faiths in India, their acculturation and hybridization in India is displayed and expressed as "Eastern Sephardic" Jewry. The results demonstrate that the religious life of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews resembles that of other Mizrachi or "Eastern" Sephardic Jews, that is, "traditional" Sephardic rites were superimposed on older, ancestral Jewish customs, with additional contributions from their respective locales. The study argues that the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews have not lost their Jewish identity by adapting to their host country and culture; rather, they have developed and nurtured a finely balanced and unique Indo-Judaic identity through a demonstrative cultural and religious inclusion of their Indian neighbors.

This article explores the religious and social hybridization among the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jewish communities in Bombay (officially Mumbai since 1995) as observed during the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2000.1 In it I argue that unlike Indian society, which was based on the strict Hindu social stratum or caste system, the Jews of India-the Baghdadi, Bene Israel, and Keralite (Cochin) communities-maintained and, to an extent, cultured their religious identity as both Indian citizens and Jews through their incorporation of certain domestic or Indian practices into their public display and observance of Judaism. My findings demonstrate that the religious life of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews resembles that of other Mizrachi or "Eastern" Jews. Specifically, traditional Sephardic rites were superimposed on older, ancestral Jewish customs, with additional contributions from their respective locales. Rather than isolating themselves, the Jews of India have stayed in contact with other (Jewish) communities, justifying their recognition as unique Indian" Eastern Sephardic" Jews.

The term Sephardic literally refers to descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the end of the 15* century who follow religious customs and laws based on Babylonian tradition. The Sephardic connotation is used to describe only Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and several (former) Ladino-speaking nations in the Mediterranean. I use the term"Eastern" because the present Sephardic communities originating from various regions in the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia all share unique customs and rituals differing from Jews classified or identified as Sephardim. This expanded definition of Sephardim demonstrates the relatively narrow perception or concept of a culture commonly believed to be unique to those of Arabic, Portuguese, or Spanish (speaking) descent.

Jewish life in India highlights the distinguishing facets of both Indie and Judaic cultures that have enabled Jews to live amicably for so long in India, fully as Indians (if they desired), while at the same time preserving their Jewish ancestry to the best of their ability. The Jews of India, particularly because of their isolation and rejecting certain external influences, have become contributors and members of an expanded family of Sephardic Jews from regions in the East including Afghanistan, Burma, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen, among others. These Jewish communities all share "traditional" Sephardic rites based on the common or accepted definition of Sephardim but have hybridized certain elements of their "Eastern" ancestry and locale into their observance of Judaism, while still observing halakha (Jewish law), thus requiring an expanded definition of Sephardic.

Rather than being identified by their observance of Judaism, Diasporic or minority Jewish communities frequently are grouped together by their nationality, thus eliminating them from the two traditional strains of Jewish heritage: Sephardi and Ashkenazi (Jews of Central and/or Eastern European ancestry). …

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