Program Details

The Remarkable Story of Two Thousand Years of Jewish Culture in India

Wes Ervin
Jewish Culture & History / International Relations

Course Description

Many people who saw the recent film Shalom Bollywood were surprised to learn that Jews were prominent in the nascent film industry of India. Actually, there have been Jewish communities in the Indian subcontinent for some 2,000 years, and perhaps even longer. The Indian Diaspora is remarkable not only for its long continuity but also for the harmonious relations that prevailed from the start between the Jews, the Hindu majority population, and other religious minorities, particularly the Muslims. The central theme of this presentation is how these diaspora Jews managed to preserve their religious and cultural identity while at the same time acculturating to the caste-based society of Brahmanical Hinduism. This presentation will survey this long and rich history, starting with the arrival of seafaring Jewish traders in the ports of southwest India (what is now the state of Kerala), the patronage they received from the local Hindu kings (maharajas), their reciprocal loyalty, the later influx of Sephardic Jews in the Middle Ages, and the divisions that unfortunately developed between these Jewish communities. Slides will illustrate ancient synagogue architecture, the gifts the maharajas bestowed upon the Jews, the hybrid dress of the Jews, and their Kosher cuisine that was based on the food of the high-caste Hindu Brahmins. New challenges and choices that Jews faced with Indian independence in 1947 will be examined. Uncertain of the future, many bid farewell to their Hindu, Muslim, and Christian friends and left for Israel. Others opted for Australia, Canada, and the US. As their numbers kept dwindling year after year, synagogues closed one after another; some have crumbled. A two thousand year culture in India seemed to be headed for extinction. Surprising as it may sound today, it is Muslim volunteers who are preserving synagogues and producing documentaries about the Jewish contribution to the mosaic of cultures that is India. Where else in the world would that happen?

About the Instructor

  • Wes Ervin, PhD, received his BA, MA, and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Chicago. He has lectured at New York University, Harvard University, and numerous conferences in Europe over the last 25 years. After retiring in 2017, he presented a course on “Two Thousand Years of Jewish History in India” at the Osher/FAU Boca Raton. He also volunteers as a docent at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

Upcoming programs presented by Wes Ervin.

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