By RACHEL PAULOSE
AAP guest columnist
At the Intersection of Faith, Country, and Culture: Minnesota’s Connection to the Jews of India
This year, a group of Indian Americans will be celebrating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the modern independence of two ancient nations central to their heritage: India and Israel. Over two millennia Jews migrated to and from India, establishing a unique culture passed down by faith, traditions, and intermarriage. Today, their descendants live all over the world, including right here in Minnesota.
At least two distinct groups of Jewish settlers arrived in India. Both groups migrated primarily to the modern coastal state of Kerala, an ancient trading hub connecting merchants from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. These two groups are: (i) the Jews who migrated to India beginning as early as the Babylonian Diaspora in the sixth century B.C. and maintained their Judaism; and (ii) the “Syrian Christians” who converted from Judaism to Christianity and immigrated to India from the first through the fourth centuries A.D. to spread the gospel. Notable among the Syrian Christians is the Knanaya community, a group of Jews who also converted to Christianity and immigrated to India in the fourth century to strengthen the church in Kerala. The existence of these groups is well known in Kerala, whose Christians constitute approximately 20% of the state’s population in a nation that is less than 3% Christian. With family histories largely passed down by oral history, the story of the Jews in India is still being told.
Persecution has historically driven Jews all over the globe. While many Jews fled to the west of ancient Israel, large populations also migrated east.
According to oral tradition, Jews may have first arrived in India after the Babylonian Diaspora in the sixth century B.C. India was already a commercial partner of Israel and the larger Middle East. The Biblical book of Esther describes India as the eastern border of the domain of King Xerxes of Persia, husband of the legendary Jewish queen.
A larger and established wave of Jews arrived after the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem about 70 A.D., and they settled in Kerala. The Jews of Kerala built houses of worship, some of which still stand, including the Pardesi (“sojourner”) synagogue in Cochin. Basically unpersecuted, the Jews lived in peace for two millennia in India. Successive waves of immigration brought more Jews to settle throughout India, but Kerala remained the site of the most settled Jewish community
Until the establishment of the modern state of Israel, India was home to the largest
number of Jews of any nation east of Iran. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, attempted to allow Jews to claim asylum in India during the Holocaust, but he was blocked by other politicians. However, India recognized the state of Israel in 1950 and an Israeli consulate was established in Bombay three years later.
After Israel decreed a Law of Return to any Jew, the vast majority of these approximately 30,000 Jewish Indians made aliyah by migrating back to their ancestral homeland in the mid-twentieth century. Today, only a small population remains in India and specifically in Kerala. Yet the bond between Israel and India established by the Indian Jewish community continues. Steve Hunegs, Executive Director of Jewish Community Relations Counsel (“JCRC”), said:
“There is great affinity among Indians and Jews throughout the world. Culturally, Jews and Indians share a love of family, education, and democracy and are united in opposition to terrorism — as demonstrated by the Mumbai attacks and their aftermath.
In Minnesota, relationships are deepening as the India Association of Minnesota and the JCRC find common ground in many areas. Globally, the affinity is reflected in the economic and political relationship of India and Israel. Trade between the two countries has grown from $80 million in 1991 to $5 billion today.”
The Syrian Christians
Approximately 52 A.D., St. Thomas the Apostle led the first group of Messianic Jews to India in the first century. Their purpose was to carry to spread the gospel to the Jews already settled in India as well as to the Gentile natives. According to legend, St. Thomas established at least seven churches in Kerala, India. His ministry in India was widely acknowledged by early Church fathers, including St. Jerome and St. Ambrose. St. Thomas was successful in converting some Brahmins, high caste Hindus, before being martyred in Madras, India in 72 A.D. His tomb is still venerated, the Catholic Church canonized him as a saint, and both Catholics and Protestants acknowledge St. Thomas as the first Christian missionary to India.
Descendants of these Jewish converts became known as Syrian Christians because of the ancient Aramaic language they spoke, Syriac. About the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., as many as 10,000 Jews may have come from the Middle East to Kerala. Intermarriage with converted natives was discouraged but sometimes practiced. The community remained a distinct but recognized minority group among Kerala’s majority Hindu population.
Syrian Christians flourished in tolerant Kerala. Maintaining the traditional Jewish emphasis on education and learning, they excelled in what has become India’s best educated state. The Syrian Christians established universities, hospitals, and charities that served the whole state. They also maintained their ethnic heritage by passing down specifically Jewish practices. Syrian Christians continue to bestow Hebrew names upon their children, speak Syriac in the Eastern Orthodox church liturgy, and cover their heads in worship. The community also visualizes its heritage by using Jewish rites in marriage ceremonies. One practice that continues to this day is the practice of feeding a bride and groom milk and honey during the wedding celebration, hearkening back to ancient Israel, the land of milk and honey.
Initially, the Syrian Christians were under the authority of the Chaldean Bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese formally brought some of the Syrian Christians into the Catholic Church, under the authority of the Pope, in the fifteenth century. The Portuguese also attempted to Latinize the Indian church to force Indian Christians to use the Vulgate, among other reforms. Resistance to the Portuguese developed; factions emerged; and churches of the Jacobites, Marthomites, and the Anglicans, among other denominations, were established beginning about the sixteenth century. In the early twentieth century, community leaders of the largely Eastern Orthodox Syrian Christian community began to convert to evangelical Protestant denominations, including a significant number to the Plymouth Brethren. Thomas Johns, a former Board member of the Stewards Foundation, a national Plymouth Brethren organization, is also a cousin of both M. E. Cherian, a missionary to Tamil Nadu who composed over 300 Christian hymns, and T. A. Kurien, a missionary to Madhya Pradesh. Johns said: “One of the Plymouth Brethren’s chief contributions to Protestant scholarship has been the evangelical teaching on eschatology, especially God’s continuing covenant with Israel, known as dispensationalism, a theme that resonated with our Syrian Christian family.”
The Johns family story is a microcosm of the larger Syrian Christians emphasis on evangelism, and Syrian Christians helped bring Christianity to other parts of India, including Punjab and Calcutta. When a group of Alexandrian Christian visited north India in the third century, they returned with a copy of the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew. Cherished, it was preserved in the library of the Alexandrina Christians, but was later burned by the Caliphs during the Muslim invasion.
The Knanaya Christians
The Knanaya Christians, a subgroup among the Syrian Christians, have been particularly zealous in preserving their Jewish roots. Thomas Kynani, the leader of this group, was a Christian merchant of Jewish descent living in Babyloniai. Hearing of the need of the church in India for more spiritual support and leadership, Kynai led a group of seventy-two families from modern day Iraq to India about 345 A.D. Persecution against Middle Eastern Jews broke out at about this time as well, which may have provided another impetus to flee. Accompanying Kynai was a bishop, Bishop Mar Joseph, as well as four priests, several deacons, and about 400 Jewish Christian converts who set sail in three ships to arrive in Kodungalloor, Kerala. As the first bishop recognized in India, Bishop Mar Joseph helped solidify the Indian church. Later, more bishops arrived from the Middle East, further strengthening church structure and religious organization.
The Knanaya Christians received a royal welcome from the Hindu ruler, who granted them 72 privileges inscribed on copper plates. The original and replicas of these copper plates are stored in the British Museum in London as well as in ancient churches in Kerala. The 72 privileges essentially allowed the Knanaya Christians the same treatment as the Hindu upper class.
This high social status allowed Knanaya Christians to succeed, and many prospered as businesspeople. The Knanaya Christians also served the community, establishing institutions of learning, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged and the mentally challenged, and publications. Many Catholic institutes of consecrated life for priests and nuns were built in Kerala. Some priests and nuns immigrated and to serve in other parts of the world, including in Minnesota.
Kurian Benjamin, the CEO of Smart Delivery Service, Inc., is a Knanaya Christian who immigrated to Minnesota in 1975 with $7 and one suitcase. His wife Laly is a Syrian Christian. Benjamin said, “The Knanaya community is a still a faith centered, well educated, business oriented extended family. Those characteristics are still measures of success among the community.” Benjamin is also the son of the late Kurian Abraham, a highly respected evangelist and published author. Benjamin’s father instilled in him the importance of faith and hard work. “I hope my legacy to my children is to place God first,” Benjamin said. “Money and power come and go, but blessings will continue generation after generation if you serve the Lord.”
The Knanaya Christians celebrate their Jewish heritage through traditions passed down through the millennia. Knanaya Christians, like their Jewish brethren who carry in the bride and groom at weddings, carry in the bride and groom on the shoulders of their uncles during their wedding celebrations. The bride and groom are seated on special upraised seats to paint a picture of the marriage of patriarch Issac to Rebekah. Like the Syrian Christians, the Knanaya also feed the wedding couple milk (and banana slices, an Indian adaptation for honey) to remind them of their ancestral homeland. Sacred hymns still sung at important events were compiled in a Knanaya songbook published in 1910. Double banana leaves, traditionally used as placemats only by the upper class, are still used by the Knanaya Christians at ceremonial functions to remind them of this privilege granted centuries ago by the royal family to the Knanaya community. Members of the community fold over a single banana leaf to carry on the tradition.
Kurian Cherucheril is a Knanaya Christian who immigrated to Minnesota in 1968 and retired as the head of the Science Department at Cretin-Derham Hall. Cherucheril grew up learning of his family tree from family members, including an uncle, Father Mathew Cherucheril, a pioneering priest who helped settle the Knanaya Christian community in Malabar, Kerala in 1943. At least six of his relatives have served as priests over the last century. Another of Cherucheril’s relatives currently serves as the Chief Bishop of the Jacobite church in Kerala. In describing the ancient history of the Knanaya Christians, Cherucheril said, “The fact is, there is such a community in India. We know this from the convergence of traditions, acknowledgements in the historical record, and artifacts that exist to this day. As in a court of law, you can prove this case by circumstantial as well as direct evidence.”
The Knanaya Christians historically practiced endogamy, or marriage within the community. Those who married outside the Knanaya community were expelled from the parish. In 1911, exclusive Knanaya Catholics established a separate diocese in Kerala with their own priest. Today, Cherucheril estimates there are about 200,000 strict Knanaya worldwide. Of those, he estimates about two-thirds of the Knanaya remain Catholic. The remaining Knanaya belong to various Protestant denominations, including the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Plymouth Brethren.
Cherucheril said, “I hope my children follow our traditions and pass the torch on to the next generation. I understand we live in a culture where many things change, and indeed many things will change. Our faith is the most important part of our culture, and it is the one thing we cannot compromise.”
Jewish people have carried their learning and service to every corner of the globe. Of Jewish ancestry, Indian culture, and American standing, Minnesota’s Indo-Jewish community is one of the most unique of the state’s increasingly diverse ethnic landscape.