The Bene Ephraim
By Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez
At the end of the 1980s, a new community emerged in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, which was led by a former Christian minister, Shmuel Yacobi and his brother Sadok, who declared that their group of Madiga Dalits was of Hebrew descent. In 1991, the community established a synagogue in the village of Kothareddypalem of coastal Andhra, adopted a number of Jewish practices, and started a campaign to make aliyah to the State of Israel.
The Madiga community from which the Bene Ephraim come was Christianised about one hundred and fifty years ago by the Lone Star Baptist Christian Missionaries of Valley Forge Pennsylvania. The Madiga are a Scheduled Caste in Andhra Pradesh, which probably has the lowest status among the Dalit groups of the state.
It appears that Shmuel’s research into the Israelite past of his community was partly motivated by his desire to free the Bene Ephraim from caste inequality. Shmuel often recounted to us how, like other Madiga, he was discriminated against in the job market with very few occupations being open to him, despite the fact that he had achieved good results at school. His mother told him stories of how she was made to sit separately in school, often outside the classroom. The local tea and food shopkeepers in the village served them through the backdoor of the shop, if they ever served them at all, fearing a backlash from high caste villagers.
When Shmuel was a young man, he himself was once refused a glass of water by a Hindu neighbour, who belonged to a higher caste. He describes this episode as a starting point for his research into the Bene Ephraim past in a personal communication with the present authors on 7 January 2010:
When I started my education, one day I was thirsty. I went to a nearby Hindu house and asked, ‘Give me some water’. They know my parents, my grandmother. But some of them are uneducated people. They may not recognize me or my parents. They said, ‘Who are you?’ It is a general question in Andhra Pradesh…We have to tell our caste. I said, ‘I am the son of the headmaster.’ They said, ‘Oh, you are Madiga’. They brought some water and poured it like this [to make sure I don’t touch the cup]. That was the first time in my life to face those things. Before that my parents would tell me, but I did not know what it was like for them in practice… From that day I took it as a challenge. I started praying to God and I started asking several people, ‘What is this caste system? What is this discrimination? In Babylonian exile the Jewish people had to say, ‘We are unclean’. The same situation was here… So, that’s how that began…
Like other Madiga leaders (as well as the leaders of other Dalit groups), Shmuel explains his community’s status as a result of an unjust punishment. However, unlike other Madiga leaders, he chose an account which located community’s early history entirely outside of the Indic tradition.
Who are the Bene Ephraim, according to Shmuel Yacobi? Earlier stories, collected in a book entitled Cultural Hermeneutics published by Yacobi in 2002, assert that all the Scheduled Castes of southern India and possibly even of the entire sub-continent are the descendants of the Bene Ephraim. The book details different aspects of the community’s history, which could broadly be summarised as follows. The Bene Ephraim are the descendants of some of the Tribes of Israel, who in 722 BCE were exiled from the ancient kingdom of Israel by Assyria. After a sojourn in Persia, they were moved to the northern part of the subcontinent, which was then populated by Dravidian groups including Telugu speaking communities. In the seventh century BCE the subcontinent was conquered by the “Aryans” who pushed the Dravidians and the Bene Ephraim south.
In his interviews with us, Shmuel talked about similarities between Biblical practices and those of Telugu-speakers, and specifically of the Madiga, and finds analogies in the experiences of his people and the Jews. Shmuel does so in the context of his polemic directed against Indian social structure. He interprets the values of the Jewish tradition against the backdrop of ancient Indian history and of caste inequality, ascribing to “Israelitism” a message of liberation, which allowed his ancestors to stand up to the caste system. According to Cultural Hermeneutics, the Bene Ephraim were relegated by the Aryans to the position of untouchables, because they were against the very idea of caste hierarchy.
The current state of affairs in the community is explained as an unfortunate result of the further advance of the ‘Aryan rule’ under which the Bene Ephraim lost their status and political significance, were reduced to extreme poverty, and, left with no means of maintaining their tradition, almost forgot it.
The Yacobi brothers refuse to describe the Judaization of the Bene Ephraim as a conversion movement. Shmuel, in particular, prefers to call it a teshuvah, or a process through which Jews, who discontinued practicing Judaism in the past, are rediscovering the tradition of their ancestors. The brothers (as well as other Bene Ephraim we talked to) are also adamant that their Judaization should not be viewed as a mere attempt at escaping the caste system. However, Shmuel’s discourse about his community’s engagement with the Israelite tradition is permeated with anti-caste rhetoric. It was thus a protest against caste inequality that marked the beginning of his return to Judaism. His teshuvah became both a way of connecting to the wider Jewish community, and a socio-cultural critique of the caste system, a critique which preserved and expanded the idea about the Madiga being different from the ‘pure’ castes.
Though the community’s Judaization can be read as a way of rejecting the tradition of the dominant groups (to the extent of possible emigration), it also provided the Bene Ephraim with a means to honour and celebrate those features of their cultural practices that higher castes were particularly contemptuous of. For instance, Shmuel Yacobi argues that many Telugu Hindu festivals have their analogues in the main Jewish holidays – the Hindus first learnt about these festivals from the Bene Ephraim, and once the latter came to be declared ‘untouchables’ as a punishment for their resistance to the caste system, the Hindus prohibited them to practise these rites. In Shmuel’s view, by celebrating Jewish holidays, the Madiga are returning to their roots and reclaiming what was theirs in the first place. However, Shmuel also suggests that the Madiga and other Dalits did manage to remember and keep at least two Jewish traditions which later became the main markers of their ‘untouchability’ – the customs of beef-eating and of burying their dead.
Most community members claim to command the knowledge of shehitah, and say that they can make any meat kosher. However, in the discourse of the Bene Ephraim, kashrut means much more than Jewish dietary laws. When talking about the Bene Ephraim practice of eating kosher meat, the Yacobis particularly stress their knowledge of how to make beef kosher. According to Shmuel Yacobi, the fact that the Scheduled Castes of India possessed the knowledge about beef-eating – a practice which caste Hindus consider to be ritually polluting – is further evidence of their connection to the ancient Israelites.
Marking the end of life with a burial is another practice that, according to the Yacobis, connects Dalits to Judaism. The Madiga cemetery in itself is described by the Bene Ephraim as further evidence for their Hebrew origin. They pride themselves on their practice of burying their dead, which is different from the cremating practice of caste Hindus, and reinterpret it as a tradition passed down to them by their Israelite ancestors. As it is the case with observing kashrut, the Madiga cemetery symbolises for the Bene Ephraim both their Jewish past and their Dalit heritage. In the tradition of the Bene Ephraim, being Jewish, amongst other things, means being Madiga. It means to eat beef and to bury one’s dead, to denounce inequality and to fight caste discrimination.
Egorova, Y. and S. Perwez (2013) The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Caste and Religion in South India, New York: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Yulia Egorova is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Durham University. Dr. Shahid Perwez is Research Fellow at the University of Bath.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.