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Durham University

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The Children of Ephraim: Constructing Jewish Identity in Andhra Pradesh

A research project of the Department of Anthropology, part of the Public Culture in Theory and Practice research group.

Background

What does it mean to be Jewish in the twenty-first century? Why would a community adopt Jewish identity as a social liberation strategy? The proposed project will address these questions by focusing on the Bene-Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh (India), whose unique circumstances provide an interesting new perspective on theoretical discussion about legitimization of identities.

The community of the Bene-Ephraim (or 'Telugu Jews') was established in the late 1980s in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh by a group of Christianised Madiga who declared that they belonged to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The Madiga are a large community of so-called untouchables or Dalits of Andhra Pradesh and represent one of the poorest and most discriminated against segments of the state. The community was led by two brothers who adopted the names of Shmuel and Sadok Yacobi.  In 1992 they established a synagogue in the village of Kothareddipalem and introduced a number of Jewish rites into the practice of their congregation (Egorova 2006: 119-27). 

Shortly afterwards they started seeking recognition by the State of Israel and among the Jewish communities in the West. The community have established contacts with Amishav and Kulanu organizations in Israel and the USA respectively, which unite those interested in assisting communities that are 'rediscovering' their Jewish origin. Through this connection the community has had several visits from rabbis and other interested individuals who have been helping them to establish practices of more 'mainstream' Judaism. In India the Bene-Ephraim made headlines when the police of Hyderabad (the capital of Andhra Pradesh) uncovered a 'plot' by alleged agents of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, an Islamic militarist organization based in Pakistan, to attack Americans in Hyderabad and the Jewish families in Guntur district. After the incident the community became more visible for the local authorities. At the moment the Bene-Ephraim have two synagogues which provide services for about 150 families who in one way or another associate themselves with the community. While members of the Bene-Ephraim look to move beyond caste affiliation at a local level, at the same time they challenge conventional views of Jewish identity at an international level.

Aims

The objective of the project is to explore the Judaisation of the Bene-Ephraim in the context of theories about Jewish identity and as a case study of the Dalit movement. To achieve this objective the study will aim to answer the following questions:

  1. Community membership and their view of local context. Who forms the Bene-Ephraim community at the moment? Who can claim membership in it in principle? To what extent is joining (or not joining) the Bene-Ephraim a matter of choice for individual members and what factors influence this choice? How do the communities see their relationship with and historical connection to other Madiga and what is their view of their place in the wider Indian society and among different Indian populations?
  2. Bene-Ephraim and Judaism. What are the Bene-Ephraim understandings of Judaism, Jewish culture and what it means to be Jewish? What is their attitude towards the State of Israel? What are the current beliefs, practices and narratives of origin of the Bene-Ephraim and what changes have occurred in them since the emergence of the community in the late 1980s? Which particular elements of 'mainstream' Judaism were introduced in their practice and what factors seem to have influenced this choice?
  3. Attitudes towards the Bene-Ephraim. How are the Bene-Ephraim perceived by Israeli authorities and different Jewish organisations and communities in the West and in India? How are they viewed and officially classified by the local, state and national Indian authorities?  What is their place in the local hierarchy? How are they treated by their neighbours and what opportunities for education and choice of occupation do they have? Have there been any changes in these aspects of the life of those who consider themselves to be Bene-Ephraim or of the life of other Madiga since the formal establishment of the Bene-Ephraim community?
  4. Bene-Ephraim in the wider socio-political and historical context. How do thestrategies that the Bene-Ephraim have used to acquire legitimacy as a Jewish community on the local, state, national and international levels compare and contrast to those employed by other communities around the world who have claimed affiliation with the Lost Tribes of Israel? How do their social liberation strategies reflect (or contest) those of other Dalit movements?

Methods

The project is based on fieldwork conducted among the Bene Ephraim by Dr Shahid Perwez in the period from May 2009 to June 2010, and on interviews conducted by Dr Yulia Egorova with Bene Ephraim and members of international organisations involved in their cause.

Findings

A list of publications produced on the basis of the project will appear here shortly.  

Staff

From the Department of Anthropology