Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

Hebrew School in Nineteenth-Century Bombay: Protestant Missionaries, Cochin Jews, and the Hebraization of India's Bene Israel Community  *


Department of History, California State University Sacramento, 6000 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95819, USA Email:


This paper is a study of cultural interaction and diffusion in colonial Bombay. Focusing on Hebrew language instruction, it examines the encounter between India's little-known Bene Israel Jewish community and Protestant missionaries. Whilst eighteenth and nineteenth-century Cochin Jews were responsible for teaching the Bene Israel Jewish liturgy and forms of worship, the Bene Israel acquired Hebrew and Biblical knowledge primarily from nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Bene Israel community was a Konkan jati with limited knowledge of Judaism. However, by the end of the century the community had become an Indian-Jewish community roughly analogous to other Jewish communities. This paper explores how this transformation occurred, detailing the content, motivation, and means by which British and American missionaries and, to a lesser extent, Cochin Jews instructed the Bene Israel in Jewish knowledge. Through a critical examination of neglected English and Marathi sources, it reconstructs the Bene Israel perspective in these encounters and their attitude towards the Christian missionaries who laboured amongst them. It demonstrates that the Bene Israel were active participants and selective consumers in their interaction with the missionaries, taking what they wanted most from the encounter: knowledge of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language. Ultimately, the instruction the Bene Israel received from Protestant missionaries did not convert them to Christianity but strengthened and transformed their Judaism.

(Online publication March 12 2012)


*  I am grateful to Andrew Esensten, Jonathan Esensten, Allen Greenberger, Sheree Meyer, and Albion Urdank for reading earlier drafts of this paper.