Monday, May 1, 2006

BOMBAY — A year after northeastern India’s Bnei Menashe tribe won rabbinical recognition as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, another tribe in southern India said it got lost from Israel about three millennia ago and it too has the right to return to the Promised Land.

About 300 Jews living in Prakasham and Guntur districts of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh call themselves Bnei Ephraim, the children of Ephraim, because they think they are descendants of Ephraim, leader of one of the biblical lost tribes.

“It may take some time. But as it happened to our Bnei Menashe cousins, we shall definitely be recognized by Israel and we shall surely be able to return to our homeland, ending this long exile in a foreign land. … We all have to go back to Israel,” said Shamuel Yacobi, a leader of the group also known as Telugu Jews.

According to oral tradition, the tribe wandered through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and China for more than 1,600 years before settling in southern India in about the 10th century, and its members are living there as impoverished farm laborers.

In medieval India, members of the Jewish tribe were forced to live as dalits, or untouchable Hindus, by the powerful upper-class Hindus before being converted to Christianity by the missionaries in the beginning of the 19th century.

In the 1980s, after Mr. Yacobi, who was then a Christian preacher, visited Jerusalem and learned of the tribe’s Jewish roots, members stopped going to church and built their first synagogue in Andhra Pradesh.

“Simply because we lived in a remote area, without any touch with mainstream Jewish societies around the world for long centuries, we had to live as dalits and Christians in India. But now we are sure that Judaism is our original religion and we are one of those lost tribes from Israel,” said Mr. Yacobi, who is now a synagogue leader and running a school in the area to help his community members read and write Hebrew.

British, American and Israeli researchers who worked on the Telugu Jews over the years think their traditions are authentically Israelite in origin, although DNA analysis of the tribe members could not confirm their Jewish roots.

One representative from the chief rabbinate visited the Telugu Jews in Andhra Pradesh several years ago. However, unlike the Bnei Menashe, Bnei Ephraim Jews have not been recognized by Israel as a biblical lost tribe.

Many think the Bnei Ephraim Jews are trying to escape poverty and that they want to leave this region of Andhra Pradesh where six successive years of drought and crop failure have driven more than 3,000 peasants into debt and to suicide.

“They are among the poorest of Jews in the world. They are desperate for the recognition by Israel’s chief rabbinate simply to be guaranteed a passport from that country where they can lead a much better life — away from this life of poverty and hunger,” said Chandra Sekhar Angadi, a social scientist in the neighboring state of Karnataka.

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