Bene Israel

The Bene Israel community, the largest of the three Jewish communities in India, lives alongside the Baghdad and the Kochin Jews. The native language of the Bene Israel is Marathi. The traditions of the community trace their descent to Jews who escaped persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BC, though the Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs. The Bene Israel, however, maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.

For generations the community members lived in villages in the State of Maharashtra in Western India. Their traditional occupations were the production of oil, tilling the soil and carpentry. Under British rule, from the end of 17th century onwards, many community members moved to cities, primarily Mumbai, Pune, and Ahmedabad, and acquired various relatively high level professions in public services, especially in the postal and telegraph services, customs, railroad, shipping and medicine. It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s, 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1948 - their peak in India - they numbered 20,000. Since that time, their population in India has decreased through emigration (mostly to Israel) to fewer than 5,000.

Orpa Slapak, Curator, Department of Jewish Ethnography, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, comments about the traditional costume depicted on the stamp: The Jews in India were never faced with prohibitions or limitations in dress, which they were free to choose according to their needs and ability. The Sari has always been the most common dress throughout India, amongst women of all religions. There have been no significant changes in the Sari over the generations, and its current form is the same as when it made its first appearance in the first century AD. The women adorned their feet with heavy silver jewelry, and their faces were decorated with silver and gold ear and nose rings inlaid with gem stones.

The stamp was issued in 1999. Designer: A. Vanooijen.