'Well, how can you be Jewish and European?' Indian-Jewish experiences in the Toronto Jewish Community and the creation of Congregation BINA.

Author:Train, Kelly Amanda
Position:Bene Israel North America

I have never experienced antisemitism. My problem has been that Ashkenazi Jews have failed to acknowledge and recognize me as a Jew. (1)


In 2009, the Indian-Jewish community in Toronto celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Congregation BINA (Bene Israel North America), the first and only Indian-Jewish prayer congregation in Toronto. Founded in 1979 by thirty-five to fifty Indian-Jewish families, it now has 250 to 300 member families, residing primarily in Toronto, but also in Kingston, Hamilton, Montreal, and New York. BINA serves members of all three Indian-Jewish communities: namely, the Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, and Baghdadi Jews who were originally from Iraq but who settled in British-ruled India in the eighteenth century. Leadership has now passed from the hands of Indian-Jewish immigrants to their Canadian-born children. The founders established BINA--and it continues to function --in response to exclusion by the Ashkenazi (2)-dominated Toronto Jewish community and its members.

Changes to Canadian immigration policy in 1962 allowed for the settlement of nonwhite immigrants in Canada. During the 1960s and 1970s, Canada became an attractive place of settlement for Indian Jews who were English-speaking, highly educated and professional, since the Canadian economy was seeking large numbers of skilled and professional workers. The first wave of Indian-Jewish immigrants started arriving in Toronto between 1964 and 1980 and quickly attained socioeconomic stability. Soon after, Indian Jews sought to join their Jewish coreligionists by participating in Toronto's Jewish community, but they faced rejection by Canadian Jews who questioned the Jewish identity of Indian Jews. In the view of Toronto's Indian Jews, their Ashkenazi co-religionists, who are considered white ethnic "others" in the Canadian context, (3) have been unable to accept that one might be both South Asian and Jewish. The Ashkenazi majority holds these racialized identities in binary opposition: Jews are white and of European origins; Indians are Hindu or Muslim. Ashkenazi Jews are further confused when Indian Jews follow Indian cultural norms by wearing traditional Indian dress, preparing and eating kosher versions of Indian foods, and speaking Indian languages. Homogenous and essentialist claims of an "authentic" Jewish identity serve to exclude diverse Jewish identities and realities that reflect different social, historical, geographic, economic, and cultural contexts.

The establishment of Congregation BINA demonstrates how the Indian-Jewish community has resisted the hegemonic Toronto Jewish community's essentialist construction of the authentic Jew as an Ashkenazi Jewish identity of Eastern European origin and culture. To demonstrate this, I focus on the experiences of Indian Jews within the Toronto Jewish community and its institutions, as well as on the establishment of Congregation BINA. The research for this study is based on sixteen in-depth, open-ended interviews, including seven interviews with Indian-Jewish community leaders--four of whom were co-founders of the congregation, as well as the past president, the current president, and one board member, and nine other Indian Jews--about their experiences within the Toronto Jewish community. The interview participants ranged in age from 29 years to 74 years, and included some Indian Jews who had immigrated to Canada as adults and some who were born and raised in Toronto. Of the sixteen respondents, nine were women and seven were men. Community leaders consisted of both men and women. I have assigned aliases to all of the interview subjects. I also used community materials, including the Canadian Jewish News, files of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada, and Congregation BINA newsletters. In addition, I attended Congregation BINA for prayer services on the High Holidays in 2002, 2003, and 2004 in order to understand the role of the congregation in the lives of its members.

Throughout this article, I use the term "Indian Jews" as a broad term to refer to the diverse Indian-Jewish communities who settled in Canada, since all of the respondents interviewed call themselves "Indian Jews," with distinct and specific cultural, historical, regional, and linguistic identities of being Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, or Baghdadi Jews. The term "Mizrahim" (literally, "Easterners"), which is used in the Israeli context to refer to all non-Ashkenazi Jews, was never used by any respondent in this study. (4) Of course, these three primary groups have their own fascinating histories in India, in some cases going back thousands of years. Limits of space do not allow for a deserved historical introduction. In brief, the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews are Indian-identifying groups in terms of their cultures, while Baghdadi Jews, as might be expected, identify more with Arabic cultures of the Middle East.

Indian-Jewish Immigration and Settlement in Toronto

In 1962, Canadian policymakers removed the emphasis on race, ethnicity, and nationality from Canadian immigration policy, and instead stressed education, work skills, and employment opportunities in Canada as the basis for immigrant selection criteria. The new immigration regulations encouraged highly educated professional people of color, including the Jews of India, to immigrate and settle in Canada for the first time. Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada (JIAS), established by the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1920 to facilitate Jewish immigration to Canada and to assist new Jewish immigrants financially and socially with the integration process, began to receive immigration applications from Indian Jews who wished to come to Canada in 1963. (5) JIAS encouraged Jewish newcomers who were already fluent in English, as the majority of Indian Jews were, to settle in Toronto and Winnipeg. (6) JIAS and other Canadian Jewish agencies were aware of the existence of Indian Jews, even though the Jewish establishment did not view Indian-Jewish identities as recognizably Jewish, since they did not follow Ashkenazic culture or the traditions of Yiddishkeit (7) and they did not look like "real" Jews since they were not "white." Nonetheless, JIAS facilitated the immigration and settlement of Indian Jews on the basis that they were officially and religiously recognized as Jews within the Israeli and diasporic Jewish establishment.

Between 1964 and 1980, some Indian Jews arrived in Canada directly from India, while others arrived after first settling in England, Australia, the United States, or Israel. (8) Since 1980, a handful of Indian-Jewish families have arrived from Israel. The majority of Indian Jews who have settled in Canada have been Bene Israel from cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, and Karachi (now part of Pakistan). Only a dozen or so Baghdadi Jewish families from Kolkata and Mumbai and only a couple of Cochin Jewish families from the City of Kochi and the Kerala region have settled in Canada.

The Indian Jews who immigrated to Canada were, on the whole, highly educated. English-speaking, middle-class professionals whose university degrees and qualifications were recognized by the Canadian government. They were arriving in Canada at a time when the Canadian government was recruiting international professionals to fill the professional employment required by Canadian businesses and the Canadian economy. The majority of the Indian-Jewish immigrants were Bene Israel, along with small numbers of Baghdadi Jews, all of whom had had high levels of secular, Western-style university education and professional work experience. Most had little difficulty finding professional employment in their field of training, since they had arrived from India with prearranged employment or they had attained employment within a short period of time after their arrival. The vast majority of Indian Jews did not require the help of JIAS beyond their immediate reception period upon arrival. (9)

Indian Jews began leaving India in the 1950s, with large-scale emigration throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. (10) Indian Jews had never experienced any antisemitism or religious persecution whatsoever in India from the time of their arrival during ancient times until the present. Under Hindu rule, tolerance of all religious beliefs has been the very foundation of Indian society and has allowed religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, and Parsis, to flourish within a caste-system environment. (11) Baghdadi Jews, however, saw their social, cultural, and economic interests aligned with the British. The Baghdadi Jews arrived in India from Iraq in the 1800s to partake in business opportunities that had opened up under British rule. The majority of Baghdadi Jews followed the British out of India after Indian independence in 1947, some going to Israel while the majority settled in England, with small numbers settling in Canada, the United States, and Australia. (12) In the cases of Bene Israel and Cochin Jews, their devotion to Orthodox Judaism and their attraction to Israel as the religious and spiritual Jewish homeland served as a primary source of encouragement for their mass migration to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Only a small number of Bene Israel immigrated to English-speaking Western countries, including Canada. Those who did were largely university-educated, middle-class professionals who had been educated in British-run institutions and who had adopted Western values and ways of life as symbols of modernization and advancement. (13) Virtually all Cochin Jews who left India settled in Israel. Since the 1990s, only two Cochin Jewish families from Israel have settled in Canada.

By 1978, there were approximately thirty-five to fifty Indian-Jewish families living in Toronto. (14) Today, Indian Jews represent a small minority group of 250 to 300 persons within the Toronto Jewish community, which, as of 2001...

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