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Jewish Communities in Unlikely Places


There are still small Jewish enclaves in Cochin, at the southern tip of India, and Calcutta, India, which is located in the Northeast corner of the country, just below Nepal.  But until 1948, there were many thousands of Jews living peacefully among their neighbors.

 Jews have lived in these areas for as long as 2000 years, in some cases.  Some came from Baghdad, in the original Diaspora, while others emigrated from Europe in the Middle Ages.

If you are interested in a very comprehensive history of these areas, I would recommend Flowers in the Blood, by Gail Courter, an excellent novel based on the Sassoon family and its opium trade during the 19th century.  Ms. Courter has truly done her homework in fleshing out the history of the Jews in India, and their interaction with the Hindu population.  

I recommend that you print out a map of India to help you visualize the travels of the main characters.  Enjoy a great read. 

                                        RIBADAVIA, SPAIN

by Sheila Steinberg

Dateline: November 5, 2012

On a transatlantic cruise from Southampton to Ft. Lauderdale this past fall, we were making a stop in Vigo, Spain, on the north coast of the Atlantic.  Not caring for the offered shore excursions, and having just come off the Hadassah Centennial Convention, I contacted the Vigo Tourist Office about hiring a car to take us 30 miles east to the town of Ribadavia. 

Why Ribadavia, you may ask?  I noticed during my pre-cruise research that Vigo and Ribadavia were in the area of Spain called Galicia, as in "Galicianer Jews."    I went on-line and found a great deal of information about the area, and Ribadavia was listed as the center of Sephardic Jewish life in the region before 1492.  I read further that the town had a Sephardic Museum above its town hall!  Who would have thought?

So we recruited 2 other Jewish couples we had met and took off in a Land Rover for parts unknown.

Our driver came prepared with a printed sheet for each couple, describing the history of Jewish life in Ribadavia.  When we arrived, we found that the museum was closed due to water damage, BUT the entire town square and the major street leading off of it had been the Jewish Quarter 500 years ago. 



Our proof?  On the cobblestones beneath our feet was a brass plaque with the Hebrew letters "Shin, fe, hey (Sefah)."  And on the wall of the first building, a mosaic mezzuzah still stood in bright relief on the doorpost.  There were Jewish stars on the filigreed trimwork, and more mezzuzahs as we walked on. 

Our guide had really done his homework, as he told us the history of the Quarter and the entire area.  He showed us the original synagogue, shops owned by Jews, and then took us to the only "Kosher" bakery in Galicia, owned by an elderly woman who imports her ingredients from Israel and makes many middle-Eastern treats to sell.

If you would like to go on-line yourself, Google "Jewish Sightseeing in Ribadavia, Spain."  There are a number of pictures and great information about the history of the area. I highly recommend a side-trip, whether you're on your own, or visiting by cruise-ship.





From Jewish Federations of North America, March 22, 2011 

                   "On the Ground: The Jewish Community of Japan"

As more harrowing news came out of Japan about the risks of multiple nuclear melt-downs and the dire humanitarian situation caused by the tsunami, cautious and hopeful notes were being sounded by the Jewish Community of Japan, one of the two main bodies (together with Chabad) of organized Jewish life in Tokyo.

"The Japanese are a resilient people and I am one hundred percent confident they will bounce back from this and be stronger than they were before," said Philip Rosenfeld, the 47-year-old treasurer of the JCJ and owner of JapanQuestJourneys, a boutique firm that specializes in customized luxury journeys to Japan.

Within 24 hours of the crisis, the JCJ was at the center of relief efforts.  Together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Community is working with JEN, a Japanese NGO specializing in disaster relief work...

JEN is currently operating in the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures ... generally focusing on shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable and emergency supply distribution, as well as providing emergency supplies, including food, hygiene products, and other material needs in the affected areas.

The JCJ is mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews, has a thriving Sunday School, is open to all, and warmly embraces Jewish life in this part of Asia.

Asian Jewish Life and eJewish Philanthropy are partnering together, leveraging global contacts, to bring first-hand information on how the Jewish/Israeli world is responding on the ground in the aftrmath of the Japanese quake.

Did you know there are Jews still living in Baghdad? 
Click on this link:
 Click here to see a YouTube piece from Christine Amanpour of CNN about the last Jews of Baghdad.


The Synagogues of Spain.



Cordoba's Moorish-designed "Sinagoga"







Inside the Transito
Synagogue in Toledo.















   El Transito Sinagoga, 
       Toledo, Spain


To see more pictures and read more about Jewish sites in Spain today, please click on "Jewish Travel Hot Spots" under Education.


Thousands of Jews were saved during the Holocaust because they were able to make their way to China and Japan.  But did you know there were Jews in China as long ago as 2000 years?  These men came along the Silk Road to trade with the Chinese, and many of them stayed in Kaifeng, marrying Chinese women and having children.  They continue to keep their Jewish customs, even after all these years.  The pictures below are from Hadassah Magazine's Jewish Traveler section from 1987!

There was a 2nd wave of Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century, following pogroms in Russia.  These people sent for their wives back in Russia and elsewhere and kept their customs and rituals while living among the very tolerant Chinese people.  They built synagogues, went abroad for their education, and many became very wealthy and well-known.


The 3rd wave arrived beginning about 1938, as the Nazis began their campaign to eliminate the Jewish population of Europe.  An excellent memoir, Ten Green Bottles by Vivian Jeannette Kaplan, recounts one family's story of their trek from Vienna to Shanghai.

The Levis JCC in Boca Raton recently hosted a wonderful photo and artifacts retrospective on the Shanghai experience.  Naomi Terk, a native of China, whose family came in the 2nd wave of immigration, told of her upbringing as a "Chinese child,"  and a 30-minute documentary was presented on the Japanese emissary to Lithuania, C. Sugihara, who, in the late 1930's, signed over 1000 visas for Russian and Polish Jews to leave for the safety of the Orient.  Every one of those people survived, and Mr. Sugihara was named to the Wall of the Righteous in Yad Vashem. 



The eastern Ugandan town of Mbale is home to a small Jewish community, known as Abayudaya, from the Luganda word for 'Jews.'

Shalom - 'Welcome' in Hebrew - is painted on the wall of the Hadassah infant and elementary school just outside Mbale. It is the only Jewish primary school in the country and caters to its small community.

Hands up!

Children wave their hands in the air in response to the question: 'Who here is Jewish?' Pupils are taught to chant the Hebrew alphabet and can sing the Israeli national anthem. 'We teach them that because all Jewish peop le are connected to the land of Israel,'  Headmaster Aerron Kintu Moses explains. Music is important to the Abayudaya, who have produced two CDs of religious songs.


The synagogue, in the grounds of the Semei Kakungulu secondary school, was recently constructed. Kakungulu, a warrior, was used by the British to help conquer Uganda . He fell out with the colonialists, settled in Mbale and in 1919 converted to Judaism, without ever having met a Jew. By the time of his death a decade later, he had 2,000 followers.

Dressing up

The headmaster at the secondary school prepares to pray. The Abayudaya are a tiny minority, and few Ugandans even know that they exist. The group have also been through difficult times, particularly in the 1970s when then-President Idi Amin, a Muslim, forbade Jewish observance. Many Abayudaya converted to Christianity or Islam, and numbers dwindled to around 200.

School walk

The Abayudaya are currently experiencing a revival, with more than 750 members. After years of being off the tourist map, Uganda has greater contact with international Jewry, particularly from the United States. Well-wishers have donated money, and facilities have expanded. Now, Muslim and Christian students walk through the lush green hills to attend the Jewish schools.


The community mikvah - a bath for ritual purification - has been used twice in the past three years by foreign rabbis to officially convert 345 Abayudaya to Judaism, including Jeje pictured here. Judaism is not an evangelical religion; Jews normally inherit the faith from their mother. Until the ceremony the Abayudaya were not even considered Jewish in the eyes of world Jewry.

Decorated doorway

The door of an Abayudaya home, decorated with religious symbols and a mezuzah - a religious parchment attached to doorposts of Jewish houses. Contact with foreign Jews means that the Abayudaya are more knowledgeable about mainstream Jewish beliefs. And they will be even better served when their rabbi returns from Israel, where - thanks to foreign sponsorship - he is attending religious college.


Twenty years ago, Jewish children like these would have been mocked or marginalized. But as the community grows, so does their confidence. As one young man put it, 'Being called Jewish used to be an abuse. We even used to fear to say our religion. But now, if you say you are Jewish, people take it as normal. And some even admire you.'


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