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Jewish Marathi
Description by Jacob Kohn

Purim Kirtan | Jewish Marathi


Jewish Marathi is one of several languages spoken by Jewish communities in the Indian subcontinent, and primarily the Bene Israel community of western India. It is a dialect of Marathi, the official language of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Today, most of the Bene Israel living in India speak Jewish Marathi in addition to other languages such as Hindi and English. Some Bene Israel living in Israel also speak Jewish Marathi with their Israeli-born children, but Hebrew is the primary language of those communities. There has been little documentary evidence of Jewish Marathi; the analysis below is based on a few printed and handwritten texts in the language (translations of haggadot and psalms), loanwords collected by Beckham (2019), and recordings of speech and songs collected by Anna Schultz (2016) and Kohn (2024).


Beyond Marathi, there are a few Hebrew-letter texts in Hindi/Hindustani/Urdu and a few Gujarati words (Rubin 2016; Rubin and Kahn 2020; Aaron 2016). On language use among Jews in South India, see our Jewish Malayalam description

Quick Facts

Names of language:

Judeo-Marathi, Jewish Marathi, जुदाव मराठी ([ɟud̪ɑːvə mərɑːʈʰiː]), Bene Israel Marathi

Territories where it was/is spoken:

originated: Western India

today: Mumbai; Israel

Estimated # speakers:
1900: 20,000
2023: 24,000 worldwide (5,000 in India)




Writing systems:

Devanagari script

Language family/branch:

Indo-European > Southern Indo-Aryan

Pre-wedding song in Jewish Marathi (courtesy of Eliaz Dandekar)

Excerpt from piyyut 'יונתי זיו יפעתך' in Jewish Marathi (courtesy of Eliaz Dandekar)

The Bene Israel of Maharashtra

The Bene Israel community traces its origins to seven Jewish families who were said to have been shipwrecked off the Konkan coast of western India some 2,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in the Galilee region of Judea (Schultz 2016, 64). They were welcomed by the locals and settled in villages in the Konkan, south of today’s city of Mumbai. Little has been documented about the Bene Israel in the Ancient and Medieval periods, except for a letter in the year 1200 by the Sephardic rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, in which he referred generally to the “Jews of India,” remarking that they “know nothing of Jewish practice except Shabbat and circumcision” (Beckham 2019, 225, Roland 1998, 12).


The first clear written documentation about this community dates from 1738, when a missionary described them as having similar customs to the non-Jewish Maratha people while continuing to practice kashrut (kosher laws), circumcision, and an ability to recite the Shema (Beckham 2019, 225). Locally, they were known as the Shaniwar Teli (Saturday oil pressers) because the community performed oil pressing as their primary occupation and did not work on Shabbat. Bene Israel community members remember a longstanding tolerance in their villages, and later in cities, alongside Hindus, Muslims, Parsis (Zoroastrians), and Christians. One community member remarks: “In the villages, the non-Jews would refrain from making noises during Yom Kippur and stop playing music during a religious procession of their own when they passed a synagogue when the Jews were praying. Hindus and Jews would never play music in front of a mosque, even if it was a wedding procession” (Roland 2000, 24).


Having integrated themselves into rural Indian life in Maharashtra for centuries, the Bene Israel had little to no knowledge of rabbinical Judaism or scriptures. The community was “discovered” by other Jews from Kochi and Baghdad in the 18th century, coinciding with a period of accelerating urbanization and the beginnings of Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1995) as a city of industry. Gradually, the Bene Israel community began migrating to Bombay to find work opportunities and settle more permanently. With a greater demand for Jewish religious institutions in this growing city, the Kochi Jewish community brought in rabbis and trained the Bene Israel to conduct Jewish rituals, recite Hebrew prayers, and sing liturgical songs. These efforts led to the building of the first Bene Israel synagogue in Bombay, Sha’ar haRahamim, in 1796 (Schultz 2016, 64-65).


Prior to their contact with other Jewish communities, the Bene Israel Jews had little knowledge of Hebrew, aside from Psalms (Schultz 2016, 65, 72). They maintained a distinctive system of Hebrew pronunciation. An example is their pronunciation of the Shema: Sama Israel Wadonay Welohenu Wahad (Beckham 2019, 225). The community was formally educated in Hebrew through American, British, and Scottish Christian missionaries, who aimed to evangelize them. From 1813 onwards, these groups set up mission schools that taught Hebrew to Jewish students, translated the Old Testament into Marathi, and published books of Psalms (Schultz 2016, 65). But these evangelization efforts backfired–instead of converting the Indian Jews to Christianity, they strengthened the community’s identity and created a pathway for cultural preservation through the community’s vernacular language, Marathi (Schultz 2016, 65, 71). One collection of these Psalm translations, Davidachi Gite (Songs of David), was popular throughout the 19th century and is still circulated in the community today (Schultz 2016, 63, 65).


Amidst the Bene Israel migration from their ancestral villages to Bombay starting around the late 18th century, the city was also becoming a destination for a different Jewish community–the Baghdadi Jews, who emigrated from Baghdad fleeing persecution starting in the 1830s. The entrepreneurial Baghdadi Jews, particularly their patriarch David Sassoon, were hugely influential in Bombay’s development as a hub for trade, and these families used their wealth to contribute to the city’s economy, infrastructure, and society through trade and philanthropy (Beckham 2019, 178). They established two synagogues, of which the most well-known today is Knesset Eliyahoo in Mumbai’s Fort/Kala Ghoda locality. The Baghdadi Jews sought to help the Bene Israel become more religious, but viewed some of their adoption of Hindu customs as problematic and not authentically Jewish (Beckham 2019, 230). This led the Bene Israel to start aligning with Jewish communities outside India (Beckham 2019, 231) and marked the beginning of a long struggle for acceptance in the greater Jewish community, particularly after migrating to Israel. In 2002, they were found to share hereditary markers with Kohanim, the Jewish priestly class, based on DNA tests (Damle 2002).


By the late 19th century, six synagogues and prayer halls serving the Bene Israel community had been established in Bombay and its northeast suburb, Thane (“Synagogues and Prayer Halls in India (Hindustan)”). The community tended to transcribe Hebrew prayers into Devanagari and/or Nastaliq (Perso-Arabic) scripts, instead of reading or writing directly in Hebrew (Beckham 2019).  Devanagari was used to write Hindi, Marathi, and other North Indian languages, while Nastaliq was used to write Persian (India’s primary clerical language before English) and Urdu, a vernacular for India’s Muslim communities. Hebrew cursive script was not widely used; Hebrew seems to have been reserved for liturgical purposes, and even then, prayers tended to be transliterated (Beckham 2019, 181).


Handwritten Hebrew in Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts, from Israeyalance vidhice pustak (1893) (Beckham 2019, 130)

In the 1910s and 1920s, Indian Jews were serving in the Indian army and were stationed throughout British India, and Bombay was becoming a center for Bene Israel Jewish life amid a period of rapid industrialization and the deadly influenza pandemic. After India’s independence, Indian Jews began migrating to Israel (Beckham 2019, 178). 


The Bene Israel population in India peaked in 1948 at 20,000, but the majority since then have moved to Israel; today there are estimated to be around 60,000 worldwide (mostly in Israel), with at most 5,000 in India (BBC News 2018; Schultz 2015, 67). This number includes immigrants’ descendants, most of whom do not speak Marathi. A very rough estimate of the number of speakers in 2024 is 20,000. Those who stayed typically speak Marathi and English as their primary languages (Beckham 2019, 232). We still do not fully understand the extent of the linguistic changes from the Bene Israel migration to Israel and the changes shaping the Marathi language over the 20th century (Beckham 2019, 232).


Today, most Bene Israel consider themselves religious but not Orthodox – less observant than most Sephardic/Mizrachi or Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish communities, but more observant than western Reform or Conservative Jews (Roland 2000, 23). In Bene Israel synagogues in Mumbai and worldwide, several complete Psalms (tehillim) are sung every morning for daily services and a different set are sung for Shabbat services. Unlike Orthodox Jews, who tend to sing Psalms in Hebrew only, the Bene Israel sing Psalms in Marathi, as do Reform and Sephardi Jews in India (Schultz 2016, 73).


The Bene Israel community’s longstanding presence in the rural areas of western Maharashtra provided ample opportunity for influence by their Hindu and Muslim neighbors in local traditions, naming practices, and shared stories. Local customs, including historical observances, fasts, and rites depart from “mainstream” Judaism, such as some members being fully vegetarian (Beckham 2019, 227; Kehimkar 1937: 16-29). Some scholars have noted a caste-like distinction within the Bene Israel community: those who married Jewish women (“gora” or light-skinned) and those who married non-Jewish women (“kala” or dark-skinned), although they also note that these distinctions are decreasing as political Zionism and religious Jewish identity have become more prominent in the community (Beckham 2019, 228). 


In the Bene Israel tradition, non-kosher foods are prohibited, including prawns and crabs (which are commonly eaten among Maharashtra’s koli fishing communities). Fish without scales are known as तेलय [t̪elɐjɐ] (oily) and are also prohibited (Rivkah Moses 2024). Since many Indian dishes use ghee (clarified butter), vanaspati (a refined vegetable oil) is often substituted for it when served alongside meat. Coconut milk is also considered a substitute for dairy products (Borges 2024). 


In Jewish Marathi, Jewish holidays are generally referred to as “festivals”, or सण [səɳ]. Several of these are particularly noteworthy for the unique traditions followed by the Bene Israel community. For Purim, community members prepare puranpoli, a traditional sweet Maharashtrian flatbread filled with jaggery and lentils. Women in the community may recite the names of prominent women throughout Jewish history, including Queen Esther. Pesach is celebrated for eight days. The community may prepare matzah with a recipe similar to local khakra (a dry unleavened bread), but the process must be completed within 18 minutes. The second day of Pesach marks the beginning of the counting of the Omer, which concludes with Shavuot, in which the Torah (described as the पवित्र तोरा [pɐʋɪt̪ɾɐ t̪oɾɑ] or “holy Torah”) is welcomed. For Hanukkah, the community celebrates a different theme for each day: 1) creation, symbolizing God’s creation of the sun and moon to give light; 2) knowledge of the Torah; 3) justice; 4) compassion; 5) purity; 6) respect; 7) patience; and 8) courage, which members particularly note was important when Jews struggled to keep their traditions as a vulnerable minority. Common Hanukkah foods include modak, laddu, and karanji–sweets that are commonly prepared for Hindu Maharashtrian festivals (Rivkah Moses 2024). 


One of the most unique traditions of the Bene Israel is a ritual called malida. The malida is held on many occasions, generally to give thanks or mark a Jewish life cycle event, such as birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, or wedding (Roland 2000, 28). The blessings for the malida are available in Hebrew, English, and Hebrew transliterated to Marathi/Devanagari script (“Eliyahoo Ha’navi”). Community members gather and ask for blessings from the prophet Elijah and offer a plate of rice, coconut, fruits, nuts, cardamom, sugar, and rosewater followed by a festive meal (Roland 2000, 28). There are typically five types of fruits given in the malida ceremony, such as banana, pomegranate, grapes, orange, and dates. The number five has a special significance for foods in South Asia; other traditions include Rajasthan’s panchratna dal, made up of five types of lentils, and Tamil Nadu’s panchamrutham, an offering of banana, dates, raisins, brown sugar, and honey (Dias 2022).


Media published in the Bene Israel community in the early to mid-20th century includes teachings of the Hindu Maharashtrian saints Tukaram and Ramdas existing alongside Jewish teachings (Beckham 2019, 164-65). The tunes of songs, such as those in the Davidachi Gite, also draw from Hindu sources (Schultz 2016, 63). In fact,the Bene Israel’s origin story of a shipwreck bears some local similarities with another shipwreck-origin story, that of the Chitpavans, a Hindu Maharashtrian community of the Brahmin caste who also inhabited the coastal Konkan region (Dalal 2014). While the Bene Israel believe they were saved by Elijah, the Chitpavans believe they were saved by Parshuram, one of the avatars or incarnations of their God Vishnu (Schultz 2016, 74).


Marathi is the official state language of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. As of India’s most recent Census (2011), there were about 83 million native speakers of Marathi (Government of India). An Indo-European language with its roots in Sanskrit (Beckham 2019, 11), it is closely related to many north Indian languages, including Hindi. These languages feature subject-object-verb syntax. Marathi has agglutinative, inflectional, and analytical forms (Bhosale et al 2011) and follows a split-ergative pattern of verb agreement and case marking (Dhongde and Wali 2009, 179-180). Marathi is noteworthy in that several linguistic patterns connect it to South India’s Dravidian languages, rather than north India’s Indo-Aryan languages–for example, an inclusive and exclusive “we,” participial constructions, and several anaphoric pronouns (Dhongde and Wali 2009, 263). In another distinction from most Indo-Aryan languages, Marathi has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter (Acharya 1976, 1-7). The earliest attestation of Marathi dates from the 8th century (Novetzke 2016).


Marathi also exhibits influences from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Portuguese, and English. Throughout history, many movements have attempted to standardize Marathi or purge it of various foreign influences (Beckham 2019, 12-14). These movements have often arisen within the larger context of the so-called Hindi-Urdu divide. Hindi and Urdu are forms of the same language, Hindustani, but they use different scripts–Devanagari for Hindi, and Nastaliq for Urdu. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a growing debate over which language should be India’s national language, and they began to diverge in their vocabularies as nationalist movements gained traction (Britannica 2024). This divide has also percolated into regional language politics that include Marathi, suggesting why there are now fewer Arabic and Persian loanwords in today’s Marathi (Beckham 2019, 217). Yet the fact that western India has historically been and remains a crossroads for trade means that Marathi remains a constantly evolving language, with a diversity of influences, including Arabic, Persian, and more recently English.

Devanagari Script

Devanagari is an Indic-script writing system used by over 120 languages in the northern Indian subcontinent. It is written left to right. It is an abugida; each letter represents a consonant with an inherent [ə] vowel, which can be modified by various diacritical marks. There are 32 consonant letters and 10 vowel letters, plus 10 vowel diacritics (“Devanagari (Nagari),” 2013). Its usage can be traced to the 7th century CE and was standardized around the 13th century. It is the most widely used Brahmic script worldwide, and it is used to write languages such as Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali (Malli 2022). After India’s independence, Devanagari was formalized as the official script for writing Hindi and Marathi. In Maharashtra, this decision led to other scripts, such as the cursive Modi script, being phased out (Malli 2022). 


Jewish Marathi

Jewish Marathi, the variant of Marathi spoken by the Bene Israel community and written in the Devanagari script, does not substantially differ from the Marathi language (Rubin and Kahn 2020). However, a close study of this language can help shine a light on the Bene Israel community’s origins and cultural contacts over the past three centuries.


Analyses of Jewish languages have found varying degrees of distinctiveness from the coterritorial non-Jewish base language. Jewish Marathi is close to the less distinct pole of this continuum. Common distinctive features in Jewish languages include Hebrew loanwords, influences from previous Jewish languages, archaic features, migrated dialectalism, and other distinctive features, such as in phonology, syntax, and prosody (Benor 2008; Bar-Asher 2016). Jewish Marathi includes some, but not all, of these features.


Left: The Four Questions in Hebrew, transliterated into Devanagari script.       Right: Page from Jewish Marathi Megillah of Esther; Hebrew transliterated into Devanagari script. Compiled by Diana Daniel Jhirad of Bene Israel community in Yehud, Israel.

When studying sources of Jewish Marathi, it is common to find texts written in the Hebrew language but using the Devanagari script (Rubin and Kahn 2020). One of the oldest existing primary sources for Jewish Marathi is The Haggadah of the Bene Israel of India, published in 1846, written when members of the community had begun rural-urban migration to Mumbai (Beckham 2019, 106-107). Scholars have also drawn from the Davidachi Gite (दाविदाची गीते). This is a printed Hindu-influenced book of Psalms often sung with Hindu kirtan melodies, composed by Christian missionaries as a tool for conversion, and still in use today for Bene Israel ceremonies in Israel and India (Schultz 2016, 65). Other sources include the Indian-Jewish Poona Haggadah, found in Salford, UK (BBC News 2011), and John Wilson’s 1831 Rudiments of Hebrew Grammar, a Hebrew grammar book written in Marathi (Beckham 2019). The analysis below comes from these written sources, as well as recorded interviews. 

psalms of david.png
davidachi gite.png

Above: The Davidachi Gite cover (left) and text (right). 

Below: Comparisons of the Davidachi Gite with the King James Bible and the Hebrew Bible.


Hebrew Loan Words
Hebrew loan words are found in writings, songs, and conversations surrounding holidays. 


Since written Jewish Marathi records only date to the 18th century when the Bene Israel came into contact with other Jewish communities, it is difficult to ascertain the length of time various Hebrew loanwords were in use by the community. However, it seems that there are three historical loanword strata: those incorporated before the 19th century (seen especially in names and prayers), those incorporated in the 19th century following the community’s integration into mainstream Judaism, and those incorporated from Modern Hebrew due to contact with Israel from the 20th century to the present (Beckham 2019, 21-22). We see evidence of these layers when we analyze the phonology of these loanwords below.

marathi phonological processes 1
marathi phonological processes 2

Starting from the 18th century, Hebrew loanwords were integrated into Marathi through transliteration into Devanagari as the Bene Israel community came into contact with liturgical Hebrew via other Jewish communities within and outside India. This integration process was strongly influenced by how Persian, the administrative language of Maharashtra, as well as Arabic, were being transliterated. For example, the [t͡s] sound in Marathi, represented by represented by च or त्स, often becomes स [s] – evidence of influence from the Baghdadi Jewish community (Beckham 2019, 22-23, 113). The Baghdadi Jewish community’s tendency to use [s] for צ was influenced by the analogous Arabic sound [], represented by the letter ص. Another example is the Hebrew letter כ [x]. When transliterated into the Perso-Arabic Nastaliq script, the [x] sound is preserved (خ); yet Marathi Devanagari has no such sound, and ख [kʰ] is used instead. An example is “halakha” which uses [x] in Hebrew, but [kʰ] in Jewish Marathi. It may also be mapped as [ɦ] (Beckham 2019, 109).


There also exist some distinctions that cannot be ascribed to Perso-Arabic influence alone. One example is the Hebrew letter ת [t]. Unlike the Perso-Arabic  ت [t], which became त [t̪] upon contact with Marathi, the Hebrew ת becomes either त [t̪] or थ [t̪ʰ]. This change is distinct from how [t] is often treated in Marathi for English loanwords, in which it becomes a retroflex ट [ʈ] (Beckham 2019, 21-22, 126). The Hebrew letter ח [ħ] historically had a sound analogous to the Arabic ح [ħ] (a pronunciation still prevalent among Mizrahi Jews). In Jewish Marathi, it is softened to the standard Marathi ह [ɦ] (Beckham 2019, 109, 124).


Hebrew-Jewish Marathi pronunciation conventions (Beckham 2019)

Phonetic and phonological distinctions can also be found in books published to help the Bene Israel community learn Hebrew through Marathi, such as Divekar (2019). In the figure below, the mappings between Marathi and Hebrew are shown. Learners of Marathi would be familiar with the abugida structure in which a final [ə] is added to each letter, e.g. [kə], [kʰə], [gə], [gʰə], etc. In this lesson, a final [a] sound is provided for each letter to help Marathi speakers learn the pronunciation. One noteworthy difference is the use of the व्हा [vʋha] sound for the Hebrew ב [v], a feature common in foreign-language transliterations of [v] or [w] into Devanagari.

Book for teaching Hebrew through Marathi and English to Bene Israel readers (Divekar 2019).

Morphosyntactic Integration

Jewish Marathi seamlessly incorporates Hebrew loanwords into the grammatical structure of Marathi (Beckham 2019, 23, 212-213, 233; Bar-Asher 2016, 131).

Like Marathi, Hindi, and other Indic languages, Jewish Marathi uses plural verb agreement to encode for politeness (Beckham 2019, 218). For example, Israel (referring to the collective people) is treated as a plural, rather than a collective singular (Beckham 2019, 115). Similarly, the Torah is treated respectfully by pluralizing it–a common practice in South Asian languages when referring to sacred texts (Beckham 2019, 213).

morphosyntactic integration

Non-Jewish influences on Jewish Marathi

Given that the Bene Israel had lived for centuries alongside Hindu and Muslim communities along the Konkan coast of India, many cultural and religious idioms and references have made their way into Jewish Marathi (Schultz 2015, 58). 


Influences from Hinduism

Hindu influence is seen in Jewish kirtans (devotional songs), expressions for the divine, holiday names, and holy scriptures. A kirtan by N. S. Satamkar on Rabbi Akiva describes Rabbi Akiva’s execution by the Romans “while reciting Prabhu-nama (Lord’s name) as he achieved moksha (release from the cycle of death and rebirth)... Figures from Hindu scriptures, such as Yama (God of Death) and Kaama (God of Love), also find their way into the Rabbi Akiva story, and Akiva’s wife, Rachel, falls at the ‘lotus feet’ (pad kamala) of her husband” (Schultz 2015, 66). Prayer is often referred to using the Hindu term, prarthana (प्रार्थना [pɾɑɾt̪ʰɐnɑ]) (Beckham 2019, 227). Various Hindu expressions may be used to describe the divine, including Ishwar (ईश्वर [iʃʋɐɾ]), Prabho (प्रभो [pɾɐbʱo]), Parameshwar (परमेश्वर [pɐɾɐmeʃʋɐɾ]), or Deva (देवा [d̪eʋɑ]) (Beckham 2019, 227, 116-117). 


Influences from Islam

Jewish Marathi may also refer to prayer using the Islamic term, namaaz (नमाज [nɐmɑdʒ]) (Beckham 2019, 227). Synagogues themselves are often referred to using the same term for “mosque” (मस्जिद [mɐsdʒɪd̪] in Hindi or मशीद [mɐʃid̪ɐ] in Marathi) among Marathi and Jewish Marathi speakers (Robbins et al 2017, 30). The Sha’ar haRahamim synagogue in Mumbai has variously been known as the Samaji Hassaji Synagogue, Old Masjid, or Masjid Bene Israel (Beckham 2019, 229). Bene Israel community members’ interchangeable use of namaaz or prarthana may mark a distinction between them and the greater Maharashtrian community–an ability to more freely incorporate loanwords from a variety of communal origins.  


It is common in Jewish diaspora practice to adopt local vernacular equivalents of Biblical names. In India, it would have been common for Jews to adopt names also used by Muslims whose names refer to the same Biblical/Qur’anic individuals. However, other Biblical names developed in the Bene Israel community independent of Muslim influence, but still retain the “ji” suffix common in Indian names.

marathi names

South Asian names and Honorifics

Jewish Marathi encodes for politeness through terms of address and honorifics common in the South Asian cultural, religious, and linguistic contexts. For example, a Jewish woman may be identified by a Marathi (Hindu) nickname in addition to her Hebrew/Jewish name, as in Shrimati Shantabai (Abigail) Shalom Navgaunkar (श्रीमती शांताबाई (आबीगायल) शालोम नागांवकर [ʃɾimɐt̪i ʃɑ̃t̪ɑbɑi ɑbiɡɑjɐl ʃɑlom nɑɡɑ̃ʋɐkɐɾ]). In this example, the honorific Shrimati is a term to politely address a Hindu woman; Shanta is a Hindu given name; and the suffix -bai is an honorific for Hindu women in western India (Beckham 2019, 166). The use of each name often depends on the community context; the woman in this example may go by Abigail in the Bene Israel community but Shantabai in the larger Maharashtrian community.


The Bene Israel follow similar surname conventions to the Maharashtrian community. A married woman takes both her husband’s name and surname, and her husband’s surname remains the same, e.g., Moses Ashtamkar and his wife, Abigail Moses Ashtamkar (Rivkah Moses 2024); their children become Ashtamkar as well. Marathi surnames align with the common Maharashtrian practice to add -kar to the name of their ancestral village (Beckham 2019, 226, citing Kehimkar 1937), e.g., Ashtamkar for someone from the village of Ashtami. 


Marathi-speaking Jews today tend to use English kinship terms, such as “uncle” or “auntie,” to address older men and women instead of the Hindu Marathi convention of kaku (father’s brother’s wife) or maushi (mother’s sister), respectively (Schultz 2016, 66). This practice is common to communities that had a close relationship with the British, including the Bene Israel but also the Parsi community and others. 


In the late 19th century, the Bene Israel began adapting Hindu devotional songs, or kirtan, to connect with their compatriots as a sense of national identity was emerging, while claiming their own Jewish space within it. These kirtans were typically published by men in the community, but from the 1920s onward, women began to fill the gap through song and literature. This musical tradition was revived in the 1960s as the Bene Israel faced discrimination in Israel, to reduce the perception that their “Indian-ness” made them less Jewish (Schultz 2015, 56-57).


Today, Bene Israel women in Israel and India actively re-engage with these texts through song performances highlighting and strengthening their Jewish history and traditions. Women gather each Shabbat afternoon to sing Psalms using the Devanagari transliteration, then discuss them using a book of Marathi commentary, and end with the Marathi Davidachi Gite (see above) and other songs from handwritten notebooks copied from printed texts. Unlike their Hindu counterparts who also perform kirtans, the Bene Israel women use their written notebooks during performances even if they have memorized the songs (Schultz 2015, 63, 74-75). Today, Indian Jews are using kirtan to teach Marathi Jewish cultural heritage to younger generations and non-Indians in Israel (Schultz 2015, 68).

Handwritten page of Purimche Kirtan, a kirtan sung at Purim, written by Rivkah Moses of the Bene Israel community in Mumbai, India.

Periodicals and Books

The Bene Israel community in Mumbai published several newsletters and bulletins, some solely in English, some bilingual Marathi-English, and others solely in Marathi. Those with Marathi include (presented with the years issues are available):

The Israelite, English-Marathi, 1917-1927

The Makkabi, Marathi, 1951, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1973, 1974

Mebasser, Marathi-English, 1960-1965


In addition, a few books were published in Jewish Marathi:

Dharmopadesh, a religious commentary published in Israel (publication year unknown)

Antahīna Saṅgharsha, publication on Israel-Palestine, 1974

Haggada Shel Pesah, 2001

(Beckham 2019, 104-105)


More recent publications circulated by the community include Maayboli (“My Language”) and Aamchi Shayli (“Our Style”), Marathi-language magazines that include short stories, songs, recipes, and community events (Borges 2024, Nighoskar 2021).


Beyond the written evidence of Jewish Marathi in the liturgical texts, periodicals, and songs discussed above, collections exist and continue to be discovered in private collections. Some of these collections, such as the Valmadonna Trust Library, are undergoing digitization, while others require special in-person access to library collections, such as the BJ Collection in the Wilson Library in Mumbai, named for John Wilson, a missionary who led some of the educational initiatives to convert Indian Jews (Beckham 2019, 230).


A few scholars have documented the language using these written, spoken, and sung sources, including Beckham, Schultz, and Roland. Individual members of the Bene Israel community have also made efforts to document their language and heritage. These include Hayim Samuel Kehimkar, a historian of the 19th and 20th centuries; Shmuel Ben-Shalom Divekar, author of several texts to help Bene Israel community members learn Hebrew language and prayers; Nissim Moses, a prominent modern historian who is documenting Bene Israel genealogy, history, and culture extensively by creating a digital genealogical resource (Moses, “Jews of India - Who We Are?”); Nathan Aston, former principal of Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune, India; and author Esther David (Mandavia 2015). As of 2024, the Jewish Language Project has also initiated its own documentation efforts including interviews and songs. 


While this documentation is a good start, further research is needed to document and analyze Jewish Marathi more completely. More recordings of speech and songs are needed, as well as detailed documentation of Jewish Marathi grammar. Additional research is also needed to understand how Marathi assigns stress in loanwords and to compare Jews’ loanword use to that of other Marathi-speaking communities and other South Asian languages (Beckham 2019, 238).



The past, present, and future of Jewish Marathi is a story of migration and cultural mixing. In the past, the Bene Israel lived alongside Hindu and Muslim neighbors in their ancestral villages in the Konkan region south of Bombay. As they migrated in greater numbers to Bombay, the frequency of these cultural contacts reduced as the community focused inward and came into contact with other Jewish communities like the Kochi Jews. Over time, the Bene Israel adopted more traditions from these Jewish communities, while community knowledge about Hindu influences on their musical traditions, such as the Jewish kirtans, decreased (Schultz 2016, 77).


Since migrations to Israel began post-1948, most of the Israel-based community has shifted to Modern Hebrew. As Beckham notes in her dissertation on Bene Israel Marathi, the dialect is "being rapidly eclipsed by English, Hindi, and Hebrew, all in different contexts” (Beckham 2019, 238). However, many of the 5,000 Bene Israel Jews living in India, especially the elderly, continue to use Marathi, incorporating some of the distinctive features discussed above. Some second- and third-generation Indo-Israelis may speak Marathi at home but are unable to read or write it (Schultz 2016, 85). Younger Jews living in India are also fluent in Marathi, but the strong incentive to emigrate drives the use of English, Hebrew, or other languages more often. These generational trends pose a threat to the continued vitality of Jewish Marathi.

Watch Short Films on the Bene Israel Culture and Language

בלילה לסוף אשמורות' - 1988'

גלויות מגלויות' - 1973'

To cite: Kohn, Jacob. n.d. Jewish Marathi. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.

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