What Do a Crater on Venus and India's Jewish Community Have in Common?

An impact crater on the planet named for the Roman goddess of love can tell us a lot about the achievements of India’s Bene Israel

Left, a global view of the surface of Venus. Right, a portrait of Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati, 1858-1922.
NASA / JPL and University of California Libraries

An Indian Jewish crater on Venus highlights the celestial success of Jews in India, where they knew no anti-Semitism, and places their achievements in sharp contrast to their relative lack of recognition in the State of Israel. Until recently, Indian Jews have been considered extraterrestrial, but in the recent meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian Jews in Mumbai, which I had the privilege to attend, the prime minister was visibly moved to meet these cosmic leaders.

At the end of August 2018, the 30th General Assembly of the International Astronomic Union will hold its conference in Vienna. The IAU was established in 1919 and is the official body which names planets, comets and satellites. It provides definitions of what a planet is and named the eight major planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, as well as Earth’s satellite, the moon.

Venus is the second planet from the sun, and is sometimes called Earth’s “sister planet” because of their similar size, mass and distance from the sun. Named after the Roman goddess of love, fertility, sex and desire, Venus — representing the female part of humankind — is considered an “inferior” planet in that its orbit lies inside the other planets’ orbits around the sun. Additional female characteristics are that it rotates in the opposite direction of other planets, and after the moon, it is the brightest planet in the night sky!

The IAU is responsible for naming the craters found on the planets. In 2017 there were 700 craters on Venus, all of them named after famous women.

It is significant that one of the three Indian women who have craters named after them is Jewish and the second had a Jewish connection. To the best of my knowledge, no crater on Venus has been named for an Israeli woman. More importantly, the Jhirad Crater acknowledges the excellent contribution that a member of India’s Bene Israel community made to her country.

While many Indian Jews, despite their minuscule number, made significant impacts on India, only recently is Israeli society beginning to understand their import. 80,000 Indian Jews live in Israel; only 3,500 Jews remain in India. The vast majority of these Jews belong to the Bene Israel.

According to their tradition, the Bene Israel arrived from the Kingdom of Israel before Hanukkah when they were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast south of today’s Mumbai. Until the 18th century they were cut off from other Jews, but with the advent of the British, they began enlisting in the British army. Bene Israel soldiers received distinctions in the Anglo-Mysore, Anglo-Afghan and Anglo-Burmese wars, and as a group, they remained loyal to the British in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. With knowledge of English which some acquired in English-medium schools in India, as well as their proficiency in the local vernacular Marathi, some of the Bene Israel became quite educated.

Dr. Jerusha Jhirad (1890-1984), who was born in Mysore to one of those Anglicized Bene Israel families, was the first female Indian Jewish physician and was a distinguished gynecologist.

After graduating from Grant Medical College in Bombay (today Mumbai), Jhirad became the first Indian woman to be awarded a Indian government to study in the United Kingdom. Soon after her arrival in London, in 1914, World War I broke out. One of the conditions for admission to medical studies at the University of London was at least a six-months residential post, which was almost unheard of in those days for an Indian. However, with the outbreak of the war, men had to enlist. This provided Jhirad with a window of opportunity. She was taken on at the Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson Hospital, founded by the first female physician in the United Kingdom. Jhirad served there for nearly two  years, gaining good practical experience.

She graduated with a medical degree in obstetrics and gynecology from the University of London in 1919. Upon her return to India, she practiced in Delhi and Bangalore. In 1925, she was appointed honorary surgeon in Cama and Albless Hospital for Women and Children in Bombay, and in 1928 became its chief medical officer.

Jhirad was a founding member of the Bombay Gynecological and Obstetrics Society, and served as its president after Indian independence in 1948. In 1950, she became the first president of Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India. For these achievements and her efforts to improve medical education in India and advance the cause of female doctors by opening the first hostel for female medical postgraduates in India, she was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) (Civil) by the British in 1949; in l966, she won the coveted title Padma Shri by the government of India. It should be pointed out that several members of the tiny Bene Israel community won this title in India, including the poet laureate Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004).

Jhirad never married. There were few men in her community who were her educational equal, and the Bene Israel would not as a rule marry members of other castes. Such was the lot of several other highly educated Bene Israel women, such as Rebecca Reuben (1889-1957), a well-known educator and headmistress.

Jhirad could be called a feminist, in that she promoted the education and rights of women, particularly from her own community. In 1913, she founded the Stree Mandal (Women’s Association), providing a place where women could meet and exchange their ideas, which offered classes in Marathi, cooking, needlework and dressmaking to girls who had not completed their education. It also promoted the study of Bible and religion. This association continues in Israel and for years, when I was carrying out fieldwork with the Bene Israel community in Lod, I was a member of the Stree Mandal.

In l925, Jhirad set up a branch of the Jewish Religious Union, established by Lily Montagu (1873-1963), president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism and sister of Edwin Montagu, who ran the British Raj in India between 1917-1922. Upper-middle-class Bene Israel frequented the Reform services conducted in English. In 1992, the Jewish Religious Union was burned down in the Mumbai riots and today the few remaining members meet only on the High Holy Days.

A second “Indian” crater on Venus is named for Anandibai Joshi (1865-1886), the first female physician in India to study Western medicine abroad, who died at age 21.

A third is named after Ramabai Medhavi (1858-1922), a Sanskrit scholar, called Sarasvati, who was born in Karnataka. In 1878, Rama was bestowed the scholarly title of Pandita by the University of Calcutta. Ramabai championed the cause of women and fought against caste discrimination. She found caste differences irreconcilable with Brahaminical teachings of kindness. After her husband died, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj movement in Pune to promote women’s education and protest child marriage. Her fame helped her travel to England where she converted to Christianity and taught Sanskrit to missionaries in exchange for accommodation at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a British private school, until 1886. Ramabai became proficient in seven languages, translating the Bible into Marathi from Hebrew and Greek.

Religious texts began to appear among the Bene Israel at the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with the establishment of synagogues and prayer halls in Bombay and other urban centers and the arrival of Christian missionaries.

An early Hebrew collection appeared in 1910-11, when Ramabai published a book in Hebrew under the title “Wonderful Testimonies” with the Mukti Mission Press, Kedgaon. “Wonderful Testimonies” comprised the entire Hebrew Bible, four different English translations and footnotes giving additional etymologies for some Hebrew words or roots. Paradoxically, it helped the Bene Israel learn Hebrew and come in line with other Jewish communities; hardly a soul converted to Christianity. A Bene Israel, Aaron Jacob Divekar, helped Ramabai translate the Hebrew into Marathi.

So who knows? Maybe it is time to nominate an Israeli woman to be immortalized as a Venetian crater? Or maybe it is time to call another crater after India’s Dr. Sheila Paul Singh (1916-2001), founder and Director of Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, New Delhi, who was also of Jewish origin.

Singh was president of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics in Delhi in 1966, and head of the pediatrics department at Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, Punjab from her retirement in 1975 until 1987. Born Sheila Therese Martin (Myers), her parents had emigrated from France to Bihar, India, in the early 20th century. She was a fellow of Britain’s Royal College of Physicians and became India’s first distinguished pediatrician.

Prof. Shalva Weil, a senior researcher at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is the founding chairperson of the Israel-India Cultural Association and a scholar of Indian Jewry.