This Christmas eve, at Kotha Reddy Palem vil lage in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur, 61-year-old Sadhu Devaprasad will don a skullcap and morph into Sadok Yacobi. Even as the 300odd Dalit families here prepare to head for midnight mass at the 20 churches in the district, Sadok will welcome farm labourers from nearly 40 huts ­ whose whitewashed walls bear blue markings of the seven-branched Menorah lamp and the Star of David ­into the Bene Yacob Synagogue next to his house. “Shalom,“ he will greet each of them as the skullcap-toting men sit on one side and women, their heads covered with sari pallus, sit on the other. Having lit the first candle on the Menorah, they will then drink freshly-squeezed grape juice from trophy-shaped Kiddush cups to welcome the Jewish festival of lights ­ Hanukkah.And if the corpus permits, “we may even have a feast,“ says Sadok.The 61-year-old ­ who has undergone circumcision, can recite from the Torah and boasts an Israel stamp on his passport­is the face of a scattered community in AP , whose members practised Christianity until they started following Judaism in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2004 though when local cops discovered a terror outfit’s alleged attempt to target “the Jewish community in Guntur“ that the state, and later, the world woke up to this tribe where kids grow up with two names ­ an official Telugu name like Aruna, for instance, and a traditional Hebrew name like Leah.

Called Bene Ephraim, the 250-odd-member-strong group claims to have descended from the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that, after being exiled by the Assyrians, are said to have travelled through Persia, western Asia and China before entering India in 722 BCE.This Telugu-speaking tribe has no records of its Jewish roots and the results of their recent DNA test by internatio nal researchers came up “neutral“, proving nothing. So far, their religious identity has steered itself solely through “oral tradition“.

“Our elders used to talk about our Jewishness at home,“ says Sadok. “My father and grandfather used to tell us about the Torah and the difference between Christianity and Judaism,“ he says, adding that his ancestors may have lost their Jewish identity after “being clubbed with the Madiga Dalits“, a scheduled caste who subsisted on cobblery. “Like the Jews, the Madigas also bury their dead and eat beef,“ says Sadok, adding that `Madiga’ is similar to the Hebrew word `Magiddim’, which stands for `preacher’.

In fact, Sadok’s elder brother Samuel Sunder Raju, a theologician now based in Israel, has listed 60 such similarities between Telugu and Hebrew. Curiously , some reports suggest that it was after Samuel returned from a trip to Jerusalem in the 1980s as Shmuel Yacobi that he persuaded several Dalit families about their Jewish ancestry . Shmuel even built a synagogue in Machilipatnam in 2005 and in his communication with groups in Israel, maintained that his ancestors “had been converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries“.

Since then, not only have various rabbis have descended on Kotha Reddy Palem to donate `kippahs’ (skull caps), `tallits’ (shawls) and a replica Torah scroll, but also Christian missionaries from the US whose pleas to go back to Christianity Sadok has po litely dismissed.

Anthropologists Yulia Egorova and Shahid Perwez from the UK, who studied the community for two years, found that every male member reported he had undergone circumcision either during childhood or at a later age.Most members also claim to know Jewish dietary laws.“We only eat kosher food at home and avoid eating nonvegetarian outside,“ says 40year-old system administrator, K Ratnagiri aka Korahi Yehoshuva.

All their weddings happen under the Chuppah, a traditional canopy . Since the community is small, boys tend to marry girls from Christian Madiga families, who then start attending the synagogue. In the local Christian Madiga cemetery , the tombs of the deceased Bene Ephraim are marked with Jewish symbols. Every week, women light candles to prepare for Sabbath which signals a cessation from work from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday .

Slowly , the younger generation ­ who introduce themselves with names like Leah, Deula, Abraham, Yeshua ­is spawning a few English-speaking teachers, engineers and MBAs. They hope that an official recognition as a lost tribe from the Israel government would help end their poverty .Organisations like Shevai Israel have funded trips for community members like Sadok, the latent dream is to immigrate. “As per the prophecy to scattered Jews, we want to go back to our homeland,“ says Yehoshuva.