Our tour of Kerala, in the southern part of India, brought us to Fort Cochin. Since ancient times Kerala has been the center of the Indian spice trade where Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese vied for its trade. According to legend, the first Jews arrived here in 70CE, just after the destruction of the second Temple.
The Maharaja of Travancore and Cochin gave shelter to the Jewish community here after the Moorish Arabs attacked them in 1524 due to their trade monopoly. They were given an area right opposite the Maharajah’s palace, which subsequently became known as Jew Town. It was here, at the end of a narrow cobbled road that they built the Pardesi synagogue in 1568.
It is one of the oldest synagogues in the world and has functioned undisturbed throughout the ages. According to the seven Jews left in Jew Town today, no other society in the world has embraced Jews with such hospitality, allowing them to live in peace and mutual respect for so long.
The gate of the Pardesi Synagogue (Photos: Ines Ehrlich)
The Cochin Jews were comprised of two groups: The largest were known as the “Meyuhassim” or Malabari Jews, whose forefathers are believed to have arrived in India as merchants during the time of King Solomon. The second group is known as the Pardesi Jews, who primarily came from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany.
The two groups lived in the towns of Cochin, Aluva, North Paravur and Ernakulum where they built eight beautiful and thriving synagogues which functioned throughout the ages until mass emigration to Israel in the 1950s.
Cochin Jews, who spoke a dialect called Judeo-Malayalam, a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew, adapted themselves so well to the Hindu way of life that they even adopted caste behavior by dividing themselves into sub-castes. Hence, these groups were often referred to by their color: The “Meyuhassim” Jews were known as the “black” Jews, some 50 of whom still live in Ernakulum today, and the “Pardesi” Jews, who were more influential and known as the “white” Jews, only seven of whom remain in Fort Cochin’s Jew Town today.
Headstones at the synagogue. One of the oldest in the world
The two groups did not mix, and those who were not part of the “white” sub-caste were not allowed to marry into the community. Within the last few decades, however, all religious divisions have disappeared, but so has most of the community.
Emigration to Israel, which began in 1950 and peaked during the 1970’s has almost decimated this once thriving community. Large groups have settled in Moshav Nevatim in the Negev and Moshav Yuval in the North, in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem, in Beersheba, Dimona and Yeruham, where they have set up their own synagogues.
Adhering to Hindu tradition, which has blended so harmoniously with Jewish tradition here, we removed our shoes before entering the synagogue. Amongst the prize possessions inside is a copper plate granted to the Jewish trading community by Raja Ravi Varman (962-1020). Our guide recited the age and source of each of the crystal chandeliers, and explained that the blue and white willow-patterned floor tiles had been imported from a Jewish community in China during the 15th century.
Until recently the synagogue held regular services (Sephardi Orthodox) using the small but steady stream of tourists to make a minyan for prayer, this is no longer the case and services are held only during the high holidays and when a minyan is randomly gathered from among Jewish tourists.
As Anil our guide locked up the synagogue gates with great care, we strolled down the narrow road, whose shop windows all displayed Jewish artifacts and names. Further down the road we met Anas, lugging his pushcart full of postcards depicting the synagogue, which we were not allowed to photograph from the inside.
We caught the first glimpse of 80-year-old Sarah Cohen through the colorfully designed ironwork of her windows, which unabashedly displayed blue Stars of David. Wearing a flower printed housedress, flip-flops and a scarf covering her grey curls, she was sitting serenely by the window reading from her bible; it seemed nothing could disturb her calm.
Sarah Cohen. Looks like a 'typical Jewish European grandmother'
Our guide had met Sarah several times and he walked inside her open doorway for a polite chat in Malayalam. It was somewhat strange watching what seemed like a “typical Jewish European grandmother” speaking the local dialect so naturally. Sarah, it turned out, has no children and her husband recently passed away.
She was unperturbed by the flow of our group’s eight women who followed Anil in through the doorway; she was used to being interviewed and has had her photos taken on many occasions. She bemoaned the fact that the community has dwindled to such an extent that there are no longer enough people for a minyan at the synagogue. Sarah said it's only a matter of time before the Jews of Cochin completely disappear, and with them the unique mix of Indian and Jewish culture.
"This will become a museum, not a functioning synagogue," she said sadly. When that happens, she said, history can record that this Jewish community’s emigration was not motivated by intolerance or discrimination by India, we have always been welcomed here. We asked Sarah why she has decided to stay behind when the majority of the community had made aliyah to Israel:
"How could we leave? We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?" she said as she rhythmically swayed her head sideways in the typical Indian manner.
To keep herself busy during weekdays and to make a small income, Sarah Cohen embroiders kippahs and sells them to the Jewish tourists who frequent this “dying community.”
As we strolled further down the road, we came across lifetime Cochin resident, 85-year-old Yossef Halegua, whose own family arrived here in 1592 from Spain. He and his wife Juliette were spending their leisurely Shabbat afternoon sitting on the verandah of their home which was built in 1761, and which faces the bustling street. Unfolding his tales of life in Cochin to his eager listeners, Yossef said there has never been any Indian anti-Semitism in Cochin. Juliette, Yossef’s beautiful, pale skinned, blue- eyed wife told us that their daughter had nonetheless immigrated to Israel and currently lives in Givat Ada.
We asked Yossef and his wife about the difficulties of maintaining a kosher home, and he replied that indeed they do keep kosher, but that they are also Indian, adding that they use an Indian flatbread rather than the braided challah bread for Shabbat. Yossef also said that the Jewish community here does not eat beef out of respect for the Hindu prohibition.
In its heyday there were two synagogues in Fort Cochin, but the only functioning one today is the Pardesi Synagogue, which is a state protected heritage site. The religious artifacts of this second synagogue were brought to Israel in their entirety during the 50s and are currently housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem while the Holy Ark is being preserved for future generations at the religious kibbutz of Nehalim.
The average age of the community in Jew Town is close to 90, and as per Sarah Cohen’s words “the Pardesi synagogue will inevitably turn into a museum within the next few years”, one that will display a rare case of Jewish coexistence.