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Yoel Elias
Cochin Jews reconnect with their cultural past
For 2,500 years Jews lived in Cochin, India, while preserving ancient customs and refusing to play music because they mourned the destruction of the First Temple; the establishment of the State of Israel led them to immigrate, assimilating with relative ease; sixty years later, the younger generation is looking for its roots.

On Thursday, hundreds of members of the Cochin Jewish community and their descendants drove to Jerusalem, where the held a special ceremony that recounted their community's immigration to Israel.

 

 

More than 60 years have passed since their emigration from India and quick assimilation to the young state. It seems that out of all immigrant communities, the Cochin became the most integrated, and perhaps because of this, the story and heritage of their fascinating community remained known only to its members.


Cochin Jews (Photo: David Rubinger)
Cochin Jews (Photo: David Rubinger)

 

The ceremony in Jerusalem is the crowning glory of the renewed revival of the community in recent months. The awakening experienced by the Cochin includes a magnificent study of roots held simultaneously by hundreds of members of the community. The customs, the songs, the rich culture that only the older generation remembers are now reawakening.

 

"We are an ancient community that, according to the Scriptures, came to India during the time of King Solomon," said community member Yoel Elias in an interview with Ynet. "We have a glorious heritage, and still many do not know about us, often thinking we are Yemenites or Ethiopians or something in the middle."

 

(Photo: David Rubinger)
(Photo: David Rubinger)

 

Permit for elephant riding and tax exemption

Cochin is a district in the state of Kerala, home to a vibrant Jewish community of some 2,500 people, who lived in five towns: Erinculam, Kochi, Paror, Mala and Channamglam. The beginning of the Jewish settlement was in the time of King Solomon, when the Jews moved there for trade purposes. Jews came to Kerala after the destruction of the Second Temple, and later came the Paradesi Jews—foreign Jews in the local Malayalam language—in the 16th century after the expulsion from Spain.

 

On ancient copper tablets dating back to 1000 CE, the charter of rights granted to the Jews of Kerala by the local ruler exempted them from taxes but bestowed on them all privileges enjoyed by the tax-payers, such as riding elephants, carrying lamps, parasols and accompanying orchestras in parades—things reserved for only the nobility.

 

 

The Jews of Cochin lived as a cohesive community, maintained a traditional lifestyle around the synagogues, and lived in harmony with the members of the other communities— yet dreamed of the Land of Israel and aspired to immigrate to Israel. In the 1950s, the entire community decided to sell its assets, purchase plane tickets, and finance their settlement in Israel. They did so even though they never suffered from harassment and, on the contrary, had good relations with the locals.

 

"This is a community that dreamed of the Land of Israel, who prayed to come to Israel one day, who did not play musical instruments for 3,000 years because of the destruction of the First Temple," Elias recalled. "When they wanted to make music, they sang or clapped their hands, they did not use instruments. Our history is wonderful and interesting, but few people know it."

 

 

Suddenly, back to the roots

A few months ago, an idea quickly became popular with the entire Cochin community: some members of the community began to build a family tree on MyHeritage. Very quickly it grew, and now includes about 9,000 people.

 

"After two months of work, there are close to 400 people working at the same time to fill the family tree and to upload our entire family history to it," said Elias. "Suddenly there is an amazing inter-generational connection. More and more people joined in the task of building the tree, the young people began asking questions—who was Grandfather? What had he done with his life? This is amazing. People are beginning to take an interest in the story behind the people, and they upload content to the tree that was, until today, stashed in a drawer or bookcase."

 

(Translated & edited by Lior Mor)

 

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