Samuel Hallegua, the leader of the Paradesi Cochin (today called Kochi) Jewish community in India, passed away the day before Rosh Hashana. The funeral took place with a minyan in the Paradesi Cochin Jewish cemetery in Jew Town in the presence of the Chabad rabbi, who flew in from Bangalore.
Hallegua's death marks the demise of a great leader and brilliant personality, as well as the historic extinction of a Jewish Diaspora community. Only 10 souls remain in Mattancherry, Cochin, all but two of them over the age of 70.
Hallegua was born in 1931 to an aristocratic lineage of Cochin "White" Jews. His great-grandfather was Elia Roby, and his grandfathers were Samuel Koder and Isaac E. Hallegua, respectively, all highly educated and respected Cochin Jews.
Samuel received his MSc with honors in statistics from the prestigious Madras Presidency College, and then went into the family businesses. He looked after the family estates in Vettaka. Together with his cousin, Naphtali Koder of Haifa, who died last year, he was a partner in a fishing firm, which exported to the United States. He also filled an exclusive role certifying kosher fish from India for an American fish company. He was a partner in the S. Koder firm, agents of Godrej, an Indian steel manufacturer; the company traded in furniture and other steel items.
After the former leader of the community, his father-in-law S.S. (Sattu) Koder, fell ill in 1992, Hallegua acted as the gabbai of the famous Paradesi synagogue built in 1568. He was highly learned in Jewish matters and would read from the Torah scroll each Saturday in the synagogue. On that day, the synagogue, which had become a world heritage monument, was closed to tourists and only open for prayer. In recent months, while Hallegua valiantly fought a cancerous disease, the synagogue was sometimes shut because there was no one to lead the services.
Hallegua possessed encyclopedic knowledge of Cochin Jewish history, which sadly will now be lost. He had contributed a chapter to my book India's Jewish Heritage on the marriage customs of the Jewish community of Cochin, and had written several less well-known pieces elsewhere. Knowing that Samuel was sick, I chose to go and study with him in Jew Town, Cochin, last December. We went over Hebrew texts together, combed the Jewish cemeteries, recited the special Shingly (Cochin) prayers and discussed the annals of the Paradesi community for several days.
Hallegua is survived by his wife Queenie; his son David Hallegua, a doctor in Los Angeles; his daughter Fiona Hallegua of New York; and his granddaughter Eliana. There are two surviving sisters: Pearly, who lives in Haifa, and Juliet, who still lives in Synagogue Lane, Cochin.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes in the Jews of India.