India’s living evidence of Jewish pride and honor

A visit to Kochi finds a small Jewish community intent on keeping their heritage alive.

By BEN G. FRANK
July 20, 2013 23:31
YOUNG LADIES pose in Kochi. (Right), one of the many shops in the bustling city.

India Jews. (photo credit: Ben G. Frank)

As part of my discovery of the Jews of incredible India, I flew to a very popular destination of Jewish India – the historic and serene city of Cochin, now called Kochi, in the southern state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast. More than 30 million people live in this densely populated state, a third of which is covered by forests.

The extreme heat warms my face and the lush landscapes, sandy beaches, cool backwaters and palm gardens interfaced with rowboats, sailboats, cargo skiffs, steamers and naval vessels cruising on a nearby vast system of waterways. An idyllic scene, especially since I have just arrived from the frigid northeast US. It is December.

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Kochi, I learn, is an important spice center whose surroundings contain an ancient and still-functioning fishing industry. Once, traders from Yemen and Babylon exported dates and olive oil in exchange for peacocks and spices.

No surprise, therefore, that the town is considered the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala, one of the most attractive states in India. The municipality was created in 1967, out of Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, Ernakulam, Willingdon Island and nearby villages.

Interest in the Jewish India of the past brought me to Kochi, for Jews once lived in large numbers around Cochin. Today, about 50 Jews remain and they are doing everything in their power to restore those empty synagogues – so that long after they pass on, Jews will be remembered.

The Cochin Jews are the best-known of the Indian Jewish communities to the outside world; the other two, as we have seen in my previous, articles are the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews. The Cochinis, now numbering about a dozen in Kochi itself, are the smallest of the three groups in India today, though they claim to be the oldest. In the surrounding town of Ernakulam– the hub of Kochi–live about 50 Jews.

Legend has it that Cochin Jews arrived and were warmly received at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. But the most significant physical evidence of the Jews’ presence in medieval Malabar is kept to this day in the safe of the Cochin synagogue (Paradesi Synagogue): three rectangular copper plates etched in the Tamil language and given to Joseph Rabban, the “Jewish king” of the Jewish principality of Cranganore, by King Cheraman Perumal.

“While legend has the date of the plates to be 379 CE (4th century), the 11th century is a date much closer to contemporary scholarly assessment,” says Prof. Nathan Katz, Jewish historian, scholar and author of Who Are the Jews of India? The Hindu king gave permission in perpetuity or in the more poetic expression of those days, “as long as the world and moon exist.”

Cochin Jews had no contact with the geographically isolated Jews near Bombay.

Indeed, they were not aware of the existence of another Jewish community in India until the 18th century, when Cochin merchant David Rahabi visited the Bene Israel, who at that time clung to vestigial Judaic observances despite centuries of isolation.

Rahabi believed they were lost Jews. He took three of them back to Cochin, where he educated them in Hebrew and the rudiments of Judaism, and then had them sent back as religious leaders. Thus began a longstanding relationship between Bene Israel and Cochin Jews.

The “White Jews” (Paradesi) settled in the Cochin region in the latter half of the 17th century. They were exiles of the Spanish Inquisition and brought with them the Ladino language and Sephardic customs. They found the Black Malabari Jewish community quite different, and tensions between the two communities existed early on and lasted for centuries.

It is true, however, that some of the European Jews intermarried with the older Jewish communities that had already been long settled in the region. But the majority of the Paradesi married within their community, a community divided by a color line into White Jews, Black Jews, and Brown Jews. The latter were also known as freed slaves, or freemen (meshuhrarim in Hebrew).

Driving in the city with my guide, Gopal, I learn that Kochi has a population of about 600,000, but if you include the extended metro area, the figure rises to 1.6 million. Visitors notice the economic boom taking place here, among the highrise apartment buildings and offices, the likes which reflect the fact that India is on the move economically.

Small kiosk-type shops dot the old part of Kochi town. Here, it’s fun to bargain.

Crowded, busy and lovely but still relaxing, you can unwind, indulge yourself and take a boat ride, especially on one of those Kerala houseboats, or rice-boats as they are called. Sailing around the islands in the backwaters and watching the city skyline from your slow-moving boat can bring about that peaceful interlude that one occasionally needs touring this vast subcontinent.

I notice that some companies mention that on their Kochi backwater tour, you can stop off at tourist attractions which include the synagogue which we shall soon visit.

In Kochi and outside the city, I marvel at traditional Kerala costumes, a marked contrast to Western clothing. Men wear colorful, long, white cotton lungi, a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, with typical bank patterns. South Indian women traditionally wear the sari.

It was soon time to head to Mattancherry, a part of old Cochin City, specifically to Synagogue Lane in what is called “Jew Town,” and one of the centers of the Kochi spice trade. Shopping appears to be in full swing. Alongside humble houses, small kiosks and booths abound. It’s easy to bargain with the friendly salespeople in this crowded, lovely market known for its precious antiques.

Tourists can spot the Jewish Star on the lattice of many homes, and some even have Jewish names inscribed on them. If desired, tourists can obtain postage stamps with the Magen David at the post office.

But the outstanding Jewish site on Synagogue Lane is the whitewashed, rectangular Paradesi Synagogue, part of the “living heritage of India.” Hundreds of tourists crowd into Kochi each day to visit the synagogue.

Today is no exception; a long line of tourists from around the world wait outside to enter. Finally, a member of the congregation arrives and opens the doors, and we realize why the house of worship is a must for visitors. For one, the brass pulpit and hand porcelain floor tiles made in 18th-century China are exquisite to the eye. No two tiles are alike.

Several Torahs occupy the ark. Each has a crown of solid gold with precious stones, a gift of the Maharaja of Cochin, “the protector of the Jews.” He lived next door in what is called the Dutch Palace, but is now a museum; the maharaja wanted to reside next to the synagogue so he could hear the Hebrew melodies wafting up from the Jewish house of worship.

I sit on the benches arranged in a horseshoe pattern around the main hall and marvel at the silk wall hangings as well as the chandeliers and glass lamps filled with coconut oil, admiring this historical monument of Jewish life in India.

Upstairs, next to the woman’s balcony, is a room containing artwork depicting the recent history of Indian Jews. The Torah is read on Shabbat and festivals on this balcony.

The synagogue is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m., and is well worth a visit.

Most of the Cochin Jews, who in the 1940s numbered around 2,500, emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. It was almost as if the whole city emigrated. Most Jews from India returned to the Land of Israel after 2,000 or more years.

Still, this wonderful Indian Jewry, although meager in numbers in the 21st century, is empowered with a strong belief in Jewish continuity. And according to author Benjamin J. Israel, this Diaspora community is “living evidence that, in at least one country in the world, Jews can exist with pride and honor, and without any need for self-consciousness or protective withdrawal into a self-created ghetto.”

Ben G. Frank, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press).

Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter: @bengfrank.


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