A legacy in danger

As the human resources of the Cochin community dwindle, attention shifts to the physical landmarks that still stand in testimony to the vibrant Jewish life that flourished along India's fabled spice coast.

Chennamangalam cemetery  (photo credit: Buzzy Gordon)
Chennamangalam cemetery
(photo credit: Buzzy Gordon)
The venerable Jewish community of Cochin (now officially Kochi) in southwestern India suffered one of its most painful losses this summer: the death of its last kohen, as nearly five centuries of continuous organized Jewish life draws slowly but measurably closer to its inexorable end. The funeral was sad in more ways than its personal and even historical aspects. Although a minyan of local Jews was on hand for the burial, no Kaddish could have been recited at the first service held in the mourner's home were it not for the presence of tourists from Israel - on whom the famous Paradesi synagogue must also depend on a regular basis to be able to read from the Torah on Shabbat. As its human resources dwindle, attention shifts to the physical landmarks that still stand in testimony to the vibrant Jewish community - numbering nearly 8,000 souls at its height - that flourished along India's fabled spice coast. Most of its descendants now live in Israel - part of the exotic Indian contingent, along with the Bene Israel, of the Diaspora swept up in the momentous "ingathering of the exiles" following the birth of the state. They left behind grand synagogues and carefully tended cemeteries, placed in the care of widely disparate trustees from the different neighborhoods and suburbs comprising the community. The lone synagogue still in use is the ancient Paradesi, fittingly located on Synagogue Lane in Jew Town, off the Mattancherry boat landing on Fort Kochi Island. (The city of Kochi comprises two islands and the mainland metropolis of Ernakulam.) Today, Mattancherry and Ernakulam, the two traditional centers of Jewish population in the town, are linked by a bridge, but for most of the community's history, visits required round-trip ferry rides. Thus, even after the population was largely depleted by aliya to Israel in the 1940s and '50s, synagogues and cemeteries were maintained on both sides of the water. Now, the only operational cemetery is around the corner from the Paradesi synagogue. While the Paradesi is clearly the sentimental favorite among the synagogues, the Ernakulam side had larger houses of worship, including the Kadavumbagam synagogue on busy, commercial Market Road. One might think that with the synagogue entrusted to the care of the community's lone shohet (ritual slaughterer), the edifice would be lovingly preserved. Sadly, even horrifyingly, the opposite is the case: not only has the front of the building been transformed into a plant store - Cochin Blossoms, owned and operated by the shohet on Shabbat as well - the beautiful sanctuary, which still houses the soaring aron kodesh (ark), is the shop's poorly maintained storeroom, where piles of stuff lend the bima all the dignity of an indoor trash heap. The nearby Thekkumbagam synagogue, situated on the aptly named Jew Street, stands abandoned, left to benign semi-neglect but not subject to any deliberate degradation. Not far away from the two synagogues, a wide alley off a bustling street dead ends into a walled-off overgrown pasture, to which access can be gained only via a small opening between a chain link fence and the corner of an ugly building. Even this nasty gash in the unsightly barrier is accessible only after negotiating mounds of smelly garbage dumped unceremoniously in the way. A rusting billboard advertising perfume forms an incongruous portico over the uninviting path, which actually leads nowhere except to dense undergrowth that conceals the remaining graves in Ernakulam's Jewish cemetery - or at least that section of it that has not been reduced to serving as the foundation of an unremarkable shopping center. In Jerusalem, vast sections of the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery were lost to the people of Israel when its Jordanian occupiers permitted business interests to plunder and desecrate the headstones. There, at least, non-Jews were the culprits; in fast-growing and rapidly developing Cochin, the soaring value of prime Ernakulam real estate may be proving to be too great a temptation for the individual trustees who hold the legal rights to the properties to resist cashing in. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most isolated synagogue in the Indian state of Kerala is the one survivor of the general Jewish exodus that has fared the best. Concerned foreign donors contributed to turning the former synagogue of Chennamangalam, a town on a beautiful inland backwater, into a museum celebrating the community's heritage. As meticulously restored and maintained as the new facility is, something is lacking: There is no on-site reference to the cemetery that served the congregation. Even the caretaker, whose job includes selling permission to take photographs, had no idea where the Jewish cemetery is. Persistent questioning of villagers led us to a grassy meadow behind a large mosque approximately a kilometer away. It took some time, but eventually, we spied several gravestones, partially hidden by bushes. Considering the money and effort that went into the new museum, it seemed a curious oversight to neglect the cemetery - especially when former residents, who could have identified the souls interred there and placed the cemetery in appropriate context, had made special pilgrimages to attend the March 2005 opening and dedication. Although there is little chance that the small rural cemetery would suffer the kind of ignominy that befell its city cousin in Ernakulam, it would require so little relative investment to clear and memorialize this worthy adjunct to the Jewish museum of Chennamangalam.