ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Last Jews of Cochin

A once flourishing Jewish community in India is vanishing

Inside Cochin’s Paradesi Synagogue, the haunting melodies of the prayer service, said to be among the oldest in the Jewish world, competed with crow caws, fluttering bats and whirling fans. The men swayed gently, their bare feet planted on the blue willow floor tiles brought from China in 1762.

The synagogue, built in 1568, is considered among the most beautiful in the world.

Upstairs in the women’s section, Sarah Cohen whispered to my wife, Ellen: “Can you hear it? Something’s going on at the Hindu temple next door.”

“We often hear their music and prayers,” she smiled, fondling a Star of David pendant that hangs over her sari. “And they can hear us, too.”

For at least 2,000 years – some say 3,000 – Jews have lived among India’s majority Hindu population in harmony, while preserving their own religious and cultural traditions. For much of that time, the Jewish community was centered around Cochin, a port city in the southwestern state of Kerala.

Gamiel Salem remembers a day, long ago, when thousands came to worship in the synagogue. But today, Mr. Salem is just one of 14 Jews who remain in “Jew Town,” as Cochin’s historic Jewish neighborhood is known. At 75, he is one of the youngest. Now, the synagogue has difficulty mustering a minyan (10-man quorum) for services.

How can that be? Simply put, the Jews have left Cochin. But they were not driven out by persecution, as has been so often the case in Jewish history. Rather, they left of their own accord, first for jobs in larger Indian cities and later for the newly created state of Israel.

“The birth of [the modern state of] Israel marked the doom of this community,” said Mrs. Cohen’s husband, Jacob.

Some Indian historians date the Jews’ arrival in India to between 1020 B.C. and 973 B.C., around the time when King Solomon began importing peacocks, apes, ivory, ginger and linen from South India. The oldest written word from the south is found in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles. It is the Tamil word for peacock, takaj, or tuki in Hebrew.

But the local Jewish community traces its ancestors’ arrival to the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, a claim recognized by the government of Kerala. State records recount that “about 10,000 Jews and Jewesses came to [the] Malabar [coast] and settled in Cranganore,” a port 20 miles north of Cochin.

Christian references, including the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, also point to a Jewish presence before the arrival of the Apostle Thomas to Kerala in A.D. 52. An old Christian wedding song recounts that St. Thomas was greeted by a “Hebrew flute-player girl.” And another traditional Christian song says the first Jewish settlers were temple builders. It recounts the story of Haban, a Jewish merchant sent to Israel by a Keralite king “to fetch a man … [to] build a temple more beautiful than King Solomon’s.”

Members of Kerala’s Jewish community established themselves as traders. Merchant ships, whose sails bore the Star of David and traveled the Red Sea, traded in Ceylon, Burma and China. Religious records from a Jewish community in Shanghai proclaim the community’s allegiance to these Indian Jews in all matters of law and tradition.

In India, the Jews were granted political autonomy by the Hindu ruler of Cranganore, King Sri Bhaskara Ravi Varman in 1000. The decree, inscribed on copperplates, can be found today in the Cochin synagogue. The king appointed Joseph Rabban, a Jewish leader, as sovereign prince, and his rule was handed down to his descendants. “So long as the world and moon exist, Anjuvanam shall be [Rabban’s] hereditary possession,” proclaimed the king.

In 1341, a flood destroyed Cranganore’s port. Many of the city’s Jews moved south to Cochin, where the flood had created a natural harbor. They built their first synagogue there three years later, and its foundation stone was included in the present temple complex.

Those who stayed behind faced one of the few instances of anti-Semitism to have taken place on the subcontinent. This was not at the hands of the Indians, but the Portuguese.

By the 16th century, the Portuguese had established trading outposts in nearby Goa, and they had their eyes on the remaining commercial operations in Cranganore. In 1512, the Portuguese governor, Affonso de Albuquerque, wrote his king asking “whether I should exterminate [the Jews] one by one.” Subsequently, the Portuguese established an Office of the Inquisition in the area.

Though Cranganore’s Jews fled south to Cochin, the Portuguese made several raids on the city. All of the Jewish community’s historical records and religious texts were burned.

Fortunately, the Jews were welcomed by the local maharajah. He granted them land adjoining his palace and personal Hindu temple, where the Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568. (Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on hand to wish the Cochin community “mazal tov” when they celebrated the synagogue’s 400th anniversary in 1968.)

The Jews helped the maharajah with his military struggles, and though they refused to fight on the Sabbath, they were known as courageous soldiers. They also advised the maharajah on political matters.

Based on their disastrous experience at the hands of the Portuguese, the Jews were quick to support the Dutch when they established trading outposts in 1663. Under the colonists’ 130-year patronage, Jewish culture and commerce flourished. They made contact with their brethren in Amsterdam who, upon hearing of the destruction of their prayer books, sent replacements. The date of the books’ arrival has remained a minor festival to this day in Cochin’s Jewish calendar.

The most eminent leader of Cochin’s Jewish community, Ezekiel Rahabi, became the official agent of the Dutch East India Company. The Syrian émigré achieved great heights in commerce, with interests extending as far as New Amsterdam (now New York). He also was a leading diplomat of his day, serving as dewan (prime minister) to the maharajah. He negotiated peace treaties between warring Muslim states and arranged official protection for local Christian groups. When Cochin’s Syriac Christians wanted to send for a new bishop from Babylonia, Rahabi personally provided for his passage.

The Jewish community also had good relations with the British, who came to power in India in 1798. But as the Industrial Revolution reached the subcontinent, many of Cochin’s Jews moved to larger cities in the north such as Mumbai (Bombay) and Calcutta.

By 1947, when India gained independence, only 2,500 of the country’s estimated 35,000 Jews lived in Kerala, with only 300 in Cochin’s Jew Town. One year later, the creation of Israel, effectively marked the end of Cochin’s historic Jewish community.

Cochin’s Jews had been in contact with their coreligionists in the Holy Land since the 18th century. In 1901, Naphtali Rahabi sent a letter to Theodor Herzl wishing him success in his Zionist project. In 1923, a Zionist organization was founded in Cochin, and the city sent representatives to the Zionist Federation in London. In the three decades following the creation of Israel, Jews from Cochin and throughout India immigrated to the Holy Land en masse. Today, there are no more than 6,000 Jews in India, most of them in Mumbai. Some 60,000 Jews of Indian origin live in Israel.

As a name, Jew Town is now an anachronism. Many of the once-stately Jewish homes, all connected by their second stories, have been sold to Kashmiri shopkeepers. Cochin’s tiny Jewish population is lost in a sea of trendy tourist shops and pungent spice warehouses.

The pastel-colored homes that line Synagogue Lane are embellished with Stars of David and menorahs now joined by Muslim crescents, Hindu symbols and Christian crosses. Jutting above the rooftops is the recently renovated clock tower of the synagogue, its three faces bearing Hebrew, Indian Devanagiri and Arabic numerals.

Sammy Hallegua, the scholarly and devout leader of Cochin’s Jewish community, recently directed that the synagogue be closed to visitors during the day on Fridays and Saturdays. By asking disappointed Jewish visitors to return at sunset, the synagogue can now get its minyan, he explained over a Scotch in his large home.

Visiting Jews often are confounded by the unique liturgy of Cochin. As waves of immigrants came to Cochin from Persia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and even Poland and Italy, each left its imprint on Cochin’s prayer service. Some composed liturgical songs in fluent Hebrew, known as piyyutim. Scribes collated these songs and copied them into manuscript books, many of which remain in use to this day.

Midway through the prayer services in Cochin, worshipers will set down the Sephardic books from Israel and open these older songbooks. Most do not need to, however. They know the songs by heart.

Within the temple’s walls are the famous hand-painted floor tiles from China, Belgian chandeliers, prayer books from Israel and Torahs copied by local scribes. Atop one of the Torahs rests a magnificent 22-karat golden crown, given to the congregation by the Maharajah of Travancore in 1803.

The ancient copperplates, bequeathing autonomy at Cranganore, are stored in the synagogue’s ark along with Torahs and a huge shofar (ceremonial horn). Characteristic of Kerala’s unique synagogue architecture is the presence of a second bima (pulpit) upstairs in the women’s section, from which the Torah is read during prayer services.

Though Cochin’s Jews are proud of the attention their synagogue attracts, the steady traffic of tourists, many of whom are not Jewish, can be unsettling. “These people have no respect for our traditions,” said Lily Koder, a former teacher and a doyen of the city’s charitable society. “They are mocking our ways,” making the city’s Jews feel like “animals in a zoo.”

But despite such frustrations, the Jews of Cochin recognize that without tourist interest there would no longer be a Jew Town.

On our first visit to Cochin, in 1984, Mrs. Cohen pleaded with us to come back again for Simhat Torah, a holiday that recognizes the Jews’ wandering through the desert on their way to the Holy Land.

“And bring Jews, many Jews, so we can celebrate the way we used to,” she implored. “It was such a beautiful holiday in the old days.”

Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida State International University, is the author of “Who Are the Jews of India?” (University of California Press, 2000).

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español