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the-south-asian.com                            March 2001

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Page  3  of  6


stone_from_old_synagogue.jpg (11806 bytes)
The Cochin Jews


Raphael Meyer


The People

At the community's peak in the 1940's there were approximately 2,500 Jews in the state of Kerala-in Ernakulum, Parur, Chennamangalam and Mala, all near Cochin City-and 300 in Jew Town. Today, few of the country's remaining 5,500 Jews live in Cochin - 22, to be exact-and many predict that the predominantly elderly community will be gone within 25 years.  Those who stayed behind were the wealthiest; they did not want to risk losing their fortunes in the move and are today left with the burden of sustaining the community.

The Cochin Jews were historically divided into two major communities-the so- called Black Jews, or Malabaris (85 percent of Cochinis), who regard themselves as the descendants of the original settlers, and the White Jews, or Paradesim (14 percent), descendants of immigrants from various Middle East and European countries. There are also a few Brown Jews, or Meshuhurarum, who are descended from emancipated slaves. They became spice merchants, business owners and professionals and spoke the local language -Malayalam-as well as English. The community has never had a rabbi of its own and was rarely visited by one. Any synagogue elder is eligible to lead prayers, and the men take turns.
The Jews have adopted and modified many of their host country's customs. Colourful oil lamps hang from synagogue ceilings in keeping with Hindu tradition; all synagogues are entered barefoot and for hardala flowers are sniffed and then tucked into a pocket, signifying Shabbat's end.

Although Jews, like Christians, are outside India's caste system, they developed a strict code of their own, which for centuries dictated that the three communities and their subgroups could not live together, socialize or intermarry. The divisions between Jews began to break down after 1948, when large scale emigration forced everyone together. The majority of Jewish marriages are still arranged; married couples and their children live with the husband's parents. Jewish women now wear bindis, the small marks in the middle of their foreheads that at one time signified a woman's marital status but are now merely a fashion statement.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Indian Jewish experience is the complete absence of discrimination by a host majority. The secret of India's tolerance is the Hindu belief which confers legitimacy on a wide diversity of cultural and religious groups even as it forbids movement from one group to another.

Today Jew Town, in the Mattancherry section and a short walk from the ferry, is one street long. Jews used to occupy virtually all the houses on Jew Town Road, where they sold fruits, vegetables and spices or worked as oil pressers or carpenters. The spice markets are still located on the narrow street, but most of the homes and businesses belong to non-Jews. Out of seven synagogues that once graced this street, only the Paradesi is still open.

Entering Jew Town Road where it intersects with Jew Cemetery Road is like entering another world. Merchants call out from open-air shops, men squat in doorways or congregate in the middle of the street to smoke their pipes and gossip, friendly and curious children follow visitors, chattering endlessly, and three wheeled motorized taxis and bicycles thread their way through the scene.

Anchoring one end of Jew Town, at the end of Jew Cemetery Road, is the Jewish burial place, with stone sepulchers aboveground and inscriptions in Hebrew and Malayalam. From there, a walk through several blocks will bring you to the Magen David decorated, wrought-iron gates of the Paradesi synagogue. Along the way one can identify buildings that once housed synagogues and prayer halls-as well as Jewish homes and storefronts-by the still-visible stars and Hebrew inscriptions and decorations.

The Paradesi Synagogue

Cochin_synagogue_as_seen_from_the_Palace.jpg (9803 bytes) 
The Dutch-style clock tower of the synagogue facing the palace.

Built on land given the Cranganore exiles by the Raja and reconstructed after the Portuguese bombardment in 1662, the Paradesi is the oldest surviving synagogue in the former British Empire. White-walled and tile-roofed, with an inner courtyard lined with ancient Hebrew-inscribed gravestones, it was embellished in the mid eighteenth century by Ezekiel Rahabi, the Dutch East India Company's principal merchant and diplomat in Malabar, who built a Dutch-style clock tower with three faces: Hebrew numerals facing the synagogue, Roman numerals facing the palace and Indian numerals facing the harbor. Rahabi also had the floor paved with hand painted porcelain tiles, each with a different weeping willow pattern, brought from Canton.The synagogue shares a wall with the Raja's temple. According to a congregant, "While worshipping in the synagogue, we often hear their music and prayers, and they can hear us, too."  

Interior_of_the_synagogue_cochin.jpg (22044 bytes) Pardesi_synagogue_-_sefir.jpg (64925 bytes) Tabernacle_cochin.jpg (17001 bytes) pulpit__cochin.jpg (16293 bytes)
L-R: the interior of the tiled pardesi synagogue with crystal chandeliers; the silver Torah scroll; the Tabernacle; the pulpit.

The synagogue also contains silver- and gold decorated Torah scrolls; an Oriental carpet in front of the Ark (a gift from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie), two brass columns commemorating pillars that stood in the Temple, two bimot (one in the women's section, a feature unique to the Jews of Kerala) and Torah crowns of solid gold set with gems given to the Cochini Jews by neighboring Rajas. The most striking feature, however, is the forest of lights hanging from the ceiling-silver, brass and glass oil-burning lamps and Belgian crystal chandeliers. In addition, the Paradesi houses 10 paintings which depict the history of the Jews of Kerala, as well as the 1,600-year-old copper plates-deposited in an iron box called a pandeal and carefully guarded by the elders - which are shown to visitors on request.

Cochin_Stamp.jpg (30560 bytes)The Paradesi celebrated its four hundredth anniversary in 1968; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended the festivities and the Indian government issued a commemorative postage stamp for the occasion. The synagogue, which has been declared a protected monument, is open Sunday through Friday, 10 to noon and 3 to 5 P.M., in addition to Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The Indian government's corporal guards remain on watch over the sights of Jew Town and have promised to do so until eternity.


The Thekumbagum and the Kadavumbagham synagogues

Across the harbor from Cochin is Ernakulam, which once had a thriving Jewish community. The Thekumbagum synagogue, on Jew Street (Market Road), was built in 1580. Today the building is empty but eerily beautiful as it awaits dismantling and shipping to Israel. The Kadavumbagham synagogue, also on Jew Street a short distance away, is reputed to have been built in 1200. Rebuilt in 1554, it was closed in 1972, when its Torah scrolls were sent to the Cochini synagogue near Beersheba. Today the building, which still has an intact ark and Hindu-style ceiling lamps, houses a plant nursery.

the temple complex is open to all Hindus. According to a congregant, "While worshipping in the synagogue, we often hear their music and prayers, and they can hear us, too." 


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