The Last Jews of Cochin

After flourishing for centuries, this Jewish community may soon be gone

by Nathan Katz

image Click for more images

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.

Post a Comment | Comments(0)

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Tags: Jews Immigration