In the small neighbourhood of Mattancherry in the South Indian city of Cochin, Kashmiri shopkeepers in Islamic dress stand in front of shops emblazoned with banners reading “Shalom!” Inside, Hindu statues and shawls vie for space with Jewish stars, menorahs and mezuzahs.
Although this multiculturalism might seem strange, the majority-Hindu city is well known for its substantial Muslim and Christian populations. Less known is that there’s also a fast-dwindling native Jewish community, known as the Paradesi (Foreign) Jews, who once populated the neighbourhood’s Jew Town area. At its peak in the 1950s, there were a total of 250 Jews in the thriving Jew Town community; then most immigrated to newly founded Israel. Today, only six Paradesi Jews remain here; most are in their 80s and only one is of child-bearing age.
Although little known, India’s Jews have a long history in this part of the world, reputedly first arriving as the descendants of traders from the time of King Solomon’s reign (circa 970 to 931 BC) and landing in present day Kodungallur, 47km to the north.
Sometime between 379 and 1000 (date contested), the then Chera Dynasty king, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, bestowed a gift of copper plates to the tribe, giving 72 privileges to the community, including the freedom to practice their religion and tax exemption “as long as the world and the moon exist”.
In the 14th Century, the Jewish community and temple moved south to Cochin due to flooding further north, and in 1344 they built Kochangadi Synagogue, Cochin’s first synagogue.
In 1492, a group of Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula came to Cochin; and since then the community has continued to assimilate incredibly successfully. During Portuguese persecution in the 16th Century, they were granted sanctuary by the Hindu Rajah of Cochin, Keshava Rama Varma. The present day Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 on land granted by Varma, and the Jew Town neighbourhood built up around it.
The community’s absolute acceptance was shown in 1968, when the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary of refuge and was given a mazeltov (congratulations) by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.
But despite being able to call this land home, the dwindling Paradesi community looks set to disappear.
Upon arriving in Jew Town, I headed straight to Synagogue Lane, the main thoroughfare, expecting to find rows of vibrant Jewish shops and synagogues. But there was only one authentic Judaica shop left among all the tourist traps: Sarah’s Embroidery Shoppe. The store’s iron-gated windows were decorated with Jewish stars of David, while the bars were painted white and blue in honour of the Israeli flag. As a practicing half-Jew from New York who’d read about the lonely existence of my tribe in the southern Indian state of Kerala, my heart sang when I entered and saw Hebrew writing on the walls and challah (ritual bread) covers for sale.
The middle-aged Muslim shopkeeper, Thaha Ibrahim, explained that Sarah Cohen, the elderly Jewish owner, had always been passionate about embroidery, making shawls and headscarves as a hobby for the community’s weddings and ceremonies – and eventually opening her own shop in the 1980s. Although Cohen used to hand make all the mezuzahs and challah covers herself, her hands now shake too much, forcing Ibrahim to take over. He’s also training other Muslim, Hindu and Christian locals the embroidery skills that Cohen taught him.
I watched him demonstrate how to print the ink patterns for the challah covers. Ibrahim said he’s been intrigued by Judaism since childhood, when his father used to work next door at the postcard shop. His smile and eyes betrayed a deep love for Cohen and the Jewish community.
A few years back, Ibrahim and his friend Thoufeek Zakriya documented the history of the tribe in an exhibition and film called the Jews of Malabar (an old name for the region). Today, fellow Muslim Zakriya is one of the few historians for the Jews of Kerala, voluntarily maintaining a blog and Facebook page, also called the Jews of Malabar. In contrast to the conflict seen elsewhere between Jews and Muslims, the two communities here have been peaceful and integrated for centuries.
Ibrahim led me into the adjoining room to meet 93-year-old Cohen, who was seated in the window singing her daily Hebrew prayers from a very weathered siddur (prayerbook). She wore a floral green housedress and a pink handmade kippa (traditional head covering for Jewish men). I learned that Cohen used to cover her hair in the traditional way with lace or a shawl, but since her hands have become too frail to affix those to her white and grey strands, she now wears a kippa in memory of her late husband, Jacob.
Her necklace was not the traditional Jewish star or chai (the Jewish symbol for life), but Hebrew letters spelling “Shaddai”, which means Almighty. I later learned other unusual characteristics of the Cochin Jewry, many of which are derived from Hinduism: they enter the synagogue barefoot, wear special coloured clothing for festivals and celebrate Simcha Torah as a fire ceremony more similar to Hannukah or the Hindu festival of Diwali. Most unusual is that the Cochin Jews have no rabbis, and the community is led entirely by male elders.
Cohen stopped singing. “Do you want to learn?” she asked me. “I’ll teach you.” Unlike other Orthodox women from the diaspora, Cochin Jewish women are not forbidden to sing in mixed gender crowds or in public. In fact, the Jews of Cochin have a long tradition of singing prayers and devotional hymns.
As she began to sing in Judeo-Malayalam, the traditional language of the Cochin Jews, a group of local Indian Catholic school students, dressed in saris and accompanied by a nun in full habit, watched through the window in awe. When she finished, I played her some classic Jewish chants on my phone, many of which she’d never heard before. One we both knew was the Shema (Hear, Oh Israel, our God is One) by Kirtan Rabbi, a contemporary rabbi who uses the Hindu prayer beats and styles of kirtan. The cultural mix seemed perfectly fitting. She then became immersed in her prayers again, and Ibrahim pointed me to my next stop: the tribe’s last functioning house of worship, the Paradesi synagogue.
After removing my shoes and paying my five rupees to enter, I was greeted by the youngest member of the tiny Jewish population, Yael Halleguah. She was exotic looking, with pale skin and a full head of tight black curls. At 42 years old and with no children, the lineage of the Paradesi Jews will sadly end with her.
I also met Joy KJ, a Malayalee Christian who has been in charge of the 400-year-old temple for more than 25 years, his position passed to him by his father via his great-grandfather. Extremely protective of the site, he proudly showed me the tiled floors imported from China in 1762, the handknit Oriental rug from the last emperor of Ethiopia and the candle lamps from Belgium.
The most familiar area to me was the bimah, or pulpit. But, there was no rabbi to stand at the bimah, only elders who still ran the synagogue. There was an upstairs section of the synagogue for women, with a single prayer book laid open that looked like it had not been used in years.
The place felt like a living museum: indeed services are held only when there is a minyan (a group of 10 men needed to form a prayer service), now only possible with the inclusion of Jewish male visitors. So the beautiful synagogue is usually empty, save for the tourists who come to marvel at its beauty.
But the copper plates are still there, safely locked in a secret location, as is the sign from the original Kochangadi Synagogue on the temple’s outer wall that reads that the temple was built in the Hebrew year of 5105 as “an abode for the spirit of God”.
After visiting this incredible town and witnessing the harmony between all faiths, it seems that: “for all religions” should be added.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece did not specify which Jewish community is at risk. Although there are a number of Jews left in Cochin, this piece focusses on Jew Town in Mattancherry, and its remaining resident Paradesi Jews, rather than the Malabar Jews or others who live outside of Jew Town. Once this clarification was made, it introduced several new errors into the piece, including the number of Jews in Jew Town in 1950. All errors have since been fixed.