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The diminishing Jewish community in Kerala

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Image source: en.academic.ru

Kerala, India – Cochin, a large port city in southwest India, boasts not one but two streets named “Jew.” There is the trinket-lined Jew Street in the pretty, touristy Mattancherry neighborhood, known by some as “Jew Town,” which is home to India’s oldest functioning synagogue, Paradesi. And nine kilometers away in crowded downtown Ernakulam, amid the wholesalers hawking plastic flip flops and fried banana chips, is the second Jew Street. Hidden behind a pet fish and flower shop, is another, less visited synagogue whose ark is empty, its Torah scrolls gone — along with the congregation — to Israel.
These are just two of the seven synagogues in the coastal state of Kerala. (Another one, the striking Parur synagogue, is located 25 kilometers away on another Jew Street.) Despite these symbols, one thing Kerala does not have much of anymore is Jews. Today, there are only 26 Jews left in Cochin — though some don’t speak to, or even recognize, the others.

According to some accounts, the first Jews arrived in Kerala as merchants in the 11th century B.C.E. and sent ivory, monkeys and parrots from here back to King Solomon’s temple in the Kingdom of Israel. Other narratives suggest they showed up later, after the destruction of the second temple, settling in Cranganore, the ancient capital of Cochin.
When the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited India around 1170, he reported that there were about 1000 Jews in the south, “all of them black.” He was referring to the Malabari Jews, so named after the Malabar coastline. Starting in the late 16th century, the Malabaris were joined by other, lighter skinned Jews arriving from Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The communities, by most accounts, never mixed well or at all, either because of racism, as the older community claims, or personal and cultural differences, as the others explain.
Welcomed by the local rulers and populations, the communities thrived until the late 1940s, when both Israel and India gained independence within months of each other, spurring a mass exodus in both communities from here to the Holy Land.

At 93, Sarah Cohen is Cochin’s oldest Jew. Danna Harman
At 93, Sarah Cohen is Cochin’s oldest Jew. Depending on what time of the day one catches her in her little home-turned-embroidery-and-trinket-store in Jew Town, she can sometimes seem a little confused.
But when asked how many Jews remain in Cochin today, she doesn’t hesitate: “Six,” she says. This is because she doesn’t count the Malabari Jews downtown. She does count herself and the members of the Hallegua family three doors down — not enough for a minyan at the famous 1568 Paradesi Synagogue down the street.
“But we come together and sing songs,” she says, putting on her glasses to see who she is speaking with.
“Those Jews [in Mattancherry] are idiots,” snorts Josephai Elias, known to all as Babu, who is the unofficial leader of the Malabari Jewish community in Ernakulam. Babu, 60, owns the Ernakulam pet fish and flower shop and single-handedly cares for the Kadavumbagam Synagogue behind it, which has sat at this spot since the 16th or 17th century and has not been used since the 1970s.

Josephai Elias, known as Babu, the unofficial leader of the Malabari Jewish community in Ernakulam. Danna Harman

A trained kosher butcher, he says he refuses to “cut chicken” for the tiny white Jewish community, referring to Cohen and her neighbors. They reject him; he rejects them.
Relations between Babu and the other Malabari Jews — most of them his own brothers — are not perfect either, he admits with a shrug. He is ready to pack up and leave.
“Twice I wanted to move to Israel,” he says. Once, his grandmother begged him to stay. The next time, his mother made it clear she couldn’t do without him. Of his nine siblings, four have made aliyah, and the rest have stayed in Kerala, but either married non-Jews or are no longer interested in Jewish community issues.
Babu prays alone most Shabbats, he says, sitting on one of the wooden synagogue benches, with orange, blue and green lamps lighting the room from above. “What can I do?” He asks. “At least I pray from the heart.”
Babu’s eldest daughter Avithal, 27, fell in love with Israel on a Birthright tour and stayed to do a master’s degree at the Technion. Then she fell in love with an American Jewish immigrant from Maryland. The wedding is next month in Haifa.  His younger daughter, 24-year-old Leya, moved to Mumbai for school and now works at the Jewish Community Center there. He hopes she’ll move to Israel as well and find a groom there. “She is a very good cook,” he says, “and a wonderful dancer!”
The only thing keeping Babu in Cochin is the synagogue. And he is not the only one concerned with the future and fate of this and other Jewish landmarks there. The 8,000 Cochin Jews living in Israel have discussed this issue at annual gatherings, and other Jewish communities around the world have also shown an interest. Meanwhile, the Indian authorities ­— the government archeological survey in particular — have put their minds to the matter, along with a local ecotourism project.
A threatened symbol of Jewish presence


One person who has dedicated years of his life to the question of preservation is a retiree who goes by the name of Prof. C. Karmachandran. A retired history and government teacher, Karmachandran, who is not Jewish, is passionate about — and some would say obsessed with — the fate of the Jewish cemetery in Mala, a sprawling town 50 kilometers north of Mattancherry and Ernakulam. It is the largest Jewish burial ground in India, he claims, and the final resting place of what he estimated to be between 2500-3000 Jews.
“This is one of the few and most important surviving symbols of Jewish presence in Kerala,” Karmachandran says.
The last Jews of Mala, approximately 300 of them, left for Israel in early 1955. Before doing so, documents show, they signed an official agreement with the local municipality entrusting it with the care and conservation of the cemetery as well as the synagogue. The synagogue, it was stipulated, should never be used as another house of worship or turned into a slaughterhouse.
While the former synagogue has been nominally watched over by authorities and used from time to time for educational or cultural functions, the cemetery down the road is a different story: A soccer stadium is slated to be built there.
“The cemetery is being destroyed by the local authorities,” says Karmachandran, charging them with cashing in on the real estate. “If we do not prevent this, there will be nothing to preserve for future generations.” He adds, “The situation is pathetic.”
Karmachandran is not alone in this struggle. He belongs to a group of activists — among them Hindus, Muslims, and Christians — who have been fighting for the preservation of the Mala cemetery for several years.
So far, the tiny remaining Cochin community has voiced support for the campaign, but has not actively joined it, either because they are too old or too caught up in their own preservations struggles. Karmachandran understands this, but hopes the larger Jewish Indian community will spread awareness of the situation. Most helpful, he says, would be for Israeli leaders to raise the matter with the Indian government, which, under Prime Minister Narenda Modi, has become closer to Israel.
Karmachandran admits that after years of neglect, there is precious little to preserve. Today, only three tombstones remain, all with Hebrew engravings.
But the fight is a matter of principle, stresses Karmachandran, as well as a test case of India’s ability to safeguard its rich multi-ethnic heritage. “We have a tradition of protecting our minorities. They were never treated as second rate citizens in Kerala,” he says. “I am not Jewish, but I am proud of the Jewish culture. It is part of our Indian culture.”

Credits: haaretz.com

  • Annesha Das Gupta

    A wonderful article. Make us have glimpses of this little-known Jew Community of the regions of Cochin. And yes I agree a step should be taken to reestablish and mainstream the community, once again.

  • Ashwati Menon

    This article gives a clear insight into the Jewish community of kerala. The few remaining Jews struggling to survive are surely not being able to live a remarkable social life. Their condition is similar to Parsi community of India.

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  • Annesha Das Gupta

    A wonderful article. Make us have glimpses of this little-known Jew Community of the regions of Cochin. And yes I agree a step should be taken to reestablish and mainstream the community, once again.

  • Ashwati Menon

    This article gives a clear insight into the Jewish community of kerala. The few remaining Jews struggling to survive are surely not being able to live a remarkable social life. Their condition is similar to Parsi community of India.

Next Story

India Praised For Giving Safety To Jew Refugees This International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two Maharajas, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar and Rajaram III of Kolhapur, established camps for Polish child refugees.

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A conservator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's conservation and research center points out a hidden pocket on a piece of clothing worn by a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp. VOA

By Arul Louis

India has been hailed for giving refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazi genocide, keeping with its tradition of being a haven for those escaping religious persecution around the world as the UN observed the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The president of B’nai B’rith International, Charles Kaufman, said here on Monday that India lived up to the tradition of a nation of righteousness when thousands of Jews found safety and were welcomed when they fled the Holocaust carried out by Nazis in Europe.

This was a uniquely overlooked episode that needs to be recognised, he said while speaking at a meeting here on “India: A Distant Haven During the Holocaust” that was organised by India’s UN Mission and the B’nai B’rith, a global Jewish service organisation.

India’s Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said that India receiving refugees fleeing the Holocaust was in tradition of welcoming Jews that goes back thousands of years.

Anti-Semitism was a rare phenomenon in India and it occurred in 2008 in Mumbai when the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists attacked the Chabad centre, he said.

pittsburgh shooting, Hate
A sign during a protest gathering on the block of the Jewish Community Center in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the funeral for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. VOA

While Jews received refuge, they in turn have contributed to India in the arts, culture and economy, he said.

Some served in the armed forces and are treasured as national heroes, he added.

As the Nazis began their genocidal persecution of Jewish people in Europe, India was engaged in its freedom struggle, yet managed to welcome the refugees, he said.

While anti-Semitism and intolerance again show signs of re-emerging, the examples of compassion in the midst of tragedy must be beacons of tolerance, he said.

An author and expert on Jews and minorities in India, Kenneth Robbins, said that not only for the Jews, but for many others India was a place where minorities were able to flourish.

He gave the example of the Sidis, who came to India as slaves and rose to be rulers – the only instance of Africans ruling non-Africans, he said.

The several thousand Jews who fled Nazi persecution to India in the 1930s, came in several waves starting with the German Jews. They were followed by others from Italy; Austria, East and Central Europe; North Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Poland, Robbins said.

Left to right: Ukraine’s Parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, German President Joachim Gauck, Hungarian President Janos Ader, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his wife Marina, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Ukrainian Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman light candles at a monument in Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops machine-gunned tens of thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 29, 2016. VOA

There were also those who married Indians studying in Germany and elsewhere who came with their spouses to India.

Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, the chairman of Cipla, brought down the price of AIDS medications to $6 making to affordable to millions in Africa, saving their lives, he said.

His mother was Luba Derczanska, a Lithuanian Jew who married his father Khwaja Abdul Hamied when he was a student in Berlin, he said.

Among the thousands of Jewish children who came India was Tom Stoppard, the award-winning British playwright and screenwriter. Born Tomas Straussler, he went to school in India in India after his family fled Czechoslavakia.

Stephen Tauber came to India as a child in 1937 when his physician father was offered a job by Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner, and received a visa to leave Austria escaping the Nazis.

During his time in Bikaner, he witnessed religious harmony among Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who respected each other’s religions.

India, Jew
Remains of Victims in the Nazi Camp, Wikimedia

Two Maharajas, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar and Rajaram III of Kolhapur, established camps for Polish child refugees.

Speaking at a Holocaust memorial ceremony earlier on Monday, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that not only was anti-Semitism still strong, it was getting worse and we must “reaffirm our resolve to fight the hatred that still plagues our world today”.

“Inevitably, where there is anti-Semitism, no one else is safe,” he warned.

“Across the world, we are seeing a disturbing rise in other forms of bigotry.

Also Read: Online Hate Thriving Even After The Recent Hate Crime In The U.S.

“Intolerance today spreads at lightning speed across the Internet and social media and most disturbingly, hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike,” Guterres added. (IANS)

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed on Twitter @arulouis)