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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

2 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

  2. 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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‘Janaraksha Yatra Kerala’ Witnesses escalating BJP-Left Confrontation

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Amit Shah, President of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Amit Shah, President of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Wikimedia

Hurling anti-left maneuver during Janaraksha Yatra Kerala, Indian BJP National President Amit Shah launched serious allegation against the ruling CPM government for triggering political violence and imputed to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan the culpability for the mass killings of party workers in the state.

The BJP Chief traced back the origin of violence-centric politics in ”God’s Own Country” to the inception of the Communist regime. “Left always paralyses the state it rules. West Bengal and Tripura witnessed similar political vehemence under the CPM government”, elucidated the President.

Criticizing the Human Rights Activists of the nation, Amit Shah pointed out that they are very selective when it comes to what they support. “You turn your eyes away when our workers die. Why is there no march in Delhi? Violence has no color. More than 120 workers of the BJP have succumbed due to political violence so far. What was their fault? They were working for the betterment of Kerala”, complained the BJP Chief.

Acclaiming BJP’s ideology enthusiastically, Shah called upon the people to join as workers. Addressing the gathering at ‘Janaraksha Yatra Kerala’, the President added that family members of the deceased have stood by the BJP and he wouldn’t let the martyrdom of the workers go waste.

Amit Shah inaugurated the ‘Janaraksha Yatra Kerala’ at Payyannur to protest against alleged killings of party workers. The “padayatra” was led by the party’s State President Kummanam Rajashekhharan.

The National President of BJP attributed the diminishing power of the CPM to their increasing reliance on political violence. Apart from CPM, the once dominating Congress is also losing momentum thereby giving BJP the opportunity to flourish with their ideology. “More the mud of violence, more the lotus will bloom” added Shah.

The BJP Chief assured his party workers and volunteers that BJP would fight the war with CPM until emerging victorious. Shah declared, “We must all unite against the rule of the Left Government.”

Shortly after the launching of the yatra, three BJP workers adorning the National Highway 66 were ambushed by anonymous men on Monday. During his address, Shah alleged that the assailants were CPM cadres who have also destroyed BJP flags in the area.

Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is ready to augment the saffron stand with his visit to Kerala on Wednesday. As per the report of Times Now, Adityanath will basically be in the Muslim-dominated district of Mallapuram.

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Kerala Catholic Priest Tom Uzhunnallil Abducted by ISIS Rescued from Yemen: Sushma Swaraj

The priest's release was achieved through the intervention of the Oman government

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Kerala Catholic priest Tom Uzhunnallil
Kerala Catholic priest Tom Uzhunnallil. Sushma Swaraj Twitter handle

Thiruvananthapuram | New Delhi, Sep 13, 2017: Kerala Catholic priest Tom Uzhunnallil, abducted by terrorists in Aden in March last year, has been rescued from captivity from an undisclosed location in Yemen.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted about the release of the Catholic priest, who was abducted in March last year.

“I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued,” she said.

The priest’s release was achieved through the intervention of the Oman government.

According to reports reaching Kerala, after his release the priest was flown from Yemen to Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman.

He has left Oman on a chartered flight — either for New Delhi or for the Vatican, reports said.

The media in Oman confirmed the news of the release of the priest and posted a picture of him — standing in a room with the picture of the Oman king in the background.

He will be flown to Kerala later in the day.

Expressing happiness at the news, the priest’s brother Mathew Uzhunnallil said their prayers have been finally answered.

A spokesperson of the church Fr C. Jimmy told the media that the news has been received with a great sense of happiness.

In March 2016, militants barged into a care home for the elderly set up by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Yemen’s Aden and shot dead many people, including four nuns of the charity organisation, among whom one was from India.

After the shooting, the militants took away the Catholic priest. Since then, other than a few videos released from time to time, there has been no news of his whereabouts.

Uzhunnalil’s ancestral home in Ramapuram in Kottayam district is presently shut as two of his brothers live abroad, while another lives in Gujarat. (IANS)

 

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World’s Oldest Board Game Backgammon Being Used by Jerusalem Double to unite Jews and Arabs

Backgammon is acting as a peace maker between Israelis and Palestinians. Every one in Middle-East irrespective of one's religion has an attachment with this game.

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Backgammon- An ancient board game that is acting as a bond to unify Jews and Arabs.
Backgammon- An ancient board game that is acting as a bond to unify Jews and Arabs. Pixabay.
  • An ancient game turning out to be a peace maker between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem
  • Backgammon is a deeply rooted game in the Middle-East, which is uniting segregated neighbors
  • Backgammon is one of the oldest board games in the world

Jerusalem, September 11, 2017: No one had ever imagined the power of Backgammon. And about how this ancient game could act as a game changer in the Middle-East.

Backgammon is one of the world’s oldest board games that is currently being used to bring back peace in the Middle-East.

Jerusalem Double project is a series of Backgammon tournament that takes place in Jerusalem. It is an inter cultural initiative by Jerusalem Foundation to create more interaction between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel is the only Jewish state in the world which is located just at the east of Mediterranean Sea. Jew is a word used for those people who profess Judaism irrespective of the place they live in.

Palestinians consist of the Arab population that hails from the land which is now controlled by Israel. They want to establish a state by the name “Palestine” on all or part of the land, which is currently controlled by Israel.

“We wanted to bring Jews and Arabs together beyond the daily grind. We wanted to create a joint cultural event in which everyone can share and we wanted to create cross over between neighborhoods that for generations have been completely segregated”, believes Zaki Djemal from Jerusalem Foundation.

Jerusalem Double chose Backgammon as a medium to break the walls between the Jews and Arabs because Backgammon is deeply rooted in the Middle-east. It is highly accessible and inclusive.

Initially, the project Jerusalem Double had faced a lot of resistance from both the communities. But, they went against the wind and left no stone unturned to make this project work. As a result, the Backgammon proved to be a catalyst towards a positive change.

In 2106, when the first Backgammon championship had happened, only 150 people showed up. But this time, 250 people participated in the tournament and competed for a cash prize of 6,000 USD.

Play can create empathy between strangers and apparent enemies and it can give us the confidence that we need to trust in each other and in the world we have been slighted, even after we have experienced pain, suffering, and fear said Zaik Djemal.

Backgammon is an outstanding initiative towards a peaceful morning in the Middle-East.

-prepared by Shivani Chowdhary of NewsGram. Twitter handle: @cshivani31