Down the inverted pyramid that is India, nestled on the Spice Coast of Malabar, the Jewish community of Cochin resides. Sadly, it is a Jewish community in the twilight of its days. There are varied accounts of the history of Cochin's Jewish community. Some sources claim that the Jewish community dates back to the times of King Solomon, and after the division of the Kingdom of Israel. The earliest Jews to Cochin were known as the "Black Jews," while later inhabitants from Europe and the Middle East (Spain, Holland, Germany and Aleppo) were termed "White Jews" or "Pardesi." Later waves of Jews came in the 16th century from Portugal and Spain to escape the Inquisition.
Also during the 16th century, Cochin’s Jewish community was buoyed by the influx of Jews from Craganore, a port city that was home to one of the earliest Jewish settlements on the Malabar Coast. The Jews of Craganore fled to Cochin after they were attacked by Muslim inhabitants of Kerala backed by the ruler of Calicut, over their role in the lucrative spice trade. The Hindu Raja of Cochin offered the Craganore Jews protection and asylum in an area of town now famously known as “Jew Town.” In 1568, the Jews of Cochin constructed the Paradesi Synagogue, which is still in use today.
With the Portuguese takeover of Cochin, the Jewish community was subject to persecution. With the initial appearance of the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company in 1660, the Jewish community openly campaigned against the Portuguese Empire. When the Dutch were forced to withdraw from Malabar to Ceylon, the Portuguese carried out a campaign of retribution against the Cochin Jewish community, including the sacking of the Paradesi Synagogue in 1662. In 1663, the Dutch returned to displace the Portuguese, and ruled with tolerance toward the Jewish inhabitants. Meanwhile the Pardesi Synagogue was rebuilt in 1664. This tolerance continued after 1795, when the British East India took control and later under the British Empire.
After India gained her independence, the Jewish community of Cochin numbered approximately 3,000, and there were eight independent synagogues in Cochin. With the founding of the State of Israel, the exodus of the Jews of Cochin began, and increased after 1954. The majority of Cochin’s Jews moved to Israel, and there is now a large community of Cochin Jews in Moshav Nevatim, near Be’er Sheva.
In Cochin, the area officially named Jew Town still bustles with excitement and the smell of sweet spices. The block is littered with faded houses bedecked with Magen David ornaments in the windows and mezuzot on the doors. Stores like Sarah’s Handicrafts sells challah covers and yarmulkes. The elderly matron Sarah still runs the shop, and I spoke with her briefly as she gently kneaded her Shabbat challah.
Before we were greeted by the Sabbath, I spoke with Samuel Hellegua, an elderly member of the Cochin Jewish community. Of Sephardic descent, his family came to Cochin in 1592. In discussing communal particulars, since it is India, there is no kosher beef, but the community has kosher chicken. While there is no mikvah, Mr. Hellegua noted that the Cochin Jewish homes had wells that served as such. Although there is no rabbi in the community, he asserted that the congregation knew Jewish laws and customs, and is able to manage itself.
Mr. Hellegua stated that today only about fifty remain of the formerly sizable Cochin Jewish community, although I have read figures that the community is even smaller. Most of the community is elderly, and Mr. Helga painted a bleak picture of the community’s prospects for the future. He frankly surmised that within twenty years, there would be nothing left of this historic community and that the area that comprises Jew Town would probably be maintained by a foundational trust to preserve the legacy of this storied community.
Visiting the Paradesi Synagogue for Shabbat was truly a special experience. Over 70 Jews from all over the world came to celebrate the Sabbath at this unique synagogue. The floor of the Paradesi Synagogue is covered in blue-and-white tiles brought from China in 1762. Of the 1,100 hand-painted tiles, no two are alike. Crystal chandeliers and delicate colored glass lamps adorn the building, and illuminate the gilded ark. Over 500 Jewish tourists visit the synagogue every day during tourist season— the synagogue is not open to non-Jews or it would be overrun.
Yet according to Mr. Hellegua, tourism has been a double-edged sword for the community. The Cochin Jewish community is traditional, and conservative in its ways. Mr. Hellegua spoke of the frustration of the community at Jewish tourists’ inability to respect the synagogue and the community, by dressing immodestly or sneaking pictures— something that is prohibited. He bluntly stated that the community would rather not have a minyon than allow for someone immodestly dressed enter the shul. Sure enough, I watched Jewish tourists clad in shorts turned away, and frantically search for pants in the market. Meanwhile, I watched in shock as an Israeli next to me blatantly snapped pictures of the synagogue after the Sabbath had begun.
There was an unexpected surprise to the Sabbath evening in the form of one Israeli girl who was at the synagogue. In attendance that Shabbat was Etti Eleyahu, a mid-twenties Israeli of Cochin descent. Her father left Cochin for Israel in 1954, when he was 9 months old. She had returned to Cochin to visit, and to try to find remaining family. She said that although her place is Israel, it was wonderful to see the community and her own roots. Etti’s story is so much like the story of so many Jews; feet firmly planted in Israel, but a curiosity to see what once was hers. There was a time for the Cochin Jewish community, but that time has sadly passed; meanwhile the legacy and spirit of Cochin’s Jews will remain alive in Israel, in Moshav Nevatim and in Etti.