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.
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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. 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.
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.”