Tuesday, January 19, 2021 -
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Few Jews remain in Kochi, but landmarks, traditions persist

By Christobel Lobo

KOCHI, India — Take a walk down this coastal city’s “Jew street” today and you’ll find bustling Kasmiri storefronts selling Persian antiques, pashmina shawls and traditional Islamic handicrafts — a stark contrast to the neighborhood’s heyday when every household was Jewish — when Kochi was called Cochin.

Jew Town signage remains in the city. (Christabel Lobo)

“There are only two people left in Jew Town. One very old, who spends most of her time in Los Angeles, and one other,” said Shalva Weil, a senior researcher at the Seymour Fox School of Education at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading figure on the Jewish communities of India.

Once a vibrant community of approximately 3,000 at its peak in the 1950s, only a handful of elderly Jews remain here now in a city of some 677,000. According to Weil, there really is no community in Kochi anymore.

“You won’t find more than five or 10 Jews,” she said.

Unlike other dwindling Jewish communities around the world, the Jews of Kochi did not leave their country due to persecution or hardship. Rather it was the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 that attracted many from the mostly Orthodox community to emigrate and start a new life in the Jewish homeland.

For Essie Sassoon, a retired doctor of obstetrics and gynecology who initially went to Israel as a medical volunteer during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, one of the main reasons to stay on was family.

“When my sister and her family left for Israel, I felt that I didn’t have any close relations left in India. I was very attached to my sister,” she said.

“It was a very difficult decision because I love India very much. And I was in a very good position in India and I was progressing. But it happened.”

Some of Sassoon’s fondest memories revolve around her childhood spent celebrating the numerous Jewish traditions and festivities as an Orthodox Cochini Jew in this southern India port city.

From the blowing of the shofar inside the now 452-year-old Paradesi Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to the annual Simchat Torah celebrations — an enormously popular three-day affair both in the narrow lanes, homes and synagogues of Jew Town — holidays were celebrated with equal gusto by Kochi’s Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors.

Primely situated between Kerala’s stunning labyrinthine backwaters and the verdant shores of the Malabar Coast, Kochi — or Cochin, as it was known until 1996 — has long been a crossroads of culture, diversity and trade. As the epicenter of the subcontinent’s renowned spice trade, the town attracted traders from far-flung locations, including members of India’s oldest Jewish communities.

The first Jews were believed to have arrived in the first century BCE.

They settled in the ancient port city of Muziris, now modern-day Kodungallur, 28 miles north of Kochi. In his 2019 book One Heart. Two Worlds. The Story of the Jews of Kochi, historian K.S. Mathew describes a thriving community first welcomed by then Hindu ruler King Sri Parkaran Iravi.

Three copper plates that date back to 1000 CE outlined 72 liberties of the tribe that would later be known as the Malabari Jews. They included everything from land rights and exemption from taxes to religious freedom and special ceremonial privileges, which at the time were typically awarded only to rulers.

The 452-year-old Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi. (Christabel Lobo)

In 1341, flooding of the Periyar River led the Malabari Jews south to present-day Kochi, where they built the Kochangadi Synagogue, the area’s first Jewish house of worship.

By the 16th century, a second wave of Jewish emigrés found refuge in Kerala’s surprisingly welcoming society.

Fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, Sephardic Jews, as well as Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, came together to form the second community — the Paradesi (which means foreign in Malayalam and Hindi) Jews.

The Jewish community bonded not only over religious practices, but also through shared culinary traditions.

“Even though there are only a few Jewish people still living in Kochi, till now they observe the laws of kashrut,” Sassoon said.

In Spice and Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews, a cookbook of Cochini Jewish recipes compiled by Sassoon, Kenny Salem and Bala Menon, ancient recipes such as Cochini pastels (crispy sweet or savory pastries) or the Cochin Jewish spice cake — considered by many to be the hallmark recipe of the community’s cuisine — were altered over time based on the availability of ingredients.

An abundance of fresh spices, coconut milk and tapioca starch (in place of gelatin) allowed Indo-Jewish households to easily adapt their kosher food requirements, creating a cuisine that’s equally Jewish and Indian in nature.

In December, 2018, the Paradesi Synagogue celebrated its 450th anniversary. 

“Practically every person in that community came to Cochin from all over the world — I was very honored to be the only non-Cochini invited,” Weil recalled.

“It was absolutely fantastic, but it was a celebration of the end of the community basically. I mean everyone knew it.”

As a pluralistic democratic nation, India has long been known as a refuge for communities facing oppression elsewhere. The Paradesi and Malabari Jewish communities have always coexisted peacefully with Indians of other religions with zero traces of anti-Semitism.

“I have never felt discriminated against as a Jew living in India. When I was studying at university, they used to ask when the festival of the New Year, that is Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur — the fast — would be before they set the dates for public examinations,” Sassoon remembers.

“They wouldn’t put exams on those dates because of Jewish students like me.”

For Kerala in particular, the state’s deeply rooted syncretic multiculturalism can be traced back to antiquity when ancient traders of western Asia and India placed importance on preserving the identity of communities they traded between.

The first real dent in India’s record of welcoming communities fleeing persecution came last year with the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which fast-tracks citizenship for Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist or Jain refugees from neighboring countries, but not for Muslims, Jews or atheists.

The law is not expected to impact the few Jews who chose to remain in India.

Those who have immigrated to Israel are eligible for lifelong Overseas Citizen of India, or OCI, cards that have been easily available since 2017, thanks in part to current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close ties with Israel.

“This is actually the first time I’m hearing about it,” Sassoon said when asked about the amendment. “I personally have an OCI card that doesn’t expire. I don’t need a visa if I want to go to India.”




2 thoughts on “Few Jews remain in Kochi, but landmarks, traditions persist

  1. Barbara Baer

    thanks for this story, brings back memories, met Dr. Essie and small but not vanishing community in Jew Town 1965/66/67 for Simhat Torah while I was teaching in Madras–Chennai. Everyone welcome us to their homes, to jump for joy in the Paradesi synagogue, share their rich savory food, take sips of schnapps to keep jumping. It was a wonderful time and I’m so happy to read of Essie, who was at the time finishing medical studies in New Delhi I believe, now a retired doc. How the years flow by. thanks, Barbara Baer Forestville (author “The Ice Palace Waltz”

    Reply
  2. joel jay weinberger

    I am surprised that Dr. Weill reported that, she knows better.
    Mrs. ‘Queenie’ Hallejua lives all year in Jew Town.
    Keith Hallejuah also lives in Jew Town..
    There are around 30 Jews living in Greater Cochin, most of them in Ernakulam District, which has its own synagogues.
    Before Covid, there was a young Rabbinic family servicing the community on weekends, sponsored by Star-K Kosher certification, which maintains its India office in Cochin’s Ernakulam District.
    There are quite a few authentic Jewish sites to see in Greater Cochin including a magnificent, well tended cemetery and elsewhere, the oldest grave in the area.
    I encourage anyone who wants to take a great relaxing vacation after Covid in a location that has made Jews truly at home should consider Southern India & especially Cochin, in G-d’s own country’ as their promotional signs proclaim!

    Reply

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