17 March 2008

India: The Jews of Kerala

One of the oldest synagogues in the world is Pardesi in Cochin, India. A once vibrant community is now represented by only seven Jews, according to a story on YnetNews.

According to legend, the first Jews arrived in 70CE following the second temple's destruction. The Kerala region has historically been the spice trade center and traders included Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs and Chinese.

Relations with the local maharaja were good - the community was located right outside his palace - and he sheltered them when the Arabs attacked in 1524 because of their spice trade monopoly. In 1568, the synagogue was built. A model of it can be seen at Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Diaspora, in Tel Aviv.

There were two groups of Jews in Cochin: Malabari (known as meyuhassim), whose ancestors arrived as merchants at the time of King Solomon - and Pardesi, whose origins are in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Germany.

Both groups - they didn't mix or intermarry - lived in four towns (Cochin, Aluva, North Paravur and Ernakulum) and built eight synagogues which functioned until the large wave 1950s wave of emigration to Israel.

The Cochini speak Judeo-Malayalam (a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew) and adopted the Hindu caste system according to skin color. Meyuhassim were the “black” Jews and, according to the article, 50 live in Ernakulum, while the Pardesi were the “white” Jews - only seven individuals remain in today's Jew Town.

In Israel, Indian Jews live in the Negev's Moshav Nevatim and in the north on Moshav Yuval, in Katamon in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Dimona and Yeruham and many other towns, where they have their own synagogues.

The Pardesi synagogue has a copper plate granted to the Jewish trading community by Raja Ravi Varman (962-1020). The blue and white willow floor tiles were imported from China in the 15th century.

Today, according to the article, Sephardi Orthodox services are held only during the High Holidays and when enough Jewish tourists arrive.

Says Sarah Cohen, 80, it's only a matter of time before the Cochin Jews disappear with their unique mix of Indian and Jewish culture.

"This will become a museum, not a functioning synagogue," she said sadly. When that happens, she said, history can record that this Jewish community’s emigration was not motivated by intolerance or discrimination by India, we have always been welcomed here. We asked Sarah why she has decided to stay behind when the majority of the community had made aliyah to Israel:

"How could we leave? We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?" she said as she rhythmically swayed her head sideways in the typical Indian manner.

The story also mentions Yossef Halegua, 85, whose family arrived from Spain in 1592, and whose home dates from 1761. The average age of community residents is nearly 90, and the Pardesi synagogue, a state-protected historical site, will become a museum in a few years as the few residents dwindle further.

Read the complete story here and view pictures of the synagogue, gravestones and more.

1 comment:

  1. victor haleva3:58 AM

    my name is victor haleva. as you may have remarked my surname and that of yossef halegua stem from the same arabic origin which is halawa and means : sweetness, beauty and nice.
    the arabic "w" exchanged into a "gu" as in the rendering of the arabic w-adi al kabir unto gu-adalquivir or as the judezmo guevos for uevos.
    in another version according to the turkish transliteration of the arabic the "w" were exchanged unto "v"