Cochin, India

The Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest in the British commonwealth, built in 1568, is located at the end of a short street in Jew Town in Cochin, India. My guide, Wilson, is sure one of the elders will be present. After all, there isn’t much to do on Sunday in this city in the southwestern part of the state of Kerala and besides the building often receives groups of curious visitors. Although the majority of Jews in Cochin are Sephardic from north Africa and Spain, there has always been a sprinkling of Ashkenasi Jews ( those who originated elsewhere in Europe).

Legend has it, Joseph Rabban, who left a feuding principality of Anjuvannam, swimming with his wife on his back, arrived in Cochin in 1471. The Hindu Rajah of Cochin granted them a site, side by side with his own palace and in 1567 Jew Town was built.

A series of copper plates referring to the hand-over are now in the possession of the synagogue. Only once in the long history was there devastation for India’s Jewish population and that was during the Portuguese occupation when the houses and synagogues were razed. Prosperity and peace were restored only after the Dutch arrived in 1661. By 1686 there were four synagogues and 128 Jewish families in Cochin.

Today, there is one synagogue and when I was there a few years ago, only 21 Jews were living there. I suspect that there are less today since most of the younger generation have left and the few elders may have passed on.

Threaded throughout any conversation about families, we learned that the Jews were involved in the import and export of pepper, rice, cotton and other goods. And the surname of one family, the Rahabi, plays an important part. The first Rahabi family arrived in 1646 and Ezekiel Rahabi who was born in 1694, is noted for his role as diplomat and merchant who worked for the Dutch East India Company for 50 years.

Everyone seems to know each other in Cochin where the population is 480,000, so that when Wilson tells the synagogue guard that I would like to go inside, the guard instantly unlocks the door which, had been padlocked since the end of the Sabbath. (On another more recent visit, our group couldn’t enter without reason).

The synagogue is a square building with a gabled roof, a cupola and a clock tower with numerals in Hebrew, Roman and Malayalam. As one enters, a sign tells visitors to remove their shoes: very mosque-like,. I think. The main room of this grand building is filled with dozens of hanging chandeliers and lanterns, some imported from Belgium. The lights are quickly turned on so that I can get a full impact of this fine space.

Almost immediately, my eye is drawn to the blue and white Chinese floor tiles, more than a thousand in all, each one hand painted in different pattern. Most were brought from Canton by Ezekiel Rahabi in 1762 and the rest came from Delft, Holland. An imposing curved brass bema (pulpit) sits in the middle of the room with two wooden benches in front of this impressive dais, back to back. Looking toward the balcony, I notice that there’s another bema upstairs in the area where the women sit.

“Yes, this is unique and I don’t know why this custom came to Kerala,” the guard tells me. He isn’t Jewish, but like all Cochin residents, he is conversant in local Jewish history and proud that Jews have lived here since the 1400s. He explains that the double pulpit came about since women would come to pray during the week when the men were at work. Since they couldn’t go downstairs, their own bema was built. Behind the embroidered curtain of the are the Torahs, the holy scrolls. “They’re only about 200 years old. But we do have documents and other sacred scriptures that some say are 400 years old,” the guard says proudly.

The synagogue which has become a prized landmark of Jew Town, was the focus of a careful survey several years ago by the New York based World Monuments Fund, which determines that numerous repairs were required, “before neglect leads to serious damage,” Thanks to the WMF’s timely intervention, all but the Paradesi’s picturesque clock tower has been restored and the organization is seeking clock mechanisms similar to those removed from the tower in 1941. Also included in the refurbishment are plans for a memorial court and a larger entrance to accommodate the ever-growing number of tourists. Sunday is a busy day at the Cochin synagogue. Shortly after I arrive, a member of the synagogue comes in wearing a small blue skull cap. He’s reluctant to give his name but is pleased to discuss the building and the history of the Jews of Cochin.

“My family arrived here over 260 hears ago,” he says. A fruit and vegetable merchant in his seventies, he relates the Jewish history of Cochin as though conveying the history of his own family. The presence of Jews in India has been recorded since nearly the beginning of the Christian era, he explains. “The original Jews came from Jerusalem around 72 CE, after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.” In later centuries, Jewish settlers came from Spain and other European countries. With the Jewish population so small, I ask about the future. “It’s bleak. I’d say that in five to ten years there won’t be any Jewish populations left,” he say pessimistically. “The ones that are here are old. Our children have left to live mainly in Israel. I’m not a thousand years old but I can tell you during my youth, there were 150 Jews living here.”

He seems dismayed when I ask him in what language the religious services are held. “Hebrew,” he answers without hesitation, as though the thought that they could be done in any other language was ludicrous.

There is no rabbi in Cochin. During the High Holidays, one of the seven oldest members of the community decides what to do. “The most elderly has the first decision.” Getting a daily minyan (a religious quorum of ten men) has become a problem and there are also problems with marriages and funerals. The last marriage was 12 years ago. (Intermarriage is very rare and unacceptable to the remaining Jewish populations.)

My next question about food elicits a lecture. “Meat is made kosher right here in Cochin and matzo is made here also,” he tells me.

Looking pensive, he says he wants to think about what he wants to tell me. Finally, he say ““there is a lot of difference between the American Jews, European Jews and the Cochin Jews. We are less superstitious. We’ve never been persecuted. We’ve always been treated like human beings and equal. Indians want everyone to keep their own religion. There is a lot of difference between people in America and Europe. You see, most of us in India religious people You people have developed materialistically but spiritually your are completely zero. We encourage religion here.”

I leave knowing that I have just been witness to one of the strengths of the Jewish religion and one of the many reasons why Judaism has sustained and persevered over the generations.