Monday, December 08, 2008

Going, going…..gone?

The Jews of Kochi, their numbers rapidly dwindling, have been deeply affected by the killing of their ilk at the hands of terrorists at Mumbai

Photo: The Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry

By Shevlin Sebastian

The foreigners who throng the Jewish Synagogue at Mattancherry offer their commiserations to Sammy Hallegua, the warden and leader of the community. Thanks to 24/7 television coverage, everybody is aware about the deaths of the Jewish hostages by terrorists at Nariman House, where a branch of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement was functioning.

“It’s terrible,” says Hallegua. "Our friends and relatives have called us from all over the world. Many of our neighbours have left for Israel, but that does not mean they were not shattered by the tragedy."

The Jewish community in Kochi is small: just a few families are left. The majority have migrated to Israel and settled in the Negev, in south Israel and Yuval in the north. There are an estimated 60,000 Indian Jews in Israel; they comprise the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel Jews from Maharashtra and from other parts of India.

In India the earliest Jews had settled on the Malabar coast around 700 BC. A charter, written in Tamil and engraved on two copper plates, is preserved in the Jewish synagogue.

It describes the privileges granted to a certain Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the Hindu ruler of Malabar. The Jews were given the village of Anjuvannam, and it could remain in their possession, ‘so long as the world and moon exists.’

Incidentally, there were two types of Jews. The local converts and those who came from Israel were known as the black Jews, while those who came from Europe were called the white Jews. These Jews settled down in Cranganore (modern name: Kodungallur in Thrissur district) and were given a principality by the Chera Emperor of Kerala, Bhaskara Ravivarman II.

White Jews were full members of the synagogue, while black Jews could pray there but were not eligible for membership. Just like in temples and mosques, worshippers take their shoes off before entering the synagogue.

For the Jews in Kochi, instead of rabbis, they have community elders. The prayer books are hand-written in Hebrew and Malayalam. Today, only the synagogue at Mattancherry is still functioning.

The Jews lived peacefully till the 15th century when the Rabban lineage became extinct. Soon, there was a fight between two brothers about who would become the chieftain of Anjuvannam. The community divided into two groups.

Sensing the disunity among the Jews, in 1524, the Moors (Arabs who had settled in Calicut) attacked the community in order to eliminate them from the pepper trade. Most of the Jews fled to Cochin and received protection from the Hindu Raja there. He was gracious enough to provide land, which later became known as ‘Jew Town’.

When the Portuguese came to India, around this time, they persecuted the Jews. Things were bad till the Dutch arrived in 1660. They were tolerant and the Jews did well. In 1795 Cochin came under the control of the British. The Jews were then living in Ernakulam, Aluva and North Paravur. They prospered under the British and became a successful trading community.

Following India’s Independence in 1947, the princely states of Cochin, Travancore, and Calicut merged into the state of Kerala. One of the central government's first policies was to ban the import of luxury goods.

Many Jews, who were traders, used to import clothes, chandeliers, and alcohol from Europe which they sold to the local British elite. This decision caused economic hardships for the community. The coconut estates were nationalised and the Jews lost a valuable source of income. The mass migration to Israel weakened the community further. Apart from this, there were several conversions to Christianity. These Jews were known as Nasrani or St. Thomas Christians.

Despite the loss of numbers, the Jews were treated with respect and affection by the society, at large. In 1968, on the 400th anniversary of the Jewish Synagogue, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest. Mrs. Gandhi said, “Mazel Tov (a Yiddish phrase, which means Congratulations’).” The Jews said, “How did you know this?” A smiling Mrs Gandhi replied, “I saw the musical, ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” A stamp was issued to commemorate the event.

Today, the six families, comprising 50 people, that live on in Mattancherry, Ernakulam and Aluva are limping along. When sunset arrives, as it has to in every human life, one day, not far off into the future, sadly, there will be no Jews left in Kochi.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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