The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India

For two thousand years, a small colony of Jews in Cochin, South India, enjoyed security and prosperity, fully accepted by their Hindu, Muslim, and Christian neighbors. In this most exotic corner of the Diaspora, Jews flourished in the spice trade, agriculture, the professions, government, and military service. India’s tolerant, nurturing atmosphere produced a Jewish prime minister to a Hindu maharaja; an autonomous Jewish principality; Hebrew and Malayalam-language poets; powerful, well-educated women; and Qabbalists revered by Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. Cochin’s Jews were so well-integrated into Hindu society that they evolved an identity which was both fully Indian and fully Jewish. This book analyzes the strategies by which this dual identity was established. The Cochin Jews have narrated a historical legend which emphasizes their longstanding residence in India, the site of Jewish autonomy under Hindu patronage, and their attestable origin in ancient Israel, the center of the Jewish universe. Although the Cochin Jews remained faithful to Jewish law and custom, Hindu symbols of nobility and purity were adopted into their religious observances, resulting in some of the most exotic religious practices in the Jewish world. The Jews of Cochin mirrored Hindu social structure and became a caste, well-positioned in India’s hierarchy. Yet in emulating caste behavior, Jews came to discriminate against one another, in a breach of Jewish law, giving rise to a controversy which lasted five hundred years. Despite millennia of security, when their two beloved homelands, India and Israel, attained independence in the late 1940s, virtually all of the Jews living in Cochin opted for the more precarious life in Israel. This book concludes with an exploration of their reasons for leaving India and an appraisal of their adaptation to Israeli life.

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