In India, a Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers
KOCHI, India — Down a narrow, stone-paved road in a quarter known here as “Jew Town,” a woman with salt-and-pepper hair was sewing glittery beads onto the rim of a Jewish prayer cap. It was just after 3 p.m., and Sarah Cohen, wearing a housedress and flip-flops, sat in the sunny doorway of her shop, waiting for the visitors from around the world to come in for a visit.
Cohen lives right near the Pardesi Synagogue, which was built in 1568 when Jewish spice traders set up businesses in this small outpost of the Jewish world on the South Indian Malabar coast. The synagogue sparkles with colorful Indian chandeliers and green and red glass candleholders that swing from the ceiling beams. The floor is intricately patterned with blue and white tiles imported from a Jewish community in China in the 15th century.
As visitors wandered by on their way to the synagogue, one of the oldest in the world, they looked curiously at the little Jewish woman speaking in Malayalam, the language of the southern state of Kerala.
Cohen explained that she is a part of a dying tradition here that will probably no longer exist in 10 years, because most of the Jews who used to live here emigrated to Israel during its creation in 1948. Now, there are believed to be only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews — from seven families — still living in Kochi, a sun-dappled city thick with coconut palms.
“We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?” Cohen said with a gentle wobble of her head, an Indian gesture sometimes used for emphasis. “Besides, I like this place. And I like the people.”
Jews flourished in India for centuries — from biblical times, some scholars say. The country also gave safe haven to Jews during World War II.
Small but active Jewish communities remain in Mumbai, including the so-called Baghdadi Jews who come from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan and are thought to have arrived about 250 years ago. In northeastern India, an estimated 9,000 Indians started practicing Judaism in the 1970s, saying they were a lost tribe and descendants of the tribe of Manasseh. Israel has recognized them as ethnically Jewish.
But in Kochi, there is concern that Jew Town soon will be little more than a quirky tourist destination.
On a recent afternoon, Cohen’s friend Abdul Anas, 33, stopped by to check on her. He often looks in on her, since he was good friends with her husband, Jacob Cohen, a lawyer who died eight years ago.
Sarah Cohen and Anas spoke easily to each other in Malayalam. They laughed when Anas said that he was a Muslim but didn’t mind working in Jew Town. They don’t discuss Israel or politics, they said. “Who cares?” Sarah asked. “That’s over there, and we are here,” Anas shrugged.
“To me, it’s a part of Indian history. Her husband always gave me fair work. I call her auntie. And she’s alone now so I take her to the hospital when she is sick,” said Anas, who sells postcards of the synagogue from his pushcart. “I feel bad for her. And actually I feel really sad that the community is dying out.”
Israeli tourists to India, along with Jews from the United States, sometimes drop off boxes of matzoh ball soup mix and kosher cookies. “They tell me I remind them of their bubby,” Cohen said, using the Yiddish word for grandmother.
Cohen displayed her frilly white bread covers, used on the Jewish Sabbath during a blessing over the bread. The covers were stamped with her name: “Sarah Cohen: Kochi, India.”
“We are kosher, but also Indian,” she said, adding that she uses chapati, an Indian flatbread, rather than the braided challah bread of European Jews.
The Jewish community here eats no beef, out of respect for the Hindu prohibition on eating cow meat. But they do keep kosher, eating chicken cooked with cloves, chickpeas and cardamom and fish curry steeped in coconut milk along with pineapple and mango for dessert, Cohen said. “Why not? Fruit is kosher.”
She shuffled into her small living quarters next to her shop for some ginger tea and cookies.
Outside, some tourists were lining up to visit the synagogue. In Kerala, there are still three synagogues, but the one here is the only one still open and is a protected heritage site.
A series of large oil paintings in an entry room of the synagogue tell the history of the Jews in Kochi. The first painting depicts King Solomon’s merchant ship greeting Indian leaders and trading peacocks, ivory, spices and teak wood.
The inscriptions under the paintings say that the Book of Esther in the Old Testament contains the first written mention of Jews in India. The Jews blended many of their customs with their host country’s. For instance, a dialect called Judeo-Malayalam, a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew, was spoken. In Kochi, shoes are taken off before entering the main prayer room, as in Hindu tradition, and flowers are used as a part of prayer.
K.J. Joy, the Hindu caretaker of the synagogue for 25 years, said it’s only a matter of a short time before the Jews of Kochi disappear, and with them the unique mix of Indian and Jewish culture. “This will become a monument, not a working synagogue,” he said. “For that, we feel really horrible.”
He showed a visitor a small pamphlet written by members of the community in the 1980s, which tells the history of Jew Town. The booklet praises India for giving shelter and respect to the Jews throughout history.
“After some years the story of the Jews of Malabar may come to an end,” reads the small book handed out to visitors for 10 rupees, or about 20 cents. “If this happens, history can record that their emigration was not motivated by intolerance or discrimination by India.”