Reliving the Glorious Days of Kochi’s Jews

For the Jewish people of Kochi and Ernakulam, the word ‘home’ evokes images of different lands. They came to Kerala’s shores from Jerusalem, Baghdad, Spain, Portugal, and other countries in search of a land where they would not be persecuted. Since the 16th century, they established themselves as an integral part of the commerce and culture of Kochi. But Kochi was only a temporary home. In the 1950s, many of Kochi’s Jews made the aliyah (emigration to Israel) to a land they always called their final home.

Today, only 32 members of the community remain in Kochi. Though most of them have left the country, their presence has left a mark on its history and culture. Scholars and historians from all over the world still arrive at the doors of synagogues of the city to learn more about the community.

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley, is hosting an exhibition of over 100 items that document the history of the Jews of Kerala. The exhibition, ‘Global India: Kerala, Israel, Berkeley’, opened on Tuesday, showcasing artefacts from Jewish life in Kerala. Oil lamps, photographs, decorated marriage contracts (ketubbah) made in Kochi, and wedding costumes form part of the collection.

The pride of the exhibition, however, is the restored Torah Ark of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue of Mattancherry. The Ark, “designed to contain several biblical scrolls and cases, is a 13 foot-high and eight foot-wide wooden structure, made of multiple individual elements,” says the catalogue of the exhibition.

The Thekkumbhagom synagogue, situated a few metres from the famous Paradesi Synagogue of Mattancherry, was built in 1687. The synagogue was demolished when most of its congregation left for Israel in the 1950s. When the Jews of Jew Street left the country, they sold most of their property to fund their new lives in Israel. Many of these relics have made their way to museums and private collections in Israel and elsewhere.

The Magnes Collection managed to save some of these relics and obtain a few important documents due to the efforts of the late Seymour Fromer, of the former Judah L. Magnes Museum, anthropologist David G. Mandelbaum, and others. Professor Mandelbaum’s lantern prints of Jewish life in Kerala in 1937 are a part of the exhibition.

The Jewish life that Professor Mandelbaum saw in Kochi then, however, was much different from what can be seen today. His work shows a vibrant, prosperous Jewish community that celebrated its culture in grand style. Festivals were a jolly affair when men got together to joke and drink and women sang and played games.

Life at Jew Street today is much quieter. Like the Paradesi Synagogue, the Jews living here too have become a tourist attraction. Visitors walk up and down Jew Street every day, peek into their homes, and trouble them with questions that constantly remind them of their community’s decline. “There used to be three synagogues on this street,” says nonagenarian Sarah Cohen, eldest of the eight remaining members of the Paradesi Jews in Kochi. “Ours is the Paradesi synagogue. Other people went to the two other synagogues,” she says.

The synagogues — ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ as Cohen calls them — are a reflection of the divide between the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Jews of Kerala, one that may have eventually led to their downfall. “The ‘White’ Jews arrived in Kerala from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century,” says historian M.G.S. Narayanan. The Paradesi Synagogue was built by them in 1568. They had the patronage of the then ruler of Cochin, who gave the ‘White Jews’ land close to his temple at the Mattancherry Palace. “They were very rich and powerful and operated many businesses here,” says Professor Narayanan.

The ‘White’ Jews looked down upon their darker-skinned brethren who were present in Kerala when they arrived. They called them ‘Black’ Jews or ‘Malabari’ Jews to denote that they were the other. Until recently, the two groups prayed in separate synagogues and were not allowed to eat meat slaughtered by the other or to marry from the other community.

Today, the groups have been forced to come together so they have enough members to hold prayers on festivals and special occasions. Their union, however, has come too late to save the community.

The glorious days of the Jews of Kerala will now be seen only through exhibitions like the one at The Magnes Collection, which will be on till December 13.


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