The Jewish Community’s Journey Through Millenia

When I was working on my history-based novels Marupiravi, tracing the story of the ancient port Muziris, and Aliya,on the migration of Jews to our western coast, the first place I wanted to visit was the Kottayil Kovilakam of my village Chendamangalam.

When I stood atop the hill trying to recapture my childhood memories, they trooped in clad in all those old-world costumes: Elias, Menahem, Solomon, Miriam, Rebecca, my class buddies who chose to leave our shores and go to an unknown ‘promised land’, around five decades back. It was a belief that every Jew scattered across the world held close to his heart, the belief that someday almighty God will surely call his people back to their holy land of Israel.

Atop the hill stands the Vishnu temple. Down below at the foot of the hill are the church, the mosque, and the synagogue, all within a distance of around 1km. This unique unity took shape at a time when the world over, blood was being shed in the name of faith and religious divides. Without any discord, on the land given by the King of Vilyarvattam, the villagers created a well-defined dwelling space which became a model of living in harmony, centuries before the word ‘secularism’ could find a place in public engagements and discourses.

In the valley around the temple there were some Hindu homes. Down below on one side was the synagogue with Jew Street on either side, where at one time more than 50 Jewish families lived in houses that stood side by side. Where these houses ended, the homes of the Muslims began. The mosque had been built to the right side of the road so that it did not face the synagogue. Similarly the houses of the Christians were about 300 metres from the synagogue.

It was a time when the sound of the conch shell from the temple, the muezzin’s call from the mosque and the church bells coexisted in harmony. As for the Jews, they blew the horn called shofar to celebrate the advent of the New Year. When the festivals of these communities coalesced, once in some eight or nine years, it became a rare symphony of the sounding of the conch, the church bell, the muezzin’s call and the blowing of the shofar.

This is the story of the Jews, who were on the run for ages, and it is believed that the major exodus took place in 1st century AD when the second temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. The fugitives on the lookout for safer abodes and greener pastures would have found our western coast a friendly land. Anyway, the terrain was not unfamiliar to them due to the centuries-old trade connections with the ancient port of Muziris. Possibly, this was the route the Jews on the run from the West were looking for and it is quite evident that the then rulers and their successors extended a welcoming arm to the escapees. The first document on this patronage is the copper plate believed to have been handed over by Bhaskara Ravivarma Perumal to Joseph Rabban, the Chief of the Anchuvannam group of merchants in the 10th century, listing the privileges bestowed to the Chieftain. In return for the support by way of ships, soldiers and money extended when the Cheras were at war with the Cholas, Anchuvannam was made an independent principality and Joseph Rabban was made its ruler.

Later, the Raja of Cochin maintained the tradition and it is believed that Jews were allowed to build a synagogue and put up their houses in a street near the palace mainly because he wanted the support of their trading community. Apart from reserving seats for Jews in the State Assembly and in Government service it was made mandatory for schools with at least eight Jewish students, in a class, to appoint a part-time Hebrew teacher.

After a long span of five decades, I happened to meet Elias again last year among a group of Israeli immigrants who came to visit the old Jewish settlements on the coast. It was quite a memorable meeting after we had last bid goodbye, embracing each other with tearful eyes in the school veranda years ago, and it took us some time to spot one another. It was his first visit since he left our shores and I watched him running around the bylanes with his grandchildren in nostalgic excitement. Although he has settled down in Israel, his kin are scattered all over the world, in countries like the United States, Canada and Europe. His wife, a Russian, told me later that the young kids had been clamouring for this trip as Chendamangalam had been growing steadily as a fairy land of their dreams over the years. Obviously, the fairy tales narrated by the elders from time to time would have prompted them to build an aura around the sleepy village, the birth place of generations of Jews. For them the village is their motherland while Jerusalem is the fatherland. A strange story of ‘dual nationality’ and a journey of a diaspora across millenia.

And there is Eliahu Bezallel, one of the earliest immigrants from the village to Israel. An enterprising technician, he was made to cultivate an arid land in the Negev desert and through sheer toil he and his family converted the desert into lush farms and went on to become one of the most prosperous floriculturists of the country. Despite the accolades earned over the years as a successful farmer and mentor to the farming community, Bezallel, in his 80s, makes it a point to visit his village at least once every two years. The village does not a have a single Jewish household and when he built a house in a piece of land where their ancestral home stood, I was puzzled. But Eliahu said, with an old-world charm, that although they have all left the shores their forefathers are still sleeping beneath the soil.

Although these are stories of the past, they assume considerable significance when rights and privileges enjoyed by minority communities are being debated fiercely in the present day’s complex socio-political climate. We feel sad when even heritage sites bequeathed by the Jewish community are not being spared by hawks on the look out for spaces of commercial interest.

The author is a writer and the former chairman and CEO of the South Indian Bank.

Email: sethu42@gmail.com

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