The Jews of Cochin and two men’s quixotic quest
Tucked away in the living room of a suburban house just north of Toronto is an extraordinary artifact — a 120-year-old, hand-carved teak sofa from the living room of the man many call the Jewish Gandhi.
The grandson of that man is pointing out the artistry involved in the piece: the lion’s head that adorns an armrest; a carved peacock and an elephant’s head.
“I had it repainted and upholstered here,” says King City resident Kenny Salem, the grandson of Abraham Barak Salem. “It’s just for show.”
But he saves the best for last: Among those who sat on it was India’s late prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The occasion was the 400th anniversary celebration of the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1968. It was the year after his grandfather’s death, and the sofa had been moved to the synagogue that had played such a critical role in A.B. Salem’s life.
Kenny Salem, 51, an Orthodox Jew, moved to Toronto in 1990 after a few years in Israel. Although he married a Canadian and has settled here, his heart remains in his home state of Kerala, India, where his aging parents still live.
His story is like that of most Jews from Kochi, as Cochin is now called, where a once thriving Orthodox Jewish community verges on extinction.
For Salem, the choice was clear-cut: stay in a dying community or seek a life outside. Like so many before him, he chose to go.
But if Salem and his friend Bala Menon have their way, the community will not die without the world knowing of its existence. The two men have decided to preserve the history of the Jews of Cochin.
“It’s such an important part of India’s history and Kerala’s heritage,” says Menon, a Hindu from Kerala.
Yet it’s a community that has often been at war with itself, divided for centuries along racial lines.
Cochin, once consisting of a number of small villages and islands, sits on the southwestern coast of India by the Arabian Sea. It is now one of India’s largest seaports, and home to the International Pepper Exchange and Indian spice board.
It is where Salem was born, in a house on Synagogue Lane, or Jew Street as it’s also known. The 230-year-old house was built on land given to the Jews by the Maharaja of Cochin. The street was once the home of three synagogues, and at one time there were as many as 11 synagogues in the area.
Today, only the Paradesi Synagogue, which means foreigner in Malayalam and Hindi, still operates. Two synagogues in outlying areas of Cochin have been converted to museums, two are locked up, and another is used as a community hall.
The golden, ornate interior of the Paradesi Synagogue, with its chandeliers and blue- and white-tiled floors, draws busloads of tourists every day. But its ark, where the only remaining Torah scroll is kept, is closed off. Faded paintings depicting the landing of the first Jewish settlers adorn the walls outside the sanctuary. Nearby, a Jewish cemetery with centuries-old gravestones sits abandoned. Hebrew letters etched on the headstones look as if they’re dancing in the sharp light of the Indian sun.
The 445-year-old synagogue still serves as a place of worship on the holidays, if the community can cobble together enough people to pray. Often Salem returns home to bolster the numbers and lead services.
Only eight Jews, all elderly, live in the white-walled streets of Jew Town now, including Salem’s parents, who are in their mid-80s. They are indifferent, at best, to the constant stream of foreigners, including fellow Jews from around the world; they feel as if they are part of a living museum exhibition.
Another 40 Jews, many of whom are younger, live in a suburb of Cochin known as Ernakulam, and are faring slightly better. (Mumbai’s Jewish community is better still, with an estimated population of between 4,000 to 6,000 Jews.)
Yet Salem remembers when the community was bustling with life, when he was a young boy in the 1960s. But already the exodus had begun. In the 1950s, 3,000 to 5,000 Jews lived in the community. But with the creation of Israel in 1948, many of them left. The exodus continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, leaving the population decimated.
History in a cookbook
So much of the history of the community remains untold, Menon believes. “I have some new information now.” So he and Salem have begun the task of writing about the community.
Their combined efforts to preserve the story of the Cochini Jews are perhaps quixotic, but the two are determined. Menon, who has a master’s in economics and in political science, has started a blog — The Jews of Cochin — where he posts his research. His wife Rema helps translate some of the documents he has uncovered.
The first effort has just been published: a social history of the community’s cuisine called “Spice and Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews,” by Menon, Salem and Essie Sassoon, another Cochini Jew who lives in Israel.
Menon has started a company, Tamarind Tree Books, to publish the books. Next up is a history of the community: its roots, its growth and its demise.
He also plans to write a biography of Salem’s grandfather, Abraham Barak Salem. In the early 20th century, he helped break the colour barrier that had been imposed by the Portuguese when they colonized Kerala hundreds of years before, differentiating between members of the Jewish community based on skin colour, and thus creating the “black Jews” (or Malabari Jews) and the “white Jews.”
Menon has spent a lot of time talking with the remaining inhabitants of Jew Town, as well as the Jews in Ernakulam, gathering their stories, memories and anecdotes. Introduced by Salem, he has been able to get them to speak candidly about their world.
Meanwhile, Salem and a cousin in Los Angeles have set up a trust fund to help administer and keep the community’s last synagogue open.
The dream is “to keep it as a Jewish place in Kerala for any Jew to come and pray,” says Salem. They’ve “appointed a couple of people who live there who are non-Jewish who have grown up with us” to look after the synagogue once no one in the community is left.
Menon and Salem’s friendship — and their mission to tell the world about this community — stems from an accidental meeting.
The two attended a harvest festival picnic held by a local Keralite association in the GTA in 2008. There, they got talking about their shared homeland, their shared language of Malayalam, their love of Kerala cooking. They became friends, travelling to Israel and Cochin together. And the project to write about the community was born.
Menon, with a huge smile and rotund belly, has an air about him of the Indian god Ganesh. Salem, long, lean and lithe, has a kind of Shiva-like quality. The two, like the father-and-son Indian gods, make a good team. When they talk about their project, they finish each other’s sentences or excitedly talk over each other. They both speak with the lyrical cadence of southern India. Every so often, a Hebrew or Yiddish term emerges, with a southern Indian accent, jarring to a North American Jew’s ear.
Menon, who describes himself as ageless, is a journalist and artist. He worked for the Times of India in Mumbai and papers in the Persian Gulf, before moving to the GTA 16 years ago with his wife and kids. He is now the production co-ordinator at Wall2Wall Media, a division of Yellow Pages. Salem owns a small trucking business and with a partner supplies calamari to restaurants. He describes himself as “semi-retired.”
On a hot and humid weekday afternoon, Salem shows a reporter snapshots of his family, his home and Synagogue Lane. The reporter shares her memories of walking down the streets of Jew Town during a 2005 trip to India. She recounts the cold reception she got from one of the remaining Jews at the synagogue that day. “They’re fed up,” explains Salem.
Salem points out his relatives in tiny black and white Polaroids from the 1950s and 1960s. He shows a photograph of his brown-skinned grandfather at a family function, dressed in white and sporting a long white beard. The only thing that differentiates him from his fellow Indians is the kippa on his head.
Salem relives his youth, including his bar mitzvah, when the Paradesi Synagogue was filled with guests both upstairs and down, and services for the holiday of Simchat Torah, when he and the other members of the community would march the Torah outside in the streets. He can trace his family’s roots in Cochin to about 200 years ago.
But the Jews of Cochin, both in Jew Town and Ernakulam, go back much further. Some date their arrival to the time of King Solomon, when sailors came to Kerala, trading in spices, animals and ivory. Another large migration of Jews to the shores of southern Kerala occurred between AD 1000 and 1069, led by merchant Joseph Rabban, who is said to be of Yemeni descent. Another large wave of migration hit Cochin during the Inquisition.
“Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497,” Menon says. “Many families arrived in Cochin in 1511 via Turkey and Syria.”
When Rabban and his fellow settlers arrived, they were given the same status as the nobility and martial caste of Kerala at a ceremony at the palace near Cranganore by Emperor Bhaskara Ravi Varman. He gave Rabban two copper plates that listed 72 privileges and property rights and promised that there would be a home for them as long as “the moon and the earth endure.”
As the Jews moved from one settlement to another across Kerala, finally ending up in Cochin after a brutal attack by Muslims in middle of the 16th century, they brought the plates with them. Those copper plates, described as the Magna Carta of the Jews, remain one of the community’s prized possessions.
For centuries the Cochini Jews, both dark- and light-skinned, lived together peacefully. But life changed when Portugal colonized Kerala in the 15th century and administrators introduced a kind of caste system. “They started branding the people,” Menon says. “You’re black. You’re white.”
Theories on the reason for this separation abound. But it gave the Jews from Portugal and Spain an economic leg up. Menon says the Portuguese rulers felt more comfortable dealing with the Jews who traced their roots back to Spain or Portugal, as opposed to those who came from Yemen and intermarried with Indian women before the 15th century, or Jews from Mumbai, who call themselves Bene Israel (sons of Israel).
“They only wanted to work with Jews who had white skin,” adds Salem. “That’s how they got all the privileges: good jobs, good land and good homes.”
Ending the division
That division continued within the community until Salem’s grandfather put his foot down. He staged a non-violent protest with his three sons in 1927 or 1928 (Salem’s unsure of the year), demanding access to the virtually whites-only Paradesi Synagogue, metres from the family’s home.
He won that battle, securing a place for himself and his children. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that full discrimination against dark-skinned Jews ended, as did the formal caste system across India.
“My grandfather, he was the Gandhi of the Jews,” Salem says proudly of a man he barely remembers. He was 4 when his grandfather died, but he has heard many stories from his father, Gumliel Guy Salem. “He was a very influential man,” says Salem. “He was a trade union leader. And very powerful.”
Salem, called Salem Kocha by his fellow Jews, also was well connected in Indian politics, serving in the local assembly and participating in the Lahore session of the National Congress Party — along with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru — that passed a resolution seeking full independence from Britain.
A close ally and friend to Nehru, Salem rejected an offer to join Nehru’s cabinet when he became the first prime minister of India, according to his grandson. “He was a deeply religious man,” and didn’t see a place for himself in cabinet. As well, other party members didn’t want a Jew in the cabinet, he says.
Salem’s actions should have put an end to the foreign-imposed racism that plagued the community for centuries, but they weren’t enough to correct 500 years of injustice. Many believe the lingering racial dividehelped trigger a mass exodus of black Jews, who were promised land in Israel.
That, coupled with the 1950s Indian land reform, also played a role, with Kerala’s communist government redistributing land from the wealthy to the poor. In the ’70s and ’80s the exodus continued as many young Cochini Jews fled to Israel and beyond in search of a stronger Jewish community.
Today, “despondency” has settled in on the community, says Menon. “No one is left there . . . They say: Jewish life is ending.” Some of the few who remain in the community believe things might have been different if the state of Israel had not been created, says Salem.
He recalls that a neighbour of his parents used to say the birth of Israel was “the death of our community. It’s like hammering a nail into it.”
But could something have stopped the demise of the community? When asked, Salem shakes his head no.
Still, he takes solace in the fact that the traditions and culture of his youth have been transplanted to seven settlements in Israel, where Cochini culture, its food, language (Malayalam), music and architecture thrives. Estimates suggest there are 15,000 to 20,000 Cochini Jews in Israel today, according to Menon.