Kerala Jews come to relive past, as present fades

By Sanu George, IANS
Thursday, December 2, 2010

KOCHI - From thousands, the number of Jews in Kerala has dwindled to a mere 10 and they too live only in Kochi. The exodus of the community started over 60 years ago, though many visit this city to discover their roots and relive the past.

Sarah Cohen, 89, the oldest Jewish woman here who became a widow a decade back, talks wistfully about the fast dwindling numbers of the community - just five Jew families reside here now.

“Our community members started leaving here right from the time Israel was formed in 1948. All my sisters and brothers left long back. I don’t have children but decided that I won’t leave this place because I have been born and brought up here,” Cohen told IANS.

“Of course, most of those who left do come back and visit us frequently to relive their past, because for them it is a discovery of their roots,” she said.

But things are pretty difficult for the community.

“Today, the situation is such that the weekly Sabbath (prayers in the synagogue) takes place only if Jews from outside are visiting,” Cohen said.

“According to rule, 10 (Assara) men have to be present in the synagogue. But only six women and four men are left in the Jew Town in Kochi,” said Cohen, who lives in a 300-year-old home built by her ancestors.

The Jews are classified into two categories which have been there since their arrival here - “white Jews”, who are descendants of traders, and “black Jews”, who the fairer complexioned say are the descendants of slaves.

The ancestors of “white Jews” came from Europe and Baghdad, it is said. And even today, white Jews do not allow their daughters to marry into the darker families.

Joy, a 47-year-old caretaker of the Paradeshi Synagogue for the past two decades, said the “black Jews” live away from Jew Town and till recently they were not welcomed by the “white Jews” into their Paradeshi Synagogue.

“To have the Sabbath, the ‘black Jews’ now at times come over to this synagogue to make up the number of 10 men. They are also a mere eight in total,” he said.

Recently, the happiness of many Jews knew no bounds when they got a new rabbi (religious teacher of Judaism).

“Those who know Jewish traditions know how orthodox we are when it comes to prayers. We are lucky because some Jews living in America were kind enough to send us a new rabbi who now lives permanently in Kochi,” Cohen said.

“But with 10 Jewish men living permanently here not being always available, our Sabbath takes place only if we have visiting Jews. Last week on two days we had our Sabbath because 20 Jews came on a visit tracing their roots,” she added.

According to Jewish customs, they don’t eat meat and fish from other homes.

The availability of “Kosher meat”, according to Jewish guidelines, is now impossible because there is none who knows how to slaughter animals that chew cud and have cloven hooves.

“We are so orthodox that even our new rabbi does not eat from my home, so you can gauge how orthodox we are,” said Cohen.

With the Jewish population dwindling, all eyes are on what would happen to the Paradeshi Synagogue - the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth nations - that was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudan people or Cochin Jewish community in the Kingdom of Cochin.

“Barring every Friday and Saturday, it is open for visitors who come in large numbers to see the building. On Fridays and Saturdays, it is out of bounds for all and only Jews are allowed inside to conduct their prayers if they have the required numbers,” Joy said.

Asked what would happen to the synagogue a few years from now, Cohen’s answer was quick: “Your guess is as good as mine!”

(Sanu George can be contacted at

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