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The Jews of Kochi

By G. Michael Schneider

May 12, 2008 

Even though you know exactly where the tour boat is headed, the initial glimpse of the sign at the end of the dock can be quite unsettling to any Jew steeped in the memories of Russian pogroms, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Holocaust:

Jew Street this way

However, a name some might consider highly insensitive is actually the designation of a fascinating and historically important neighborhood of Kochi (formerly Cochin), the capital of the state of Kerala in southwestern India.

Jews have lived in Kochi for centuries, although their exact arrival date is a matter of debate.  Some scholars argue that Jews first appeared in the area following the reign of Solomon and the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Others assert they were Spanish merchants who settled on the Indian coast in the second century BCE trading pepper and other spices.  Some historians claim that Jews settled in Cranganore, an ancient trading port near Cochin, after the sacking of the second temple by Roman legions in 70 AD. None of these arguments can be substantiated, though, and the earliest firm evidence of a Jewish presence is a set of copper plates inscribed in Tamil and dating to 1000 AD that record grants of privilege to the Jewish community from the Emperor of Kerala.  In 1524 Muslims attacked the Jews of Cranganore over a trade dispute.  They fled to Kochi where they flourished under the protection of the Rajah of Cochin who gave them liberty to practice their religion and deeded land near his palace for their homes, shops, and synagogues. Residents called this area "Jewtown," a name it maintains to this day.  In the early 1600s the Portuguese occupied the city and persecuted the Jewish community as part of the on-going Portuguese Inquisition. This abuse lasted until 1660 when Kochi came under the rule of Dutch Protestants who were accepting of a Jewish presence within their territories.  Again the community prospered, first under the Dutch and then, starting in 1795, the British.  By the 1940s Kochi was home to thousands of Indian Jews and a vibrant ethnic community of merchants, traders, and scholars.  However, with the creation in 1948 of the State of Israel many in the community emigrated.  Those that stayed saw their children and grandchildren leave. The population decreased rapidly and today only a few dozen Jews, most quite aged, still call Jewtown home.

Although the great majority of the people are gone, reminders of their 1,000-year presence abound and offer insight into a religious community that few know anything about.  One of the first houses of worship in Jewtown, the Paradesi Synagogue, was completed in 1568 and is the last functioning synagogue in the city.  (One hundred years ago Kochi had seven Jewish houses of worship.)  The name Paradesi means "foreigner" because at the time of its construction most of its members were "white Jews," a term that Indians used to identify first-generation Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent.  The synagogue is an exquisite building in the Sephardic style with a bema (altar) in the center of the sanctuary rather than at the front.  It houses historically important Torah scrolls, gold crowns, a floor of 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain, and the original copper plates of privilege given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Kochi Jew, in 1000 AD.  On the outer wall is a tablet inscribed in Hebrew from an even older synagogue (no longer standing) constructed in Kochi in 1344.

Religious services are held every Saturday morning. As there are no longer any rabbis in the city, services are led by elders of the community.  Jewish visitors are welcome and encouraged to attend as this is often the only way to obtain a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jews required for conducting public prayer. Afterwards guides are available to conduct tours of the building and describe the long and fascinating history of the Kochi Jewish community. In 1968 the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary with a ceremony attended by Indira Ghandi, the Prime Minister of India.

Interior of The Paradesi Synagogue

After a visit to the synagogue it is interesting as well as informative to stroll along "Jew Street" to see reminders of this ancient community etched into the architecture of virtually every store and home, even though for the last sixty years most of its shopkeepers and residents have not been Jewish.

Jewish Symbols Inscribed on Jewtown Buildings

An enjoyable way to complete a visit to Jewtown is to shop for a unique memento of this once proud community.  A few remaining Kochi Jews are merchants with small stores selling Judaica (religious memorabilia), antiques, handicrafts, and souvenirs to the few Jewish tourists who make it to this distant locale.  These stores carry ceremonial objects used for the Sabbath celebration–e.g., tablecloths, wine glasses, challah covers, candle holders–as well as items used in other Jewish festivals, including menorahs (candelabra) for Hanukah, Seder plates for Passover, and groggers (noisemakers) for the raucous holiday of Purim. 

Judaica Store in Jewtown

Jewtown is located in the Mattancherry neighborhood of Kochi, a 30- minute boat trip from the Emakulam Boat Jetty in the central city. Half-day (3-4 hour) tours of Jewtown are available from virtually every travel agent in Kochi, and they include boat transportation, meals, and English-language guide. They often include other sights of interest in the Jewtown area, including the Rajah's Palace, Fort Kochi, Bishop's House, and the Chinese Fishing Nets of Kubla Khan. 

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