The Last Jews of India

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When we visited Cochin, spices and art were mostly what we wanted to see. But arriving there, we saw the dilapidated Jewish quarter reduced to the state of decay and negligence and salty brine air from the sea. Each seemed to conjure to bury a past which took a millennia to build. The strong whiff of the heady pepper, cloves, cinnamon could not cover up a sad history that Jews feeling from persecution, found a safe haven to rest and repare their scarred souls.

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The history of the Jews in India interest me closely as we have had a very quiet Jewish community in Mauritius too. Everyday, when I passed in front of the leafy secluded gardens of the State House in Reduit to reach Teacher Training Institute and the University when I taught, I had to pass in front of a tiny but beautiful synogogue and a cemetry by its side. I have never seen anyone there. But a dear friend whose great grand mother was a direct descent from a Jewish family who had taken refuge on the island. Were they from Zanzibar, or Cochin, no one would know but teh chest she had inherited bore only their name, and a date on it. Truly Jewish. If it traced by the mass of Indians who came to the island, then one thing is sure, Cochin must have been their last port of origin.

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If census are to be believed, it is quite a feat considering there are only 5,000 Jews out of 1.3 billion Indians, cosidering the formidable history. Of these, 3,000 lived in Bombay and the rest in 9 other communities.   Probably the Muslim population is low because most moved to Pakistan which was carved out of British India on August 14, 1947.  Many of the Jews have gone into the film industry in India. DNA testing shows that many of the men are descended from Aaron, Moses’s brother, as they carry the Ydna haplogroup J1. Since the Y does not show up in a female’s test, this has to be their father’s haplgroup.  There is a female mtdna haplgroup and J1 is in that, but with different meaning.  “7% of Jewish women are found to be J1, (Jasmine) which originated about 40,000-45,000 years ago in central Asia and is associated with the spread of farming and herding in Europe during the Neolithic Period beginning 10,000 years ago. It’s common in the Middle East and among Jews.”

Cochin_Jewish_InscriptionIn 1947, Esther Victoria Abraham was chosen Miss India.  She was Jewish from Baghdadi and was a film actress known as Pramila.  “In the late 18th century, Arabic-speaking Jews, who became known as Baghdadi,  immigrated to southern India, constituting what became known as a third community.

Bene Israel(sons of Israel) claim to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  It is a historic Jewish community in India.  Assyria had attacked the Jews of Israel and had taken away many of 10 of the  12 tribes in 721 BCE which is when they might have made it to India.  “It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s; 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century; and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000.  Many have now moved to Israel. Ethnically, they are Indian, and their origin is uncertain until DNA testing can uncover their origin.  By the 18th century their Jewish observance was at a low ebb, but they have since returned to a whole-hearted observance of Judaism.  Some of them, such as the Sassoon family, have attained great prominence.  There were 3,00 Bene Israel in 1948.  European Jews including German refugees settled in some numbers during the late period of British rule.  During the Middle Ages there were Jewish communities in Calicut and other places.  In the 16th century, hidden Jews (ex-Marranos, an unacceptable name) and their descendants came to live there through London or Amsterdam.  Jews even migrated to Madras where there was an organized congregation.

Jews were in Cochin, India and said they originated from the time of King Solomon in 950 BCE.   Their emigration is recorded from the time of 70CE with the fall of Jerusalem.  “They settled in the state of Kerala. Becoming known as the Malabari Jews, they built synagogues in Kerala beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries and developed Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect of Malayalam language.

Following the expulsion from Iberia in 1492, a few families of Sephardic Jews eventually made their way to Cochin in the 16th century. They became known as Paradesi Jews (or White Jews). The European Jews maintained some trade connections to Europe, and their language skills were useful. Although the Sephardim spoke Ladino, in India they learned Judeo-Malayalam from the Malabar Jews.[4] The two communities retained their ethnic distinctions. After India gained its independence in 1947 and Israel was established as a nation, most Cochin Jews emigrated from Kerala to Israel in the mid-1950s. Most of their synagogues have been sold and adapted for other uses. The Paradesi Synagogue in still has a congregation and also attracts tourists as an historic site.”

It may well be that the Cochin Jews have lived for two millennia on the fertile Malabar Coast of southwest India. This tropical area is now the modern Indian state of Kerala, named for the kera, or coconut palm tree, that is so basic to its landscape and economy. Though tradition has it that there were once many thousands of Jews in Malabar, no more than 2,500 were recorded in recent centuries, and only about 60 remain there today.

Early History

Varied traditions about the origin of the Cochin Jews appear in travelers’ accounts and in Hebrew chronicles from Malabar, some written as early as the 17th century. Some records say the first Jews sailed to South India on the ships of King Salomon; others say they came during the Babylonian exile; others that they fled to Malabar after the destruction of the Second Temple; and others refer to a fourth-century migration from Majorca. Most of these stories revolve around the existence of a Jewish community in the ancient trade center of Cranganore (which the Jews called Shingly), north of Cochin. One chronicle tells how a group of Jews descended from the Assyrian exile made their way to Calicut (further up the coast) by way of Yemen, and a Malayalam Jewish song suggests that the Jews of the ancient town of Palur may have come from Yemen.

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The oldest documentary evidence of a Jewish community in Kerala dates from 1000 CE, when a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban received a set of engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler of Cranganore. These plates, which are still preserved in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue, list economic and ceremonial privileges including exemption from paying taxes, the right to collect tolls, and the honor of using particular lamps, umbrellas, drums, and trumpets associated with high ritual status. It is clear that by this time the Jews were firmly established in the area.

Jewish merchants known as Radanites began traveling by sea and land between the Mediterranean and China in the ninth century, stopping at ports along the Malabar coast. Commercial documents from the Cairo Genizah give glimpses of Jewish trade with India in the centuries that followed. Before the Portuguese conquest in the 16th century, there were Jewish communities in a number of coastal towns, as well as in Cranganore. In 1341 a flood shifted the coastline, silting up Cranganore and opening a new harbor in Cochin, and the Jews began to leave their ancient home in Shingly.

Growth of the Kerala Community

Beginning in the early 16th century there was a new migration of Jews to Kerala. Some of the newcomers were Sephardic Jews, direct and indirect refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions, who came to India by way of Aleppo, Constantinople, and the Land of Israel. Others were from Iraq, Persia, Yemen, and Germany.

In 1568 the Jewish newcomers, who were subsequently called Paradesis (“foreigners” in Malayalam), built a synagogue of their own next to the Maharaja’s palace in Cochin. They adopted the Malayalam language and identified enthusiastically with Kerala customs and traditions, but at some point they stopped marrying the Jews who had been there many centuries before them.

In written accounts (especially by Western visitors) the Paradesis often were referred to as “white Jews” and the more ancient Malabari communities as “black Jews,” though there is not always a clear distinction between them in terms of skin color.

By the 18th century there were eight synagogues in five different Kerala towns and villages. As all but Parur were located within the kingdom of Cochin, the term “Cochin Jews” was eventually applied to all Kerala Jews. Under Dutch rule (1663-1795) the status of the Jews of Malabar improved, as the Dutch looked favorably on the cosmopolitan Paradesi community. A few Paradesis, notably members of the Rahaby family, rose to high positions as agents in foreign trade and as economic and political advisors to both the Dutch and Hindu rulers. There were relatively wealthy landowners in a number of Jewish communities.

In the period of British colonial rule (1792-1947), the Cochin Maharaja retained a semi-independent status. However, in Kerala State there was general economic stagnation as the British developed new commercial centers to the north and east. Some Jews in Kerala held positions as clerks, teachers, and lawyers in the expanding colonial bureaucracy; others continued as small merchants, dealing especially in fish and poultry.

Economic difficulties led a number of Cochin Jews to move to Bombay and (less frequently) Calcutta. They nevertheless retained their Kerala identity, even while living elsewhere in India. Most of them married only Cochin Jews (though some Paradis is married Baghdadis); and when they moved to Israel they tended to settle among their relatives from Kerala.

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One of the most striking things about the Cochin Jews is the fact that they lived in India for so many centuries without experiencing anti-Semitism or persecution by their Indian neighbors. Their decision to leave for Israel after 1948 was not an easy one. It developed out of a long history of Zionist activity and idealism, as expressed in this early 20th-century Malayalam song composed by Isaac Mosheh Roby:

The hope we have had since ancient times,
To return to the land given to us by the one God,
Has not faded.

Individual motives for aliyah varied. Some were seeking to escape difficult economic conditions, while others emphasized the desire to live a more religious life, or to be involved in building the new Jewish state. None were forced to leave.

Cochin aliyah began in the early 1950s, with the greatest number of immigrants arriving in 1954. Many were settled on moshavim (cooperative agricultural settlements), of which five are still predominantly “Cochini” in population: Nevatim in the Negev; Mesillat Zion, Ta’oz, and Aviezer in the Jerusalem Corridor; and Kfar Yuval on the northern border with Lebanon.

By 1982 about 75% of the 2,300 Cochini moshav members lived in these five places. Initially the adjustment to agricultural life–which they had not experienced in India–was difficult for some of them. In time, however, they prospered, expanded their homes, and built substantial synagogues and community buildings. Though exact figures are not available, it can be estimated that there are well over 4,000 “Cochinim” in Israel today, with at least as many living in urban areas as in moshavim. Cochini neighborhoods are found in Rishon LeZion, Ashdod, Beersheba, Jerusalem, and in Rekhasim and Kiryat Bialik in the Haifa area.

In some of these communities there are synagogues in which the traditional Cochin liturgy is still followed. City-dwellers often visit their moshav relatives, with a special emphasis on getting together for Simchat Torah and other holidays. In 1984, Moshav Nevatim hosted a grand celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Cochin aliyah, which was attended by Kerala Jews and other guests from all over the country.

Much of what has been written about the Kerala Jews focuses on their glorious 2000-year history in India, which is now coming to a close. That history is indeed a proud memory, but their culture did not end when the Jews left Kerala. In the words of Cochin author Ruby Daniel, “Some people write that the Cochin community of Jews is dying, They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom, As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die.”

Sarah Cohen is one of the last remaining Paradesi Jews (she might be the oldest?). She lives next door to the shop she runs where she sells handmade embroidery products.

Sarah Cohen is one of the last remaining Paradesi Jews (she might be the oldest?). She lives next door to the shop she runs where she sells handmade embroidery products.

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