The last Jews of Cochin
By Benedicta Pereira
There are few places in the world where Jews can claim centuries of peaceful coexistence with the local population. The district of Jewtown in Cochin on the Malabar Coast of Southern India is one of them.
It is a community which has survived for more than a thousand years, witnessing successive waves of conquerors and traders, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. These foreigners, as well as the Jews who came before them, were enticed by the rich spices of this tropical coast: cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and above all, pepper. But today most of the Jews have emigrated.
The current and probably last leader of the remaining community is Samuel Hallegua, whose own family came to Cochin in 1590 from Spain via Syria. When Samuel Hallegua, or Uncle Sammy as he's known in Jewtown, takes the two-minute stroll up Synagogue Lane to the Paradesi synagogue, he knows it is a walk that his ancestors have made for hundreds of years. "The whole street is home," he says. "We were an extended family more than a community, and so it was until the very end of this street."
Synagogue Lane is a narrow street protected from the tropical sun by old houses painted ocher, lime and sky blue. A generation ago most of them were lived in by Jewish families. Today antique shops are more common as there are only a few dozen Jews left. The majority have chosen to leave India and start a new life in one of the many Cochin Jewish communities in Israel.
Yet a strong sense of community still exists in Cochin. Sammy's wife Queeny tempts foreign guests and friends who have known the family for generations with spicy delicacies unique to Cochin Jewry. Not chicken soup but chicken curry laced with the hot chilies, coconut and coriander of Kerala. There is no contradiction as far as they are concerned in the pride Sammy and his community feel in being both Indian and Jewish; their Jewish identity is infused with the history of their ancestors in India. No one knows when Jews first came to settle in the Malabar coast; most scholars put it at over 1,500 years ago. When the Portuguese came here in the 16th century and threatened the Jews, it was the local Hindu maharaja who offered them sanctuary and land to build a synagogue.
Today the Paradesi Synagogue stands only a stone's throw away from the maharaja's temple as a living reminder of that act of welcome. The local Hindu population continues to speak of the Jews very fondly even though their numbers are so few. Professor Jussay, an Indian expert on the Jewish community, spoke of Cochin Jewry as a very long strand, although it is a thin strand, giving color to the whole fabric of Indian society.
Without the help of foreign Jewish visitors it can be difficult to make a minyan every Saturday, but festivals are celebrated with a joyous enthusiasm. There is no rabbi so Sammy leads the service and everyone joins in. There are prayer books hand-written in Hebrew as well as the local language of Malayalam, and many of the melodies sung are unique to Cochin Jewry.
The synagogue itself is over 400 years old and is covered with blue and white hand-painted floor tiles brought from China in the 18th century by one of Sammy's ancestors, Ezekiel Rahabi. Rahabi was a prominent member of the community who was also the foremost spice trader of the time and the representative of the Dutch East India company.
Sammy is an effective leader of the community. He encourages young people to learn more about their Jewish tradition and welcomes foreign dignitaries such as President Ezer Weizman, who visited last December. But there is no one to succeed him. His son David celebrated a traditional Cochin Jewish wedding last year, yet it was held in Los Angeles where he now lives. The few young people left believe that to live a full Jewish life they too will have to emigrate. Yet Sammy himself could never consider leaving Jewtown. "I've heard people who have gone for the first time to Israel and breathed in the air [and] say something is different. For me this is where I want to live and the air I want to breath. A fish out of water won't survive and I won't survive outside Cochin."