The Last Jews of Kochi

Johnny Hallegua hates cameras.

He swishes his arm across the lens and shoos away a wide-eyed tourist. Johnny just doesn’t like to be looked upon by the visitors as a leftover of the Jewish presence in Kochi (Cochin), India. "They come here and flash lenses and stare at us with curious faces. Gentlemen, we’re not dinosaurs." Hallegua frowns.

But the dwindling numbers of Jews in Kochi have made Hallegua and the rest into something of a living relic. As few as 16 Jews have been left behind in a narrow lane named Synagogue Street in Mattancherry, in the south Indian port town of West Kochi. They serve as a reminder of the state of Kerala’s gracious history of tolerance toward its guests.

On the quiet and empty lane to the synagogue stands Johnny’s younger brother, Samuel Hallegua, a 69-year-old Jewish businessman whose forefathers settled here along with others in 1595. They came over from Aleppo in Syria. He is among a few of those Jews who refused to leave Kochi for the "Promised Land." Fair, fatherly and handsome, Sammy, as friends call him, has a hearty laugh and quick rejoinders. He wonders why the young ones don’t leave, as it holds no promise professionally.

"Kerala is not a place where businessmen would like to settle down. Our young ones, quite naturally, saw through it and traveled to Israel, seeking better prospects. Besides, they might have preferred a Judaic ambience in Israel to the minority feeling here. I guess it all had to do something with the cultural mood there, you know," Sammy said, noting that they do not face any ill will from local Keralites. "Till the day, not a brow has folded at us. That is the best facet of this people. I really love this place," he said in quirky English.

Perhaps this sentiment had grown too strong in men like Samuel to pull him away to Israel. "Those of us who are still here wanted to stay and die here. This land brought us up. Yes, sentiments got to be weighed. I, for myself, wouldn’t want to go anywhere. I want to die here." Samuel likes it that way.

The first mention of the Jews in India is made in the Book of Esther, which dates back to the second century B.C.E. It mentions the decrees of the Persian monarch Ahasuerus, on the Jews dispersed "from India even unto Ethiopia." But none of the "Indian Jews" from that era are known to have had successors. The Indian Jews of today are the descendants of those who settled much later than the biblical period.

The Jews of Kochi, called by Israelis as Cochinis, had originally settled in the ancient port of Cranganore or Kodungallore, nearly 22 miles north of Kochi, following the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Later, in the 14th century, they moved further south to Mattancherry. S.S. Koder, a prominent Jew who set up business houses, notes in his book "Kerala and Her Jews": "It is an undisputed fact of history that from the fifth to the 15th century, the Jews in Cranganore have had virtually an independent principality ruled over by a prince of their own race and choice."

But the Kochi Jews never numbered more than 2,500. By 1951, their number had declined to 370, largely because of the exodus to the Promised Land following its independence. After two more decades, their number slumped further to 112. Jacob Elias Cohen, the oldest Jew in Kerala, died in October 1998. Today, the youngest one in the community, a cousin of Hallegua who prefers not to give her name, is 24. She, too, is thinking of emigrating. "Not soon, but in the immediate future," she says.

And that would bring the number to 15.

Many of them are old enough to be weary and resting in the interiors, merely awaiting the call.

Issac Joshua lives in downtown Ernakulam’s Jewish street. "Only four Jewish families remain here. The rest went to Israel. Synagogues here were converted to storehouses or left to ruin, but the Pardesi synagogue is still in use," he said.

Of the eight synagogues that remained in and around Kochi, just two are still in good condition: a Jewish family looks after The Paravur synagogue and the other one is in Mattancherry.

One of the synagogues was converted into a plant nursery and is run by a young Jew named Josephain Elias.

Quest for a Judaic ambience and the trip to Israel have not always ended up in bliss.

Elias Elson, a tailor from Alwaye, 20 miles east of Kochi, had emigrated with his family to Israel in 1978 in search of a better life. But, as he confessed to an interviewer from Blitz Weekly in 1997, he found it elusive. "It’s too hard to live there. I was unable to bear the economic and political turmoil." He did concede that the Indian Jews seemed "mighty happy" to be in Israel. A couple of other Jews are also known to have returned to Kochi from Israel, unhappy with the raw deal they faced there.

Monique Zetlaoui, a Jewish scholar from Tunisia, throws light on this subject in his book "History of Jewish Communities in India." He claims that those who emigrated to Israel faced discrimination and were sidelined by the religious sections of the population. He says Indian Jews in Israel have failed to become a part of the intellectual or social circles and hardly any of them have made it big financially.

Unlike their brethren in other countries, Jews in India were a peaceful lot. They toed the line along with the secular culture of the country and were allowed to maintain their distinct identity and pursue their beliefs over centuries. But they assimilated some of the traditional social behaviors from the natives here. Prof. Nathan Katz, a Jewish scholar, notes: "The uniqueness of Kerala Jews is the manner in which they got Indianized. Though their religious observances are, for the most part, like those that prevail in Israel and the [United States], the location of the synagogues here at the end of the street is similar to that of temples at the end of a row of Brahmin houses."

Some Kerala Jews still remove their footwear when entering their synagogues, and even their houses have the front door and an inner door as in Brahmin houses, and an oil lamp built into the wall of their house. But now, the number game is forcing them into adjusting their religious affairs, too.

"These days we find it tough to form a minyan in the synagogue," says Blossom Hallegua, elder sister of Johnny and Sammy. "We just pray and leave," she says.

Even when sidelined into the fringes of history these days, the leaders of the community still cherish their valuable contributions to this country. They helped the spice trade flourish here. A majority of them bought vast tractable lands in which they grew coconuts, paddy and areca nuts. A prominent Jewish businessman, Shabdai Samuel Koder (of the S.S. Koder family), who thrived in the late 19th century, was the first to earn a state license to sell liquor. None of his businesses remain, except for a big general store in the downtown, which sells everything from safety pins to molasses. Two generations that followed Shabdai Koder were wiped away, and the last one of that family tree is Gladys Koder, an 86-year-old widow of S.S. Koder.

On rainy evenings, a partially deaf Gladys pulls her chair to the bedroom window of her two-story house and stares out. Framed by the old structure of a huge scarlet house, her sorrowful face, now pale and wrinkled, hints of a denouement: the end of the Jewish era in Kochi.

"Indeed, I feel terribly sad," Samuel Hallegua says. "Fifty years down, our synagogue might pass on to something like a trust and might flourish as a tourist spot. There’s nothing any of us can do to avert the end of the Jewish life here. Perhaps a day might come when someone here will start thinking that it all were a dream."