The twilight years

The twilight years

Community tale

The twilight years

Jews in Kerala have had a rich, unbroken history. Despite being a religious minority, they were able to exist among the natives, while holding on to the very distinct traits of their community. Sadly, their numbers are fast-dwindling.

It’s a lazy, slow-sale Friday afternoon on the Jew Street in Mattancherry. The Paradesi Synagogue down the street, the biggest tourist draw in this little town near Kochi, is closed post-noon on Fridays; salesmen at the souvenir shops on the street, many of them Kashmiris, stroll out for tea, and some catch up on town gossip, settling on parked motorbikes. There is more activity at the home of the town’s oldest Jew, Sarah Cohen, where foreign tourists drop in to meet her and enquire if there are enough Jews in the town to make a minyan (the group of 10 men required for a Jewish prayer service). The home has attached to it a shop selling, since 1950, hand-embroidered clothes, kippahs and ‘Jewish special items’. Sarah, 94, doesn’t hear the visitors; she looks out her window, detached and possibly tired, as Thaha Ibrahim, who runs the shop, tells them apologetically — “Not enough people.”

There are only five Paradesi (foreigner) Jews, to be precise, in the neighbourhood around the synagogue that was built in 1568 by the descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews. They belong to two families; Sarah is the last of the Cohens and there are four others — three women and a man — in the Hallegua family that lives on the same lane. Hussain, an old-timer from the town, says, “People are selling off their properties here. Most of them who’ve stayed back are now really aged, they rarely come out and mingle with other residents of the town. It’s not like how it was.”

The Paradesis’ history in Kerala is traced to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. Their arrival has been linked both to the fears of persecution and the prospects for trade on the coast of Malabar. Their numbers have come down steadily since the early 1950s that witnessed mass immigration of Jews from Kerala to Israel in the wake of its formation, in 1948.

In Ernakulam, the number of Malabari Jews, who, according to some accounts, arrived on the Malabar coast during the 10th Century BCE, is also dwindling. Other historical accounts mark their arrival in the villages of Cranganore (present-day Kodungallur, about 45 kilometres from Kochi) at around 70 CE when the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. Now, there are only about 25 of the Malabari Jews left in Ernakulam, some still intensely wistful of making the aliyah (the immigration to Israel).

The two groups, despite their shared religion and proximity (Mattancherry is located about 15 kilometres from Ernakulam town), haven’t mixed well. The voice of Josephai Elias, the most prominent among the Malabari Jews of Kochi, turns grim at the mention of the Mattancherry Jews — “They must have told you that only the white-skinned are the real Jews, haven’t they? The rest of us are second-rate for them.” Elias, known as Babu among friends, doesn’t want to engage you in what he calls “manipulated history”. The rancour is hard to miss, but the paradesis’ retreat to the tour-brochure margins of Mattancherry town is more striking against the good times that Ibrahim keeps recalling. Sarah doesn’t contribute much to this happy rewind — she sits there, right thumb pressed against forefinger (her knitting pose, offers Thaha’s wife Jasmine), her memory fading, speech muddled, but eyes flitting to traffic on the street.

Living in the past

Sarah’s home is a throwback to a time when the Paradesi Jews lived life with an all-heart spirit and a sense of fellowship. In photographs on the home’s walls, life in the town is bookmarked — she is a cheerful teenager in one, with members of her family on her wedding day in another; in one of them, she is also a middle-aged woman engaged in a round of cards with her friends. “She used to sing more often. Till about a year ago, she did her knitting; now, others work on her designs. Most of the embroidered work you see here was done by Sarah auntie,” says Ibrahim. Sely, a middle-aged woman, is at the shop working on the clothes even as she shares jokes on Sarah’s mood swings. She also helps the couple take care of Sarah. Ibrahim says he was taken into the Cohens’ home by Sarah’s late husband, Jacob E Cohen, about 30 years ago. He, along with friend Thoufeek Zakriya, has initiated research on the history of Malabari Jews; together, they also manage a blog on the community.

Ibrahim doesn’t seem mindful of the sub-text — two Muslims trying to explore the history of Jewish presence in an Indian state and preserve its imprints for posterity — and points excitedly to a young Sarah in the video of a 1937 wedding held at the Paradesi Synagogue that he plays on his laptop. The weddings and community events, with their elaborate rituals and renditions of Hebrew and Malayalam songs, point to the ethos of a people grounded to tradition. The Paradesi Jews, however, may have lived the synagogue-centric community life too long to have ensured a greater assimilation into the rapidly evolving socio-political milieu of Kerala. This aspect of their centuries-old presence in the region could be the one that separates them from the Malabari Jews, according to retired History professor and activist C Karmachandran. He explains how the Malabari Jews have, over the centuries, moved out of community pockets and blended with other groups around them and joined diverse professions — their assimilation has been fairly seamless, he says. “The Paradesi Jews have been strict practitioners of their religion, and have displayed a strong sense of community, but they’ve also been comfortably confined to a group. There seems to have been a resistance to open up, probably also because they perceived themselves as being watched by the others with a certain curiosity,” says Prof Karmachandran.

The rituals practised by Jews in Mattancherry, however, have been marked with strong local flavours. The tradition of wedding songs in Malayalam, carried over through generations, also reflects these influences. Of the eight Jewish synagogues — including the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue in Ernakulam managed by the Malabari Jews and others in Mala, Paravur and Chendamangalam — left as structures in Kerala, the Paradesi Synagogue is the only one that still hosts congregational prayer services. Even that, only when a minyan is available; otherwise, it’s a monument that tops the touristy charm of the Mattancherry-Fort Kochi region that also draws its heritage from its once-thriving spice trade. Prof Karmachandran points to the issues of history-pegged tourism initiatives when they come at the cost of preservation. He, along with a group of activists, has been struggling to conserve the remains of a Jewish cemetery on four acres of land — the largest for the community in India, according to members of the group — in Mala, in neighbouring Thrissur district. It’s a tough but essential vigil as real estate interests have already surfaced in the form of a football stadium that is set to come up on two-and-a- half acres of land, on the burial ground.

“When the last of the Jews in Mala left for Israel (in 1955), they left en masse. But they did enter an agreement with the local authorities, in an effort to ensure that the cemetery and the synagogue are conserved by the panchayat, even after they are gone. The agreement stipulated that excavation should not be allowed on the site, but these are inconsequential details for those who see the location solely as high-potential real estate,” says Prof Karmachandran. More than 2,000 members of the community have been buried here; now, the cemetery has only three tombstones, standing as evidence to a time when over 40 Jewish families lived in the village. Last year, windowpanes of the 1,000-year-old synagogue, located about 500 metres from the cemetery, were left broken. A status report on built heritage of Thrissur, compiled by the Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage in 2015, highlights “ongoing neglect” of the synagogue and says the panchayat’s failure in carrying out the annual maintenance of the synagogue is in violation of the 1955 agreement. For the group of activists who work as part of a heritage conservation council, the fight is getting tougher. They are now engaged in long-drawn legal battles on the issue even as they lead awareness campaigns to mobilise support to their calls for preserving these last remnants of Jewish presence in the region.

Conservation is key

The Kerala Government is working on what it calls the largest conservation project in the country — the Muziris Heritage Project — where history of the ancient port of Muziris is explored, from its rise as a key point in the maritime trade route to the floods of 1341 that knocked it off the map. These floods are believed to have led the Jews from Kodungallur to the Kochi region. Implemented between North Paravur in Ernakulam district and Kodungallur, the project is an attempt to revisit the region’s history through the presence of diverse ethnic groups and cultures. Shrines, markets, palaces, forts and cemeteries are set to be preserved as part of the project.

The Kerala Jews History Museum (housed in the 1615 Paravur Synagogue) and the Kerala Jews Lifestyle Museum (in the 17th century Chendamangalam Synagogue) will be preserved as part of the project.

Historians have argued that efforts to catalogue the past entirely in museums, sometimes, come with the certainty of closure; there is the argument that favours preserving it, instead, in live forms of art and culture. The apathy to demands for preserving Jewish structures in Mala also offers an interesting contrast with patronage the Jewish community enjoyed from the kings and local chieftains over many centuries. “Jews in Kerala have had a rich, unbroken history. What makes their presence here significant is that despite being a religious minority, they were protected in this land and were able to exist among us while holding on to the very distinct traits of their community. Their history here also reflects the pluralistic credentials of our society,” says Prof Karmachandran.

It’s interesting to note that Jew Town is hosting a collateral show titled Axis of Secret Histories. All this comes back as part of the ongoing third edition of the Kozhi-Muziris Biennale. The concept note for the show reads — “The project deals an open-ended inquiry into history and the prospect of imagining fresh possibilities”. In Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, cultures continue to meet on pretty waterfronts and in ‘hassle-free’ stores where tourists get souvenirs and sample packs of assorted spices. The spice trade has hit new lows over the past decade, with the market struggling to adopt prescribed quality standards and labour and transportation issues adding to the problems. Traders in Jew Town say the shift in interests has been gradual but palpable. The town’s market lanes still retain the smells and sounds of its past, but its face sports a calm, perhaps mirroring the signs of time for its best-known inhabitants — from thriving residents to an engaging back-story.

At Sarah’s home, Jewish tourists are still coming in to meet her, but she looks withdrawn. Ibrahim says Sarah never quite expressed a desire to move out and settle in the Holy Land — “She has lived her life here, speaking the language of this land and always surrounded by people. She’s not sure if she can have it like this anywhere else,” he says. There’s another request for a photograph and Sarah says in a drawl — “Enthinaa?” (“For what?”). It’s not really a question; she doesn’t sound like she’s asking.