April 6, 2022
 
 
Cochin's defunct Kadavumbhagum Synagogue symbolizes the decline of Jewry along India's Malabar Coast

 

by Gil Zohar

 

ERNAKULAM, India -The spicy human masala of south India's Kerala state (pop. 33-million), also referred to as the Malabar Coast, contains historic communities of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jains. But one flavor is missing here today - the centuries-old congregations of Jews, almost all of whom have emigrated to Israel.

 

Only 46 "black" Jews remain in Ernakulam today, and the Kadavumbhagum Synagogue located just off Jew Street ceased functioning in 1972. While the historic building's sexton Elias Josephai, 55, better known as Babu, rues that the handful of Jews don't get along and won't pray together, he did succeed this Hanukkah in getting the congregants to assemble recently to light the menorah.

But the synagogue property is not abandoned. Josephai utilizes the courtyard and former cheder (schoolroom) for his business Cochin Blossoms which sells houseplants and tropical fish. A tiny sign announces the synagogue from bustling Market Street. Most of Josephai's clients are unaware of the sanctuary that lies behind the heavy teak doors at the back of his
entrepôt.

 

Speaking in fluent Hebrew, Babu explains Jews have lived here on the Malabar Coast for three millennia from time when traders arrived here from King Solomon's Red Sea port Etzion Geber - about the same time the Hindu epic the Mahabharata was composed. Tolerance was challenged beginning in 1498 when Vasco da Gama crossed the Arabian Sea to begin colonizing the area for Portugal, and introduced the Portuguese Inquisition. Within five years of the establishment of Israel In 1948, all but 100 of Kerala’s 2,400 Malabari Jews had emigrated there. Babu himself stayed behind to preserve his community's legacy.


“My family wouldn’t allow me,” he said. “My grandmother said that there wouldn’t be anyone for Friday prayer services if I left. I was about to go to Israel but God kept me over here.”


Like Kerala itself, the Kadavumbhagum Synagogue reflects a variety of cultural influences. A rainbow array of glass lamps and Belgian chandeliers hang from the two-story ceiling which is decorated with scores of hand carved and painted wooden lotuses. The ten large windows are said to represent the Ten Commandments. An intricate red and gold Torah ark stands at west end of the room. The brass bimah was stolen in 1977.

 

Like most of the Jewish residents from this area, the Torah scroll that once was housed in the ark is now in Israel. Indeed the community’s Kadavumbagam Synagogue today is part of the permanent collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, along with historic shuls from Germany, Italy and Suriname. Many Malabari Jews live in Nevatim near Beersheva, Josephai says proudly.

 

While the black Jews here lived in harmony with their neighbors, the same cannot be said for their fellow Jews. In the 16th century, Sephardi Jews from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere arrived in what is now Kerala and were viewed as Paradesis, or "foreigners." A power struggle ensued between the lighter skinned Paradesi Jews and the darker skinned Malabari Jews - who may be descended from Indian servants of Jewish families who converted to Judaism. Each group sought to declare itself the original Jewish settlers in the region, to claim certain privileges from the maharajah of Cochin.

 

In caste conscious India, the two groups would not mix. While the caste system is now illegal in India, the racism lingers. For the last three and a half years Josephai has refused to pray at the Paradesi Synagogue across the busy harbor in Mattancherry near the former European canton of Fort Cochin. "It was too humiliating," he shrugs.

 

Like the Malabari Jews, the Paradesi Jews also moved en mass to Israel. While only nine remain in Kerala, their synagogue continues to function thanks to the Chabad House in Fort Kochi, as the neighborhood is today called. Since arriving in 2010, every Shabbat Chabad emissary Rabbi Zalman Bernstein and his wife Sheindi attract several dozen Israeli backpackers making their post-army trek across India. Chabad's rapidly expanding shelichut empire now includes 13 outposts across the Indian subcontinent from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka and the Andaman islands. Unlike Kochi, most have no permanent Jewish community.

 

Josephai plans to remain in Kerala. But he expects his daughter, 20-year-old Leya, to join her older sister Avital, 23, who has already moved to Israel and is studying at the Technion in Haifa. Leya has mixed feelings.


After 3,000 years have the Jews along the Malabar coast finally crashed their karma? Josephai cites the former synagogue in the town of Chennamangalam near Parur 35 km north of Kochi which is now a museum operated by the Indian Department of Antiquities. He plans to restore the Kadavumbhagum Synagogue, and hopes the 700-year-old building will be reincarnated as a memorial to the historic black Jewish community of Kerala.