Arts, Culture & Media

A Vanishing Jewish Community in the Indian State of Kerala

If you're in the Ernakulam Market and you're looking for tropical houseplants, pet fish and a defunct synagogue, Cochin Blossoms offers a one-stop shop.

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Owner Elias Josephai is better known around here as Babu, and his well-organized store is a sanctuary from the sensory overload of the surrounding market. But little do most of Babu's customers know that the heavy teak doors at the back of the store open into a different kind of sanctuary: the Kadavumbhagum Synagogue.

Babu is one of about 30 remaining members of the Malabari Jewish community. They've lived here, on the Malabar Coast in the south Indian state of Kerala, for generations. In 1948, the State of Israel was established, and within five years, all but 100 of Kerala's 2,400 Malabari Jews had emigrated there. Babu himself tried to go. But there were other reasons to stay in Kerala.

"My family wouldn't allow me," says Babu. "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."

Ernakulam's Kadavumbhagum Synagogue was likely built in the 16th or 17th century. It's been closed since 1972 because there haven't been enough congregants to keep it operating. But the synagogue's earlier grandeur is readily apparent.

A rainbow array of glass lamps hangs near the entrance, and overhead, scores of hand carved and painted wooden lotuses decorate the two-story ceiling. The ten large windows are said to represent the Ten Commandments. And an intricate red and gold Torah ark stands at one end of the room. But like most of the Jewish residents of this area, the Torah that once stood in the ark now resides in Israel.

For centuries, Kerala's Jewish minority lived in harmony among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Ironically — but perhaps not surprisingly, says Babu — the real conflict was with another group of Jews.

"It happens, all over the world," says Babu. "Five Jews with six views."

In the 16th century, Jews from Europe and the Middle East arrived in what is now Kerala and came to be known as Paradesis, a word that means "foreigner" in several Indian languages. A power struggle soon ensued between the lighter skinned Paradesi Jews and the darker skinned Malabari Jews as each group sought to establish itself as the first Jewish settlers in the region in order to claim certain privileges from local rulers.

Today, as Kerala's young Jews emigrate to Israel and the elderly stay behind, these two communities now share a new commonality: both may soon be part of Kerala's history.

In addition to the 30 Malabari Jews left in Kerala, there are only nine Paradesi Jews, making the Paradesi the smallest Jewish community in the world. According to Shalva Weil, a professor of anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a leading authority on the Jews of India, this makes the Paradesi the smallest Jewish community in the world. In fact, as Weil points out, there are actually too few Paradesis to even be called a community.

"According to Jewish tradition," says Weil, "you have to have 10 men to be part of the minyan, which is a quorum, so there are not 10 Jewish men living there. And even if you add one or two Malabari Jews who might come occasionally, you still haven't got ten men. Therefore, it's really the end of a community from the point of view of the Jews."

Babu plans to live out his days in Kerala. But he expects his younger daughter, 20-year-old Leya, to join her older sister, who has already moved to Israel. Leya, has mixed feelings.

"When I touched the Wailing Wall, it was, like, a totally different experience," says Leya. "I felt proud to be a Jew. I cried, I had tears in my eyes."

"If I leave India, I'll surely miss my friends and the culture here," she adds. "The culture here is different, no wall between Hindu, Muslims or Christians. There, you can see Muslims walking on one side and Jews walking on other side. Yeah, I will surely miss India."

On this point, father and daughter concur.

"This is a holy land," says Babu, offering a variation on a term traditionally reserved for Israel. "India is a holy land because of acceptance toward all the religions. This is my motherland, and I call Israel as a fatherland. But for the Jews, there is no life over here."

This week, for the first time since the synagogue closed in 1972, the remaining Malabari Jews of Kerala will open the doors of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue and light the menorah for Hanukah. For a dwindling community with an uncertain future, it's also a chance to recall a moment in which abundance arose out of scarcity.