Lifestyle & Belief

Small Jewish community in India on verge of extinction

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Kadavumbhagam Synagogue in India is closed now, but at one point it was the spiritual home of a thriving Jewish community in India. (Photo by Kavita Pillay.)

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

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The well-organized store of owner Elias Josephai, better known as Babu, is a sanctuary from the sensory overload in the surrounding market. Most of Babu’s customers don't know the heavy teak doors at the back of the store opens 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.

“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.”

Ernakulam’s Kadavumbhagum Synagogue was 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 its grandeur is readily apparent.

A rainbow array of glass lamps hangs near the entrance; 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. An intricate red and gold Torah ark stands at one end of the room. Like most of the Jewish residents from this area, the Torah that once stood in the ark now lives in Israel.

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

“It happens, all over the world,” he said. “Five Jews with six views.”

In the 16th century, Jews from Europe and the Middle East 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 Jew. Each group sought to declare itself the first Jewish settlers in the region, to claim certain privileges from local rulers.

Today, while Kerala’s young Jews emigrate to Israel and the elderly stay behind, the two communities share a bind: 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. 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 considered a community.

“According to Jewish tradition, 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," Weil said. "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 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,” she said. “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.

“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," she said.

On this point, father and daughter concur.

“This is a holy land,” Babu said, 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 Hanukkah.