Cochin: Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Jew Town in Kerala’s coastal city of Cochin. A large chunk of them is foreign tourists including Jews from Israel, USA and several European countries.
What is so special about Jew Town? A few decades back, there were hundreds of Jews living in the locality full of narrow streets; now there are just seven left.
Six of them are very old – Sarah Cohen is 93 while Reema Saleem 83. Others four are between 70 and 80.
Yaheh Hallegua in her early 40s is the youngest. She is in charge of issuing Rs.5 entry tickets to Pardesi Synagogue, a heritage site and the main attraction for tourists in Jew Town.
The 445-year-old synagogue still serves as a place of worship on the holidays, if the community manages to cobble
together enough people to pray.
“The locality was bustling with life when I was a young girl and even after my marriage. Now it is difficult to believe that there were thousands of Jews here till the 1950s,” Yaheh, who is fluent in Malayalam like the other six said.
The Hindu news paper reported in 2003, that only 14 million Jews were left in the world and they were declining an average of 150 every day. In India, their population was estimated at 6000 at that time. Although Jews have unwelcomed in most of the countries and confronted with hostility everywhere they have settled, in India, they could live without fear of persecution because of the Indian tradition of Catholicism and assimilation.
According to a legend, Jews arrived in India as the traders of Israeli king Solomon between 1020 B.C. and 973 B.C. Another legend says they arrived India in 772 BCE, at the time of the Assyrian exile, Babylon defeating Judea in 568 BCE.
Although historians did not find any reliable evidence on the period of their arrival majority of them, however, agree that they arrived in India during the Middle Ages.
According to Israel Science and Technology, the people of Israel were called the “Jewish People” and they have traced their origin to Abraham, who established the belief that there is only one God, the creator of the universe.
She said they are trying to ensure that the synagogue continues to be functional in view of few Jews left here.
Sarah said the Jew population declined over the years as most of them migrated to Israel and other places.
As most have left, the remaining members of the community have adopted local food habits – chapatti (Indian flat bread) instead of the braided challah bread of the European Jews.
They have given up eating beef to respect the sentiments of neighbouring Hindus.
Pardesi Synagogue is situated at the end of the Synagogue Lane has over 100 shops, mostly selling antiques and arts and crafts.
Local residents say earlier there were as many as 11 synagogues in the area. Now only Pardesi (meaning ‘foreigner’ in Malayalam and Hindi).
The synagogue is functional and open to visitors on all working days except Friday, Saturday and Jewish holidays.
K J Joy, a Hindu caretaker of Pardesi Synagogue for over 25 years tells every visitor with pride that the blue-and-white tiled floors of the synagogue) were imported from China and specially designed colourful candle lamps from Belgium.
Joy said research scholars and travellers from all over the world still visit synagogues with lots of questions and hunger to know and understand more about the community that is dying fast.
He prohibits visitors from clicking photographs inside the synagogue. “As a matter of respect like in temple and mosque, we instruct visitors to take off their shoes before entering the main prayer room of the synagogue,” Joy said.
Joy, however, is worried that the synagogue might become history with the remaining seven Jews gone.
“The synagogue is functioning because they are still around. After them, it will be a monument,” he said,
adding that Hebrew culture is missing in Jew Town as those living are old and mostly confine themselves to their old houses.
The seven remaining Jews are also indifferent to the constant stream of foreigners, including fellow Jews from around the world and feel as if they are part of a museum.
( All pictures by Mohd Imran Khan)