Jews of Cochin

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Jews of Cochin

LOCATION: India (state of Kerala)
POPULATION: FEWER THAN 5 (2008 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Malayalam; Hebrew for religious purposes


South Asia is home to several distinct communities of Jews. Some, such as the Baghdadi Jews, are relative latecomers, arriving in the late 18th century. They came mostly from Iraq, but also from Syria and Iran. They spoke Arabic and Persian, and reflected a continuation of Jewish interests in trade between the Middle East and South Asia. Baghdadi Jews settled mainly in the great port cities of the subcontinent. Two other Jewish communities, however, are of greater antiquity. The Bene Israel are descended from immigrants whose arrival is dated anywhere between 800 BC and AD 1300. They settled in the Konkan region around Bombay (Mumbai), spoke Marathi, and integrated with the local village populations. The other Jewish community of South Asia is found in Cochin in Kerala, on the Arabian coast of the Indian peninsula.

The Cochin Jews have differing traditions concerning the date of their arrival in India. One view suggests that Jewish merchants reached there during the reign of King Solomon (10th century BC) and took back ivory, monkeys, apes, and peacocks for his temple. Some Hebrew words for these objects appear to be derived from Sanskrit or Tamil. For example, the Hebrew for "ivory" is shenhabbim, or "elephant's tooth," a literal translation of the Sanskrit ibhadanta. Another account suggests the Cochin Jews were descendants of Jews taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC. The most likely theory, however, holds that the Jews reached the Malabar coast sometime in the 1st century AD, following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.

The earliest certain reference to the Cochin Jews is found on the famous "Jewish copperplates" that are now in the care of the Paradeshi synagogue in Cochin. The Jewish community traditionally assigns them to AD 379, although recent scholarship dates them to around AD 1000. Written in Tamil and inscribed on sheets of copper, they record various privileges granted by the local ruler to Joseph Rabban, leader of the Cochin Jews and "proprietor of the Anjuvannam." This last name is taken to identify a trading corporation or a Jewish guild. The copperplates gave Joseph Rabban and his heirs numerous rights, including exemption from certain taxes and the right to collect tolls from boats and other vehicles.

The Cochin Jews existed as a thriving community until the middle of the 20th century. Deteriorating economic conditions in India after 1947, however, combined with the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, led to the mass migration of Cochin Jews to Israel. In 1953–54, some 2,400 Cochin Jews—almost the entire population—left India, leaving only about 100 Jews behind. In Israel, Cochin Jews settled in several moshavim (agricultural settlements). Nevatim, Mesillat Zion, Ta'oz, Aviezer, and Kfar Yuval are still primarily Cochini in population. At first, adjustment to an agricultural life was difficult, but the Jews from Kerala soon prospered in Israel, Nevatim even constructing its synagogue in the Keralan style. But Cochinis, originally being part of the Sephardic diaspora, stated that they could more easily follow their religion in India than in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel. This view was also expressed by Jews who remained behind in India, even though dwindling numbers have precluded them from holding daily prayers and more recently, most Shabbat services, in the synagogue. Although exact numbers are not available, it is estimated some 4,000 Cochinim live in Israel today. Cochini neighborhoods are found in Rishon LeZion, Ashdod, Beer-sheeba, and Jerusalem, and in some of these neighborhoods there are synagogues in which the traditional Cochin liturgy is followed. Cochin Jews in Israel get together to celebrate Simhat Torah and other holidays that are Cochini in character. Some feel that even though the Jewish community in Cochin is disappearing, the Cochini community is thriving in Israel.

In Kerala, the 2001 Census estimated around 8,000 Jews in the population, but this included "Black" and "Brown" Jews, as well as "White" Jews. The ancient Jewish community of Cochin, the "White" Jews, has all but died out today, with at most five members of the community left.


In 1948, there were about 2,500 members of the Jewish community of Cochin. They lived mainly in coastal towns, such as Ernakulam, Mallah, Mattancheri, and Parur. Jews in the city of Cochin, the so-called "White Jews," lived in an area called "Jew Town." By the early 1990s, the population had fallen to 22 people, and today, Jews have all but disappeared from Cochin (Kochi).

The Cochin Jews are traditionally divided into two castes. The "White" Jews (also called Paradeshi or "foreign" Jews) are descendants of immigrants who arrived from the Middle East and Europe from the 16th century on. The "Black" Jews, or Malabar Jews, are converts from the local population, or the offspring of marriages between the Jews and the local people ("Brown" Jews). Ironically, virtually all of the Black Jews emigrated to Israel, where their numbers are increasing. They continue to preserve the traditional religious customs they took with them from Cochin. The few White Jews who remained in India are rapidly disappearing as a community.

Cochin Jews live on the Malabar coast, the lush, fertile, tropical lowlands that lie along the shores of the Arabian Sea in India's southern state of Kerala. The coastal plains are well watered, with inland lagoons, backwaters, and canals forming a network of waterways that crisscross the area. Inland, the Western Ghats form a barrier to eastward movement, so Malabar has always looked west to the sea. The monsoon wind patterns across the Arabian Sea were "discovered" by the Greek Hippalus in the 2nd century BC, but must have been known to experienced navigators in the region long before this. Ships could sail from Africa to India on the southwest monsoon and return on the northeast monsoon. Known in ancient times for its spices (cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and especially pepper), sandalwood, and teak, the Malabar coast has long attracted merchants and traders seeking to share in the country's riches. Arab, Greek, Roman, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British are among the many peoples who have trod the shores of Malabar. The Jews of Cochin are one of these communities that stayed and made India its home.


The Cochin Jews speak Malayalam, the Dravidian language that is the native tongue of the peoples of Kerala. Hebrew is used for religious purposes.


A series of 10 paintings were commissioned for the celebrations in 1968 of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Cochin synagogue. In essence, they are a record of the myths, legends, and history of the Jews of Cochin. The first painting shows a bazaar filled with spices and ivory, a trading port of the ancient world. It is the Jews' ancestral home in Kerala, known to them as Shingly and actually the modern port of Cranganur. It establishes a link between the Jews of India and the splendor of King Solomon's Palestine. The next 3 paintings capture the birth of the Cochin Jewish community—Herod's Temple ablaze in AD 70, a ship full of Biblical-looking Jews about to land at Shingly, and the Raja of Cranganur waiting to greet them. The fifth painting shows Joseph Rabban receiving the "Jewish copperplates" from the Maharaja of Cochin.

The sixth painting addresses internal strife in the Jewish community. According to tradition, two of the original silver trumpets used in the Second Temple at Jerusalem had been brought to Shingly. They were blown by Levites on the eve of the Sabbath. On one occasion the Levites were late, and non-Levites blew the trumpets. In the ensuing quarrel the trumpets were destroyed. This may well be an allegory for the loss of Shingly as a result of internal conflict among the Jews and the move of some of the Jewish community to Cochin. The remaining paintings show the building of the Cochin synagogue, the sack of Shingly by the Portuguese in 1524, and various audiences between the Jews and the Cochin Maharajas.


The religious beliefs of the Jews of Cochin conform in every way with the norms of the Jewish faith as set out in the Halakha or Jewish Legal Code. They accept the concept of one true deity, Yahweh, whose will is revealed in the Torah, and who exists in a special relationship with his "chosen people." They observe the Sabbath, worship in synagogues, and observe the Jewish dietary codes. The community maintained its Jewish identity through frequent contact with the main centers of Judaism over the centuries. However, the Cochin Jews adopted certain features of local society that make them as much Indian as Jewish. At least one of these traits, the acceptance of a caste structure, violates and even defies the standards of the Halakha.

The life of the Cochin Jews centers around their synagogues. Each synagogue—known in Malayalam as Juta-palli, "gathering-place for Jewish worship"—has three functions. It is a legal body that owns common property; it is the place where the Beit Din, the religious authority in matters of marriage, inheritance, etc., is convened; and it is a place of worship. The Cochin Jews have no rabbis; each synagogue is run by the elders of the community. Each community has its cantor, scribe, Hebrew teacher, and ritual slaughterer.


The Cochin Jews observe all the festivals of the Jewish calendar, from Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) to Tisha be-Av (the Fast of Av). However, in Cochin there are festivals that are found only in India, or that are celebrated in a manner unique to the country. Simchat Kohen, for example, is a little-known Sephardic holiday that may be kept only in India. It is explained as a celebratory feast of the priests (kohanim) at the time of the Temple after their arduous ritual activities of Kippur. It is the custom of the Cochin kohanim to host a party for their friends on the day after Kippur. In days past, when the Jewish community was at full strength, Simchat Torah, a non-Biblical celebration of the end of the yearly cycle of Torah reading and the beginning of the new cycle, was celebrated with great style. Perhaps one of the most distinctive Jewish celebrations in Cochin, Simchat Torah was observed by one Sassoon Hallegua in a unique way. People recall he mixed up a "milk punch," which, of course, was not milk at all but arrack and a mixture of other spirits. Then, early in the morning of the day of Simchat Torah, he would visit his friends on Synagogue Lane, insisting they partake of the "punch."

For the Cochin Jews, Passover or Pesah has the usual Jewish meaning, i.e., the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt. Jews in Cochin would also incur great expense at this time in the annual repainting or whitewashing of their homes, the stripping and repolishing of their furniture and draining and scrubbing of their wells and water tanks. However, Pesah also has meaning in the context of the community's integration into broader Indian society. Passover practices throughout the Jewish world involve avoiding leaven (any substance such as yeast that causes dough to rise). But Cochin customs concerning food taboos and ritual concerns for purity at this time go far beyond normal Jewish practices. This has been interpreted as a Jewish co-option of Indian concerns for caste status. By displaying the same restrictive dietary practices as high-caste Hindus, the Cochin Jews periodically reassert their high-caste status in the local community.


Birth rituals of the Jews of Cochin are the same as for any Jewish community. A male undergoes circumcision and passes through the usual stages in the life of a young Jewish boy. His education begins at the age of 3. His first public reading takes place at the age of 5 or 6, unlike in most Jewish communities where this occurs at the boy's bar mitzvah around 13 years of age. This provides another example of the role of South Indian belief and custom in the life of the Cochin Jews. In Hindu thought, 5 years is a complete cycle and by this age a child is seen to have passed infancy and the dangers associated with it. The bar mitzvah (known in Cochin as the bar minyan) and ordination as a lay cantor complete the rituals of childhood.

Burial practices among the Cochin Jews closely follow those of the Middle Eastern Sephardic community. The body is washed and dressed in fine clothes, and lit candles are placed around it. Members of the family gather for the funeral, which takes place within a few hours. After a second washing, bits of earth from Jerusalem and Cranganur (Shingly) are placed in the eyes and mouth of the corpse. The body is then dressed in a white linen shroud, sprinkled with rose water, and placed in a wooden coffin. The coffin is carried to the cemetery, to the accompaniment of dirges and Psalm 91. Following the burial, the family begins a seven-day period of mourning called sheva.


Cochin Jews use typical Jewish greetings (e.g., "Shalom") among themselves, and Malayalam forms in their dealings with others.


Cochin Jews are urban-dwellers, often residing together in a particular neighborhood near their synagogue. In Cochin's Jew Town, the Paradeshi synagogue lies at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac known as Synagogue Lane. The street is lined with large, Dutch-style colonial homes, a throwback to medieval times. At one time, higher-class White Jews lived at the end of the street closest to the synagogue, while the socially inferior Malabar or Black Jews had their homes at the other end. Today, most of these building are no longer occupied by Jews but are used as warehouses or for other purposes.


The system of local observances (minhag) of the Cochin Jews contains many borrowings from their Hindu neighbors. Like most of the other non-Hindu communities that have survived for any length of time in India, the Cochin Jews evolved a social structure that mirrors the caste system of Hinduism. The White Jews and Black Jews function very much like castes—they do not enter each other's synagogues, they do not inter-dine, and they do not intermarry. Even the subgroups that exist within the White and Black Jews, the meyuschasim (the "privileged") and non-meyuschasim ("non-privileged") do not intermarry. There are separate cemeteries for White and Black Jews.

Marriage is perhaps the most important social occasion for the Cochin Jews. In the past, marriages were arranged, with the typical South Indian pattern of cross-cousin marriage being favored. The actual marriage ceremony follows the Jewish rite, but the celebrations accompanying marriage show a definite Hindu influence. This ranges from the lavish scale of the event (in the past, it often involved the entire Jewish community and lasted as long as 15 days) to the singing of traditional Malayalam wedding songs by women. The Jewish tradition of smashing a glass is conspicuous by its absence, the bridal couple having ashes smeared on their forehead instead. Th is is interpreted as a sign of mourning for the Temple, but it also mirrors the Hindu custom of wearing sacred ash on the forehead. The Cochin wedding, an occasion for much joy, revelry, singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking, continues for a week.


Everyday dress for both men and women is the mundu, a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and reaching to the ankles. Men put on a shirt with this, while women wear a blouse or jacket. For festive occasions, women wear colorful and elaborately embroidered mundus, often of silk and worked with silver or gold thread. In the synagogue, men wear prayer shawls and skullcaps (yarmulkas) known in Cochin as kippa. Western-style dress is commonly worn by men, and women may adopt the Indian sari for formal occasions.


Cochin Jews observe the normal Jewish dietary taboos, avoiding pork and eating kosher foods. Otherwise, they are nonvegetarian, eating meat, poultry, and fish (to ensure such food is kosher, however, it is eaten only in the home or at community gatherings). The food is prepared in curries and eaten with seasonal vegetables and dishes such as yellow rice and biryani (rice mixed with meat or vegetables). Fish, a symbol of fertility, is often served at wedding banquets. Sweet dishes and fruits such as pineapples, bananas, guavas, melons, and pomegranates complete the meal. Cutlery and napkins may be placed on the table before a meal, but they are removed before the meal starts. The diners eat with their hands, as is the local custom. Arrack (a local liquor), beer, rum, brandy, and whiskey are popular drinks, especially on festive occasions.

There are many special foods prepared for ritual occasions. Specialties at Rosh Hashanah, for example, include rich "wedding cakes" and baked goods made from semolina. Massa (matzoh) is prepared at Passover. Pastels, a pastry filled with chicken or egg, are a special Sabbath treat. Eggs, a symbol of rebirth, are eaten at the feast celebrating the rite of circumcision, as well as during the period of mourning following a death.


Education was always part of the Jewish tradition in Kerala. Girls as well as boys were registered in Jewish schools in Cochin as early as 1821, and most leaned English as a second language.

Children become proficient in Hebrew at an early age, taught by a Hebrew teacher supported by the community. In general, Cochin Jews are open to secular education and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. Literacy among the community is high, and in modern times many individuals have obtained university degrees or professional qualifications.


The heritage of Cochin Jews reflects a unique blend of Jewish tradition and Indian culture. The community's memories and legends, tales of antique origins, and symbolic identification with the ancient Jewish homeland are combined with customs that clearly assign the Jews the status of a high caste in Keralan society. This is exemplified by the theme of royalty that underlies the Jew Town wedding observances, a theme that is borrowed from the Hindus. Certain unique Hebrew prayers and hymns, known as "Shingly tunes," hark back to the community's early home and perhaps even to Mesopotamia. At the same time, folk songs are sung in Malayalam at weddings and other festive occasions. It is in large part their adaptation to local society that has allowed the Cochin Jews to maintain their identity for almost 2,000 years. It is also the longstanding memory of the community's origins that has led to their emigration to Israel.

Some community elders privately hold the view that the "curse" of Jew Town is responsible for the exodus of Jews from Cochin. After all, they argue, with no experience of ill-will or persecution in India, what else can explain the Jews' departure from the land they loved?

Cochin Jews adopted many Hindu practices, yet scrupulously ensured that their religious patterns did not violate any Jewish legal or ethical principles. In doing so, they did what Jews around the world have done—adapted to their cultural milieu while maintaining a distinct identity. Some of their customs, such as dietary codes, the existence of a sacred language, concern for family purity and the avoidance of menstruating women, are found in both the Hindu and Jewish tradition, but some customs have clearly been borrowed from the Nambudiris, Kerala's Brahman caste. Jew Town mimics the various "Brahman Towns" found in Kerala, with houses aligned in a particular way and the houses interconnected on the second story. Jews, like the Nambuduris, placed great emphasis on purity of descent, the corporate identity of the community and the importance of networks.


Many Cochin Jews engage in trade, keeping small shops in front of their houses and selling foodstuffs, dry goods, and other wares. Some work as artisans—carpenters, masons, and the like. A few have become successful and prosperous merchants. During the early decades of the 20th century, for example, the Koder family emerged as the owners of a leading business house, providing employment for a considerable number of Cochin Jews. They also were one of the leading families in the Jewish community.


A unique custom of Tisha be-Av is a board game for men, played with colored cowry shells. Known as "the royal game of Ur," it is believed to date to the Babylonian captivity.


The social life of the Cochin Jews centers on their synagogues and on the celebrations accompanying religious festivals and life-cycle events.


There are no arts, crafts, or hobbies found specifically among the Cochin Jews.


The Cochin Jews, like other foreign communities in Kerala, were received cordially by the local rajas. They enjoyed royal patronage and lived as a high-caste community among the local people. There is no record of anti-Semitism in their relations with their Hindu neighbors. However, internal differences between White and Black Jews often led to discord and bitter disputes within the community. Though never very numerous, the Cochin Jewish community has existed in India for nearly 2,000 years. Mass emigration to Israel, however, has reduced the numbers of the "White" Jews to a handful of elderly people. It is doubtful that the community will survive long into the 21st century.


The major problem with the White Jew community of Cochin is one of numbers rather than of gender. The community has sunk below the population level that makes it viable. In the recent past, an issue for females has clearly been finding suitable husbands within the community with the result that women have been marrying local Indian males and leaving the Jewish community for others. The remaining few (less than five) people are quite elderly and are mainly women, so one suspects that the White Jews, despite their long and storied history in Kerala, will be extinct within the next few years. Jew Town and the Jewish synagogue in Cochin will become just another tourist attraction.


Blady, Ken. Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 2000.

Katz, Nathan. Kashrut, Caste, and Kabbalah: The Religious Life of the Jews of Cochin. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2005.

———, ed. Studies of Indian Jewish Identity. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2004.

Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg. The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Segal, J. B. A History of the Jews of Cochin. London: Valentine Mitchell, 1993.

Timberg, Thomas A., ed. Jews in India. New York: Advent Books, 1986.

—by D. O. Lodrick

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Jews of Cochin

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