Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cochini Jews – Dreams don’t die

Last Sunday I happened to watch parts of the 2003 Malayalam movie ‘Gramophone’ by Director Kamal on TV. I had seen it, a good one, earlier. The story takes place in Jew Town, Cochin. Basically it involves two dreams.

One is the desire of the Jews to return to the Promised Land. The other is that of love which does not differentiate between Jews and Gentiles. The dreams remain, whether the characters achieve them or not.

The once flourishing Jew Town has only about a dozen Jews left today. The rest have migrated to Israel and to other parts of the world. The Diaspora of Kerala (Malabar) Jews is coming to an end after more than two thousand years.

It is not clear when the Jewish contact with Kerala began. Many nationalities had trade connections with the Malabar Coast even before Christ. It is said that the timber used for King Solomon’s Palace was from Kerala.

St. Thomas the Apostle journeyed to Kerala in 52 A.D. for spreading the Word among the sons of Israel who had settled there. That was before gentiles were accepted into what later became known as Christianity. According to certain sources a large community from Israel escaped to Kerala during the Sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. There were other migrations as well.
All through known history the Jews had a prominent position in Kerala. Unlike other parts of the world, the Malabar Jews were not persecuted. Rather the local king even granted them a principality. They blended well with the local milieu while maintaining their distinctive traditions, and spoke Malayalam fluently.

According to Wikipedia, Judeo-Malayalam songs of the Cochin Jews are made available on CD by Jewish Music Research Center at Hebrew University. There is also a distinctive Kerala Jewish cuisine. In 1968 the Government of India commemorated the 400th Anniversary of the Cochin Synagogue, one of the oldest outside Israel, with a postage stamp.

To conclude, I am taking the liberty of quoting below what Professor Daniel J. Elazar mentioned in the Foreword to The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India:

Another chapter in the history of the Jewish people is about to be closed, but this one, unlike so many others, has a happy ending -- the return to Zion and the reunification with other segments of the Jewish people in the established Jewish state. May the memory of Cochin Jewry remain a blessing for Jews the world over.”


Also see:

The Yad Vashem Controversy

Jewish names among Syrian Christians.

Syrian Christians (Nazranis) of Kerala: Some interesting customs


Maddy said...

A lovely movie that one, dileep and oduvil are good.

I am still wondering why the jewish community uprooted themselves in the 19th & 20th century and went to a more difficult though promised land, to live. It could not have been an identity crisis, and it would have resulted in an identity clash actually, from what i have heard !!

Anonymous said...

I know a few Jews from Kerala who are residents of Jerusalem and Haifa. They converse in Malyalam in markets, some cook Kerala dishes, but eventhough from time to time face some what uncomfortable times dealing with Ashkanazi and Sephardic fellow Jews, find life not very bearable if working under Jews from Soviet Union and America, the latter throwing their weight physically and metaphorically around. One said to me, at least it is our promised land, which I had to agree.

Unknown said...

Maddy, a very pertinent comment.

Prof. Daniel J. Elazar has to say this about the exodus of the Jews from Cochin:

"These Jews, like those of the contemporary West, were not persecuted. Rather, modernity, which destroyed of traditional society, everywhere it touched, destroyed theirs as well, making it impossible to maintain their old way of life in the diaspora."

Unknown said...

Guru, thanks for the informative comment.

Some time back a leading Malayalam newspaper had published an article about Kerala Jews in Israel. It was not a rosy picture.

Strangely Sephardim and Ashkenazim were closely in ontact with the Cochin Diaspora for centuries. The only way in which the Kerala Jews differed from the other Orthodox Jews was that they did not follow the Talmudic tradition of women not being allowed to sing in public.

As you indicated, the 'Promised Land' angle is something one cannot argue about.

Imagine, 60 years back India voted along with Britain against the creation of Israel.

prem prabhakar said...

Good to read this, Came here through a search on Cochini Jews its has proved serendipitions some very earnest writing here.

Unknown said...

prem prabhakar, thank you for the nice comment