Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One more Cochini Jew Bids Adieu

Johnny Hallegua of Jew Town, Cochin, India died on October 25th at the age of 90. He was ailing for sometime after breaking a leg. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery near the ancient synagogue. The one to die before him was his relative Samuel Hallegua, two years back. Sam was the Warden of the Cochin Synagogue, and a scholar. Incidentally, he was a club mate of mine.

The Jewish contact with Kerala seems to have started much before Christ. Perhaps large scale Jewish settlements came into existence in Kerala State, India with the exodus during the siege of Jerusalem by the army of the Roman Emperor Titus. That was the First Jewish-Roman War. A painting of the siege by David Roberts (1796–1864) is reproduced below from the Wikipedia:

The year of the war was 70 CE. Thousands of people escaped from the battle devastated area. According to one estimate ten thousand of them migrated to Kerala, India - the Malabar Coast, as many historians call it. At that time there was no Cochin. That area, it is said, came into existence only in 1341 CE due to some geophysical phenomena in Arabian Sea. It started developing into a trading centre soon. Some historians claim that the Cochini Jews are of Sephardim origin from Holland and Spain.

The Jew Town in Cochin was built in 1567 on land granted to the community by the Raja of Cochin. A year later the famous Mattancherry or Cochin Synagogue was constructed. It is next to the Maharaja’s Palace and the Palace Temple. The clock tower (see photo) was added in 1760. 

There is a claim that a synagogue existed in a place called Kochangadi, Cochin in 1344. Perhaps it was on the inland and not at the location of the present synagogue. Kochangadi is a common locality name in Kerala. From ancient times there were synagogues in different regions of Malabar.  

During the Portuguese-Dutch War for control of the area, the building was damaged in 1662. Two years later repairs were done with the help of the Raja of Cochin and the Dutch who had driven off the Portuguese. It is believed to be one of the oldest synagogues outside Israel. This is its 444th anniversary.  
 The 4th centennial of the synagogue was a landmark in the history of Kerala. Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was the then Prime Minister of India came down to attend the ceremony. The Government of India also brought out a postage stamp (see photo) to commemorate the event.

The pictures of the synagogue and the stamp are by Ruth Johnson . They are reproduced with permission from her blog post Cochin Synagogue and Sarah Cohen ( Do have a look at it for more pictures of Cochin’s Jew Town and additional information on Cochini Jews.

In Cochini Jews – Dreams don’t die I had written that the Jewish era in Cochin is coming to an end. With Johonny Hallegua gone, there are just eight Jews left in Cochin – two men and six women. Most of them are seventy plus years old. There is not enough quorum of ten adults to conduct a miyan (a communal religious service of the Jews).

For those who remain, the dreams are confined to Cochin and visits of dear ones who are away.


Unknown said...

Hello Dear,

I am Amrita, looking for the key websites and blogs to associate with. I have
gone through your blog and found each of your posts really interesting. Your
blog catches the attention of the readers. I really believe that you are ardent
at developing content of a blog precisely. Since I found it completely flawless.

Consequently, I would admire you to write some posts for our blog as a guest
blogger. Here below is our blog

Thanks & Regards
Content Writer

Ebby said...

Hello again!

Makes me wonder. Most of the Jews went back despite the passage of many centuries. They didn't mingle with the local people biologically and thus managed to preserve their race.

Would the descendants of the expatriates from India even think of their roots after this long. Would they continue to maintain their identity or would they merge with their new surroundings.

How did the Jews manage to keep their identity for so long? Even while they were with the Egyptians they did the same. Quite amazing!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Amrita Kumari. Shall contact you on email


Really great blog. like it very much. All the very best. Kee the spirit up :)

Anonymous said...

Hi AT sir;
I guess there were two sects of Jews in Kochi.

The old (black) ones from the time of one Joseph Ramban (presumably at least 2000+ years old) and the new comers - 'pardesi' predominantly white Jews- group which Mr Hallegua and the Koders etc belonged.

There is a nice book called "Last Jews of Kerala" by one Edna Fernandez which I found interesting .

Unknown said...

JOHN ANDREAS, thank you very much. Your comment really boosts my morale.

Unknown said...

Ebby, interesting thoughts. Thanks. I think Jewish communities all over the world remain closely knit and maintain their separate identity. In Cochin, the White Jews who migrated only about 500 years or so back remained exclusive from the Black Jews who claim to have settled in Kerala during or before the time of King Solomon.

Those who went to Israel, at least the first batches of Black Jews had many complaints of discrimination and racism. I suppose the subsequent generations are probably better off. The elders still cherish India.

Sejal Mandalia quotes a Maharashtrian Jew in Israel, "Other Israeli Jews don't like their motherland because they were driven out but we weren't. We can never forget what India has done for us. India is still our motherland and Israel is our fatherland." The question is how long this feeling will last though there are efforts to bring together Jews of Indian origin on a common platform.

Please also see my reply to Kariyachan’s comment.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Kariyachan.

Actually there are three sections of Jews in Cochin – the Black Jews who were on the Malabar Coast perhaps from or before the time of King Solomon, the White or Pardesi Jews who arrived say 500 years back, and the Meshuhararim. The last mentioned were slaves of the Black Jews and White Jews. They were converted to Judaism and later released.
In the Cochin Synagogue (Pardesi) only White Jews have full membership. One could say that the Black Jews are kind of associate or secondary members who could pray there. I believe the third group had to pray standing outside the synagogue.

Incidentally, a person is a Jew only if he/she is delivered by a Jewess or converted according to the specified mode. But certain Jewish communities do not accept matrilineal descent.

Please also see my response to Ebby’s comment. Thanks for suggesting Edna Fernandez book. Shall try to get hold of a copy.