Colors and Cultures Happily Married in India

World

By Edna Fernandes

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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Three weeks after Mumbai’s terror attacks, one of the most abiding images is of the golden-haired toddler orphaned by the siege at the local Jewish center. His plight haunted me. I have a son almost exactly the same age. During the early months of my pregnancy with him, I was in India researching a book on the country’s Jews, particularly those in the oldest community in Kerala, which lies south of Mumbai. As I watched the horror unfold, it struck me that this preplanned attack on Jews in Mumbai had ended millennia of peaceful co-existence for an Indian Jewish community that numbers just 5,000.

Most are members of Mumbai’s Bene Israel Jews. The Baghdadi Jews, once centered in Kolkata (the capital of West Bengal), have pretty much died out. But the oldest group of all is the Cochini Jews of Kerala, who date to the time of Solomon, according to their oral history.

There was a time when the Cochini Jews, too, numbered in the thousands, owned vast estates and plantations across the state, and had eight synagogues. Today, fewer than 50 Cochini Jews remain; only one synagogue is in use, and the remainder are crumbling into dust, nests to serpents and vermin.

Until that November day in Mumbai, India’s Jewry had never been persecuted or made to feel endangered by their fellow Indians. According to the Indian government, the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the Mumbai attacks. But Indian security experts are sure the group had some help from sympathizers within India itself. So, these attacks signal a shameful first.

But we would do well to remember that India remains one of the few adopted homelands where Jews were welcomed on arrival. They have happily co-existed alongside Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, without fear for their safety.

Indeed, Jews in Kerala were once feted as foreign royalty and accorded special privileges that were usually the preserve of the Hindu rajas. Theirs was an illustrious history for many centuries. The only time the Indian Jews suffered persecution was at the hands of outsiders: the Portuguese and their Arab trader allies in the 16th century and onward.

Cochin has long been a crossroads for trading empires: the Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and British all came to South India, which was seen as a land of white pearls and black gold, as pepper was known. During the reign of King Solomon, ships arrived from Israel on the bounteous Malabar coastline, seeking luxuries with which to furnish his royal court. According to the Bible, Solomon’s ships brought “once every three years, silver, elephant’s tooth, peacocks and apes.”

Trade flourished, and after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and then the fall of Jerusalem and razing of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., waves of Jewish refugees arrived to settle on the South Indian coast. For them, it was never meant to be more than an interim homeland. They ended up staying 2,000 years and became part of India’s mosaic of religion and culture.

The first major Jewish settlement was in Muziris, also known as Shingly or Cranganore, and it became a place imbued with religious significance, a second Jerusalem in the Jews’ spiritual landscape.

When the port city of Cranganore was flooded in 1341, the Jews slowly began to migrate to Cochin, where they remain to this day. The founding father of the Cochini Jewry was a man named Joseph Rabban, also known as “The King of Shingly.” The Jews’ oral history says that when Rabban first arrived in India, he was greeted by the Hindu raja as foreign royalty. The raja received the Jews on the shores, bedecked in his most lavish finery, with a full entourage.

The Jews proved useful allies to the Hindu royal dynasty of Kerala and swore fealty to the crown in times of war. Cochini tradition says that in 379 C.E., the Hindu raja rewarded the Jews by giving them a set of copper plates engraved with a royal decree that effectively gave them their own autonomous kingdom and special “royal privileges,” such as the right to ride an elephant, be carried upon a palanquin and be shielded by parasols. Historians date the plates to a later period of 1,000 C.E.

The copper plates with the decree were known as the Cochini Jews’ Magna Carta, and in the centuries that followed, with the arrival of the Portuguese, the Hindu raja of Kerala would offer the Jews of Kerala protection from persecution. This close bond continued right up to the time of Indian Independence, in 1947.

So, given this illustrious past, what was the undoing of India’s oldest community of Jews? It was not persecution, war or pestilence, but a division within that brought them to the brink of demise. A color division arose, separating the older line of darker-skinned Malabari Jews from the fairer-skinned Paradesi Jews who mostly hailed from Europe, fleeing the Inquisition in the 16th century. This so-called “Jewish apartheid” meant that the black and white Jews of Kerala did not intermarry and that they endured four centuries of division and rancor.

It took a black Jew called A.B. Salem to break the divide, and by the time of Israel’s creation in 1948, the two sides had come together. But this happened too late. By then, many in the community in Kerala, as well as in Mumbai and Kolkata, had left for Israel.

When I last visited Cochin’s Jews in 2006, they seemed a community that was waiting for the end. There were just 12 white Jews left, mostly in their old age, and fewer than 30 black Jews. The community had not seen a wedding for decades. There were no newlyweds, no chubby babies to elevate the elders from the mire of the past. It was a community of no weddings, only funerals, and everyone spoke of the end.

My thoughts were very much with them in the days after the Mumbai attack. Despite their difficult and tumultuous history — from past glories to imminent extinction — today the Jews of Cochin still have something important to bequeath: a message of hope.

In Cochin there is a village where a synagogue, mosque, church and Hindu temple all reside within a quarter-mile radius. The village of Chennamangalam has become symbolic of a society where people of different religious beliefs can coexist happily without compromising their identity. It is a place where the Jew and Muslim have lived as friends for centuries. It is a source of great pride to Keralites.

This is one message of hope. I recently received another: I heard the news that after decades, there is finally to be a wedding for the Jews of Kerala. A young Cochini black Jew is to marry a Jewess from Mumbai’s Bene Israel. Already, there is talk of the chance of a new baby, a new beginning for this dying community.

After much sorrow, there is reason to celebrate.

Edna Fernandes (ednafernandes.com) is the author of “The Last Jews of Kerala” and “Holy Warriors: A Journey Into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism.”


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