A waning heritage: The Jewish influence in Kerala

The seven exquisite synagogues in Kerala - Paradesi and Kadavumbhagam in Mattanchery, Thekkumbhagam and Kadavumbhagam at Ernakulam Market, and the three at Paravur, Chendamangalam and Mala are gradual

Published: 14th February 2018 10:22 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th February 2018 09:10 AM   |  A+A-

A view of the renovated Kadavumbhagam Synagogue  Albin Mathew

Express News Service

KOCHI:  They are a miniscule and ancient community. They arrived in Kerala as traders around 10 centuries ago and have made rich contributions to our culture. The Jew Street at Broadway, the Ernakulam Market developed by them and the seven synagogues - all hold testimony to the Jewish influence in Kerala history. With the community migrating to Israel, their promised land, the heritage lie in tatters. 

Dwindling population and neglected synagogues reflect the predicament they face. After the formation of Israel in 1948, members of the community started migrating to their Holy Land and only a few, around 30 to be precise, remain in Kerala. The Jew Town at Mattancherry, which is famous for the Paradesi Synagogue, has got just five Jews - four women and one man and three of them are above 80 years of age.

“There are only less than 30 Jews here in Kochi. But we want our heritage to be protected. Recently, we decided to renovate the Thekkumbhagom Synagogue located at Broadway and begin prayer service. My family used to attend prayers at this synagogue. We have decided to celebrate Pesaha (Passover) in April this year and around 50 members of the Kerala Jewish community are expected to arrive from Israel to attend the celebration. We have a Rabbi (priest) called Aviv Mizrahi, who will conduct the prayers. My son Anil Abraham is making the arrangements for the group,” said Josephai Abraham, known as Sam, the president of the Association of Kerala Jews.

It is said the 16th century Torah Ark, Bima (pulpit) and other inside furnishings of the Thekkumbhagom synagogue were taken to Israel in 1970s and incorporated to the Moshav Nevatim’s Synagogue.

The seven exquisite synagogues in Kerala - Paradesi and Kadavumbhagam in Mattancherry, the Thekkumbhagom and Kadavumbhagam synagogues at Ernakulam Market, and the three at Paravur, Chendamangalam and Mala are gradually disintegrating due to neglect. The Association of Kerala Jews is striving to conserve the buildings and is planning to approach the Union Government seeking steps to protect them as heritage structures.  

“As every other Jew, I want to migrate to Israel, the Holy Land. It’s God’s will and we have to abide by it. But I want to ensure the synagogue is protected before I leave,” said Elias Josephai, the caretaker of Kadavumbhagam synagogue at Broadway. No sabbath was conducted at the synagogue after 1972 and Elias wanted to revive the prayers. According to halakha, the Jewish religious law, the sabbath is observed from the sunset on Friday evening till the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. “But there are only three people in Kochi who know to read the Torah. We conduct prayers only when some visitors come from Israel,” he said. There are no Rabbis and it is the male elders of the community who lead the prayers.

“It is a fact the Jewish diaspora is vanishing from Kerala society. But you cannot ignore our contributions to the state’s culture and development. When the Jews arrived here, Kochi was a marshy land and we developed it as a trade centre. We brought business here. Because of our efforts the city flourished and this fact should be recognised. The Ernakulam Market was under the control of the Jewish community till 1935 and we handed over the rights to the Kochi Municipality in 1935. The government should protect the synagogues as heritage structures. Though the Jewish cemetery near St Teresa’s College is a protected monument, its has turned into a dump yard. The cemetery at Mala is being razed and converted into a stadium. We may not live here for ever, but these structures are remnants of the past and they should remain,” said Elias.

Paradesi Synagogue

Queenie Hallegua, the oldest member of the Paradesi community in Mattancherry declined to comment on the demand of protection of synagogues. “I don’t want to draw the synagogues into a controversy. The members of the community will decide on protecting them,”  she said.Two years ago the 1,000-year-old synagogue at Mala was vandalised by miscreants.  It is said around 40 Jewish families lived in Mala till 1955. Once the community migrated to Israel, the property was handed over to Mala panchayat. Mala Paitruka Samrakshana Samithi has been striving to conserve the synagogue as a monument.

The Jews from Kochi had made a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Israel last year demanding steps to preserve their heritage including the seven synagogues in Kerala. The 8,000-strong community of Kochi Jews in Israel has been discussing steps to conserve their heritage in Kerala. The community has made representations to the Kerala government seeking steps to conserve the synagogues.

The sad state of affairs
Dwindling population and neglected synagogues reflect the predicament they face
After the formation of Israel in 1948, members of the community started migrating to their Holy Land and only a few, around 30 to be precise, remain in Kerala
The Jew Town at Mattanchery, which is famous for the Paradesi Synagogue, has got just five Jews - four women and one man and three of them are above 80 years of age

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