By Samyuktha Nair
When one thinks of India’s religious diaspora, one is regaled with anecdotes of the various Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Jain communities settled all over the subcontinent. However, it is a little-known fact that India also has a significant Jewish population.
There are pockets of Jewish settlements in Cochin, Mumbai, and Kolkata, but the oldest existing settlement exists in Kerala. There are two Jewish communities in Kerala- known as the Paradesi or White Jews and the Black Jews– the former being the descendants of Jews who fled Europe during the Inquisition a few centuries ago and sailed east to Cranganore (now known as Kodungalloor) also called Shingly in the olden times, in Kerala, and the latter traces its origins to maritime trade with India during the rule of King Solomon.
What distinguishes the White Jews from the Black Jews is, as their names suggest, the colour of their skin. The Black Jews are known to have married local Keralites, and as a result, their offspring took on a distinctly Indian appearance, whereas the White Jews were careful to marry only their own kind, and as a result, their modern descendants, while having adapted to the local dress and culture, are still fair-skinned.
In Kerala, there has been a generations-old feud between the two Jewish communities, largely on account of the discrimination of the Black Jews by the White on the grounds of skin colour. The White Jews occupy the Mattancherry, Fort Cochin, and Jew Town areas of Cochin, whereas the Black Jews are settled across the murky waters in Ernakulam.
Till the 1940s, the Kerala Jews had a population that numbered in the thousands, but soon after the creation of the State of Israel that closely followed Indian Independence, several Kerala Jews- both Black and White- made aliyah, or the journey back to the homeland, which Jews all over the world had been dreaming of for the centuries following their displacement from Israel. As a result, the Jewish population in Kerala has dwindled to an astonishingly low number- 5, as of December 2017.
The oldest living member of the Cochini Jewish community is Sarah Cohen, 96. She’s a descendant of the Paradesi Jews, and runs a quaint little hand embroidery and souvenir shop out of her house (painted a cheerful green) in Jew Town, on Synagogue Lane. Her house is a relic of the aspirations of the Indian Jewish community- at the entrance is a board in Hebrew reading Shalom (peace), something integral to Jewish life, and her windows are patterned with the Star of David. Her walls hold various pictures of Israel, and she has hung up several handmade kippahs, the skull cap worn by Jews during prayer.
The Jewish community has two major heroes to boast of- the first being Joseph Rabban, a Black Jew who settled in Kerala centuries ago, and won the favour of the local Maharaja. As a result, he was able to secure several rights and privileges for the Kerala Jews, including the right to build synagogues and observe their festivals, the right to seats in the Maharaja’s court, and prime real estate in the area now known as Jew Town. Rabban himself was given the status of Prince of the Kerala Jews.
The second most prominent hero of this community was Abraham Barak (A.B.) Salem, a Black Jew often referred to as the ‘Jewish Gandhi,’ for both his role in India’s freedom struggle and his lifelong campaign to unify the Black and White Jews- a feat finally (and rather unexpectedly) achieved with the marriage of his son, Balfour, to a White Jew named Baby- a love story that’s still the stuff of Cochini Jewish legend, a story told with pride at every marriage and engagement.
The Kerala Jews are a little-known community that will soon become part of India’s history archives, but their legacy lives on in the brightly coloured lanes of Jew Town and Fort Kochi, the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town that has been standing since the 1500s, a sentinel reminder of the turbulent history of the Kerala Jews.
Image Credits: Google Images