NEWS FEATURE: Kochi Jews Persevere in India’s `Jew Town’ Despite Dwindling Numbers

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

KOCHI, India _ Hundreds of people pass barefoot through the wooden doors of the Paradesi Synagogue each day, but on many Friday nights there are not enough people to hold a service.

At a recent Sabbath service, Jews from Israel, Germany and the United States came to the ancient synagogue, tucked at the end of a narrow street lined with Judaica and Indian handicraft shops, to light candles and pray. Fewer than 10 of them were regular members of the congregation. The neighborhood is called Jew Town, home to an endangered species known as the Kochi Jews.

“I can see the community dwindling,” said Elias Josephai, 48. “People are leaving. It’s not surviving.”

Jews are considered the smallest minority in India, and the Kochi congregation _ the first to arrive _ is the closest to extinction. With each passing year it seems that fewer Kochi natives come to worship. Yet as time goes on, curiosity about what is left of the congregation grows. Paradesi Synagogue is an official world monument and draws droves of tourists of all faiths and nationalities to the white stucco building that stands next to a Maharajah temple. Inside, people must remove their shoes _ as is required in Hindu temples _ before stepping on the blue and white tile floor.

Many newcomers are surprised to see that Jews exist in a country known for being populated with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists. Some are foreign Jews looking for a dose of the familiar or a place to pray. What they find is a community clinging firmly to its heritage, yet fully aware that what is now a house of worship will soon be a full-time museum.

“There’s no marriage, no birth,” said Isaac Joshua, 84, president of the Association of Kerala Jews. “We’re shrinking.”

The Paradesi Synagogue _ built in 1568 after the Portuguese expelled the Jews from the city of Cranganore _ is India’s oldest synagogue and the only one still in use in the state of Kerala. The Kochi Jews were among the first to arrive in India about 2,000 years ago when they immigrated to Cranganore from the Middle East. Another group came after being expelled from Spain in 1492, giving the members of the community a mix of Arab and Caucasian features.

There were 2,000 Jews in Kochi and the surrounding city of Ernakulam in 1948, when Israel became a country and a lure to many of the world’s Jews. Most estimates count 5,000 Jews remaining in India, with the majority living in Mumbai. Only 52 are left in the Kochi area, and 14 live in Jew Town. The exodus weighs on those who have stayed.

On most nights not enough people show up at Paradesi for a minyan, the daily evening prayer service that requires 10 Jewish men. Friday nights usually bring crowds of 15 to 30 for the half-hour service, as people file into the synagogue at sundown and take seats on the benches surrounding the bimah, where the leaders of the congregation chant.

The Kochi Jews have no rabbi, so different people take turns leading prayers. Many of the prayers have a tune distinct to Kochi, according to Chaim Weissman, an American Jew from Cleveland who has lived in Kochi for two years and attends weekly services.

“In some ways they don’t seem to see themselves as part of the larger Jewish world,” said Weissman, who runs a school teaching English to Indian nurses who want to go abroad.

The Kochi Jews have appropriated slices of Indian culture while maintaining their connection to Jewish traditions. The removal of shoes in the temple, the gilded ark that houses the Torah, or Jewish Bible, and the communal sanctuary lit beneath colorful glass chandeliers all draw influence from the surrounding culture.

But Jews in Kochi consider themselves to be as Orthodox as anyone. They maintain mostly vegetarian diets because it is easiest to stay kosher that way. They make their own wine, because kosher wine cannot be bought in India; they do not allow people into the synagogue wearing shorts; and women must sit in a separate section in the back.

Despite the Indian tradition of working on Saturdays _ Judaism’s day of rest _ India has been welcoming to the Jews.

“A Jew is a free bird here,” said Joshua, who travels to Israel each year to visit most of his family. “He has every freedom of religion. We have never faced anti-Semitism here.”

That acceptance made staying in India appealing for many who did not want to move to Israel or elsewhere. Most Jews who live in India have merchant or noble caste status, and are well respected for having a sacred language and sacred foods, Weissman said.

“I was very comfortable in my life,” said Joshua, who owned a factory in Chennai. “I wasn’t in a hurry to go. As my business grew, I had responsibility.”

But for Joshua’s grandsons, staying in India makes it difficult to fulfill their responsibility to marry Jewish women and raise Jewish families. So, he said, they will likely leave.

“Most of us are over 60,” Joshua said.

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

While most in the community admit to worrying what will become of the congregation when everyone has died or moved away, outreach is not a priority.

“They all leave,” said Sarah Cohen, 75, who owns an embroidery shop and has a Muslim assistant. “If we want to have a minyan, we have to call people in from other places.”

The spiritual leader of the Paradesi Synagogue, Sammy Hallegua was too ill to be interviewed. His cousin Yosef, who typically blows the shofar on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, could not do it this year because his front teeth have fallen out.

Yet the congregation _ which has been described as doomed for years now _ continues to roll on. The synagogue is well maintained, thanks to proceeds from all of the tourists. Those who remain cannot imagine going elsewhere.

“My roots are here,” said Josephai, who owns a plant and flower nursery in Ernakulam. “This country fed me. Why would I leave this country?”

MO/PH END RNS

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