Still Standing – the Last Jews of Jew Town

The Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town, Fort Kochi, Kerala.  Credit: Alyssa Pinsker

The Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town, Fort Kochi, Kerala. Credit: Alyssa Pinsker

Xandari Harbour, going beyond a hotel, doubles as a gateway to history. Located between the tourist paradise of Fort Kochi and the heritage rich bylanes of the spice markets of Mattanchery, it sees people and time come and go. Among the tales we hold precious is the heartwarming lifestory of the Jews of Jew Town. A handful left, behind doors and windows they sit – reminders of a people who found warm refuge in an alien land. Reminders of a page of a history turning to close.

In a small neighbourhood in the South Indian city of Cochin, Kashmiri shopkeepers in Islamic dress stand in front of shops emblazoned with banners reading “Shalom!” Inside, Hindu statues and shawls vie for space with Jewish stars, menorahs and mezuzahs. Although this multiculturalism might seem strange, the majority-Hindu city is well known for its substantial Muslim and Christian populations. Less known is that there’s also a fast-dwindling native Jewish community, known as the Paradesi (Foreign) Jews, who once populated the neighbourhood of Jew Town.

Alyssa Pinsker, “a practicing half-Jew from New York”, writes of meeting her tribe in Jew town:

At its peak in the 1950s, there were at least seven synagogues and a total of 2,250 Paradesi Jews in a thriving community; then most immigrated to newly founded Israel. Today, only six Paradesi Jews remain; most are in their 90s and only one is of child-bearing age.

Although little known, India’s Jews have a long history in this part of the world, reputedly first arriving as the descendants of traders from the time of King Solomon’s reign (circa 970 to 931 BC). They landed in present day Kodungallu, 47km to the north, where they built Kerala’s first synagogue.

Shops welcome visitors with the Hebrew word for peace (Credit: Credit: Alyssa Pinsker)

Shops welcome visitors with the Hebrew word for peace (Credit: Alyssa Pinsker)

In the 14th Century, the Jewish community and temple moved south to Cochin due to flooding further north, and during Portuguese persecution in the 16th Century, they were granted sanctuary by the Indian Rajah, Ravi Varma. The present day Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 on land granted by Varma, and the Jew Town neighbourhood built up around it.

Since then, the Paradesi community has assimilated incredibly successfully. Sometime between 379 and 1000 (date contested), the Hindu government of India bestowed a gift of copper plates to the tribe, giving 72 privileges to the community, including the freedom to practice their religion and tax exemption “as long as the world and the moon exist”. This encouraged a second wave of Sephardic Jews to come in 1492, expelled from Iberia, followed by a few Baghdadi Jews in the late 19thCentury. Their absolute acceptance was again shown in 1968, when the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary of refuge and was given a mazeltov(congratulations) by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

But despite being able to call this land home, the dwindling Paradesi community looks set to disappear.

Upon arriving in Jew Town, I headed straight to Synagogue Lane, the main thoroughfare, expecting to find rows of vibrant Jewish shops and synagogues. But there was only one authentic Judaica shop left among all the tourist traps: Sarah’s Embroidery Shoppe, located opposite a dilapidated synagogue. The store’s iron-gated windows were decorated with Jewish stars of David, while the bars were painted white and blue in honour of the Israeli flag. As a practicing half-Jew from New York who’d read about the lonely existence of my tribe in the southern Indian state of Kerala, my heart sang when I entered and saw Hebrew writing on the walls and challah(ritual bread) covers for sale.

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