The Cochin Jews Of Kerala

A small Jewish community in India.

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Growth of the Kerala Community

Beginning in the early 16th century there was a new migration of Jews to Kerala. Some of the newcomers were Sephardic Jews, direct and indirect refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions, who came to India by way of Aleppo, Constantinople, and the Land of Israel. Others were from Iraq, Persia, Yemen, and Germany.

In 1568 the Jewish newcomers, who were subsequently called Paradesis ("foreigners" in Malayalam), built a synagogue of their own next to the Maharaja's palace in Cochin. They adopted the Malayalam language and identified enthusiastically with Kerala customs and traditions, but at some point they stopped marrying the Jews who had been there many centuries before them.

In written accounts (especially by Western visitors) the Paradesis often were referred to as "white Jews" and the more ancient Malabari communities as "black Jews," though there is not always a clear distinction between them in terms of skin color.

By the 18th century there were eight synagogues in five different Kerala towns and villages. As all but Parur were located within the kingdom of Cochin, the term "Cochin Jews" was eventually applied to all Kerala Jews.

Written sources indicate that the Kerala Jews observed mainstream religious law (halakhah) and had religious leaders they called hakhamim or rabbanim, though there is no record of anyone in Cochin undergoing traditional ordination or writing a responsum. Day-to-day halakhic decisions were made by these learned men. Occasionally they consulted with visiting scholars or even wrote for advice to rabbis in Jerusalem or Cairo.

Although Cochin Jewish internal social relationships were undoubtedly influenced by the caste system and Hindu social values, it should be emphasized that the Cochin Jews were not themselves divided into separate castes, and that all of them shared in a common culture.

There is ample evidence of social contacts among all the Jewish communities of Kerala--including business relationships, invitations to each other's lifecycle rituals, men studying Jewish texts together, women lending jewelry and exchanging songs, and the sharing of ordinary and ritual meals. As with Jews elsewhere, friendships between members of different communities were most common among people of the same class, education, and occupational standing.

Political and Economic Conditions

Portuguese colonial rule (1498-1663) brought suffering to all the minority communities of South India. The economic power of Muslims declined when the Portuguese ended their monopoly of trade between Malabar and the West. Syrian Christians were persecuted and killed by the Inquisition, which forced Roman Catholicism on many Kerala Christians.

The Cochin Maharaja protected Jews under his rule, but the Inquisition brought terror to Conversos ("New Christians") who fled to India in order to reclaim their Jewish identity. In 1663 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese, who set fire to the Paradesi synagogue and a number of Jewish houses just before they left Malabar.

Under Dutch rule (1663-1795) the status of the Jews of Malabar improved, as the Dutch looked favorably on the cosmopolitan Paradesi community. A few Paradesis, notably members of the Rahaby family, rose to high positions as agents in foreign trade and as economic and political advisors to both the Dutch and Hindu rulers. There were relatively wealthy landowners in a number of Jewish communities.

In the period of British colonial rule (1792-1947), the Cochin Maharaja retained a semi-independent status. However, in Kerala State there was general economic stagnation as the British developed new commercial centers to the north and east. Some Jews in Kerala held positions as clerks, teachers, and lawyers in the expanding colonial bureaucracy; others continued as small merchants, dealing especially in fish and poultry.

Economic difficulties led a number of Cochin Jews to move to Bombay and (less frequently) Calcutta. They nevertheless retained their Kerala identity, even while living elsewhere in India. Most of them married only Cochin Jews (though some Paradis is married Baghdadis); and when they moved to Israel they tended to settle among their relatives from Kerala.

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Barbara C. Johnson is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College in New York.