The Cochin Jews Of Kerala

A small Jewish community in India.

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Immigration to Israel

One of the most striking things about the Cochin Jews is the fact that they lived in India for so many centuries without experiencing anti-Semitism or persecution by their Indian neighbors. Their decision to leave for Israel after 1948 was not an easy one. It developed out of a long history of Zionist activity and idealism, as expressed in this early 20th-century Malayalam song composed by Isaac Mosheh Roby:

The hope we have had since ancient times,
To return to the land given to us by the one God,
Has not faded.

Individual motives for aliyah varied. Some were seeking to escape difficult economic conditions, while others emphasized the desire to live a more religious life, or to be involved in building the new Jewish state. None were forced to leave.

Cochin aliyah began in the early 1950s, with the greatest number of immigrants arriving in 1954. Many were settled on moshavim (cooperative agricultural settlements), of which five are still predominantly "Cochini" in population: Nevatim in the Negev; Mesillat Zion, Ta'oz, and Aviezer in the Jerusalem Corridor; and Kfar Yuval on the northern border with Lebanon.

By 1982 about 75% of the 2,300 Cochini moshav members lived in these five places. Initially the adjustment to agricultural life--which they had not experienced in India--was difficult for some of them. In time, however, they prospered, expanded their homes, and built substantial synagogues and community buildings.

Nevatim constructed its synagogue in the traditional Kerala style, incorporating the Torah ark and other furnishings brought from the Tekkumbagam synagogue in Ernakulam.

Most of the Cochin Paradesi Jews remained in India longer. In 1968 they celebrated the 400th anniversary of the building of their synagogue with a week-long series of cultural events. The festivities included performances of Kerala music, scholarly seminars, and a visit from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Most members of this community made aliyah during the 1970s and 1980s. Now scattered throughout Israel, they number about 200 and often meet for ritual occasions in Binyamina and other places where there are Paradesi households.

Though exact figures are not available, it can be estimated that there are well over 4,000 "Cochinim" in Israel today, with at least as many living in urban areas as in moshavim. Cochini neighborhoods are found in Rishon LeZion, Ashdod, Beersheba, Jerusalem, and in Rekhasim and Kiryat Bialik in the Haifa area.

In some of these communities there are synagogues in which the traditional Cochin liturgy is still followed. City-dwellers often visit their moshav relatives, with a special emphasis on getting together for Simchat Torah and other holidays. In 1984, Moshav Nevatim hosted a grand celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Cochin aliyah, which was attended by Kerala Jews and other guests from all over the country.

Much of what has been written about the Kerala Jews focuses on their glorious 2000-year history in India, which is now coming to a close. That history is indeed a proud memory, but their culture did not end when the Jews left Kerala. In the words of Cochin author Ruby Daniel, "Some people write that the Cochin community of Jews is dying, They don't realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom, As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die."

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