How very ecstatic I have been over the last couple of days to engage Jews and visit synagogues in two ancient Indian communities! These are not the only places of Indian Jewish settlement, but they are certainly among the most illustrious. While the Cochin/Ernakulum Jewish community is in immanent danger of extinction with relatively few and aging remaining members, the Mumbai community with some 3-5000 members continues to conduct regular services in its eight ongoing congregations. The long history of both communities is also evidenced in its cemeteries. Just as we learn that the Jew stranded on a desert island had two synagogues, determining that one of them he would never enter, so in both Cochin/Ernakulum and Mumbai to this day their synagogue communities have experienced and in fact continue to experience competition and even animosity.
The Cochin/Ernakulum community has long been divided between so-called white and black Jews, where for much of their history the white Jews refused to recognize or deal with their "black" brethren. Scholars believe that 3000 years ago King Solomon imported certain items from India, which some claim as evidence of the earliest Jewish settlement. Jews may also have found their way to the Malabar coast as part of the exile following the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second Temples (70 CE). This is the origin of the Malabari or Black Jews. They were welcomed and provided land and trade privileges. The "white" Jews are descendants of Jews who arrived as a consequence of the Spanish Inquisition. Reasons for their falling out and distrust is open to dispute. The white Jews claimed that the black Jews were descendants of slaves, perhaps the wives of early Jewish sailors and therefore not halakhically Jewish. Some claim that the division was a carry over of the Hindu caste system in which lighter skinned individuals were considered of a higher, more noble caste than darker skinned Hindus. To this day the white Jews and their synagogue receive more recognition than the Black Jews.
Although the Jews became victim of local skirmishes, they suffered when the Portuguese brought the Inquisition with them. After 1948 after Israel became a state most Cochinis (as well as Jews from other Indian communities)moved to Israel, where several hundred thousand live to this day. However many retain their fond memories of their Indian communities and return periodically for visits.
We began our tour in Cochin/Ernakulam by visiting three of the seven extent synagogues of the Black Jews. They were beautiful, having been newly renovated by the state. Next door to the first we met an elderly couple who return to Cochin for three months every year from Israel. Their 12 grandchildren had joined them for winter break, but had already returned. The husband was a scientist and had received many awards in Israel for his agricultural advancements. It was pointed out to us that with intention, in the immediate area was a Hindu Temple, a Muslim Mosque and a Christian Church. Each respected the rites of the others. At the third synagogue we met Babu. I had read about him and was anxious to meet him. He owns a pet/aquaria shop, at the back of which is the synagogue, which he personally oversees. Years ago recognizing that the future was bleak for continuity, the rabbi of the white synagogue taught Babu the techniques for the kosher slaughter of chickens, because otherwise holiday celebrations would be meatless. Though uncomfortable because he is not personally religious, Babu continues to provide kosher chickens for the holidays to the Jews who remain. Babu is ever conscious of the many slights inflicted on them, by their fellow Jews.
While the Black Jews have their synagogues across the bay in Ernakulum, the white Paradesi synagogue on Jew Street is in Cochin. The entire area around all the synagogue originally had Jewish residents, today basically only 94 year old Sarah Cohen remains in Cochin. The street approaching has many stores and gift shops, some carrying Jewish items and shop owners trying to get one's attention by calling out Shalom Aleichem, none of them are Jewish. The Paradesi Synagogue is probably the most beautiful and the Christian caretaker told us to return when the crowds left after 5pm so that we could take photos. Each synagogue contains beautiful chandeliers. All of the Torah scrolls are housed at the Pardesi. The cemetery around the corner is only opened for funerals. They fear that vandals will steal the headstones.
The Mumbai experience was entirely different. Again we visited three of the eight extent synagogues. However here rather than being divided Black and White, the two communities are Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews, each having built and attending their own synagogues. The Bene Israel arrived 2000 years ago, arguably the oldest Jewish community in India and constitutes 90% of the Jewish population. They claim descent from the lost tribes of Israel, landing shipwrecked. They adopted to this day the local Marathi language. These early settlers were bolstered by immigrants in the 18th century. We visited two lovely synagogues and at the second met the shammas' 16 and 12 year old daughters. At the first they took pride in having teens who can read Torah and at the second they have a cantor, celebrated a Brit last month and will celebrate two weddings in the next two months.
The first synagogue we visited in Mumbai was a Baghdadi synagogue with small membership. This was originally built by the famous Sassoon family. However it was very disconcerting that it was in such bad repair. It was once clearly elegant and it looked as if repairs were beginning. It would be a shame if this piece of Jewish history were lost to neglect. It was in this synagogue that they maintained a daily minyan.
I was bowled over by the history and to see Jewish life here in this remote area of the world, remote at least for Jews.