The Jewish Story

Copper Plate

The Jewish presence on the shores of Kerala, has varying versions and the earliest version says they sailed here on the ships of King Solomon; others say they came during the Babylonian exile; others that they fled to Malabar after the destruction of the Second Temple; and others refer to a fourth-century migration from Majorca. Most of these stories revolve around the existence of a Jewish community in the ancient trade center of Cranganore (which the Jews called Shingly), north of Cochin.

The oldest documentary evidence of a Jewish community in Kerala dates from 1000 CE when a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban received a set of engraved copper plates from the Hindu ruler of Cranganore. These plates, which are still preserved in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue, list economic and ceremonial privileges including exemption from paying taxes, the right to collect tolls, and the honour of using particular lamps, umbrellas, drums, and trumpets associated with high ritual status. By this time the Jews were firmly established in the area.

In 1341 a flood shifted the coastline, silting up Cranganore and opening a new harbour in Cochin, and the Jews began to leave their ancient home in Shingly. After their expulsion from Iberia in 1492 by the Alhambra Decree, a few families of Sephardi Jews made their way to Cochin in the 16th century. They became known as Paradesi Jews (or Foreign Jews).

In the late 19th century, a few Arabic-speaking Jews, who became known as Baghdadi, also immigrated to southern India and joined the Paradesi community. 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 colour.

The Paradesi Synagogue, located in Mattancherry Jew Town, a suburb of Cochin, is a historic site that attracts tourists. It was built in 1568 A.D. by Samuel Castiel, David Belila, and Joseph Levi for the flourishing Paradesi Jewish community in Cochin. It is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations.

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. 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 to reclaim their Jewish identity. In 1663 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese, who set fire to the Paradesi synagogue and several 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 several Jewish communities.

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 neighbours. In 1968 they celebrated the 400th anniversary of the building of their synagogue with a week-long series of cultural events. After India gained its independence in 1947 and Israel was established as a nation, most of the Malabar Jews emigrated from Kerala to Israel in the mid-1950s.

In the early 19th century, the Cochin Jews were mainly engaged in petty trading in the towns in which they lived on the Malabar Coast. They often traded in food goods, such as eggs and vinegar, although they rarely grew their produce. Earlier centuries saw the Cochin Jews engage in international trade. However, by the 20th century, commerce was far more local and included both trade and work at a printing press and a soda factory.

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.”

Some of the notable Jews:

  1. Joseph Rabban: He was the first leader of the Jewish community of Kodungallur.
  2. Aaron Azar: He was among the last Jewish princes of Kodungallur.
  3. Joseph Azar: He was the last Jewish prince of Kodungallur.
  4. Sarah bat Israel: Her tombstone (d. 1249 A.D) is a significant historical artifact.
  5. Eliyah ben Moses Adeni, a 17th century Hebrew poet from Cochin.
  6. Ezekiel Rahabi (1694–1771), chief Jewish merchant of the Dutch East India Company in Cochin.
  7. Nehemiah ben Abraham (d. 1615 A.D), (Nehemiah Mutha), patron saint of Malabar Jews.
  8. Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), Cochin Jewish Indian nationalist leader.
  9. Benjamin Meyuhasheem, the last Cochin Jew in Seremban, Malaysia.
  10. Ruby Daniel (1912-2002), Indian-Israeli author and subject of Ruby of Cochin.
  11. Meydad Eliyahu, Israeli artist.
  12. Dr. Eliyahu Bezalel, renowned horticulturist.
  13. Elias “Babu” Josephai, caretaker of Kadavumbagam Synagogue.
  14. Samuel S. Koder was a prominent figure in the Jewish community of Fort Cochin. He belonged to an illustrious Jewish family of Cochin. In 1905, he bought and renovated a Portuguese mansion from the 1800s, which is now known as the Koder House. The Koder House is a magnificent building and a supreme example of the transition from colonial to Indo-European architecture.
  15. Samuel S. Koder ran the Cochin Electric Company and was also the Honorary Consul to the Netherlands. He began the Cochin wing of the Free Masons. The Koder House, under his stewardship, became a symbol of the rich history and cultural diversity of Fort Cochin. Today, it serves as a heritage hotel.
  16. Sarah Jacob Cohen (1922-2019) oldest member of the paradesi community.

A Malabar Jewish Family 1900