It's passover time ... and last week I had the pleasure of meeting an old friend, Elias Josephai, in the disused synagogue at the back of his horticulture and aquaculture business he's run for more than thirty years. This is the Kadavum Bagam synagogue in Ernakulam, part of Cochin (now Kochi).
This is not the celebrated Mattancherry synagogue in Fort Cochin, the Paradesi synagogue, which dates back to the 1560s and prides itself on being the oldest working synagogue in the Commonwealth. The Ernakulam synagogue is not quite of that vintage. But the Malabari Jews of which Elias Josephai is part have been around in this corner of South India for even longer than the Paradesi community.
The 'white' Jews of Mattancherry now number some half-a-dozen ... that just about matches the much diminished size of Cochin's Malabari Jewish community. The two groups have never got on all that well, as Edna Fernandes's book The Last Jews of Kerala recounts.
I first met Elias Josephai in 1996, when I put together a TV news piece about Cochin's Jews. Here it is:
Back then, Elias Josephai forecast that Cochin's Jewish community would disappear within a decade. Twenty-two years later it's still going - but only just. Elias and his wife are still here, though they continue to ponder the option of emigration to Israel. His married older daughter is already there - his younger daughter is working in Mumbai.
It does still seem to be only a matter of time until the Jewish community here disappears. What a sad moment that will be!
But the Kadavum Bagam synagogue, down-at-heel when I visited back in 1996, is now much smarter. It has a steady stream of visitors - when I arrived, Elias Josephai was showing round two Jewish tourists from the Philippines. And there are plans to turn an ante-room into a small museum.
The synagogue is not used for religious services - and its scrolls followed most of its congregation to Israel in the 1970s. But it's a fine and elegant building, probably dating from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and it's good to see it recognised as part of Cochin's heritage.
After all, Elias Josephai's business has the name: Cochin Blossoms!
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