Elias Josephai in the former synagogue in Ernakulam, Dec 1993
... and meeting there again 25 years later
KERALA'S JEWISH COMMUNITY - August 1996
One of the world's most ancient Jewish communities is on the verge of dying out. Half-a-century ago, there were several thousand Indian Jews living in the southern state of Kerala - dating their history back many centuries. Now, almost all have migrated to Israel. Fewer than a hundred Jews are left in Kerala - and some of them are now thinking of leaving, as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he visited the port city of Cochin:
Elias Josephai takes his religion seriously. Every Friday evening, his family gathers round the living room table - his wife, Ofera, young daughters, Leah and Avital, and brother, Sasson. Candles are lit. All cover their heads. Then Josephai recites from a Hebrew prayer book and offers round a cup of sabbath wine.
For Cochin's tiny Jewish community, keeping the faith is a struggle. Josephai has been taught how to slaughter chicken himself in the approved fashion. But kosher goat meat has to come from Bombay, hundreds of miles to the north.
In language, dress and appearance, Elias Josephai is Indian - indistinguishable from other Keralites. His forbears came to India's Malabar coast - well, no one knows exactly when. Certainly more than fifteen-hundred years ago. Quite, possibly a lot earlier. There was once a Jewish principality in Kerala. For centuries, Jews prospered in this the most cosmopolitan corner of India - where ancient trade links with the Middle East brought not only Judaism, but two other religions which still flourish here: Islam, and the Syrian form of Christianity.
When Indian gained independence in 1947, there were several thousand Jews living in Kerala. The following year came the creation of the state of Israel. Within a generation, almost all Kerala's Jews had emigrated. They did not experience anti-semitism. But for what was even then a dwindling community, the chance of starting afresh in a state with a Jewish identity, and with enormous economic opportunity, proved irresistible.
Scattered across Israel are small groups of Indian Jews speaking the language of Kerala, Malayalam. Elias Josephai has four sisters and one brother in Israel; all his wife's family have gone there.
Now the Eliases too are likely to make the move. Josephai is visiting Israel for the first time next year. If he likes it, they will settle. For his wife, it's not a question of if but when. The community is dying here, she says. We can't celebrate religious festivals. We can't have Jewish get-togethers. But above all, she wants to be able to find Jewish bridegrooms for her two girls.
The family has stayed on in Kerala only because they have a successful nursery and aquaculture business. It's just off Jew Street in the market area of Cochin. Baby carp and piles of compost are now stored in what was the Jewish community's religious school.
And when Josephai opens up the sturdy wooden doors at the back, suddenly you enter a lost world. An ancient synagogue - it's seen no service since 1972, but is still much as it was when the bulk of the congregation packed their bags and went off to the promised land.
Some of the brasswork and wooden panelling has been stolen. The religious scrolls have been given sanctuary in Israel. But the beauty of the building persists. The coloured glass lamps, bewitching chandeliers, ornate carved woodwork. And upstairs on the balcony are mouldering piles of ledgers and accounts, and a chest piled high with old Hebrew scriptures.
Elias Josephai showed me the chair on which he was publicly circumcised, aged eight days; the bench where he used to sit alongside his father. He had his barmitzvah here. His life has been entwined with the history of the building. When he goes, it will almost certainly fall into dereliction - the fate which has now befallen all Kerala's other synagogues, bar one.
There are forty Jews now in Cochin - divided into two camps. As Josephai says, ask five Jews their opinion and you'll get six answers. He and twenty-one others are Keralite Jews, fully integrate into local society.
Over in Mattancherry, the oldest part of Cochin, are eighteen "white" Jews, as they are known. They speak Malayalam, but their Mediterranean appearance mars them out from the dark-skinned Keralites. Their ancestors came from the Middle East a few hundred years ago and settled as spice traders in the area still known as Jewtown.
Almost all are elderly, and reluctant to talk about the impending fate of their community. Their exquisite synagogue, built in 1568 and the oldest in the Commonwealth, is open to visitors, Rarely does the Saturday congregation get into two figures. Soon the synagogue may well be a museum rather than a living place of worship.
The Jewish community in Kerala is already dead, Elias Josephai says with solemn emphasis. With no young people, how can it survive. In a maximum of ten years, he says, there will be no practising Jews left.
Some of the migrants to Israel dug up the bones of their ancestors and took their remains with them. Perhaps a wise move, Cochin's main Jewish cemetery is now being encroached upon by developers, Only the sturdiest of the graves are still standing.
An ancient and distinguished culture is about to disappear- and before long, there may be next-to-no sign that it ever existed.