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In Kochi, 15 Jews waited for Sharon
George Iype in Kochi | September 08, 2003 16:56 IST
The minute Jewish population in Mattancherry, an island surrounded by backwaters in Kochi, really wanted to see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On Sharon's initial itinerary was a day's visit to Kochi, where stands the oldest synagogue in the country and where once a flourishing Jewish population lived.
But early last week, the Jewish community was informed that Sharon would not visit them due to security problems.
"It is sad and unfortunate that Prime Minister Sharon is skipping us. It would have been really an honour for us to receive him. But we understand the security problems," Samuel Hallegua, chief warden of the Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry, told rediff.com
"We are all old people... none of us can manage to visit Delhi to see the prime minister. So I think we will never be able to meet him now," he said.
Hallegua, whom his neighbours call Uncle Sammy, is the leader of the Jews in the area. The shrinking Jewish population -- eight men and seven women -- lives in just six houses around the Paradesi Synagogue. In fact, the synagogue is without a priest now because the number of adult males does not come up to the required number for a priest, as per the Jewish custom.
Hallegua walks through the Jew Street to pray and lead the service at the synagogue. It is a stroll that Hallegua has not missed all these years because seeing the old houses painted in ochre, lime and sky blue on both sides of the street revives in him memories of a fading era.
He and his wife Queeny live in a 200-year-old house on the Jew Street. Their only son, David, is settled in Los Angeles. So it is loneliness that characterises their daily life.
The news that Sharon is not visiting Mattancherry, an internationally renowned heritage and tourist site because of the rich culture that the Jewish community has left behind, has also given relief to some. "If he had come here, the whole of Mattancherry would have been closed down. So, in a way, it is better that he is not visiting us," Isaac Joshua told rediff.com
Joshua said if they were informed much earlier, they would have planned a trip to Delhi. "But now it is too late. We are all old and we do not want to travel all the way. Even if we go, I do not think we will get an opportunity to meet the prime minister."
But meeting Sharon would have been "great" because "we could have explained how our community is facing extinction in Kerala, which we feel is still our home", he added.
Joshua is worried that "after some years, not even a single member of our community will be alive here. We will be just history".
Hallegua, Joshua and their neighbours -- their average age is 60 -- ensure that everyday they conduct the prayer service as per Jewish customs. All the 15 members religiously gather every day for the prayers. They conduct together their main festivals like the Passover, Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, Day of Atonement, new year and the Feast of Tabernacles.
One legend holds that Jews first settled in Kerala during the time of King Solomon, when there was trade in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks between Israel and the Malabar Coast. Others put their arrival at the time of the Assyrian exile in 722 BC and the Babylonian exile in 586.
But the earliest documentation of permanent Jewish settlements is inscribed in the ancient Tamil language on two copper plates now stored in Paradesi Synagogue, covered with blue and white hand-painted floor tiles brought from China in the 18th century.
The inscription says Bhaskara Ravi Varma, a fourth century Hindu ruler of Malabar, granted living privileges to a group of Jews led by one Joseph Rabban.
According to historians, there were nearly 2,500 Jews in Kerala, most of them living in Mattancherry at the community's peak in the 1940s. But after Independence in 1947 and Israel's birth in 1948, most of the Kochi Jews went back.
More reports from Kerala