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Jews of Kochi: A dying community
Sangeetha G Kochi | August 03, 2006 11:18 IST
The Jewish community in Kerala's Kochi would form part of the state's history a few years down the line with a majority of its members seeking greener pastures, leaving behind just a little over a dozen of ageing people.
Since the constitution of Jewish state Israel in 1948, the population of the Jews, belonging to the Caucasian race, has been dwindling.
The Jewish Town of Mattancherry here, which had over 250 members prior to 1948, now has only four families with 14 people above 70s as their younger generation has migrated to Israel, the US or elsewhere in the world.
"It was like the exodus in the [Jewish sacred book] Torah -- the community members left in search of their Promised Land," says Saira Cohen, an 80-year-old widow who runs a shop from her house adjacent to the local Synagogue.
"The families left their jobs, small businesses, sold all their belongings and set off for new lives," she adds.
During 1950s and 60s, people left in families. But later, the younger generation started moving out leaving behind the older ones who were unable to sever ties with their land of birth.
"Mainly, it was religious sentiments that motivated the exodus. Our people found it difficult to practice the religion here. It demands holidays on Sabbath - every Saturday," says Queenie Allegua, a Jewish housewife.
People working both with government and private sector had to work on Sabbath. Students found it difficult appearing for examinations on Saturdays and during various religious festivals like Passover, New Year and Tabernacle, says Queenie.
Desire to be in a country where Jewish religious laws had complete sway was irresistible for many, Queenie says.
"As the numbers started dwindling, youngsters found it difficult to marry within the community. They also found attractive job opportunities in Israel and some Western countries," adds Queenie whose children have migrated to the US.
The expatriate Jews or the White Jews have always been conscious about their Caucasian race and were reluctant to marry from other Jewish communities in Kerala. They arrived here during different periods, centuries ago, from countries including Egypt, Iraq, Spain and Germany and have not mixed up with the other two groups -- Malabari Jews and Meshuhararim Jews.
The crunching numbers deprive them of many things, especially those connected with religion.
They find it difficult to hold prayer services at the Synagogue as they do not have the full quorum of 10 adult males. The services are being held now only when they have Jewish visitors.
Once the people who prepare food and cut meat in accordance with Jewish laws also left Kochi, 'kosher' food and meat became a rarity.
"When our friends abroad visit us occasionally, kosher meat is something they do not forget to gift. Likewise, we have to depend on our friends and relatives in Israel for procuring the Torah calendar," says Queenie.
"We also have to get the unleavened bread for our religious functions through the Israeli consulate in Mumbai as those who knew how to prepare it have left Kochi," she says.
Saira says that even festivals have lost their charm.
"In the past, our festivals and get-togethers used to be grand. Now, there is no colour and mirth with just a few old people remaining. I will never again see a Jewish marriage or birth ceremony," she rues.
Spice traders and merchants have bought the old-fashioned houses of the Jews who left the town.
"For the tourists, among the scores of tiny firms that jostle with each other in old dilapidated buildings, we too are some sort of curios. They go around the town, admire the antique imitations in the curio shops and with the same curiosity peep into the Jewish residences, hoping to see the remaining members of the community," says Saira.
Asked whether she would also like to move out to Israel, Queenie says, "This is my country. I have lived a long life here. I have my own little comforts here. This is the land of my birth and perhaps would be that of my death also."
"I am too old a tree to be transplanted," she quips.
Another octogenarian, Joseph Allegua, who also does not want to leave India, however finds that times have changed.
"The earlier generations knew the real worth of this country. This is perhaps the only nation where Jews did not fear religious persecution. But nowadays, we hear reports indicating increasing religious fundamentalism and intolerance," he says.