DO THE MATHS: 26 Jews, seven synagogues: Cochin surely has lowest ratio of Jews to shuls in the world. Ok, only one of them still functions as a working house of worship but these are ratios Mea She’arim would be proud of.
With such minuscule numbers, you would think this once vibrant southern Indian community would instinctively band together to help preserve its dwindling presence. But as if to prove the Jewish spirit is alive and well, even with such small congregations, there is broigas between them.
First, however, to the big picture. Cochin’s celebrated Jewish history reads like a microcosm of the global story. There is reference to the Jews arriving in the 12th century, and their numbers were boosted after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.
The oldest synagogue (not working now) was built in 1344. The Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568, is the oldest working synagogue in British Commonwealth. At the time of its construction, there were 200 Jewish families in Cochin. Today, even with just three families and five Jews in the congregation, the synagogue still holds regular services.
Sarah’s Judaica embroidery shop is a must-visit for Jewish tourists, not the least because Sarah herself still gets up and reads her Siddur every day.
The Paradesi synagogue (Paradesi means foreigner), located in the centre of the Jewish quarter known as Jewtown, is the jewel in Cochin’s Jewish crown, and if anyone has the right to wear the crown it would be Sarah Cohen, now 95.
Frail and thin, Sarah was born in Cochin and is the last of her family line. She has a brother in Israel, who visits her with his family every year, and another brother in Sydney, whose name is Joe. Sarah has been the subject of numerous articles and TV documentaries.
Her Judaica embroidery shop is a must-visit for Jewish tourists, not the least because Sarah herself still gets up and reads her Siddur every day. On our visit in November, she was prodded from her slumber to get out of bed and almost immediately Sarah took to her chair, near the street, and went into a semi-hypnotic reading session of her Siddur.
When we express our unease at the idea of a 95-year-old woman being prodded to “perform”, our guide reassures us that she does this every day.
After a saunter down the main street of Jewtown (with Hebrew shingles saying shalom and a sign proclaiming the precinct as “God’s own country”), we arrive at the charming Paradesi synagogue, which boasts five Torahs, a balcony for women, Belgian chandeliers and 1100 handpainted Chinese floor tiles. Visiting rabbis are known to request to lead the service when they are in town.
The next stop is an even more remarkable Shul on the other side of the city. It’s claimed that the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue was built in the early 13th century. What cannot be disputed is that its entrance is located at the back of an aquarium shop, which used to be a yeshivah until the congregation started migrating to Israel in the 1950s.
From the road in the centre of the Cochin markets, it’s not easy to find the synagogue. Indeed, the street sign provides great detail about the plants and pet accessories available inside, with the synagogue’s name written in small print at the bottom.
Once you walk through into the synagogue, the visitor is greeted with a handsome, Moorish-influenced room which, sadly, ceased operating as a Shul in 1972. Five years later, vandals broke in and destroyed six Belgian chandeliers, prompting the community to instal a man called Elias Yosef chai Elias as its guardian. Elias and his wife still take care of the building today, opening it for tourists and raising money to keep the building in good repair.
Elias’s father was a chazan, his mother taught him the Torah and he had his barmitzvah here. His daughter has moved to Haifa and is married to an Israeli. Here’s the rub. Elias used to attend the Paradesi synagogue until he had a falling out with the congregation 20 years ago, and hasn’t gone to synagogue since.
Is he upset that he has nowhere to doven? He shrugs his shoulders philosophically and looks around him. “I have my own Shul anyway,” he says.
For more information about Cochin’s Jewish community, Google Cochin Jews